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Illuminating Culture and Nature Equally

Generative Thinking at a Critical Time

Emlyn Koster

Originally published June 16, 2021, on the RK&A blog. RK&A is a planning, evaluation, and research firm that supports museums and cultural organizations to achieve impact.

Spurred by the art-dominated sections on museums in The New York Times, Emlyn Koster reflects on this sector’s pressing need for a balanced profile between people/society and non­human life/nature.

Eminence of Art Museums

Titled “Reinventing the Future,” the May 23, 2021, Museums section of The New York Times reveals its bias with this front-page statement: “As museums emerge from a devastating pandemic, they are seeing their art and their purpose in a new light.” Art museums dominate its thirty pages. Two-thirds were occupied by ads for exhibits and stories about art museums; the other third comprised exhibit ads and stories about the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) and New York Historical Society with a miscellany of articles about Black Lives Matter, Indigenous, and other pressing civic matters. I also reviewed the forty-page Museums section on March 13, 2020. Two-thirds were ads for art and photography shows with the rest featuring exhibits in history museums about colonization, oppression, racism, immigration, and tolerance, plus there were half-page reports about coverage of the 1918 flu pandemic at Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum and about climate change at the AMNH.

Astonishingly, the art museum dominance of the May 23, 2021, section was accentuated by its opening Critic’s Notebook titled “10 Ways for museums to survive and thrive in a  post-Covid world”: twenty-six of its twenty-eight cited institutions are art museums. Three days later, this unbalanced picture was reiterated in an opinion, “Still searching for the  reimagined museum,” by a Canada-based museum consultancy lauding the Critic’s Notebook article as if it had provided insights for museums of all types. With repeated admiration for a virtual program from The Frick Collection and concern over a partnership between the Canadian Museums Association (CMA) and Canadian Heritage towards a federal policy for museums, it criticized a perceived lack of impact by Canada’s museums as if their national association determines programs at member institutions. On International Museums Day on May 18, 2021, the CMA’s public statement wisely concluded: “The pandemic has changed society. For museums to continue serving the Canadian public, new paradigms, approaches, and solutions must be formed.”

In many quarters, the arts and culture are regarded as equivalent despite early and ongoing efforts to also elevate science into the realm of mainstream culture. Indeed, it remains common to encounter publications and news stories with titles implying broad coverage of the museum sector but which are mostly or only about art museums. While full- and half-page ads understandably help to finance the Museums sections in The New York Times, it would be useful to enlighten readers, while they are drawn to the sector as a whole, about issues such as monetization of artworks, relevance to contemporary matters, and internal stresses with changing priorities. Surely the masthead slogan on every edition of The New York Times―“All the News That’s Fit to Print”―should include a commitment to impartiality about museums!

Generative Thinking

This practice fills an important gap when the initial scope of considerations falls short of all pertinent realities. I came across this approach a decade ago in a Harvard Business Review newsletter contribution by Manda Salls: “ . . . it’s the way in which the intellectual agenda of the organization is constructed . . . the question should be ‘. . . do we have the problem right?’ . . . generative thinking is getting to the question before the question . . . it’s not about narrow technical expertise.” A 2015 article adds: “It is a way . . . to examine an issue or an idea by generating more information about it: identifying the problem instead of solving it; generating questions instead of answers; and making sense before making any decisions.” On the premise that asking topical questions has become an essential activity of museums, I invite a comparison of the list of ten content suggestions offered by Jason Farago in the Museums section of The New York Times with the list of ten progress indicators in my AAM-invited 2006 article about increasing museum relevance and sustainability.

Last year as the pandemic began, I joined an online discussion featuring the Museum for the UN and International Coalition of Sites of Conscience. A participant from Mexico seemed to capture everyone’s attention when he said: “ . . . answering questions is evolutionary but asking new questions is revolutionary.” For me, this reinforced the breakthrough caliber of the question-asking exhibition titled “Race: Are We So Different?” which I hosted at Liberty Science Center and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences (summative reports on the North Carolina experience are available as email attachments from me). With society plagued by systemic racism, this exhibition performed a vital public service by drawing attention to the biological fact that all of human variation amounts to just one tenth of one percent of human DNA. I wish that designing and titling exhibitions with a socially or environmentally pressing question would become a common approach.

Nature and Culture

Unbalanced news coverage of the museum sector is more than unfortunate: it warrants a revolution of the questions being asked. As a scientist before a museologist, one of my vantage points in pondering the perilous state of the world is that Homo sapiens, us, the human species, is one of 1.2 million described species and as many as a yet-to-be-described additional 8.7 million species. Society’s emphasis on culture over nature is apparent in the popular use of diversity as distinct from the term biodiversity which respectively refer to human variation and to all of genetic variation across the plant and animal world.

Mary Ellen Munley’s review of a book about the social work of museums observed: “ . . . museums are being noticed for the ways they can foster cultures of caring—people caring about each other; people caring for the planet.Spurred by visionaries such as Jane Goodall, more of society has come to respect non-human life, especially sentient non-human life, and to view natural environments in a complete ecological light. A new museum project in Mexico offers a refreshing prospect of tackling some vital questions about the biosphere. Named after the Nahuatl word xinachtli, which describes the moment a seed germinates in the soil, its mission is to utilize “art and aesthetic perception, an ecologically oriented way of building, and a cultural engagement with the other to help preserve the permanence of all life on our planet”.

Rendering of Xinatli, a planned research museum in the Mexican rainforest. (Source: Studio Viktor Sørless)

In the vast majority of natural history and natural science museums, Earth history stops before Homo sapiens evolved. For many institutions, an actual or fake mummy is the extent of coverage of human development as opposed to overviews or samples of the results of fundamental inquiries central to all of us. These include the fascinating developments of rituals, language, religion, shelter, clothing, agriculture, aquaculture, communities, hierarchy, exploration, trade, technology, and conflict. This is an example of the need for the museum sector―and The New York Times―to ask new questions. In the Anthropocene, social justice and environmental justice are interconnected movements.

About the Author
Emlyn Koster, PhD, is a geologist, museologist, and humanist focused on the Anthropocene, an emerging new age in the Geologic Timescale to recognize humanity’s disruption of the Earth’s natural state and biodiversity. A former chair of the Geological Association of Canada and now an adjunct professor of Marine, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at North Carolina State University, he has been the CEO of the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology, Ontario Science Centre, Liberty Science Center, and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. He can be reached at koster.emlyn@gmail.com.