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Fostering A Democratic Museum Culture

Page history last edited by neal.stimler@gmail.com 13 years, 6 months ago

Paper Title: Fostering a Democratic Museum Culture

Presenter: Neal Stimler (Associate Coordinator of Images, The Image Library, The Metropolitan Museum of Art)



This presentation and wiki contribution outline a vision to foster a democratic museum culture using digital technology. The principles of educational and cultural luminaries Holger Cahill, John Dewey, Bill Ivey, Tony Judt and Nicholas Roerich are applied to conference themes in pursuit of democratic reform for museums in the twenty-first century.


Session Info

  • Type: Individual Paper
  • Keywords: democracy, access, reform, museum, cultural studies, sociology, digital technology, open, commons, collection, social media, sharing, community, esthetic experience, Canadian Museum for Human Rights, The Banner of Peace, Holger Cahill, John Dewey, Bill Ivey, Tony Judt, Nicholas Roerich
  • Relevance: This presentation aims to reach across the diverse constituency of MCN members. The session investigates larger cultural and humanistic questions that guide museum professionals' use of technology and new media tools.


Presenter bio:


Neal Stimler is the Associate Coordinator of Images in The Image Library at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. He previously served The Metropolitan Museum of Art in the office of the Vice President, Secretary and General Counsel and The Department of Drawings and Prints. Neal catalogued prints made under the auspices of the Public Works of Art Project and the Federal Art Project while he was a long-term intern in the Department of Drawings and Prints. He also assisted in preparations for the 2008 exhibition Rhythms of Modern Life: British Prints 1914–1939. Neal was a Media and Technology Committee Fellow at the 2009 American Association of Museums Annual Meeting in Philadelphia, and his article titled, “‘Ferry Me O'er’: Musing on the Future of Museum Culture,” was published in the July 2010 issue of Curator Journal. Neal graduated with honors and was a Provost Award recipient from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.  Neal takes an interdisciplinary approach to humanistic scholarship that is informed by art history, cultural studies, digital technology and sociology. 



Quick Links:


Holger Cahill Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution: http://www.aaa.si.edu/collectionsonline/cahiholg/


Nicholas Roerich Museum: http://www.roerich.org/


Canadian Museum for Human Rights: http://humanrightsmuseum.ca/



Prezi Presentation: http://prezi.com/sy9yptkaskxo/fostering-a-democratic-museum-culture/ 





Fostering a Democratic Museum Culture




I’ll begin by expressing my heartfelt thanks to my mentors Nancy Proctor and Nik Honeysett. Nancy has been a tremendous advocate for my participation in the museum technology community.  Nik’s guidance has been a constant source of inspiration in my professional and personal life over the last few years.  I am sincerely grateful to them both for all their support and encouragement.


I also acknowledge The Metropolitan Museum of Art for sponsoring my participation in 2010 Museum Computer Network Conference.  I especially thank: Associate Director for Collections and Administration, Carrie Rebora Barratt; Chief Librarian of the Image Library, Andrew Gessner; Museum Librarian, Julie Zeftel and Systems Librarian, Billy Kwan.


The remarks herein are the personal views of Neal Stimler and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.





This past April, a dear friend directed me to a book by esteemed New York University historian and public intellectual, Tony Judt, entitled Ill Fares the Land.  In his text, Judt called for a renewed commitment to social democracy as our means of confronting today’s Great Recession.  Judt’s insights inspired me to earnestly consider my work as a museum professional and technologist. The phrase, “Ill Fares the Land,” defines our own times more each day.  Many institutions are struggling to serve the fundamental needs of the public in the face of staggering economic, social and political challenges.  Museum professionals and technologists need to fundamentally revaluate our core principles.  Digital technology will play a critical role in this process.  Let us turn to our forbears John Dewey, Holger Cahill, Nicholas Roerich and Billy Ivey, whose cumulative wisdom demonstrates an evolution regarding the esthetic experience and the value of culture as a human right.  Museum professionals and technologists must foster a democratic museum culture if we seek a just and humane future.



John Dewey: Esthetic Experience


American educational philosopher, John Dewey, dramatically influenced the ethical imperatives of culture with his book, Art as Experience, published in 1934.  Dewey criticized museums for severing esthetic objects from everyday life by removing them from the context of their creation (Buettner 1975).  Dewey believed that meaning and value in life were not defined by materialism or the possession of objects.  Dewey’s vision of the “esthetic” or “art experience” was vast in its scope, including all human creation as manifest by the senses.  Dewey recognized that the tension in the human creation process was the site where thoughts and emotion were transformed into expression that could be shared with others.


Dewey reasoned the significance of life was thus determined by humans acting upon what they learned through an esthetic engagement with their fellow beings and their environment in a continual effort to bring wholeness to the world.  His understanding of the esthetic experience was socially conscious in its commitment to giving the public opportunities for humanistic and democratic self-actualization.  Dewey believed as well that technology was an instrument that enabled humans to create and share their esthetic experiences and, in so doing, build new communities in the pursuit of harmony.


The memories made through esthetic experiences are all that humans keep and share with one another over the course of their lives.  Humans and our artifacts are temporal.  It is the ever powerful strength of love that preserves memories so they may survive to inspire future generations.  Digital technology, when used democratically, enables museums to guide the public as they assemble, share, and interpret experiences across time and space.



Holger Cahill: The Museum As Community Center


Holger Cahill was a curator, writer and folklorist.  He is most importantly remembered for his leadership as the director of the Federal Art Project initiated in 1935 by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal.  The Federal Art Project employed artists and other cultural workers to make art in various media, visually catalogue American folk art and educate the public through community art centers.  Artists and workers on the projects advanced a democratic culture which confronted the ills that threatened hope for a positive future: the ills of fascism, racism, war, poverty, natural disaster, gender equality, labor struggles, corporate greed, religious intolerance, xenophobia and environmentalism.  Artists, administrators and educators were all tasked with curing these ills through their labor on the projects as they fought for a healthy and vibrant democracy.


Cahill, himself a student of John Dewey, believed firmly that the arts belong to everyone.  He held that guiding citizens to an esthetic and humanistic understanding of their lives through the arts was the most important goal of the projects.  Cahill actualized Dewey’s ideas through the initiation of community art centers across the country that provided artists and the public the space and resources to work together in art-making and sharing in the esthetic experience in their local communities.  Cahill said, “The Federal Art Project seeks to activize the cultural experience – to take it out of its cloistered air into a larger orbit of social usefulness.”  Cahill recognized that the value of the esthetic experience was its power to aid citizens in building communities founded upon mutual respect, fellowship and dignity.  (Holger Cahill papers, 1910-1993, bulk 1910-1960. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.)


Cahill had the courage and tenacity, backed by government support, to implement the teachings of John Dewey through all of the activities of the Federal Art Projects and, most importantly in the form of the community art centers.  Museums must think of themselves essentially as sites for the public to be in dialogue with one another as they navigate the esthetic experience.  Digital technology, because of its broad reach and democratic accessibility, must serve as the primary space for community engagement in the twenty-first century.



Nicholas Roerich: Spiritual Unity & Peace


Nicholas Roerich was an artist, teacher and spiritual leader.  His pan-human philosophy was informed by multicultural traditions and from his world travels to Tibet, India, Russia and The United States.  Roerich’s visionary and naturalistic landscapes are made with jewel-like colors washed upon a canvas surface that has the visual texture of weathered rock.  They seem ageless and timeless.  Roerich drew and painted on an intimate scale, yet the spiritual energy, glowing effervescence, and majesty of his images made them monumental (Roerich 1924).  Roerich employed his art and teaching in the service of building love and human compassion across the world.  He is celebrated today with Roerich societies and the Nicholas Roerich Museum in New York City.


In addition to being a gifted artist and spiritual teacher, Nicholas Roerich was an internationally recognized peace activist.  Simultaneously, as Cahill lead the Federal Art Project, Roerich initiated The Roerich Pact and created The Banner of Peace.  In 1935, The Roerich Pact was signed in the presence of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  It declared cultural activities and institutions to be protected by all nations in times of war or peace.  The Banner of Peace, displayed at institutions aligned with the values of The Roerich Pact, symbolizes Religion, Art and Science as well as Past, Present and Future surrounded by the Circle of Eternity. 


Roerich proclaimed:


Culture is reverence of Light.  Culture is love of humanity.  Culture is fragrance, the unity of life and beauty.  Culture is the synthesis of uplifting and sensitive attainments.  Culture is the armor of Light.  Culture is salvation.  Culture is the motivating power.  Culture is the Heart.  If we gather all the definitions of Culture we find the synthesis of active Bliss, the altar of enlightenment and constructive beauty. (Committee 1947)


Roerich profoundly saw the spirit that connects all people and traditions through their esthetic experiences.  He knew that culture was the key to peace.  Museums must use the communicative powers of digital technology as an instrument of peace to unite the human spirit.



Bill Ivey: The Cultural Bill of Rights


Bill Ivey was the Chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts under President Clinton.  He is the Director of the Curb Center, an arts policy research center, at Vanderbilt University.  Bill Ivey’s 2008 book, Arts, Inc.: How Greed and Neglect Have Destroyed Our Cultural Rights, is a sincere and expansive effort to critically address the current state of cultural heritage.  Ivey’s work in many respects synthesizes the ideas and vision of Dewey, Cahill and Roerich.  Ivey’s term for what Dewey called the “art experience” is “expressive life.”  Expressive life is defined by Ivey as something that we feel within ourselves as a “gland or organ located halfway between mind and heart.” (Ivey 2008)  Expressive life is the source for creativity.  It inspires humans to take what they know and value from tradition and forge ahead freely in order to work toward a common cultural, spiritual, political and ethical unity.


The esthetic experience or expressive life is a fundamental promise of democracy, because democracies in principle and practice must cultivate a quality of life that offers deep satisfaction – happiness.  This happiness is not the vulgar and illusionary pleasure offered by consumerism.  It is a happiness known to human beings through moments and memories of exultation, discovery and revelation that transform the power of creative freedom into loving service for the public good. (Ivey 2008)  Ivey shares Holger Cahill’s belief that the esthetic experience as lived in a democracy, nurtures and protects the eminent dignity of human beings. (Holger Cahill papers, 1910-1993, bulk 1910-1960. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. n.d.)


Ivey is a stalwart defender of the public’s rights to access and participate in culture. Culture for Ivey, as it was for Nicholas Roerich, is a human right in that it is an, “essential privilege designed to protect individuals from political exploitation and oppression.” (Ivey 2008)  In 1948, The United Nations passed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This pivotal document, which Ivey champions as a source for how humans should understand the esthetic experience, states in Article 27.1, “Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.” Article 27.2 states that “moral and material interests” of creators and producers of culture should also be protected. (Canadian Museum for Human Rights n.d.)  The declaration proclaims that all humans must have opportunities for an esthetic experience and the means to freely express themselves.  It also requires that society support our creators in recognition of their contributions to civilization.  In order to preserve the vitality of a shared cultural life, Ivey reminds us that the creative content made by human beings through the esthetic experience is not the property of any private individual or organization; it is a common resource for all.  Ivey builds upon the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, The Roerich Pact and The Banner of Peace with his Cultural Bill of Rights.


Ivey declares, “…the Cultural Bill of Rights is placed as a kind of chip on society’s shoulder – a set of principles that challenge policy leaders, arts-industry executives, and arts advocates to either stand up and justify the status quo or join in a process that will shape a new cultural landscape appropriately titled toward the public interest.” (Ivey 2008)  Our cultural and human rights are:



  1. The right to our heritage – the right to explore music, literature, drama, painting, and dance that define both our nation’s collective experience and our individual and community traditions.
  2.  The right to the prominent presence of artists in public life – through their art and the incorporation of their voices and artistic visions into democratic debate.
  3.  The right to an artistic life – the right to the knowledge and skills needed to play a musical instrument, draw, dance, compose, design, or otherwise live a life of active creativity.
  4.  The right to be represented to the rest of the world by art that fairly and honestly communicates democratic America’s values and ideals.
  5.  The right to know about and explore art of the highest quality and to the lasting truths embedded in those forms of expression that have survived, in many lands, through the ages.
  6.  The right to healthy arts enterprises that can take risks and invest in innovation while serving communities and the public interest. (Ivey 2008)


Integrating The Cultural Bill of Rights into our daily practice is a serious commitment that requires museum professionals to labor in service of the public with prepared minds and open hearts.  Ivey challenges cultural workers:


Giving up old assumptions might be the easy part.  The critical task – the part requiring heavy lifting – is to begin the journey that will convince the leaders of an affluent democracy that the best way to improve the quality of life of citizens is to meaningfully integrate art into the heart and soul of every citizen.  To secure our Cultural Bill of Rights, to push back against copyright or regulate business so as to ensure openness in media and access to heritage, requires little more than the transfer of a healthy suspicion of corporate practice into public policy.  But to advance art as an antidote to twenty-first-century malaise, we must risk a leap of faith. (Ivey 2008)


Ivey concludes:


We can generate real change only if we believe that we as citizens have both the need and the capacity to seize control of the levers of power in order to make things better. (Ivey 2008)


The Cultural Bill of Rights is the new operating system that will enable museum professionals to create a democratic museum culture.  Our rights to cultural heritage and the expressive life must be extended to the digital world in the twenty-first century so that new grassroots folk culture maybe created.



Canadian Museum for Human Rights:  The Model Museum for the 21st Century


Museum professionals have a great deal of work ahead of them if we desire a culture inspired by the ideas of Dewey, Cahill, Roerich and Ivey.  Cynics might say a future built on human and cultural rights as manifest through the esthetic experience is naïve, foolish or even impossible. There is an answer to these charges.  It comes in the form of a new institution being built this very moment in Winnipeg, Canada.


The Canadian Museum for Human Rights was chartered in 2008 by the Canadian Parliament.  It is the twenty-first century institution that illuminates possibilities for a more just and compassionate world.  The museum’s CEO, Stuart A. Murray, and COO, Patrick O’Reilly, have articulated the vision of this institution through speeches and lectures presented over the last two years. (Canadian Museum for Human Rights n.d.)  The museum will act as an international community center where the public will be in dialogue with museum professionals and each other.  Individuals and communities will be encouraged to confront issues of human struggle with respect in affirmation of the dignity and rights of all people.  It will be a dynamic institution that uses digital technology to guide the public as they build bridges over fear and tragedy in pursuit of triumphant hope.


The museum is informed by interdisciplinary ideas across time, space and culture.  The arts shall be a critical source of inspiration for visitors and staff as they interpret the essential meanings of humanness.  Rather than being a collection of objects, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights’ content will be a resource made from an assemblage of perpetually evolving memories and experiences.  The Canadian Museum for Human Rights seeks “reciprocal” relationships with its constituents that become the impetus for social change. (Timpson 2010)


The Canadian Museum for Human Rights will be the institution that leads the field towards a democratic museum culture.  It will guide its constituents through the depths of human experience.  It will serve as a mediator for individuals and communities locked in struggle to work towards mutual respect and peace.  It will be a global champion for human and cultural rights.  The Canadian Museum for Human Rights will utilize digital tools as a critical means of fulfilling its mission.





Our world is in a continued state of crisis.  Each day in the media and in our lives we witness tragedy, suffering, violence and human failure.  We have reached the point of critical action.  Museum professionals and cultural workers can either address the issues that hinder our ability to compassionately serve the public or we can watch as the art that inspires us and the institutions we love become further isolated, forgotten and decaying in a society increasingly blinded by self-interest and discrimination.  What can museum professionals do to change the circumstances of our present condition?


We must:


  1. Primarily serve the public by providing opportunities for them to develop esthetic experiences.
  2. Collaborate with the public through education and interpretive programming to build community.
  3. Guide the public to a shared sense of humanity and spiritual unity through Culture, so they may become forces for peace.
  4. Recognize the expressive life and cultural heritage as human rights by integrating The Cultural Bill of Rights into our missions and daily practice.
  5. Follow the example of institutions, like the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, that have made the decision to take the "leap of faith" by dedicating their efforts to mediating human struggles in unwavering pursuit of hope. 


Museum technologists are the professionals with the greatest ability to influence culture in the twenty-first century as they are the lockmen who direct the flow of information and enable communication through meaningful connections.  Digital technology will be the instrument by which we achieve these aims.  Technologists are the visionaries that society needs to imagine new realities.  Technologists are always on the vanguard!   Tony Judt calls us all to action, “As citizens of a free society, we have a duty to look critically at our world.  But if we think we know what is wrong, we must act upon that knowledge.  Philosophers, it was famously observed, have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” (Judt 2010)  Join me in fostering a democratic museum culture.





This paper is dedicated to my family, friends and to the memory of Tony Judt.  It was Judt’s profound work and courage, in the face of suffering, that awakened my conscience and stirred my soul to speak.





Buettner, Stewart. "John Dewey and the Visual Arts in America." The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 33, no. 4 (1975): 384-385.


Canadian Museum for Human Rights. Speeches from Museum Leaders. http://humanrightsmuseum.ca/about-museum/speeches-our-museum-leaders (accessed October 10, 2010).


—. Universal Declaration of Human Rights. http://humanrightsmuseum.ca/exhibits/udhr/ (accessed October 20, 2010).


Committee, The Roerich Pact and The Banner of Peace. The Roerich Pact and The Banner of Peace. New York: The Roerich Pact and The Banner of Peace Committee, 1947.


"Holger Cahill papers, 1910-1993, bulk 1910-1960. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution." http://www.aaa.si.edu/collectionsonline/cahiholg/ (accessed August 28, 2010).


Ivey, Bill. Arts Inc.: How Greed and Neglect Have Destroyed Our Cultural Rights. Berkley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2008.


Judt, Tony. Ill Fares the Land. New York: The Penguin Press, 2010.


Roerich, Nicholas. Fire Blossom. From “His Country” series. Nicholas Roerich Museum, New York.


Timpson, Corey. E-mail to the author. "Re: Corey Timpson has sent you a link to 'Building an Interactive Experience' on mcn2010." October 12, 2010.





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