Museum Studies Blog

Posted on May 8th, 2024 in Book Reviews, Student Work by jachigg | Tags:

Museums and Social Change: Challenging the Unhelpful Museum. Edited by Adele Chynoweth, Bernadette Lynch, Klaus Petersen, and Sarah Smed. London, England. Routledge, 2020.

Museums and Social ChangeREVIEWED BY KAYLA KELLPSH

Museums and Social Change: Challenging the Unhelpful Museum critiques the museum field through the lens of activism and investigates museums’ potential to promote empowerment and social justice. Calling for a radical shift in everyday museum ethics, the authors argue for a greater emphasis to be put on minoritized voices in the museum setting. The authors urge museum professionals to create a dialogue with minoritized groups to decide what they are doing well and what they should change. They hope to redefine the role of museums, calling for a shift away from unhelpful hierarchical relationships and towards socially useful community collaboration. This book is a great contribution to the museum field due to its insightful critiques and useful advice that encourage museum professionals to challenge their assumptions and try new strategies.  

The authors start the book off by discussing the difference between being a “helpful” museum and being a “useful” museum. A helpful museum, as defined by the authors, would be hierarchical, where museum professionals undermine and deplatform the voices of minoritized groups. Whereas a useful museum, which the authors argue should be the end goal, empowers minoritized community members to not only have a voice in the museum space but to be the lead decision-makers. Furthermore, this book discusses how museums all over the world are striving to be more inclusive. These efforts can be seen in the subject matter in museum exhibits around the globe; there is a large focus on untold stories that have been suppressed by museums and history. However, most of these efforts are met with disappointment by the minoritized people who are being represented, who likely had no voice in the making of content. The authors suggest that by forgoing hierarchical relationships and choosing to work alongside community members, museums can more effectively create museum content that demonstrates the mutual message of both the museum and the minoritized groups represented.  

Another great aspect of this book is the use of many case studies from around the world that show how different museums tackle issues of being unhelpful. For example, the authors draw on the Museum of Homelessness in London, England which is founded and run by people who have experienced homelessness in their lives. The founders, Jessica and Matthew Turtle, discuss the challenges of creating and maintaining an unconventional museum, specifically with overriding museums’ tendency to promote wellness and health without realizing that sometimes it is not someone’s choice to be more healthy. The Museum of Homelessness has challenged this bad habit of museums along with others, setting an example for more museums to do the same.  

One potential area of disappointment with this book would be the lack of specific ways that the authors see a “shift” in the museum field. While the authors emphasize the need for museums to change their habits and mindset, it could be confusing or upsetting to readers who hoped to learn specifics of how they can work on making changes individually or as a museum whole. However, there are many examples of museums doing this work that readers can draw on to gauge their potential. 

Overall, the authors’ challenge to museum professionals to begin thinking about how to be useful instead of unhelpful in terms of social justice is a great call to action for future or present museum professionals.  


Kayla Kellpsh is a first-year MA student in the IUPUI Anthropology Program and Museum Studies Graduate Certificate Program.