Agentic Professionals: How individual museum workers can champion climate justice

Guest Post by Joy Davis, PhD CAHP.  Joy is a member of the Advisory Group of the Coalition of Museums for Climate Justice.

When Coalition organizers first met in 2017, we had a brief discussion as to whether this initiative would be better named Coalition for Museum, Gallery and Cultural Heritage Professionals and Climate Justice or Coalition for Museum Workers Concerned about Climate Justice. After all people join as individuals, not as museums.

But the enduring challenge of agreeing on a common name for all the individuals affiliated with museums, along with the overriding agreement that the Coalition aspires to be supportive of museums and related institutions in using their capacity to build understanding of climate change and its impacts, led back to a name that highlights the institution (inclusively defined) rather than the individual.

Conference Session
Unspash / Antenna

This discussion highlights an interesting dynamic at play across the museum world. We talk about museums as if they are somehow separate from the many people who bring them to life:

“museums should be more socially responsible; museums should be more engaged with community; museums should shape positive change.”

But museums can only respond to change when the individuals involved champion new ideas, approaches and practices. This requires exercising personal and professional agency, regardless of where the individuals are positioned within the museum world.

So what is agency?

Renowned psychologist Albert Bandura helps us understand the powerful role of individuals within and around institutions in saying that “to be an agent is to intentionally make things happen by one’s actions” (p. 2). He might have been thinking of members of this Coalition when he went on to say that if individuals are to successfully negotiate this increasingly complex world, they have to

make good judgments about their capabilities, anticipate the probable effects of different events and courses of action, size up…opportunities and constraints, and regulate their behavior accordingly.

Albert Bandura, Social cognitive theory: An agentic perspective (p. 3).

Bandura suggests that agency has the following core features. It is easy to see how each of these qualities can be important in enabling individuals to shift and shape museums’ support for climate justice:

  • Intentionality:  a proactive commitment and plan of action to make something happen.
  • Forethought:  setting achievable goals and expectations, anticipating implications, and formulating a course of action that helps to motivate and guide actions.
  • Self-reactiveness:  self-regulatory processes that enable the individual to monitor his/her behaviour in the context of environmental (read ‘museum’) conditions and to align performance with morals, goals and standards.
  • Self-reflectiveness:  the metacognitive capacity to reflect upon oneself and the adequacy of one’s knowledge and abilities.
Systems Thinking Workshop, Toronto 2018. Photo courtesy Megan Crawford

A big part of self-reflectiveness is perceived self-efficacy or the sense of whether or not you have the capacity to influence change.

Self-efficacy is pivotal since it determines whether “people think pessimistically or optimistically and in ways that are self-enhancing or self-hindering” (p. 10). Perceived self-efficacy tends to determine the causes that people choose to champion, the amount of energy they devote to the initiative, how long they persevere in the face of obstacles, and their level of motivation and initiative.

An Agentic Professional

The very act of joining the Coalition of Museums for Climate Justice suggests that you are an ‘agentic’ professional. This positions you to play an important and intentional role in shaping museums’ capacity to respond to the impacts of climate change. While this may be challenging, there is encouragement in Bandura’s observation that

“the capacity to exercise control over the nature and quality of one’s life is the essence of humanness.”

Albert Bandura, Social cognitive theory: An agentic perspective (p. 1).


Albert Bandura (2001). Social cognitive theory: An agentic perspective. Annual Review of Psychology, 52, 1-26

Joy Davis Pic
Joy Davis. Photo courtesy of the author.

Joy Davis worked with the University of Victoria for over thirty years, directing such innovative programs as Cultural Resource Management, Aboriginal Language Revitalization and Intercultural Education. And in her final years at UVic, she took on interim dean or director positions with a range of units including Continuing Studies, University Art Collections, and Community Relations. In her new role as a freelance cultural heritage specialist and in her work with the Coalition, she has an abiding interest in how learning is adapted to meet the situated needs of museums, and in museums’ capacity to respond to changing expectations

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  1. Douglas Worts

    Hi Joy: I just read this piece, thanks to Amy reposting the link. I think Bandura’s reflections on ‘agency’ are very useful. As you suggest, people who join the coalition may well be showing ‘agentic’ characteristics. It would be interesting to see hear from others on this list about how they see this characteristic of agency being played out in the most effective ways in museums. At the core of Bandura’s reflections are the following characteristics:

    INTENTIONALITY: a proactive commitment and plan of action to make something happen.
    FORETHOUGHT: setting achievable goals and expectations, anticipating implications, and formulating a course of action that helps to motivate and guide actions.
    SELF-REACTIVENESS: self-regulatory processes that enable the individual to monitor his/her behaviour in the context of environmental (read ‘museum’) conditions and to align performance with morals, goals and standards.
    SELF-REFLECTIVENESS: the metacognitive capacity to reflect upon oneself and the adequacy of one’s knowledge and abilities.

    When applied to museums attempting to truly have an impact on the challenges associated with climate change, I know that there have been numerous references within the Facebook Group to helping the public to become more aware of climate change, and even taking some actions, or even shifting behaviours. As far as I can tell, most of this is pretty vague. Bandura’s words suggest that agency is more concrete. For example: to have a “plan of action to make something happen”; “setting achievable goals and expectations, anticipating implications and formulating a course of action that helps to motivate and guide actions”; to “monitor his/her behaviour… and align performance with morals, goals…”; to “reflect upon oneself and the adequacy of one’s knowledge and abilities”. I wonder how members of this group think about themselves in these terms. It isn’t easy stuff! After more than 20 years working in this area, I continue to be frustrated by how slowly museums even conduct focused conversations on issues like ‘climate change’ (other than some parts of some natural history museums), let alone do anything to change the status quo. I have been involved in the development and sharing of planning tools to help museums do this type of work, as well as having written many articles and book chapters to stimulate conversations. It often feels like pushing a boulder up a hill. And yet there are some changes — for example this group now exits.

    I’d love to hear more from people who have stepped into this function of ‘agency’ and hear what they have done and what impacts they have had. There is a lot of skill and wisdom in the museum community. Perhaps we need to be a bit more communicative about how we, individually and collaboratively, have tried to push on the edges of what is ultimately a fairly conservative field.

  2. Joy Davis

    Hi Doug — I too would love to hear from others about how they perceive their agency at work and in other settings, and how this positions them to tackle meaningful climate action initiatives.

    Of course there are many factors that can impact professionals’ capacity to make a difference: workplace climate, resources, position within the museum, specialization, and on and on. Those who exercise agency by being intentional, personally strategic, and reflective regardless of their role are likely to be better positioned to find ways to make a difference. When I was researching ways in which participants in UVic’s Cultural Resource Management program applied what they learned in their museums, two particular dynamics emerged:

    >> a critical element in successful learning transfer is recognizing and acting on opportunities (aka affordances) to make change, small or large, and

    >> learning (or new ideas) don’t transplant easily — they take thoughtful negotiation and adaptation to ensure that they are a good fit within the particular museum.

    Both recognizing affordances and finding ways to adapt are therefore significant elements of agency and seem of particular relevance in this discussion of action in the face of climate change. How does this relate to your experience? Joy

  3. Douglas Worts

    Hi again Joy.

    Thanks for your reflections on how museums can embark on a path of change, and the importance of ‘recognizing and acting on opportunities to make change’ as well as the insight that ‘learning (and new ideas) don’t transplant easily’. I find that the second is particularly true when there are vested interests within the status quo that feel threatened by change and new ideas. My experience has been that change often threatens those with vested interests – they perceive that they have something to lose. In the case of trying to figure out how museums can help address climate change, humanity is coming face to face with a cultural reality that has created a perilous amount of environmental injustice, but also social and economic injustice as well. Changing this situation will require some very foundational shifts in the culture (and here I am referring to the living culture, not simply the ‘cultural sector’). So, what I take from your comments is that change is required within the cultural/museum sector itself, which will be hard enough, but also changing the ways in which museums interact with the larger world. And if museums see themselves as catalysts of cultural change beyond themselves, then they had better be especially astute about how to bring about that kind of change in an effective way. I’m guessing that finding leverage points within the larger society, at which new forms of public engagement can be implemented, will be essential in order to enlist the creative energy of the community itself to generate meaningful change.

    One of the big challenges that I have faced as a museologist is how to help shift the work of museums from an ‘output’ orientation to one of ‘outcomes’. Historically, museums have been focused on creating a range of products (outputs) for public consumption – e.g. exhibits, permanent collection displays, explanatory texts/video/audio, publications, related programs and so on. These outputs are intended for public engagement, but it is often unclear what the desired ‘outcome’ is supposed to be, other than for people to
    1) physically visit the museum,
    2) spend money and
    3) absorb messages.
    Although the first two are indicators that are important for the corporate well-being of museums, none of these are actually indicators of anything cultural. And as it turns out, museums really only track the first two – attendance and revenue. There is always lip-service paid to the value of museums in generating quality-of-life, education and enlightenment – but these are vague and not very measurable, so not very useful. This leaves museums measuring outputs, not outcomes – and this tends to perpetuate the museological status quo. For museums to have meaningful impacts on the cultural problem of climate change, they will need to shift from a focus on outputs to outcomes – and this will mean building feedback loops that are rooted in the larger culture, not in the activities of museums (outputs). Of course it is tempting for museums to want to limit their work to outputs, because they can control them. There are very few ways for museums to extend their reach into the realm of cultural impacts without engaging communities in new forms of relationships – something that goes beyond the transactional relationships associated with attendance.

    For almost four decades, I have been excited and encouraged by the work undertake in the museological sub-field of audience research. Usually focused on the experiences of individuals within museum contexts, audience research has helped provide a grounded framework for understanding certain types of impacts of exhibits and programs. However, for the most part, museums still don’t conduct audience research, especially research that goes beyond leisure-time/marketing studies related to attendance. And even when well-designed audience research is conducted, leading to relevant insights, museum power structures often struggle to fully integrate these insights back into the program development processes.

    If one goes looking for it, there are an increasing number of museums that are digging deeper into the processes of public engagement that generate both cultural impact and relevancy – but this remains far from the norm. Museum professionals who are pursuing such goals often experiment with different ways of building deeper and more meaningful relationships between museum and community members. Along the way, some are working with communities to help build a vision for the future to which all parts of the community feel connected. This has lead to the generation of new strategies for public engagement. Nina Simon’s work, at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, is a good example – and she blogs about all of this. These kinds of initiatives are all works in progress, and they show promise for being able to shift the foundation blocks of the museum world. It helps when there is an enlightened director, like Nina Simon, who is leading the charge on a change agenda from a position of power.

    If a museum decides it will engage communities with a goal of addressing challenging issues, like climate change, they likely will need to: 1) plan for community-based impacts; 2) create and monitor feedback loops to understand whether the intended impacts are occurring; and 3) modify their strategies in order to improve the impacts. As a field, we don’t have a lot of examples of this type of work. If there were, we all could be more engaged in understanding how the field, collectively, could move towards heightened effectiveness and cultural impact.

    Personally, over the past 20 years that I have been working to generate interest across the museum world in an impact-oriented approach to culture, I have experienced both enthusiastic support and frustration. Early on, I became part of a great group of museum change agents. In 1999, ten museum professionals, under the coordinating influence of the Canadian Museum of Nature, created the Working Group on Museums and Sustainable Communities (WGMSC). Our membership was drawn from a range of museum types (including museums of science, history and art), as well as academics involved in environmental education, as well as representatives from Environment Canada. The WGMSC created workshops, planning tools and resources for the museum community. Although the group disbanded in about 2007, for eight years it had provided workshops across the country to museums in virtually every province. I continue to offer the resources we produced through one of my websites. And, along with Glenn Sutter, curator of human ecology at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum, we have continued to further develop some of these resources over the past decade. The point here is that this national initiative, which started almost 20 years ago, ran up against the formidable inertia of a field that is fundamentally inclinded to perpetuate its own status quo, even though there is tremendous potential for the museum sector to expand its capacity to have meaningful, essential, cultural impacts. Part of this, I believe, is rooted in existing power structures within museums that have vested interests in the status quo (and in this sense, sadly, museums are a potent reflection of the larger culture). Another part of this inertia rests in the absence of clarity across the field about the ‘to what end(s)’ of museums. A third part of the inertia is linked to how professional training is conducted in our field – much of which continues to revolve around what is considered the ‘core activities’ of museums — namely exhibit-development, education, collection-building, conservation, fundraising, marketing and so on. Museums see themselves, perhaps more than ever, as organizations that exist in the leisure-time economy. And even when museological training ventures into the complex territory of understanding and addressing the changing needs and opportunities of our emerging urban, pluralistic cultures, it is very hard for new graduates of these programs to find employment where such skills are seen as assets, as opposed to threats, to established museum hierarchies.

    So, to return to Joy’s post, I understand that there is a practical side to being very strategic about effecting change, especially in a field that has historically been protected from much change. When I was going through museology, more than 35 years ago, I recall some of my instructors actually talking about the value of museums as preserving the past in order to provide a stabilizing force in a world full of change. While I fully support the idea that we ‘stand on the shoulders of ancestors’, which means there is a constant need to revisit the past for insights into who we are, I also see that culture is constantly evolving in the lives of individuals, groups, organizations, as well as human and natural systems. Museums, at their best, are ‘places of the muses’ – capable of bringing creativity, insight, humility, empathy and meaning to the human situation. And this function needs to operate across our communities, not simply inside museum buildings. But this will require a sea-change in our assumptions about what museums are, and what it means for them to be ‘successful’. Climate change is one of the most important forces shaping our world today – and it is unforgiving. Climate change is a symptom of human cultures of unconsciousness and inertia. In order to truly address the cultural needs and opportunities of our era, museum professionals, along with all their potential partners (e.g. scientists, artists, historians, storytellers, accountants, lawyers, politicians, business owners, etc. – the public!) need to engage in deep reflection, dialogue, creative thinking, experimentation, action-research and change, if humanity is going to deal with this looming crisis.

    Change happens in a number of well-documented ways, both in human contexts and in Nature. Sometimes change is slow, incremental and based on adaptive shifts. Other times, for a number of reasons, stable systems that have been operating well for extended periods will go through a process of serious contraction – or even collapse. Incremental, negotiated shifts in how people do things may be the preferred approach to change that humanity normally embraces. But other forms of change, such as those imposed by Nature, can override humanity’s approach. Museums, like most other corporate organisms, are now having to be more proactive than they ever have been before – and it is an option that can be embraced with humility, intelligence and empathy.

    It would be great to hear from others on this topic of ‘agency’.

  4. C

    Hi Douglas,

    Firstly I really enjoyed reading your comment.

    I am hoping you could clarify: “Another part of this inertia rests in the absence of clarity across the field about the ‘to what end(s)’ of museums.” Is this referencing the intentions/ mandates behind museums? The discussion of museum`s as passive advocates versus active advocates in social/ politic/ etc. charged topics? Or the discussion of museum`s as all-knowing institutions that provide information to the “visitors” versus museums as collaborators and builders of knowledge and experiences with communities?

    As an emerging professional I appreciate your comment about certain skills or ideas being seen less as an asset or agent of change, instead these skills and ideas end up being put to the side in order to get a foot in the door in the hierarchy. While to an extent this is all part of the process of paying one`s dues, the scariest part of this is that it may squash or change some people`s drive and passions indefinitely. An openness to these ideas but most importantly appreciation and responsiveness to them is essential. Giving staff of all levels and experience the opportunity to voice their ideas, discuss the viability or be provided the results of a discussion about its viability and the ability work together on a plan of action is an example of agency. This would require a flexibility of the red tape and a deep trust. Through this though could come an increased “Intentionality” as people are more invested when they feel they can contribute and creative projections of behaviours, actions and effects.

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