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, 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.

Joy Davis
Joy in the Muskwa Kechika Conservation Area in northern BC, August 2016

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.

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.

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 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