The words you can’t say in a museum

There was no question that the 2017 annual meeting committee wanted to provide an energetic and provocative keynote address. We were delighted when Dustin Growick of Museum Hack accepted our invitation. Dustin mentioned that he had never attended a museum conference where he felt so welcome as he did with ALHFAM. That doesn’t surprise me. ALHFAM has always embraced an approach to history that engages the public. We are a hands-on, roll-up-your-sleeves, actions-speak-louder-than-words organization.


When Dustin began his remarks, the slide behind him caught a few folks by surprise: “Museums are F****ing Awesome.” I couldn’t help but think of George Carlin’s skit, “The Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television.” For some people, that was a little uncomfortable. I have tried inserting a lot of other words in the “F****ing” space and nothing quite fits. Do I believe Museums are F****ing Awesome?” Yes. Can I say it? Hmm. Not sure. Would I wear a T-shirt: probably not. But maybe the issue is whether I can get past the word and listen to the message. And although some of us might have been uneasy with the F word, I don’t think anyone walked out of the keynote address.

It had been my intention to have a follow-up session, where we could bat around some of the ideas that Dustin threw at us. That never came to fruition, and I regret that. I think the discussion would have been lively, provocative and productive. I would have enjoyed getting feedback from my ALHFAM colleagues.

A few months ago, I attended another presentation by Museum Hack at the annual meeting of the Museum Association of New York. That discussion revolved around some techniques they were attempting to introduce at the Corning Museum of Glass. I asked if they were offering “Bad Ass Bitches” tours, like they have offered at other museums. At Corning, these tours look at the women artists that are working in glass.

Having opened an exhibit about women’s history and suffrage at the LeRoy Historical Society, I wondered if I could offer a “Bad Ass Bitches” tour. The exhibit was titled “Remember the Ladies” (with reference to Abigail Adams’ comment to her husband as he went off to the Constitutional Convention. And we know what didn’t happen at the Convention.) How did I get from “Remember the Ladies” to “Bad Ass Bitches?”

Being in a small upstate New York town, advertising a “Bad Ass Bitches” tour might bring on my early retirement or being run out of town on a rail. The words are meant to be provocative and bring attention to the tour, but they might keep people away.*

I remember preparing my past president’s speech for the ALHFAM meeting in Ottawa in 2008. I had chosen to share my passion for museum work. Would it be possible to talk about passion, much less confess that I believe that passion drives most of us? I was buoyed by Sherene Suchy’s book, Leading with Passion: Change Management in the 21st Century Museum (Alta Mira Press, 2004.) This scholarly work shares Suchy’s research into successful museum directors around the world. The publisher originally rejected her choice of a title, believing that “passion” was not an appropriate word—not professional.

What is it about our choice of words that prevents us from becoming engaged? I remember a civil rights exhibit: I can’t remember the location, but I remember arriving at two doors. Above one was the sign “Whites only.” Above the other a sign read “Blacks only.” I could not go any further.   I did not see the rest of the exhibit. The words stood in the way.

How museums deal with the words that shouldn’t be spoken is a challenge. Consider the word “fun.” Is it OK for museums to be fun? Aren’t we supposed to be educational? For some of us, education is fun. It’s fun to explore and do research and share history, but to sell our programs to schools, God forbid that we even mention that the kids might have fun. That’s left to amusement parks and Disneyland. Do we want it known that museums are fun? It’s as if education and fun are diabolically opposed. In my mind, that needs to be changed.

So where does this conversation bring us? I am sorry that we missed the opportunity to sit around a table and talk about what Museum Hack says about museums. I believe that ALHFAM is an organization that shows its passion and is not afraid to do so. I believe museums are fun – or at least can be fun. I think that museums that buy into the ALHFAM mission have the best option to make learning and history fun. I believe that museums are f****ing awesome, and it didn’t take Museum Hack to convince me of that. It just took Museum Hack to put it in those words.  I also believe in the hanging curve ball – high fiber – good scotch . . . oops – sorry that was Crash Davis’ speech in Bull Durham.

*There is a post script to this: I have given a “Bad Ass Bitches” tour of “Remember the Ladies.” It was so popular that I have been asked to give two more.

Written by Lynne Belluscio, LeRoy Historical Society


5 thoughts on “The words you can’t say in a museum”

  1. This is a great article and one that I hope generates conversation. I am going to think about the implications of this article and hope that I have comments from others to reflect on as well.

    As I have progressed in my career I have realized that I can be educational, informational, conversational and fun and that they all are appropriate. You’ll never hear me say edu-tainment (UGH!) but I have realized that I am most successful at engaging people by using every tool in my kit and fun and passion are a huge part of my tool kit. The passion that is the cause for most of us arriving at our current place is what will engage the public.

    How many times have you been asked how you got your position? I’ve been asked that a lot. It’s time to share this with the public.

  2. Well said Lynn. I would have liked to have had that follow-up discussion too. I wonder how we can market our programs/exhibits, gain attention without being profane, in a political climate that seems to have been overtaken with it.

  3. Wonderful and thought provoking as always. What I got out of the Museum Hack presentation was that they try to bring to stuffy “traditional” museums what Living History has long sought to do: a fresh perspective, personal involvement, adventure, and as Lynne so rightly said, maybe even passion.

  4. Passion and caring are necessary for difficult jobs whether the job is engaging board members or learning how to milk a cow. It’s also seems to me (recently) that passion can intimidate people rather than inspiring them. Thoughts on how to be innovative and passionate without putting off people whose idea of “fun” is different than yours?

    1. A connection with people can often be established by the types of questions you ask the group. Questions such as does anyone have experience with this (blank), does this remind you of something that you’ve seen before, does this remind you of somewhere else that you have visited. This allows them to share if they wish and doesn’t put them on the spot. (Except for when parents encourage a reluctant child to share a story that they don’t want to share.)

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