1 June 2018




For the inaugural edition of the #ProgramReviews column, I attended a talk called The Evolving Role Of Museums hosted by the Aga Khan Museum on May 9th, 2018. Michael Edson, co-founder of the still-forming United Nations museum, UN Live. Edson gave a lecture about the evolving role of museums for the upcoming International Museums Day, as part of the Aga Khan Museum’s Changing Perceptions Series.

Formerly director of Web and New Media Strategy at the Smithsonian, Edson gave a wide-ranging and energetic talk, where at one point he organized a rock paper scissors competition with the entire audience. I expected, at the end of this competition, for him to speak about the power of statistics, and that it is exceedingly improbable that any individual would win, but that it was inevitable that someone would. Instead, he spoke briefly about the power of play to activate learning, and then showed us this video:

He used this as a launching off point to talk about the three dimensions in which the world has shifted rapidly in scope, scale, and speed- the problems of globalization and rapid automation that are shaping the world in ways which no one, not museums, not nations, not individuals, yet understands. What then, is UN Live to become?

The goal of UN Live, as Edson explained it, is not to be an institution which would educate its visitors about the history of the UN. The museum is instead constructed around about the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals for 2030, and to encourage anyone who comes into contact with the museum to go forth and make progress towards these goals in their own communities.

The UN's 17 sustainability goals for 2030. Source.
He said that when people see these goals for the first time, they often laugh at the sheer audacity of them. End poverty everywhere? Peace and justice everywhere? In a scant twelve years? And yet, there is a near global consensus that this is important work that someone, somewhere ought to be doing. So why not have a UN museum, one which uses the institutional strength of the United Nations not only to push for these goals but to encourage everyone, everywhere, to be the someone, somewhere that works towards fulfilling them.

The challenge, as Edson framed it, was not to educate. We do not, he reminded us all, act because we have a lack of information available to us. People continue to smoke well after they know the adverse effects of smoking. The challenge of UN Live is to encourage people to engage with the goals of the UN and to embody them in their own lives and their own communities. UN Live seeks to build within people the habits of community engagement and democracy. Their role is to be the United Nations “at eye level” with the citizens of the world, and to help people understand and act on these goals in the language of everyday life.

The ways one can encounter UN Live, which Edson promises are getting equal love and attention, are the physical location in Copenhagen, its network with other public institutions all over the world, and a digital museum. Edson’s former role, as director of Web and New Media Strategy at the Smithsonian, will doubtless help him in this pursuit. Each of these, of course, will maintain as part of its mission and in every step of the design, a bridge between information and action. Part of the mission is not to ensure that every person who interacts with UN live leaves to solve a world problem, but to find, elevate, and assist the changemakers that already exist in every community. UN Live seeks to change the encounter rate of those brilliant, inspiring people we all know, from one in a million to two or three in a million, and to help those change makers, creatives, leaders to effect change more efficiently. Edson bounced back and forth from grand sweeping statements about the way the world should be, to specific steps UN Live was taking to help that change happen with such rapidity it at times gave me goosebumps.

Michael Edson, at the Aga Khan Museum. Source.
I will leave you with this, although this is not how Edson closed the talk. He said that neither the UN or the concept of the museum was a concept that always elicits cheers from your audience. But, no matter how they resent one or both concepts, when you call on behalf of the UN Museum, people always return your calls. It’s a weighty responsibility, and that we as future museum professionals ourselves should be conscious of. Very few of us will ever work for an institution with as much cultural gravity as the UN, but institutions have power. Institutions have reputations and weight and gravity, and whether or not they are liked, they are respected and listened to. We would all do well to remember that this is not an abstract concept. Why shouldn't a museum, for instance, partner with Elections Canada and help people register to vote? Why shouldn't a museum not only have and use green energy but also host events where visitors can learn to plant their own green roofs. It all felt possible, while Edson spoke. He speaks with the kind of passion that can move mountains, and perhaps more impressively, people.

The overwhelming feeling I had leaving The Evolving Role of Museums lecture was one of hope. Hope as a motivator, a driver, as a source of strength. I could practically feel it beating against my chest as I left. As a program host, could you imagine a better way for your attendees to leave?

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