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Essential Reading, The Social Work of Museums

When Kiersten asked if I would consider writing about my own essential museum reading for this blog, I was immediately drawn to a book that I had not yet read. It was the perfect excuse to begin Lois H. Silverman’s, The Social Work of Museums, which I had stumbled upon in the KentLINK catalog recently, but put aside as a ‘get to someday’ read.

Growing up, my parents and most of their friends were social workers and psychologists, and I have been around the language of social work for much of my life. However, when I earned my Museum Studies degree in the early 1990s, I viewed my new profession as very different from the practices of my parents. Silverman’s book, however, is a revelation about the way in which the practices of both social work and museum work create natural and thoughtful synergies.

Silverman begins by recounting the development of both modern museums and social work in the late 19th century as movements which arose in service of modern societal needs. She further argues that the theoretical frameworks of social work should now be purposefully applied by museum practitioners in order to underpin and support many of the practices in which museums are already engaged. Silverman posits that eight theories and tools of social work are essential to the work of museums today:

  • The planned change process

  • A client (or visitor) centered empowering relationship

  • A people-in-environments and close relationship systems focus

  • Relationship needs

  • People at risk and altered needs

  • Interventions

  • Human rights and social justice

  • Culture in relationships

With each chapter Silverman goes on to provide examples of museum practices and programs throughout the world that are fulfilling human social needs and employing these frameworks. Some examples seem obvious and innate to interactions and experiences which might naturally arise in public and object-based museum environments, while others are much more complex, planned and unique to a particular exhibit or space.

There are some critiques that can be leveled at Silverman’s advocacy for a whole-hearted embrace of the foundations and practices of social work in a museum setting. For example, there are many aspects of museum work, including collections care and development, education, and research which may not fall under the rubric of social work, and should not be judged by those goals and standards. Additionally, as Silverman herself notes, trained museum professionals are not trained social workers and may be rightly criticized for attempting to assume the skillset of another profession without the training. Lastly, I could argue, assuming the purpose and responsibilities of social work without compensatory support or even an agreed upon charge from society more broadly, may set museums up to fail at this self-assigned purpose. Silverman, however, makes a strong case that many museums have already assumed the role of social work and that this is what is keeping them strong and relevant into the 21st century.

One of the great strengths of modern museums is that they continue to adapt in order to serve the communities in which they operate, and in service of society more broadly. Museums are malleable spaces, capable of containing new objects, promoting new ideas and serving new functions. For me, The Social Work of Museums was an amazing text. It has helped me connect ideas and concerns about my own practice with those of my parents, and provided a new framework to think about museums as profoundly relational spaces.