Back and Forward: Randy Roberts on the Evolution of Museums

Back Q&A Aug 14, 2017

Randy Roberts, deputy director of the Manetti Shrem Museum of Art, offers her insight into the essential role of museums as community organizations. For more from Roberts, check out “School of Thought” in our August issue. Sign up for our newsletter and we’ll email you when it’s available online.

What is the biggest change in your industry in the past year?

As institutions that reflect society, most often in ways connected to material culture, museums are notoriously slow to change. Trends that are cited as current in the museum field often have been developing for decades. I have been known to lament the evolutionary pace of change in a field that should be primed for revolution. Over the past year, however, that pace — in the form of responsiveness to social need — has sped up remarkably. Many institutions that have danced around becoming essential community organizations have now refocused their efforts, responding to a critical need for places of dialogue and connection, places that value civil discourse and multiple ways of understanding. There is a shift from museums as places of education to museums as places of inspiration that challenge, provoke, question and engage with the pressing issues of our time. While there is still much work to do to ensure that we amplify the full spectrum of voices that shape our culture and society, over the past year the museum field has embraced a more activist role that expresses itself through radical empathy, compassion and a willingness to challenge, as well as to reflect, the status quo.

What do you foresee as the biggest change on the horizon in the year to come?

Museums will need to be more engaged in political and social discourse, and more proactive in understanding and disseminating their value to be relevant. Surrounded by rapid and dynamic political, economic and environmental change, museums will be called on to develop deeper connections with their communities to better understand how they can build meaningful partnerships. For the Manetti Shrem Museum, this means redoubling our efforts to work proactively with UC Davis faculty, students, staff and our extended family of constituents to contribute to building a more vital and healthy community. At least part of this equation is sharing the joy inherent in being surrounded by art and artists. Visiting a museum can be soothing or invigorating, but whatever the experience, engaging with art is an essential exercise for the mind and soul.   

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