‘Engage the World’: examining conflicts of engagement in museum spaces
Public engagement has become a central theme in the mission statements of many museums, demonstrating the continuing interest in knowledge-building with diverse publics. Museums seem to offer ideal spaces to tackle the impoverishment of public dialogue about issues of common concern, and loss of the practice of “the arts of democracy (Linenthal 2006, pg. 124).” Engagement has emerged as the go-to-it-word for this new sense of purpose in museums, as well as for generating, improving or repairing relations between institutions and society at large. But ‘public engagement’ is frequently an unexamined term that might embed multiple barriers to dialogic conditions. Projects aimed at engaging publics are sometimes underscored by restrictive assumptions and unhelpful generalizations, ignore underlying politics in the construction of knowledge, misrecognize the complexity of the identities of ‘others’, or become instrumentalized for other purposes. This paper describes and examines the implications of conflicting and misleading uses of ‘engagement’ in relation to institutional dealings with emergent and contested questions about culture and heritage. It considers the development of an exhibition on the Dead Sea Scrolls by Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum in 2009, where a new planning process attempted to bring together exhibitionary, interpretive and educational programming within the new institutional goal to ‘Engage the World’. The motivations, processes and decisions deployed to ‘Engage the World’ are analyzed in relation to the ROM’s current social, cultural and economic constraints. The chapter considers the degree to which the museum was able to re-think its strategies of public engagement; especially how ROM management and staff addressed subjects, issues and publics that were more controversial in nature.