In order to understand the sociocultural context of museums, the macro-view of the sociocultural context of museums must be understood, and how individual visitors’ visits are shaped by their views of museums as societal institutions, which also provides a lens into who does not visit and perhaps why. Taking this view enables us to step back and think about museums as societal institutions immersed in complex sociocultural ecologies, that aim to fulfill not only personal needs but also the collective needs of communities and societies. However, the perception of museums as societal institutions has been historically shaped by the dominant, western culture/society (Falk & Dierking, 2013). Individuals from different social and economic sectors of society, as well as from different cultural and racial/ethnic backgrounds, who may not have familiarity with such institutions, possess differing views of the nature and value of museums as societal institutions. The acknowledgment of this reality is increasingly important as many societies around the world become more diverse socially, economically, and culturally; incorporating these shifting trends is critical for museums’ practice. Besides that, museums need to be concerned not only with the “literal” sense of what they are, as defined by their buildings, collections, exhibitions, programs, and websites, but equally with the “imagined” or “perceived” sense of what they are, which resides in the minds of individuals living within their communities who may not regularly use museums. (Falk & Dierking, 2013)
In the United States and Europe, most of the efforts to grapple with the issue of individuals who do not visit museums have tended to frame the question around issues of race/ethnicity (in the United States) or social class (in Europe). This is perhaps not surprising since, in the United States, individuals from minority racial/ethnic communities such as Latinx and African Americans have been found to utilize museums proportionately less than individuals from the majority European American community do (Falk & Dierking, 2013). Outside the United States, where the issue has usually been framed more in socioeconomic terms, individuals from low-income groups have been documented as being less likely to visit museums. However, race/ethnicity alone is not sufficient to predict who does and does not visit museums; personal history emerges as an extremely important factor in museum-going, as demonstrated by leisure researchers. Education and income, which relate in complicated ways to race and ethnicity, will almost certainly continue to structure museum visitorship in the future. Opportunity also factors into museum attendance; wealth provides the obvious advantage of increased access to all consumer opportunities, including cultural experiences and other kinds of socially valued resources. As a consequence, even when income, values, and needs consistent with museum-going are present, the fact that there is no family history of museum-going is likely to result in a leisure decision that excludes the museum as a choice of leisure venue (Falk & Dierking, 2013). The decision to visit a museum is predicated on two streams of thought coming together: 1) the desire to satisfy one or more specific personal needs and 2) the perception that a museum is a context in which those needs can be met. Unfortunately, many low-income individuals, recent immigrants, and/or minority individuals do not perceive museums (condition 2) as places in which to fulfill their needs (condition 1). (Falk & Dierking, 2013)
Most visitors arrive at the museum with pre-existing expectations for what they will see and do. Some of these expectations are informed by direct experiences, such as previous visits, but many of these expectations are formed by information gleaned from the media, from websites, and, predominantly, from word-of-mouth; representing the main source of information for most museum visitors, most of the time. Word-of-mouth is typically generated by those with experience and familiarity with the institution, so one possible reason that people may not regularly use museums is that they lack trusted word-of-mouth recommendations in their own communities and daily lives. (Falk & Dierking, 2013)
Decisions about whether or not to engage in an activity like museum-going often boil down to questions of interest. What is considered interesting by various cultural and ethnic groups depends in some measure upon who is asking and how the question is framed. Another profound commonplace is that personal interest plays a fundamental role in shaping not only why people visit museums in general, and museums on particular topics, but also what people do and take away from these experiences. Interest is a fundamental, but under-studied and arguably under-rated, aspect of the museum experience. Several major international studies have shown that children and adults actively pursue lifelong interests, both in and out of school, using a variety of community resources (Falk & Dierking, 2013). If museums are places that support the public’s learning, the gateway to that learning is interest. Despite the vast quantity of studies on learning from museums, it is probably fair to state that the importance of visitors’ prior interests on subsequent learning and behavior currently exceeds the understanding of the topic.
However, one insight about the role of interest is that visitors are much more likely to focus their in-museum attention on topics and objects that they are familiar with than on those with which they are unfamiliar. In short, visitors generally select whether or not to visit museums based on their prior interest in a museum’s subject matter and/or the type of experience they seek, such as “hands-on” or “outdoors,” and then utilize their specific interests,along with their entering identity-related motivations, as lenses to decide what aspects of the museum to focus on; some aspects of this decision-making can occur below the level of consciousness. (Falk & Dierking, 2013)
As the value of museums as societal institutions has been historically shaped by white, western culture, questions like how to change the underrepresented communities’ views of museums, how to engage with them, how to fulfill the collective needs, what information are people receiving and from who, what are their interests, among others, arise to reimagine the role and perception of museums amid the current socio-ecological crisis. To answer these questions, I will frame the sociocultural macro-view of the museum context with the macro-view of the forest context, and also the micro-view of bacterial-fungal communication interactions, in a biomimetic approach to exhibition making.
RE-LEARNING NATURE’S LANGUAGE
Robin W. Kimmerer (2013) proposes that to remediate our relationship with Nature, an awareness of the responsibility we have to it and to each other, needs to be acknowledged. I think that something similar happens between museums and the underrepresented minorities who do not visit museums. In understanding how to design a system that speaks Nature’s language, that it is familiar with its place, and empowers the collective through reciprocity, the question of how nature would do it, comes up instantly. Through my research on biomimetics, I encountered the Living Museum Ecosystem proposal (Hoch et al, 2020), which develops a nature-inspired social innovation guide that museums could use to conceive strategies that contribute to the co-creation of social value. Inspired by the biological diversity led by mutualism and co-evolution between species; plants, animals, and fungi, the traditional processes of exhibition-making open. The idea of a permeable and symbiotic museum strengthens human-place-based relationships and enriches sustainable communities. The community needs the spaces provided by the museum to express, experiment and prototype, while the museum needs the community to be able to evolve and survive.
The proposal draws parallels between the forest ecosystem and the social ecosystem; in the forest ecosystem, the different biological functions are translated into the social ecosystem of the museum through mycorrhizal relationships. One tree would be a museum, a fungal mycelium would constitute a social infrastructure, a community, connected to the roots of the tree through the mycorrhiza. The nutrients from the soil, made available through the action of the mycelium, would be all the ideas and products generated by the community (artifacts, cultural practices, etc.), transferred with water in what would be the flow of information; exhibitions, public programs, word-of-mouth, media. In the leaves of the tree, photosynthesis occurs, a conversion of energy, that in the social ecosystem would be the equivalent of processing and generating ideas and information to be spread, ideas that take the form of carbohydrates and oxygen. Water, bringing life to the forest, would be the people bringing life to society; facilitating the exchange of ideas and information. The facilitation of new connections and productions creates a unique network for community-based biodiversity which values the museum as a place in which they feel free to learn, share, think or act. (Hoch et al, 2020)
However, some issues are not addressed in this guide, issues that arise from the microscopic, in the chemical composition of the nutrients and the shape of the tree; in the story that museum professionals tell, and in the message the audience receives.