Books: The Social Work of Museums

Myna Trustram is impressed by the book's broad scope and its impassioned portrayal of the issues, but wonders whether it takes things a little too far
Myna Trustram
By Lois H Silverman, Routledge, £24.99, ISBN 978 0 41577 5212

This book is packed full of examples of how the work of museums offers what Lois Silverman calls a “social service”. As the ambiguity in the title suggests, the book covers the field of professional social work, but also the broader aspects of museums as places where sociability can happen.

It is a rich and passionate survey of the potential of museums to engage in the social. It seeks to persuade museum staff and people working in the field of welfare of just how much museums have to offer.

The strength of the book is in its encouragement to look at conventional museum practice and locate its social benefits. For example, Silverman argues that, through family-history work, museums “play a role in family continuity and cohesion”.

She mentions a visit to the Highland Folk Museum in Newtonmore by a support group for families affected by violence against women, and how they made an exhibit for the Inverness Museum and Art Gallery.

Not all of the examples are so convincing: it’s hard to see how “by championing sustainability, museums help support every family’s need for home”.

There are fewer examples of museums undertaking actual social work – work that brings about change in people’s circumstances and behaviour, as opposed to activities that enrich people’s lives. One example she gives is the Habitot Children’s Museum in Berkeley, California, which offers parenting classes to families, including teenage parents and court-separated couples.

At times, the attempt to link museum activities with social-work interventions is rather stretched. Museums can foster introspection and communication, but to argue that this “lays the groundwork” for psychotherapy is, for me, a step too far.

Nevertheless, The Social Work of Museums is an inspiring account of the possible, of what some museums are doing and what all museums can, in their own particular way, aspire to.

The sheer number of examples is compelling, but are they a result of isolated progressive managements or a fundamental change in museum practice? The capacity of some museums for imaginative and daring activity leads Silverman to make broad statements about what “museums” do. There is such variety among the world’s museums that it is dangerous to make generic statements.

Silverman concludes that museums and social workers need to work in sustained collaboration. Within this framework, museums need to consider where to position the work. Many museums place this type of activity within their learning programme, and see it as extending that area to people who would otherwise not be able to access the museum.

Alternatively, they can provide resources for others to do the face-to-face work. Or they might develop a body of theory and practice to enable museum staff to use collections and spaces to directly address people’s complex social and personal problems.

Museums are about prudence, rationality and excess. And yet,as Silverman demonstrates, they are increasingly moving into the arena of risk, loss, emotionality and injustice. Understandably, there is a degree of ambivalence within the profession about this relational turn. To engage in this work, museum workers need a new paradigm away from preservation to transformation.

Effective social work requires the maintenance of an ongoing relationship between workers and clients. With so much funding for this work being short-term, museums struggle to provide it.

The book is at times sentimental (families are called “treasures of home”) and mundane comments are unnecessarily quoted. The latter undermines Silverman’s authority, which her passion for the subject otherwise lends her.

It is a highly structured book with plenty of warning of what is to come on the next page and references to what has come before: a bit like museums, really, with their catalogues and neat, ordered rooms. But some of this desire for order will have to go if museums want to engage with the raw mess of people’s lives.

Myna Trustram is the research manager of the North West Hub

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