Why I picked it up: What on earth does a book about developing nations have to do with museums, especially American ones? Quite a bit, as it turns out.
There are a few areas of my work that I have always struggled with, and one is how to discuss what I usually describe as low socio-economic status (SES) households. Households that have fewer resources, and more barriers to museum visitation. I've come to a realization that museums (inadvertently, perhaps) perpetuate income inequality as our (primarily) well-educated audiences provide resources and experiences to their children, yielding benefits that make that next generation better educated, more employable, and often higher earning. A perpetuation of privilege. I'm part of that privilege, and museums are part of what helped me, just as I count on them to help my children be more knowledgeable and compassionate thinkers.
To say "if only low SES households would visit …" seems patronizing while also self-serving to museums. And it also shifts "blame" to low SES individuals. Like it is their fault for challenges they face in their lives when, instead, it is often a slew of external forces that are influencing life outcomes. Forces such as family medical or caregiving needs, childhood upbringing, systemic racism, and economic insecurity.
Which is why reviewing another book, American Generosity, was such a revelation to me. It utilized a capacity approach to how individuals exhibit generosity, and it is an approach I have embraced in my own work. It is an approach that casts no judgement on an individual. Instead, it embraces human dignity, recognizing that capacity to engage with others, a community, or the broader world varies widely. It is one that moves us to do what we can to increase individual capacity so that more can reach their full potential.
I recently reviewed Welcome to Your World, where I came across the work of Martha Nussbaum (the author of this book) and economist Amartya Sen. I was intrigued by their ideas on capabilities, as well as negative freedoms (e.g., freedom from want) and positive freedoms (e.g., freedom to educate oneself). My desire to learn more led me to this book.
What you need to know: First off, the Capabilities Approach is based on the question "What are people actually able to do and to be?" It focuses on respect for individuals and their human dignity, and has been adopted by the World Bank and the United Nations Development Programme.
The Capabilities Approach is rooted in choice and freedom, which thus creates individual opportunity. This emphatically makes the approach highly concerned about "entrenched social justice and inequality." The overall goal is to lift everyone on the planet up to a widely held threshold of capability that builds internal capabilities of health, education, etc., along with changes in the social, political, and economic environments that allow people to act on their internal capabilities.
There are 10 Central Capabilities:
Some of these capabilities lend themselves to negative freedoms (that is, bodily health implies freedom from want or hunger), while others lend themselves to positive freedoms (freedom to feel, learn, or play). Lifelong learning, such as through museums, can increase a number of these capabilities.
Implications for museums:
Theory and Circular Logic Tangent (skip this part of the review unless you enjoy getting in my head): Throughout this book I struggled with my own circular logic. I know from my research that museum-goers exhibit greater capacity to engage with the world, and improved life outcomes (even when controlling for educational attainment). Pursuing lifelong learning (including visiting museums) likely is a key reason for that gap. So, in theory, if we provide greater access to our resources to more people, we could help improve individual capacity, right? Sure. But this also feels patronizing (my review notes actually include the word "imperialistic"). Like telling someone with an unhealthy diet to eat their spinach. They know it is better, but they don't want to do it. And, indeed, they have the individual freedom to choose their diet.
Yet, flipping it around, why do I think encouraging people to visit museums more to increase capabilities is patronizing, but telling kids to stay in school isn't? Aren't they both about education? Or, to take from Nussbaum, is forcing children to visit museums early and often (as well as other enrichment lifelong learning activities) a "necessary prelude to adult capability?" Yet not everyone needs museums to have good outcomes in life … just like I can dislike kale and still be a healthy adult (I actually like spinach).
Fortunately, my struggles with the theory, my own circular logic, and presumptions are not unique. Nussbaum herself delves into it herself, trying to find her own line in the sand, just as I am. So whew, it isn't just me.
Read/skip: Skip. You got this from this review. Unless you love theory (because this book is theory heavy).
Full citation: Nussbaum, Martha C. Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011.
Have a suggestion for my reading list? Email it to me at susie (at) wilkeningconsulting (dot) com.
I respectfully acknowledge that I live and work on the lands of the Duwamish people, whose ancestors have lived here for generations. I thank them for their ongoing care of this land, and I endeavor to help museums bring forward a more complete and inclusive history and culture in their work.