Museums need neither Anarchy nor Hierarchy; Museums need Panarchy

by Selma Holo and Maite Alvarez, co-editors of Remix: Changing Conversations in Museums of the Americas

9780520284531Ecologists C. S. Holling and Lance Gunderson coined the idea of Panarchy. Panarchy is a way of apprehending the natural world that lies in direct oppo­sition to both hierarchy and anarchy, where influence is not predominantly “held by larger-scale, top-down processes”. No doubt our traditional networks of communication in the museum world do normally serve us well: they are efficient, and in their systematic, gridlike ways, they keep us connected to like-minded professionals and are useful for daily functioning. But these established networks also limit us because they are (even though we don’t ordinarily want to recognize it) by nature exclusionary.

To make space for a more panarchic non-hierarchal community we need to at the very least momen­tarily disrupt the generally accepted communications systems that exist in our field. At a time of specialization and separations we could all profit by finding a space where we can communicate differently, panarchically. We need to open ourselves up to networks of awareness –to think about “other” solutions that would involve scaling up, scaling down, individu­alizing, adapting, collectivizing, and breaking barriers, and thereby creating a communications approach that better approximates systems of contact that already happen in nature.

We don’t expect the hierarchical or disciplinary or gridded ways of meeting and communicating to disappear, nor are we encouraging anarchic, unframed conversations. Still, we do wish to challenge the expectation that the sometimes unconscious systems under which we operate and that continue to separate museums of differing types and sizes, differing scopes and levels of prestige, and different missions remain the best way to enrich the enterprise of the museum in our time. On this Museum Advocacy day we are rooting for establishing a place for Panarchy in the museum world.


About Remix: Changing Conversations in Museums of the AmericasCelebrating the diversity of institutions in the United States, Latin America, and Canada, Remix aims to change the discourse about museums from the inside out, proposing a new, “panarchic”—nonhierarchical and adaptive—vision for museum practice. Selma Holo and Mari-Tere Álvarez offer an unconventional approach, one premised on breaching conventional systems of communication and challenging the dialogues that drive the field. Featuring more than forty authors, Remix frames a series of vital case studies demonstrating how specific museums, large and small, have profoundly advanced or creatively redefined their goals to meet their ever-changing worlds.

Selma Holo is Professor of Art History at University of Southern California and Director of USC’s Fisher Museum of Art and International Museum Institute. She is the author of Beyond the Prado: Museums and Identity in Democratic Spain and Oaxaca at the Crossroads: Managing Memory, Negotiating Change and a coeditor of Beyond the Turnstile: Making the Case for Museums and Sustainable Values.

Mari-Tere Álvarez is Project Specialist at the J. Paul Getty Museum and Associate Director of USC’s International Museum Institute. She coedited Beyond the Turnstile: Making the Case for Museums and Sustainable Values and Arts, Crafts, and Materials in the Age of Global Encounter, 1492–1800, a special edition of the Journal of Interdisciplinary History.