Over the past year, I have been digging deeply into more positive approaches to everything—from business to psychology to personal meaning-making (mindfulness). I am still at the beginning of this journey but I sense there is something really good here for museums and museum studies. I thought I would take a moment to see how I might answer my own question: What might the positive museum look like? In that vein, then, I am working towards answering a bigger question: What is Positive Museology?
Let’s start by looking at other fields that have taken a positive (not positivist) turn. Starting the trend is Positive Psychology, the scientific study of human flourishing, an applied approach to optimal functioning of human beings. It is the first field to re-direct its traditional approach to human functioning through a positive lens. Other fields are following suit, such as positive education, positive neuroscience, positive sociology, positive organizational theory, and positive (constructive) journalism. All of these focus on strengths and virtues that enable individuals, communities, and organizations to thrive (Gable & Haidt, 2005; Sheldon & King, 2001). And all are clear that they are not there to replace traditional versions of their disciplines, but rather to complement them. All use language and concepts (and conduct research) that focus on positive approaches to the world. Some examples of these are: optimism, gratitude, resilience, grit, character strengths and virtues, emotional agility, slow thinking, and authentic happiness. Interestingly, all of these were reactions to deficit models of human functioning.
How can museums (and museum studies) build on this positive movement? Do we in museums (and museum studies) have a deficit approach? That is, do we have a dominant negative approach hidden under the surface? I don’t know that we have gone that far, but I do see two things that show we might need to rethink our approach or at least, reflect on our views a bit. The first is the health of workers in museums; they are not happy. Museum professionals have the coolest jobs on earth yet I rarely hear that workers are satisfied. Something is awry. The second is more subtle but present nevertheless. Our talk amongst ourselves—about visitors, exhibition content, collections choices, and more—is full of angst:
we are holding visitors back (eg. no matter what we do, we seem to be doing it wrong and need to “fix” it);
we are not talking about the right things (eg. why are we trying to be neutral? Take a side!);
we cannot agree on so many things (eg. what is the main thing a museum should do?).
It’s no wonder our visitors are not entirely happy all the time. Like it or not, these internal conversations filter their way to our most important customers, our visitors. Our angst comes through. Can we turn these things around and talk about them in a different way?
If we were to take an intentionally positive approach to doing our work, to doing museological things, what would that look like? Maybe a better question would be how do we create a flourishing museum? What would a flourishing museum look like? In order to talk about it, let’s first imagine the museum as two intertwining parts of a larger system, the inner museum and the outer museum (Latham and Simmons, 2014), with the inner representing the activities that go on daily, behind the scenes, and are often hidden from the public and the outer museum as the museum that most people think of as the museum, the activities that are visible to everyone. A flourishing inner museum would be healthy, with its workers content and satisfied with the work they do, the relationships they have at the museum. A flourishing outer museum is one that provides a place for people to find joy, compassion, connection, understanding, personal growth, and self-efficacy; positive museums will be a place to enable people to thrive. What this might consist of, I am not yet sure. Does it mean creating exhibitions that show the strengths and virtues of a people, place event rather than the more negative aspects? Do we intentionally create slow offerings, provide a place for contemplation and quiet inspection? Or does it mean that the museum’s goals are more positively oriented (language and goals are shifted) and so the flourishing is awash over all things done in the museum? Does it mean we provide opportunities for gratitude and compassion, for oneself and for others?
Positive Museology then, focuses on human flourishing in museal contexts, that is, in those spaces and places where humans and objects interact in meaningful ways. Using positive concepts, theories, approaches, applications and intentions, we can work towards making the museum a place for people to flourish, for well-being, mindfulness, compassion, gratitude, resilience, strength of character. The bigger question now is, how can we use the good work that is going on in these other positive fields to create a flourishing museum? That in particular, is what I will keep working on in the near future. I want to end this post with the introduction found on the Center for Positive Organization’s website. See if you can fill in “positive museology,” “museum,” “museum studies” or another related word where applicable (I’ve highlighted some suggested places) and if you think this might be a something we should be doing:
The Center for Positive Organizations is a community dedicated to positively energizing and transforming organizations and the people who lead them through Positive Organizational Scholarship. The study and perspective of Positive Organizational Scholarship is committed to revealing and nurturing the highest level of human potential, and it strives to answer questions like: What makes employees feel like they’re thriving? How can I bring my organization through difficult times stronger than before? What creates the positive energy a team needs to be successful?
Positive Organizational Scholarship has become a major focus for organizations and empowers leaders to create positive work environments, improving the culture of their workplace and helping them discover what is possible with their employees and within their organizations. By bringing empathy, compassion, and energy into the workplace, leaders are able to enhance engagement and performance, and inspire their employees to innovate, find opportunity, and strive for excellence. Positive Organizational Scholarship principles create a generative business setting and act as a catalyst in the discovery of human potential.