Undoing the 'Tyranny of Expertise' in Museums and Libraries
Building Deeper Community Connections at Emory University's Michael C. Carlos Museum
Earlier this year, my partner Bryna Campbell and I were invited to begin working with the team at the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University as part of their efforts to build deeper connections with local communities & audiences in the Atlanta region and within the university campus itself.
Through months of exciting conversations with staff in Education, Exhibitions, and Marketing as well as their Executive Director Henry Kim (who joined the museum in summer 2022), we have focused on defining values, goals, and strategies that embrace a more community-centered and audience-centered mindset across program areas. We’ve asked some important (and often challenging) questions about exhibitions and programming:
how can we involve local communities in a more meaningful way?
how can we sustain and grow those relationships beyond any single exhibition, program, or project?
what role does the museum’s collection and objects play in building these deeper relationships with our audiences?
how can we approach all of this in ways that just don’t add new programs and projects to an already jam-packed workload and budget?
On a recent episode of Emory University’s 2036 podcast, the museum’s director Henry Kim and Emory University’s Vice Provost of Libraries and Museums, Valeda Dent, speak to many of these issues in direct and honest ways. Their conversation reflects a larger shift happening at the Carlos Museum as well as the Emory Libraries in which old legacies of knowledge are being challenged.
“We have more to learn than to teach”
In their discussion of the purpose of museums and libraries, Kim and Dent share their vision for shifting the traditional power dynamics of these institutions and asking the all-important question: whose knowledge counts?
Kim envisions a deeper engagement with audiences and communities, seeing communities as knowledge holders, idea shapers, and co-creators of museum programs moving forward. As Dent states, “We have more to learn than to teach.”
Both agree that working more authentically with communities involves reversing and undoing the "tyranny of expertise,” referring here to the prevailing yet harmful practice within museums to overvalue academic, curatorial knowledge and devalue community-based knowledge and expertise. As Kim states, “one of the things we have to do as experts is to de-expert-fy ourselves.”
As I’ve written about in Museums as Agents of Change, when museums begin to develop relationships with certain communities, they must understand the power inequities involved in how these institutions view and value knowledge:
“For community relationships to grow and thrive, museums need to step back their role as authorities and see community members as experts on their own needs and local assets. At the core of our work with specific local communities is the practice of identifying, embracing, and amplifying the strengths, creative skills, stories, languages, cultures, voices, and experiences that come from our communities.”
For Kim and Dent at Emory University, this involves more listening and less talking. It involves breaking down the legacies that center collections and objects over communities. And it involves building, nurturing, and sustaining deep and human-based relationships throughout this work. And I’m honored to be a part of helping shape this future for the Carlos Museum and their team.
Growing Community-Centered Practices
I am so excited to see institutions like the Carlos Museum embrace this shift toward more community-centered and audience-centered work. It is a journey that takes time, and there are so many lessons to be learned along this journey — but it is the right journey to be on. And it has been so rewarding to be a part of shaping this journey for the Carlos Museum and their incredible team.
I am looking forward to visiting Emory University’s campus in June to lead workshops on community-centered practices with staff at the museum and in their libraries. And I’m also SO thrilled to participate in a public conversation with Emory’s new Senior Director of Culture, Community and Partner Engagement, Clint Fluker.
According to Dent, this newly created position will enhance community-facing collaborations and elevate the work of building and maintaining key partnerships, programs and initiatives with community members and stakeholders (including local artists, community galleries, and historically Black colleges and universities, among others). This reflects the support that Emory University is providing to Kim and Dent’s vision, and it is really incredible to see.
Let’s Make This Change Happen
Museums, libraries, and cultural organizations hold the potential to be places where we can be powerful together. We just need to take bold steps to value the skills, interests, culture, and heritage of our communities and neighborhoods and begin to de-center the traditional power structures of these institutions. It is not enough for museums and libraries to become an essential part of our communities — our communities also need to become an essential part of our museums and libraries.
As changemakers, we can begin asking ourselves some essential questions that can shape our own practice:
How do we, as museum and library professionals, define our place, our town, our city, our neighborhood, our community?
How do we identify ways to break down the barriers between these institutions and their communities as well as build relevance through local community partnerships?
How do we learn about the people of our places (past and present), learn about what connects us and what brings people together into a community?
As uncomfortable and messy as this journey might be for so many institutions, we have got to start somewhere and make this change happen right now.
Learn More & Continue This Conversation
Interested in continuing this conversation, and getting some resources to help guide your own work to become more community-centered?
Along with this post, I’m sharing a podcast episode today for the paid subscriber community here at Agents of Change. In this episode, I expand on some of these ideas, and offer up some direct questions you can ask yourself and your institution around expanding levels of community involvement. I’ve also provided a Community Involvement Reflection Tool (PDF) for paid subscribers, bringing many of these ideas and prompts together in one page.
To get the most out of Agents of Change, consider signing up as a paid subscriber to unlock and read all posts and get access to the weekly podcast series. You’ll gain access to the full change community, receive the weekly podcast recordings each Friday, get subscriber-only posts as well as resources & tools, and get access to future changemaker gatherings and virtual events.
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