Elaine H. Gurian


I am so pleased to be here today to honor Ayala Gordon, a person I met in the 1970’s and who has served as a beacon for my practice during my entire professional career. I will give a paper today on “The Opportunity for Social Service” in museums, rewritten from a perspective of 2016. It is nearly twenty-five years since I gave a paper of the same name, here in this same space, and commissioned by the person we are gathered here to honor.


To show how prescient she was, this topic of museums and social service was unusual then -- and for most collecting museums, the topic remains unusual today.  But not here at the Israel Museum, where the current Youth Wing Community Projects works with different  peoples making art together as an intentional method for soft-diplomacy peacemaking.  Ayala, as the first director of the Ruth Youth Wing, brought a social service commitment to the museum. She started working with young people in the Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts in 1960, and knew that people traumatized by world events could be helped both directly and indirectly when engaging in art. When she came to the Israel Museum in 1966, Ayala demonstrated how mixing real collection objects with interactivity can lead young people to interrogate art deeply. The courses and interactive art exhibitions which her department created became the very places for social service. She was a pioneer and mentor not just for this country but for the whole museum community world-wide.


And to emphasize that point, the paper she commissioned me to give in 1991 was for an international audience – the conference of ICOM/CECA, the international museum committee on museum education. The international delegates came because they all wanted to learn from the work that Ayala’s Youth Wing was doing.


I remained in contact with Ayala, and with her successor Nurit Shiloh-Cohen, and took courage from their work.  I have been an infrequent visitor since, though not in my heart. 


The relationship between art making, art experiencing and direct service for the wellbeing of the client has remained intact here. The program, “Bridging the Gap,” where Arab and Jewish youth together “create dialogue through art,” is one such example. And the 50th Anniversary museum education conference (using the same title) explored museums’ role in social issues even further. Today, while not alone in the work it does, the Ruth Youth Wing remains a foundation stone for others to build upon.


The idea of integrating direct social service into a museum’s agenda has a long and uneven history. Some museums find working with the community to be their central mission; they introduce activities in accord with a perceived need, without much worry that they are falling outside the usual definitional constraints on museum work. Other museums believe that introducing social service into a museum’s program is a worthy ambition, but one better accomplished by other organizations, and therefore outside their purview. And still others, like the Israel Museum, a traditional art museum in many ways, has become a blend of both, because of pioneers like Ayala.


Today, the world of art making and art viewing in the world of health and wellbeing (work that The Ruth Youth Wing, in part, pioneered) has spawned a number of not-for-profits that can be found in the website


Additionally, there is an excellent publication by Louis Silverman called The Social Work of Museums (first published by Routledge in 2010) and an eBook entitled Museums, Health and Well Being by Chatterjee and Noble (2013) published by Ashgate. Both these volumes point out the very real and measureable benefits art making and viewing have on patients with Alzheimer’s, other chronic illnesses, and their caregivers.  


Similarly, the research work by Mark O’Neil in Glasgow, UK has pointed out that museum-going actually lengthens lives. And recently, Bonnie Pitman, a noted American Art Museum director and educator afflicted by a chronic disease is working with medical schools and their students at the Museum of Modern Art to underscore that working with art improves empathy and listening to patients for doctors-in-training. In effect, the case for art, art museums and the use of museums for improving the physical and psychological state of the ill and traumatized is convincingly established.


But I would contend there are many other opportunities for museums to become immersed in social service -- opportunities where museums are not so well versed or comfortable. 


The question for us who work in and love museums is a definitional one. Given the needs of the people in our communities, at what point are we obliged to ask ourselves, “Is what we are doing—even though it’s fully consistent with our mission—enough?” Or if your museum chooses a more activist position, when are you forced to ask yourself the opposite question: Is what we are doing no longer the proper business of museums?”


When I gave this paper in 1991, I cited Playspace (an exhibition established in the Boston Children’s museum in the 1970’s) as an example. Parents of young children, isolated in an urban environment, without traditional multi‑generational family support, were covertly beginning to assemble in many public places (libraries, museums, shopping malls) seeking human companionship and simultaneously learning how to parent by watching and talking to others. The Children's Museum staff argued that this covert use of potentially inappropriate facilities should be turned into occasions for overt support by as many organizations that could afford and were willing to build what was, in effect, an indoor playground.


As part of the Playspace mission, other non‑museum gathering places were investigated as possible sites for fulfilling this social need. Today worldwide, Playspace copies and analogues are found in airports, hospitals, train stations, other museums as well as women's prisons and homeless shelters. The idea of establishing such social support sites, for specific targeted audiences within institutions of divergent missions, was successful.  Those sitting here might argue that that thinking was appropriate only for children’s museums, but play spaces now exist in many large and traditional museums like the British Museum of Natural History and National Museum of the American Indian in the Smithsonian.


Moving on, let me suggest other examples of activist social service in museums:

  • In the field of employment assistance, some museums have offered apprenticeships, paid internships, pre‑professional and professional training programs, special employment opportunities for the poor, the court adjudicated, adolescents, mentally ill persons, the physically disabled, refugees, immigrants or racial and/or cultural minorities, and women returning to the workforce.


  • In the field of education, museums have offered literacy programs, after school homework assistance, alternative schools for drop‑outs, professional schools, classes for the homeless and the displaced, classes in prisons and in hospitals.


  • In the field of economic assistance there have been schemes designed to sustain and enhance the crafts by providing direct markets for craftspersons. Shops have been set up that allow for profit sharing. Cottage industries have been started and/or helped, and apprenticeships have been offered to insure the transmission of craft skill from one generation to another.


  • In the field of health care, dental and medical caregivers have been invited to museum sites to deliver health education information, screenings, and direct clinical service. Alcoholics Anonymous hold some meetings in museums. 


  • In order to support the museum and community workforce, museums have set up daycare for infants, for the elderly, and for latch‑key children.


  • To provide service to special communities, there have been mobile units sent to outlying districts, to old age homes, and to prisons.


  • Some museums routinely allow their meeting spaces to be used by social service and civic organizations. Some museums distribute excess food for relief of the hungry, and I suspect that somewhere there are museum programs for the homeless that allow the museum's facilities to be used for toileting, washing and shelter in emergencies.


  • And in the Eco museum and Native museum movements, people have gained control over their own things, their own presentations, their own finances, and their own stories.


I am sure that I have not listed the whole range of social service programs that museums have provided. Nor have I addressed the matter of exhibitions and programs chosen specifically to facilitate dialogue on challenging topics.  All of these activities add to the importance of museums in the lives of their publics. Such delivery of social service is neither new nor confined to a single nation or kind of museum.


I imagine that each of our museums has offered at least some of the aforementioned programs. But very few museums, when talking of their mission, include this kind of direct service to their community as an emphasized priority.  And when these activities are offered, they are often ad hoc non-integrated efforts providing some ancillary social benefit – good intentions temporarily grafted onto the museum’s “real” mission.


I believe this is so because many feel that a decision to become part of the social support system violates or at least dilutes the museum's other (perhaps more central) functions of collection, preservation, display and education. Detractors would contend that many other kinds of institutions deliver social service better than museums can, and further that these social service institutions cannot, in turn, provide service that is unique to museums. In effect, people opposed to this use of museums would maintain that each type of institution should concentrate its efforts on what it does best.


Museum as Soup Kitchen

In 2014 I wrote a paper called “Museum as Soup Kitchen” to explore that idea in the context of the recent worldwide economic collapse. So-called soup kitchens saved many from starvation in the Great Depression of the 1930’s. I have known of museums that have made their largest physical asset -- the museum building itself – available in service to the community, serving soup to the poor and sheltering the needy when calamity stroke.


I suggested that some museums recalibrate their very existence in order to adopt a mission of social service. I understand that most museums would find such a change very difficult to contemplate. I know that the classical, large, omnibus, object-based museums would have the hardest time becoming more community-centered, while small institutions located in neighborhoods might find it the most rewarding.


Some museums continue to believe that once museum content experts have delivered information in whatever form they wish, visiting the museum and attending its programs and exhibitions provide sufficient social benefit to justify their existence and continued access to funding. This presumption that museums, by virtue of what they traditionally do, are of social value, is indeed true.  But is that really sufficient?  Such museums benefit mainly users from privileged and well-educated backgrounds. The demographic profile of the museum tends not to expand even if the attendance rises. There are those who contend these museums are nice to have -- may even be essential in generating tourist revenue.  But they are not institutions that belong to the whole citizenry. 


There are great museums in all parts of the world that fit this important, but rarified, description. And some would say that there are an even larger number of underused, uninteresting, and small museum-like facilities that could—and perhaps should—be transformed into new instruments of useful community service or—dare I risk saying this—be closed. That would happen only if we, as museum workers, choose to purposely reposition some of our institutions so that they intentionally deliver more useful and socially relevant services in real time. Indeed, there are some wonderful community museums and culture centers that are already doing useful work and have been at it for a long time. Yet their success has not created a groundswell for emulation. I do not know why that is.  But I suspect it has to do with matters of ego and status.


The definition of “need” varies with the level of community stress. Each level of difficulty calls for a diverse range of programmatic responses. At a primary level, there are social scientists who assert that well-functioning and responsive community assets such as museums are essential in rebuilding or maintaining public trust and safety (Oldenburg 1989). Local governments believe in funding certain important group-gathering sites. These usually include public parks, recreation areas available for use during clement weather, and libraries and schools available during inclement times. Interestingly museums are generally not in their equation of needed public space, but should be.


In other words, museums have physical attributes that could (and in some place have) served people well even during periods of crisis. Museums physically rival libraries, churches, and schools as useful public gathering spaces regarded as attractive, trustworthy, and neutral.       


At their most basic, museums have:

  • Clean buildings with toilets, heat, and running water.
  • Sufficient surveillance to offer personal safety upon entering.
  • Gathering spaces large enough for groups of related and unrelated people to congregate. 
  • Sufficient building maintenance and seating to keep people covered or warm as necessary, even though capital maintenance has too often been deferred for decades.
  • Things to look at that are interesting, at least to some.
  • Immersive environments that provide three-dimensional evidence, and experiences that allow for multi-sensory learning.


To expand community use, museums could additionally offer:

  • Useful food service at affordable prices.
  • Sites for traditional community rituals, including those considered spiritual.
  • Opportunities for other, often unrelated, organizations the use of space to provide their own service.
  • Assistance in alternative but demonstrably useful educational programs like low-cost and no-cost after-school and day-care programming, remedial tutoring, and job retraining.
  • Access to materials that are in short supply and too costly to own individually—such as computers and the Internet, heat and air conditioning.


These, of course, are in addition to the museum’s evidence/collections that offer study, contemplation, reflection and learning. This way of looking at museums suggests that the definition of museums could include being seen by the neighborhood as busy and active hubs in which a former reliance on exhibitions and programs has been augmented by many other offerings. What is being proposed exists in related venues.  Full service libraries in the United States most closely approximate these models, and often include significant exhibition display space. These museum-like institutions are more often regarded as community centers, and not considered to be museums at all.



In 2014, there was an even louder call for museums to include social service and social justice in their very definition. It came from the UK Museums Association, which has adopted the tag line “Museums Change Lives”. This catchphrase was crafted to mean much more than the passive assertion that holding the patrimony of the world safely in our buildings and allowing public access to it already changes lives.  No, it intends something more overt, intentional and active.


Here are the actions the UK MA foresees arising from the adoption of their “Museum Change Lives” dictum:

  • “Every museum is different, but all can find ways of maximising their social impact
  • Everyone has the right to meaningful participation in the life and work of museums
  • Audiences are creators as well as consumers of knowledge; their insights and expertise enrich and transform the museum experience for others
  • Active public participation changes museums for the better
  • Museums foster questioning, debate and critical thinking
  • Good museums offer excellent experiences that meet public needs
  • Effective museums engage with contemporary issues
  • Social justice is at the heart of the impact of museums
  • Museums are not neutral spaces
  • Museums are rooted in places and contribute to local distinctiveness.”[1]


David Anderson, director of the Museums of Wales and the President of MA when this was adopted, has said:

“Cultures, not objects, are our real concern. It is the cultural space around and between objects that gives them their meaning and makes it impossible for museums to avoid a social and political role. To ignore or deny this role, despite all the difficult problems its entails for us, would be to evade a fundamental public responsibility.’ —Anderson (2000)


All that I have been speaking about can properly be seen as the legacy of Ayala’s work here in Israel, based on what she saw as the needs of its many communities. So please allow me to say on behalf of all us gathered here today: “Thank you, Ayala, you have made a huge difference to all of us, to our profession as a whole, and most especially to our publics. You have changed museums, and changed our lives. Thank you.” 






Anderson, D. 2000. Museum education in Europe. In Transforming Practice: Selections from the Journal of Museum Education, 1992-1999, J. S. Hirsch and L. H. Silverman, eds., 24-31. Washington, DC: Museum Education Roundtable.


Gurian, E. H. 2002. Choosing among the options: An opinion about museum definitions. Curator: The Museum Journal 45 (2): 75-88.


Oldenburg, R. 1989. The Great Good Place. New York: Paragon House.