1st Edition

Museums and Social Responsibility

By Kevin Coffee Copyright 2023
    212 Pages 12 B/W Illustrations
    by Routledge

    212 Pages 12 B/W Illustrations
    by Routledge

    Museums and Social Responsibility examines inherent contradictions within and effecting museum practice in order to outline a museological theory of how museums are important cultural practices in themselves and how museums shape the socio-cultural dynamics of modern societies, especially our attitudes and understandings about human agency and creative potential.

    Museums are libraries of objects, presenting thematic justification that dominant concepts of normativity and speciality, as well as attitudes of cultural deprecation. By sorting culture into hierarchies of symbolic value, museums cloak themselves in supposed objectivity, delivered with the passion of connoisseurship and the surety of scholarly research. Ulterior motives pertaining to socio-economic class, racial and ethnic othering, and sexual subjugation, are shrouded by that false appearance of objectivity. This book highlights how the socially responsive practitioner can challenge and subvert taken-for-granted motivations by undertaking liberatory museum work that engages subaltern narratives, engages historically disadvantage populations, and co-creates with them dialogical practices of collecting, preserving, exhibiting and interpreting. It points to examples in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas, not as self-contained entities but as practices within a global web of relationships, and as microcosms that define normality and abnormality, that engage users in critical dialogue, and that influence, are conditioned by, and disrupt taken-for-granted understandings and practices of class, ethnicity, sex, gender, thinking and being.

    Suitable for students, researchers, and museum professionals, Museums and Social Responsibility presents a comprehensive argument and proposes critical, reflective processes to the practitioner, so that their museum work may more effectively engage with and change their societies and the world.

    Introduction; Chapter 1 Particularities and generalities; Chapter 2 The Agency of Ideology; Chapter 3 Museum knowing and learning; Chapter 4 Inclusion and Exclusion; Chapter 5 Praxis is Action; Chapter 6 How should we act?; References.


    Kevin Coffee is a museum practitioner and museologist who has worked in the museums sector for more than 35 years, including as head of exhibitions for the American Museum of Natural History in New York and the Chicago Academy of Sciences, and within the National Park Service. During that time, he has advised, managed, and directed scores of projects for a range of museums and cultural organizations in North America, Europe, and Asia, and in that work has engaged culture creators and users in developing new forms of exhibitions, programs, landscapes, and museums. He currently resides in Lowell Massachusetts, United States.

    "Kevin Coffee’s new book - Museums and Social Responsibility - is much needed by researchers, administrators and practitioners alike. Coffee tackles the hard problems of ideology and social responsibility in cogent, logical ways not often seen in museum reform critiques. A fundamental tenet ,with which I wholeheartedly agree, is that museums are not neutral organizations. Nor should we expect them to be. Coffee fearlessly tackles the ‘isms’ - racism, sexism and so on, as well as power and privilege in ways that make us sit up and re-think past stances in new ways."

    Doris Ash, Ph.D., Professor of Science Education, Emerita, University of California Santa Cruz


    "Kevin Coffee is a veteran scholar/practitioner having spent his career thoughtfully using method and theory to inform museum practice, and vice versa, with a critical assessment of its signs, symbols, values, and meaning. Museums are at a crossroads of accountability and relevance, and this book provides essential guidance in the transformation of museums as a learning experience."

    Robert R. Janes, Founder: Coalition of Museums for Climate Justice: https://cmcj.ca/