Interview: Building a Community-Centered Museum

Editor’s Note: I was recently interviews by Alexia Jacques Casanova in advance of this October’s Communicating the Arts (CTA) conference in Montreal, Canada.  Hosted by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, this year’s conference brings leaders in museums, education, and the arts together to discuss key issues around well-being, empathy, and community involvement.  I am grateful for the opportunity to be a part of these conversations at CTA this fall.

The interview below was first published via LinkedIn on August 12, 2019.

Written by Alexia Jacques Casanova

In the past few years, we have seen a few museums initiating a shift from operating and presenting themselves as collection-centered institutions to human-centered organizations. This transition is a daunting task that requires developing and implementing new strategies and work practices at all levels of the institution. I had the opportunity to ask Mike Murawski — Director of Learning and Community Partnerships at the Portland Art Museum— a few questions about how art institutions can move towards more community-centered practices. Here are a few thoughts he shared with me.

Using words wisely

A little less than a year ago, Mike Murawski’s department at the Portland Art Museum changed its name from “Department of Education and Public Programs” to “Learning and Community Partnerships” with the aim to “more accurately reflect [their] core goals and values.” Through this intentional switch in vocabulary from “Education” to “Learning” the Portland Art Museum seeks to cultivate “a more open, inclusive, and active process that everyone and anyone can be involved in.”

For those of you who have attended Communicating the Arts conferences before, you probably know that the use of the word “community” has been a hot topic among attendees in the past few years. What do we mean, among arts professionals, when we say “community”? Is it just another word for “minorities” or “locals”?

At the Portland Art Museum, teams strive to be intentional about the words they choose. As part of that process, they have explored and questioned the different ways in which they use the term “community”. “When we are thinking about community, we’re prioritizing individuals and groups who have largely been excluded from participating in and shaping our institution over the last 125 years,” explains Murawski.

He and his team are also dedicated to breaking the barriers between “museum” and “community”, challenging the (false) idea that “a museum’s ‘community’ exists outside the walls of the institution.” Murawski argues that the us/them separation is an outdated mindset that art institutions need to overcome if they wish to focus on community-centered work.

Becoming better listeners

“When we try to be a better listener on an individual level,” says Murawski “it’s important to learn how to pause our own internal voice.” Murawski rightly points out that lending an attentive ear to others requires letting go of our assumptions, our fears, “and the stories we’re telling ourselves.”

According to him, the same is true for museums and institutions. He argues that too often, museum professionals don’t listen to communities “because they have told themselves the false story that community knowledge is not valuable” and that letting communities participate in the creation or curation of content in museums could somehow lessen its overall quality. “We have to erase that false story,” says Murawski. Echoing Dr Margi Ash Brown’s suggestion that arts professional should stop considering themselves as “experts” but rather, as “facilitator” or “collaborator”, Murawski believes that cultivating empathy and deep listening with our communities is an opportunity to change our institutions in radical and positive ways.

Taking a stand and speaking up

A couple years ago, Mike Murawski and La Tanya Autry were exchanging on Twitter about their shared frustrations regarding the false claims of neutrality within museums institutions. “We had joked that it would make a great t-shirt, and then we decided to go ahead and make it happen.” The “Museums Are Not Neutral” tee-shirt campaign was born. Murawski cites the work of many other fellow museum workers as inspiration for this movement, particularly those dedicated to dismantling racism and oppression in cultural institutions. He cites the #MuseumsRespondToFerguson movement, led by Adrianne Russell and Aleia Brown following the murder of Michael Brown by police in 2014 as “a pivotal call to action for museums [which] sparked a necessary debate about the role of museums in activism and social justice.”

The tee-shirt sales have allowed Murawski and Autry to raise over $15,000 for social justice charities and non-profits organizations including the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Community Foundation of Greater Flint. “Museums can be powerful agents of social change in our communities, and it’s up to us to make this happen together,” says Murawski.

Mike Murawski will be speaking about “the power of listening and building community-centered practices at the museum” during the upcoming Communicating the Arts conference, October 8-10 in Montreal.

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