Category Archives: Inclusive Practices

#ChangeTheMuseum

Written by Anonymous

I have been in the museum field for a number of years and worked at multiple institutions. When I first started, I had the privilege to work under a great leader. They taught me so much about supporting and cultivating a team. Perhaps because they were such a good leader, they also shielded me from the issues that I have come to find are prevalent in the field. When I was making barely enough to survive, they advocated for me without me even having to ask. They ensured that I was decently paid, and though it still wasn’t ideal, I knew they had done everything in their power to push for my compensation.

In the years since we went our separate ways, I quickly came to learn that not every leader is like that and that museums are particularly hostile places for employees of color. At first, it was small and perhaps predictable things I noticed like White employees referring to the one Black woman on the team as “aggressive” though I found her to be an assertive change maker. Then, I watched the dwindling number of people of color on our team starting with the unnecessary firing of one of the most senior positions. In the beginning, as each scenario unfolded, I saw these things as singular incidents.

As my institution has increased the staff diversity among entry level positions, I realized that these incidents weren’t isolated, rather they were a result of the systems in place. Bringing in diverse staff in entry level positions is relatively easy, providing opportunities for growth and promotion is much more difficult and can be held up by the normalization of Whiteness and the othering of ideas and people that do not fit into the concept of White professionalism or are not in line with the power structure and values held by institutions that are created, funded, and sustained by wealthy, White donors. Yet still, during this time I assumed the issues that I and others in my institutions faced were confined to these particular institutions or even the geographical location. I thought, if only I could take a job at a better museum, a more forward thinking museum, a museum with goals rooted in diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion, that I would be able to thrive.

Then in June, ChangeTheMuseum appeared. If you are unfamiliar with it, ChangeTheMuseum is an Instagram account where museum workers can anonymously submit issues and situations that have arisen in their museums related to race and equity. Most of the submissions have been from Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) employees in museums. The posts range in severity but each of the posts highlights the real pain and trauma that BIPOC employees face in these White institutions. And the gravity of the combined posts should make anyone who works in museums stop and consider their own actions and the actions of those around them.

ChangeTheMuseum has simultaneously torn down my hopefulness about museums as institutions, and helped me feel less alone in my struggles. It is depressing to realize that many museums that we hold up and look to as important institutions are failing just as much as smaller museums when it comes to acknowledging past and current wrongs and truly committing to the work of addressing institutional racism and supporting BIPOC staff and communities. But it is powerful to know that I am not alone, that there is a critical mass of BIPOC museum workers who have endured in isolation and silence but are now speaking up and demanding something better. 

I don’t know if the museum world can be changed. I do know that museums cannot rely on BIPOC staff to make the change happen. Change must come from the board, from the leadership team, and from the overwhelming numbers of White staff in museums. I don’t know if museums can change as quickly as we need them to. We may continue to see an exodus of BIPOC from the museum field, but at least now everyone will have a clearer picture of why. 

Museums Must Become More Trauma Informed

Written by Jackie Armstrong

When I took my first steps into the world of visitor research and evaluation there was a lot of emphasis on how to make the museum a more engaging place. The word engaging often got thrown around with no outline of what that actually looked in practice, or sometimes even no explanation as to why an engaging experience was what a museum should be trying to achieve. Engaging for whom, in what ways, and under what circumstances? Everyone used the word but the nuances were very different depending on the person and the situation. This was something I was hyperconscious of and always tried to address in my evaluation practices.

I’m noticing a very similar thing happening now with how the word trauma is used, in particular as more institutions and organizations talk about being trauma aware, trauma sensitive and/or trauma informed.  I’m thrilled there is finally more focus on the prevalence and impact of trauma, but I am aware that not everyone is talking about the same thing or on the same page and also recognize how far we have to go in realizing a trauma informed museum. This is something I’ve been wanting to address, professionally as someone who advocates for visitors through evaluation and research and as a person engaged in intensive trauma therapy and working on healing from the impact of traumas in my life. 

It is my firm belief that museums have a responsibility to do the work to become more trauma informed, not later but now. Museums are not standalone containers for housing art, but hubs of human interaction located within communities. If museums wish to be truly relevant to people and be spaces in which people can safely and purposefully come together to experience art in layered and meaningful ways, and be able to show up as their authentic selves, then museums must become trauma informed. This requires a culture change throughout the museum, not just using trauma informed practices in one department within the museum. This is something I’ve felt urgency around for quite awhile but feel that both COVID-19 and the issues underlying the Black Lives Matter movement are bringing all of this into focus even more as collectively our worldviews have collapsed and individually we are all dealing with survival reactions. A growing sense of unease has flooded our consciousness, many of us pushing for changes that require solidarity, intentionality, and unwavering action. 

“Traumatic experiences and oppressive social conditions cause us to move into a series of automatic, holistic, and incredibly creative means of first surviving then adapting to the harm, ruptured connection with ourselves and others, and betrayal.  We are built for safety, belonging, and dignity. We are built to be connected to and make a difference for others, to have meaningful lives. When any of these core needs are disrupted through trauma, we automatically attempt to protect ourselves….Traumatic experiences are always happening within a social context and shaped by social conditions. They are nearly always perpetuating the “rules of engagement” of our social conditions.” (Staci K. Haines, Somatics, Healing, and Social Justice: The Politics of Trauma, Chapter 4)

Let’s think about COVID-19 first. To start, we have this invisible threat that no one fully understands but it’s clear that some people get very sick and even die. It spreads easily and rapidly and we can get it just by going about our lives. We fear getting sick and potentially dying and we fear loved ones getting sick and dying, and in order to keep each other safe we need to stay away from one another, which goes against our instincts as humans. We are asked to isolate in our living environments and practice physical distancing. We develop rituals around cleanliness and hygiene in an effort to thwart the virus and we scan news sources constantly hoping for answers. Levels of hypervigilance are at an all time high for many. And while we do these things, we are given mixed information from those in power that only adds to the emotional dysregulation we’re experiencing. Dysregulation makes it difficult to manage and recover from the intense emotions that might come from upsetting situations. Prolonged emotional reactions take a toll on our physical and mental well-being. There are several results from all of this: feelings of powerlessness, a deep sense of dread for the future, overreactions to “little things”, a near constant state of fear, mood swings, sleeplessness, and more.   

Added to the constant threat to life that COVID-19 leaves many people with is the economic instability that comes with lockdown, the loss of regular coping strategies, and perhaps worse, the inability to have physical contact with people in your life who you would normally turn to for comfort. It’s an extremely disorienting time. Our bodies, to varying degrees, live out the state of emergency we are in and our bodies fight the isolation that we must endure to keep one another safe. For those with existing unresolved trauma, everything surrounding COVID-19 escalates these experiences.  None of us can orient to the threat of COVID-19 because we cannot see it, nor can we adequately flee it or fight it, so a lot of our reactions become internalized or come out in other ways such as the dysregulated emotional responses mentioned above, as well as physical symptoms such as migraines, gastrointestinal issues, inflammation and other physical pain. 

Early into the COVID-19 outbreaks in the United States, the glaring inequality that has existed for so long came into focus for many more people as BIPOC are impacted by COVID-19 more than white people and also face unemployment at higher rates. Along with this there has been a surge in police brutality against Black people, something that has been going on for far too long, and perhaps because of COVID-19 more people, specifically white people, finally are taking notice of the massive injustices and inhumanities taking place. The present moment is asking everyone to not look away or remain silent but to rise together and fight these injustices. All of this against a backdrop of climate change and political instability.

There is a pervasive weight of fear and grief everywhere. The world is literally screaming for us to heal. Something must shift.

Before we talk about what a trauma informed museum is and what that might look like in practice it’s important to start by considering what trauma is.

What is Trauma?

The first thing to know about trauma is that it exists on a spectrum. When people talk about trauma they often refer to a specific event or series of circumstances but trauma is actually more about how the brain and body processes those experiences.  Everyone experiences trauma at some point in their life and everyone to some degree has unintegrated traumatic experiences.  Unintegrated trauma is that which hasn’t been properly acknowledged or contextualized and therefore remains trapped in the body, instead of being processed and moved through. When trauma isn’t integrated into someone’s consciousness and/or when the natural reaction to trauma hasn’t been given space to be felt (e.g. feeling anger, grief, being able to escape), it gets stuck. This is problematic for many reasons but mostly because it impacts the present, causing reactions that are out of place and out of proportion to things happening in the current time or situation. This is why trauma treatment often involves modalities outside of talk therapy, for example EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) and/or SE (Somatic Experiencing).  There are many different types of trauma or large categories of experiences that can result in trauma such as early childhood trauma, cumulative trauma, interpersonal trauma, developmental and attachment trauma, trauma in adulthood (often, but not always, re-enactments of early trauma), systemic injustice, intergenerational trauma, racial trauma, immigration trauma and many more. The list of symptoms that can be associated with trauma is lengthy and goes far beyond the flashbacks and nightmares mostly commonly thought of, having repercussions on the brain and body.

Most people cannot begin to process trauma, and therefore heal from it, until they feel safe. Safety and stability are critical. People who have someone who is able to co-regulate and be with them, at the time trauma occurs, can often move through the experience more quickly so that the trauma doesn’t have as long lasting or as severe of an impact as it does for someone who has no one to be with them in their pain. This is one reason why childhood trauma can continue to haunt people into adulthood as most people at the time their childhood trauma occurred did not have adequate support in place, in particular if their caregivers were the abusers. At the heart of trauma is a sense of isolation, disconnection and feeling of not belonging. Trauma asks to be seen, heard and felt and therefore requires connection and community.  Healing from trauma involves the relief of suffering, validation for what has been endured, and words and action which seek to make sense out of something which defies reason. Everyone’s individual nervous systems as well as access to resources (external but also internal) plays a big role in one’s ability to heal.

Trauma is about overwhelm. It’s about something happening that is too much, too fast, or too soon for the body and mind to take in. Trauma is about unmetabolized information that gets stuck in the body and makes it hard for people to heal from. Trauma is about the nervous system, intolerable sensations and emotional dysregulation. Trauma is about dissociation as an unconscious survival mechanism. Trauma is about defense mechanisms and shame responses. Trauma is about activation levels and hypervigilance. Trauma is about not feeling safe in one’s own body and feeling disconnected from the world. Trauma is about the impact on a person’s life, which can be enormous, layered and long lasting, but it is also about hope, resilience and finding your way home, both to yourself and to a community of supporters. 

One of the clearest definitions of trauma comes from Howell (2020) who explains that:

trauma is that which causes dissociation, that is, it causes a blank spot, or fissure in experience, causing a deficit in the ability to regulate affect and to make sense of things. This conceptualization has the advantage of bypassing debates about the meaning of objectively defined trauma (which does not result in post-traumatic stress to all those exposed to it) and subjective trauma (which can run the risk of categorizing anything that is distressing as traumatic)…. An experience is traumatic if it is overwhelming enough to cause a break in the linkage and meaning of experience, in narrative memory, and even in body processing. When an event cannot be assimilated into the rest of the experiencing self, it becomes, as Pierre Janet so well described a fixed idea that is isolated and disconnected from the rest of the self.” (Howell, pp.30-31, 2020)

Why is it important that art museums understand trauma and implement trauma informed guidelines, practices and processes?

The simple answer is because art museums are places where people come together, people with diverse life experiences, perspectives, interests, abilities, learning styles, identities AND traumas. Art museums are spaces where many nervous systems come together, in various levels of activation, navigating a dense landscape of art and sensory inputs. And ideally art museums are much more than a building where art is put on view, but places where people are invited to show up as their authentic selves and enter into dialogue with the art, one another and with themselves internally.  Art has long been an outlet to communicate when words fail or are simply not enough. A great deal of art has been born out of traumatic experiences, seeking to process and give voice to what is not easily put into words.  When art is created and viewed, it breaks through the isolation under which it might have been created and opens up the door to healing. Art connects with people in emotional and visceral ways, sometimes stirring something in us that we have yet to explore or perhaps even triggering past or current trauma. Art can connect to parts of the unconscious, open our eyes to our own truths, speak to our own suffering and offer new perspectives. Art always connects to place and time, echoing something back from the moment it was created. Art is never silent. Viewing art, particularly in the communal space of the museum, can be just as much a part of the healing process as its creation might be for the artist.

Large art institutions often welcome people from around the world and their doorsteps, both onsite and online. These museums have a responsibility to acknowledge the present moment and the life events collectively witnessed and/or experienced.  It’s just as important for staff at museums to have space and time to come together and connect with one another as it is for the museums to connect to their audiences in meaningful and diverse ways.  Museums must be responsive to the times we live in and the ever-changing needs of  audiences (those who come through the doors and those who don’t), listening rather than making assumptions about those needs.  

In many cases, art museums onsite visitorship does not reflect the racial and economic diversity of the locations they are situated in, this is particularly true of those located in densely populated cities, however they are often able to reach a more diverse audience online.  MoMA, for example, has an expansive reach online, that has continued to grow during the coronavirus pandemic, and is reaching new audiences. For many people, engaging with a museum online is more accessible than an in-person visit and/or marks the first step in greater engagement with the institution (perhaps eventually leading to an onsite visit). The trauma-informed art museum does not serve “only” a few people, it considers the well-being of the whole and creates spaces and opportunities for healing, connecting, creating, feeling, learning, sharing and transforming in ways that gently support individual inclinations. A trauma informed art museum does more than acknowledge trauma, it recognizes it, works to connect people to a shared humanity and fosters cultural humbleness, refrains from othering, avoids retraumatization and puts the physical, emotional and mental well-being of people above all else. 

A trauma-informed art museum considers and asks:

  1. By accepting that everyone has trauma and that some people are impacted more severely by it, what can we do to contribute to the conditions of healing and recovery? How can the museum be part of the healing process, thinking creatively, transparently and inclusively about this? 
  2. How can we help to understand the impact of trauma on our visitors and colleagues and how trauma experiences might manifest so that we are better able to be understanding, supportive and nimble enough to meet people where they are?  How might we consider trauma in our planning and programming efforts to ensure we are inclusive and accessible?
  3. People with trauma disorders often face stigma from the lack of information and/or from misinformation, especially when they have additional mental health diagnoses. Growing our own awareness can help break down some of this stigma. What are some steps we can take to break down stigma, individually and collectively? How might we better support people facing stigma and why is it important to do so?
  4. The grounding skills, coping strategies and somatic exercises often used in treating people with trauma disorders are helpful to anyone who experiences trauma in their lifetime.  If we all learn these skills we can better self-regulate and also help co-regulate those who may be struggling, whether a colleague or a visitor. Over time these efforts can increase our emotional capacities which reduces personal suffering and also frees us up to help others.

What does all this look like in practice? 

There are many guidelines to trauma informed principles, some organizations (in healthcare, education, the arts etc.) tailoring the principles to their individual missions but all of them at their core seek to do no harm by establishing a culture that promotes healing. Of all the trauma informed guiding principles I’ve read to date, the ones outlined by Nkem Ndefo, creator of the Resilience Toolkit, resonates with me the most and seems most appropriate for a public institution such as a museum. As Nkem Ndefo explains, these trauma informed guidelines are principles for living a humane life. These 6 principles include: 1) Safety 2) Trust and Transparency 3) Collaboration and Mutuality 4) Peer Support 5)  Voice, Choice, Self Agency 6) Cultural Humility.”  When you think about a museum and all of the people who are impacted by it, visitors and staff, these guidelines make perfect sense. 

It’s worth noting at this point that over a year ago the Education Department at MoMA went through several workshops to update our core values and collectively landed on the following as being key to the work we do: 1) Empowerment – honor people’s experiences. Share power. 2) Empathy – Build relationships. Foster Understanding. 3) Radicality – Challenge norms. 4) Embrace questioning. Think anew. 5) Creativity – Take risks. Value imagination and experimentation 6) Joy – Work with presence, passion and authenticity.  These core values could complement trauma informed practices if considered through that lens.

Trauma informed practices prioritize people, in the case of a museum this includes visitors AND staff. Creating safe spaces, fostering empowerment and actively listening are a big part of this, as well as recognizing the intersectionality that exists in all of our lives.  When thinking about programming, meetings, and other experiences at the museum trauma informed guidelines might look something like this:

  1. Create moments of calm and establish practices that promote groundedness, tolerance (of sensations, differing perspectives), presence (in the moment), intentionality, and radical acceptance, using art as a jumping off point and/or as inspiration
  2. Offer a range of activities and prompts that increase a sense of connectedness to self and others, focusing on themes of community, collaboration and internal peace
  3. Help grow empathy and compassion for self and others using a range of modalities, particularly reflection and visualization 
  4. Share skills/tools/coping mechanisms for dealing with stress, uncertainty, and intense emotions or reactions through practices and activities that encourage self-awareness and attunement
  5. Offer activities, suggestions, and experiences which help people be in the moment and grow their individual resilience and capacity for managing difficult circumstances, emotions, or thoughts 
  6. Facilitate exchange which validates personal and collective experiences, allowing individuals to create meaning using their own life narratives while opening the door to new perspectives and different narratives, strengthening their understanding and compassion for themselves and others as well
  7. Encourage people to respect where they are, and where others are, in any given moment (to check-in with themselves) and to enter into new experience with curiosity

Some of this involves shifts in our language, experimenting with new program formats, the pacing of programs and how we collaborate with one another (including working with new people and fresh ideas), but it’s also about flexibility, being aware of our own nervous systems and how they interact with others, regulating our emotions, modelling and mirroring embodied presence and awareness, and perhaps most importantly creating and holding space for one another.

This is NOT about museum staff being therapists or doing work that they do not have expertise in, this is asking that the museum operate in a more humane and holistic manner so that all staff feel encouraged to contribute to these efforts. Within the context of a program, trauma informed practices can feel therapeutic but they are not a substitute for a therapy program.

Why does it matter?

Trauma informed practices and principles acknowledge humanity and are beneficial to all, including those with acute trauma disorders, people who have experienced trauma in the past but have moved through it and everyone in between. Universal Design principles for multi-modal engagement is something that museum education has championed for years, because  it benefits everyone, not just people with disabilities. Trauma informed practices similarly have universal benefits.

Systemic change cannot happen unless people feel safe, and in order to effect transformative cultural change trauma informed principles must be adopted museum-wide and used as a guide. Using trauma informed practices in one department, while significant, will not have as big an impact as a museum where trauma informed principles are taken up museum-wide. For example, a small group of us in the Education Department at MoMA have started an initiative called Artful Practices for Well-Being and have been meeting since May to discuss experiences with art through the lens of trauma-informed practices. The conversations and efforts have been encouraging but they are not enough.

Museums are spaces where individual and collective narratives make contact, whether that’s the art and the stories attached to works, audiences that visit onsite or online, or the staff who work there. Trauma is present within some of those narratives, which might rise to the surface through the interactions at a museum, and those should not be ignored or silenced. Trauma informed practices acknowledge the traumas that filter into museum spaces, rather than setting them aside or avoiding them. Museums can and should be safe-enough places, as Ross Laird outlines, where emotions can be felt and traumas can be held, where people are invited to reflect, share their thoughts and offered choices in how they move through and engage with the museum, and feel supported in personally meaningful exploration.

In my understanding and imagining of what a trauma informed art museum could be, I always think about it as a nurturing environment, one where the experience of everyone is thoughtfully considered and the people who visit and work there are recognized for all that they bring with them, including the weight of trauma.  A trauma informed art museum experience ensures that we all have space and resources to make meaning, connect and heal, as individuals and in community with one another.  Museums should be places where everyone who wishes to be there feels a sense of belonging and feels called upon and empowered to show up as their best selves, but where the practices and principles in place help to regulate our nervous systems when we are not feeling our best. A trauma informed art museum unites us in our shared humanity but validates and makes space for the individual truths and lived experiences we all carry.

Here’s a quote I keep coming back to that I hope you will find inspiration in as well:

“What would it look like to belong in the world as our whole selves? What kinds of culture, knowledge and community structures would we be able to create if we could nurture one another without our armor on, if we could draw out and develop the gits in one another, if we could care for another in concrete, meaningful ways, and could protect one another from systemic harms and forms of structural violence, even as we’re struggling to dismantle them? What do we already have waiting within us that can guide us in that direction?” (Nora Samaran, p.14, Turn This World Inside Out: The Emergence of Nurturance Culture)

About the Author

JACKIE ARMSTRONG is the Associate Educator, Visitor Research and Experience at The Museum of Modern Art where she works cross-departmentally planning, coordinating, conducting and sharing the results of visitor research and evaluation, as well as working on other initiatives and interpretive resources. She leads Audiences Advocates, a cross-departmental group that uses agile evaluation to inform the design process, specifically of digital resources. Most recently, Jackie has been busy co-leading Artful Practices for Well-Being, a new initiative stemming from her passion for considering trauma informed practices in museum work. Previously, she served as the Audience Researcher in the Education Department at the Art Gallery of Ontario. She completed an MA in Museum Studies at the University of Toronto and has completed studies in Classics: Ancient Art and Archaeology, Anthropology, and Tourism Management Systems. Jackie is interested in the ways in which museums can connect with diverse publics, create thoughtfully designed experiences, and empower people to make personal meaning through their encounters with art, one another and their personal life histories. As an advocate for visitors she believes strongly in using evaluation methods to help museums make informed decisions for improving the visitor experience and taking the time to really listen to people. Jackie has presented at MCN, VSA, AAM and NYCMER, as well as written for several museum publications.

Increasingly, Jackie is drawing on her personal experiences with trauma and mental health as she works on healing, using her insights, knowledge and research to advocate for others and inform her work in the museum. Jackie is a regular contributor to The Mighty and is looking forward to doing more advocacy work in the future as she moves along in her own recovery. When not working on visitor research, writing or reading, you can find Jackie engaged in therapy, trying out new ice cream flavors, painting, spending quality time with friends, exploring NYC and watching past episodes of Survivor.

Jackie’s postings on this site are her own and don’t represent the Museum of Modern Art’s positions, strategies, or opinions.

Works Cited:

Haines, Staci K. (2019). Somatucs, Healing, and Social Justice: The Politics of Trauma. Berkeley, California. North Atlantic Books.

Howell, Elizabeth. (2020). Trauma and Dissociation Informed Psychotherapy; Relational Healing and the Therapeutic Connection. New York, New York. W. W. Norton and Company.

Laird, Ross. (2020). Mental Health Considerations for Museums: An Emerging Field of Practice and Discovery. Adapted from Museum Objects, Health and Healing, by Brenda Cowan, Ross Laird,, and Jason McKeown.

Ndefo, Nkem. (2020). Nkem Ndefo on Trauma and Resilience (#113). CHITHEADS from Embodied Philosophy (Podcast). New York, New York.

Samaran, Nora. (2019) Turn This World Inside Out: The Emergence of Nurtance Culture. Chico, Edinburgh. AK Press.

Other Works that Have Informed Thinking:

Chefetz, Richard A. 2015. Intensive Psychotherapy for Persistent Dissociative Processes: The Fear of Feeling Real. New York, New York. W. W. Norton and Company. 

Dixon, Ejeris, and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, Editors. (2020). Beyond Survival: Strategies and Stories from the Transformative Justice Movement. Edinburgh, Scotland. AK Press. 

Evans, Amanda, and Patricia Coccoma. (2017). Trauma-informed Care: How Neuroscience Influences Practice. New York, New York. Routledge.

Fisher, Janina. (2017). Healing the Fragmented Selves of Trauma Survivors: Overcoming Internal Self-Alienation. New York, New York. Routledge.

Foreigner, Christine C. (2017).  Dissociation, Mindfulness, and Creative Meditations: Trauma-informed Practices to Facilitate Growth. New York, New York. Routledge.

Goulding, Regina A. and Richard Schwartz.  1995. The Mosaic Mind: Empowering the Tormented Selves of Child Abuse Survivors. New York. New York. W. W. Norton and Company.

Herman, Judith. 1992. Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence – From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror. New York, New York. Basic Books.

Levine, Peter A. (2010). In An Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness. Berkeley, California. North Atlantic Books.

Levine, Peter A. (2015). Trauma and Memory: Brain and Body in a Search for the Living Past, A Practical Guide for Understanding and Working with Traumatic Memory. North Atlantic Books.

Linklater, Renee. (2014). Decolonizing Trauma Work: Indigenous Stories and Strategies.  Blackpoint, Nova Scotia. Fernwood Publishing.

Mate, Gabor. (2003). When the Body Says No: Exploring the Stress-Disease Connection. Nashville, Tennessee. Turner Publishing Company.

Menakem, Resmaa. (2017).  My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies. Las Vegas, Nevada. Central Recovery Press.

Porges, Stephen W. (2017). The Pocket Guide to the Polyvagal Theory: The Transformative Power of Feeling Safe. New York, New York. W. W. Norton and Company.

Spring, Carolyn. (2019). Unashamed: Healing Trauma-Based Shame through Psychotherapy. 3 Archers Court, Huntingdon, UK: Carolyn Spring Publishing.

Steele, Kathy, Onno van der Hart, and Suzette Boon. (2011). Coping with Trauma-Related Dissociation: Skills Training for Patients and Therapists. New York, New York. W. W. Norton and Company.

Treleaven, David A. (2018). Trauma Sensitive Mindfulness: Practices for Safe and Transformative Healing. New York, New York. W. W. Norton and Company.

Van Der Kolk, Bessel. (2014). The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma. New York, New York. Penguin Books.

Van Marter Souers, Kristin, and Pete Hall. (2018) Relationship, Responsibility and Regulation: Trauma-invested Practices for Fostering Resilient Learners.  Alexandria, VA. ASCD.

Walker, Pete. (2013). Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving. An Azure Coyote Book.

Wiley, Meredith S., and Robin Karr-Morse. (2012). Scared Sick: The Role of Childhood Trauma in Adult Disease. New York, New York. Basic Books.

Header Photo: Dan Meyers, Unsplash

No longer in extremis: A letter of resignation & courage

Reposted with permission from Andrea Montiel de Shuman’s Medium page.  Visit to read more from Andrea.

Written by A. Andrea Montiel de Shuman

I have been told that if we stay quiet and play the system, eventually things will change. But how am I supposed to have hope if at my institution decades of museum education and visitor-centered practices were dismantled in a matter of a few years?  Those practices led to the inclusion of my communities. I remember the first day I visited the DIA and saw myself in art, embraced as part of humanity, by the creative collective memory of the multitude of nations. Those practices that made me feel accepted, no longer an alien, because that day the DIA was speaking directly to me: the immigrant, the Mexican, the woman of color — and it told me that I belonged.

“To accept one’s past — one’s history — is not the same thing as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it.”

*     *     *

About the Author

ANDREA MONTIEL DE SHUMAN is a digital experience designer that focuses on public-facing digital experiences to help visitors find personal meaning in art. Among other collaborations, Andrea serves as Program Co-Chair for Museum Computer Network, as Committee member of the Tech & Media MUSE Awards, and as an Education Program Advisor for the future Smithsonian Latino Galleries, and she has been involved in a number of reflective digital initiatives with Knight Foundation and AAM, mainly discussing ethic/moral implications of emerging technologies. Currently, she is interested in exploring opportunities to use the power of experience to set traditionally underrepresented audiences, especially indigenous communities.

Action & Resource Guide: Museum Education Roundtable

Reposted with permission from Museum Education Roundtable (MER) blog.

Written and compiled by Museum Education Roundtable Board of Directors

The Museum Education Roundtable stands alongside those protesting violence against Black people in Minneapolis and around the country. Museum educators are bridges to and producers of cultural knowledge. We care for our communities intellectually but also emotionally, socially, and physically. As such, we have a responsibility to address structural injustice, oppression, racism, and abuses of power. Museums are not neutral, and neither are those who work in these privileged institutions.

We are angered by and mourn the killing of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and countless others. We stand with those condemning the violence against and ongoing oppression of Black people in the United States. Our thoughts, words, and actions are with anyone organizing to dismantle systems of oppression.

These are only the most recent instances emerging from centuries of violent, structural racism in the United States. To end this cycle of injustice, we all must come together to recognize the insidious nature of white supremacy and the ways it has infiltrated every aspect of our lives, including and especially our cultural institutions.

We encourage our members and readers to take action and have compiled the following resources for folks seeking an entry point. As a Board, and within a museum field, that is predominately white, we must center our Black, Indigenous, and racialized colleagues, partners, and visitors. We have privilege inherent to aspects of our identities and power in our position within the cultural landscape.

Here’s what we can do right now: 

Here’s what we can do within the museum field: 

For museum workers who are, or want to become allies, advocates, accomplices:

  • Recognize how this violence affects Black, Indigenous and colleagues of color deeply and differently than white colleagues;
  • Make space for Black friends, colleagues, and family to grieve and mourn; center them and their experiences rather than your own;
  • Talk with kidsstudentscoworkersfamily, and friends about race;
  • Join or start reading and discussion groups like Building Antiracist White Educators, centered around racial equity
  • Support BIPOC organizations in a sustainable way, not just during crises; send funds to thought leaders and changemakers that you learn from using platforms like Venmo or Paypal; become a Patreon member of podcasts that challenge your bias;
  • Confront your own bias and unearth the ways that white supremacy has benefited you; then start dismantling it.

Resources for white people confronting anti-black racism:

We offer MER’s platform to amplify the voices of museum colleagues of color, and uplift liberatory work in our field. If you have thoughts, blog posts, or resources to share with the museum education field, we welcome you to do so in this space. We can be reached at dearmuseums@museumedu.org.

We acknowledge that much of the framework for organizing how museums can and should respond to injustice has been the labor of people of color, in particular Black women. We thank Adrianne Russell and Aleia Brown (#MuseumsRespondToFerguson); La Tanya Autry (#MuseumsAreNotNeutral); and Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw and Andrea J. Ritchie (#SayHerName); Patrisse Khan-Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi (#BlackLivesMatter); and Porchia Moore and nikhil trivedi (Visitors of Color).

In solidarity.

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About Museum Education Roundtable

Formed in 1969, the Museum Education Roundtable fosters professionalism among museum educators by encouraging leadership, scholarship and research in museum- based learning. MER provides leadership in professional development for a broad and diverse audience of museum practitioners and educators. Through its publications, programs, and active communications network, MER:

Supports professionalism among peers and others committed to excellence in museum-based learning. Encourages leadership, scholarship, and research in museum-based learning, and advocates for the inclusion and application of museum-based learning in general education and life-long learning.

MER publishes the Journal of Museum Education, the only American journal that is devoted to the theory and practice of museum education. Written by museum and education professionals, JME articles explore innovations in the field of museum education, teaching strategies for use in museums and other informal learning environments, visitor research, and evaluation.

MER hosts an annual program each year in Washington, DC, and a members reception at the AAM annual conference. In addition, MER partners with regional groups to present programs that offer networking opportunities and discussions around issues of the JME.

Museum as space of opportunity, creativity & care: A perspective from Spain

Written by Fernando Echarri

In Spain, COVID-19 has caused and is causing sudden and overwhelming social change. Spain is one of the countries in the world that is suffering most from the effects of the pandemic at the moment. Effects that translate into new social and personal challenges, involving many factors including misinformation, manipulation, fear and catastrophism. This situation shakes the foundations of a way of living, of coexisting, of perceiving, of doing, of desiring, of dreaming.

This change has happened practically from one day to the next, when the Spanish Government declared a state of alarm. The change meant the closure of many public and private equipment, including all educational centres and museums. We work at the Museo Universidad de Navarra, located in the north of Spain. It is a recently created university museum of contemporary art (2015). With structures and procedures still being established and, therefore, also with the power of flexibility towards new scenarios. The museum’s closure has been very sudden, with the exhibition “Universes” by the artist David Jiménez just opened in March. It has taken place at the same time that the University has stopped its face-to-face activity, so that university students and other visitors from other segments of the population cannot physically visit the museum or carry out their various cultural and educational programmes.

And how does a university museum of contemporary art adapt to a situation that prevents the public from seeing its exhibitions and carrying out the rest of its cultural programme?

We try to raise 5 criteria that can help answer this question :

1.  It must be faced with a positive mind, which sees this situation as a generator of personal and social change that provides a new space of opportunity.

2.  Learn to work with uncertainty; with a continuous and changing uncertainty that the situation itself generates. Uncertainty that affects everything from the biology of the virus and the evolution of the disease to the political and regulatory measures that are taken and the social perceptions and new forms of behaviour that are being generated in real time. These new forms of behaviour will probably include a new emotional and affective state in terms of the relational aspect between people. And in this new generation of new forms of behaviour, the museum cannot be alien. It cannot miss this train, in a challenge that we do not know where it is going, but in which the museum has to be assembled, to travel together with society, to accompany it in the different situations and contexts that are being generated.

3.  Space for creativity. The uncertainty generated provides in turn a great ally, usually forgotten: creativity. Creativity can be a lifeboat when the waters are turbulent and the known capsizes. The undefined space is built with enabling bricks that are linked to the creative cement. New products are thus generated, at this time digital, that respond with contemporary art to the needs of the users.

4.  To focus on the value Care. This value is not usually the focus of most education programmes, and is not usually one of the main values considered in a transversal way in the programmes of museums. However, this word is currently one of the most mentioned in the media and has become one of the key words generated by COVID-19 and which people are taking into account the most. Personal, family and social care is now a trend topic. Perhaps this value has surpassed the value of respect, which is the one most often used in social work. The respect value has fallen short in this situation. If we understand the value respect as the consideration for others, the value care implies respect, but it is more than that value. It also implies concern, protection, solidarity and love.

We could simplify by considering that care = respect + love. In this situation generated by COVID-19, it is clear the numerous evidence of care that is being generated in society. Neighbours who previously did not speak to each other are now wondering how they are doing, how they are handling the situation, if they have any sick relatives, if they need anything. Anonymous people who help other anonymous people. It’s not a minor change. COVID-19 is possibly making society better, more humane. Or maybe it already was, but there were no opportunities to make it so obvious. In order to adapt to this situation, museums should integrate this value into the relational possibilities offered by their various programmes.

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5.  ‘Stay at home’. This is the communicative message that the Spanish Government is promoting during this period of confinement. This message has forced the Museo Universidad de Navarra to change its communication, dissemination and educational strategy. This new situation is a challenge for the University of Navarra Museum. It means devoting all its efforts to off-site activities. If the visitor does not come to the museum, the museum will look for the visitor. It means taking the museum to the people’s homes. That is why it has created the ‘MUNENCASA’, with the intention of providing artistic, cultural and educational support to the various people and groups that are currently confined.

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This impediment to living physically in the museum has made it possible to develop a parallel, virtual museum, which offers users programmes, activities and tools such as virtual visits to the exhibitions, multimedia videos, digital gamification, a blog with recent history and current affairs, and classes for university students and the rest of the population. It also pays continuous attention to the different social networks, publishing not only news. The world of social networks has increased its volume of traffic these days and we must redouble our communication efforts. In record time, digital materials are generated that adapt existing analogue resources. Programmatic resources are generated, both exhibition and educational, which help people through art and culture.

This is what we have to do at this time: to approach each home and accompany, help, and care for our users as much as possible.

Society expects nothing less from us.


Header Image: José Ortiz Echagüe, “Tenura”


About the Author

FERNANDO ECHARRI IRIBARREN holds a degree in Biological Sciences (University of Navarra, 1989) and a PhD in Museum Education (University of Navarra, 2007). He is an associate professor of the University of Navarra (Pamplona, Spain) and teaches in the following areas: “Art Education”, “University Master’s Degree in Higher-Education Teaching” and “University Master’s Degree in Curatorial Studies”. Since 2014, he has been Head of the Education Department at the University of Navarra Museum. His interests include meaningful learning and significant learning experiences.

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.

Interrupting White Dominant Culture in Museums

Author’s Note: This post is a fluid and organic piece of writing, and I want to be transparent about that. As people ask questions or call out issues with language, lack of clarity, and other problems, I am working to make changes and keep shaping this piece. I’m open to discussing any of these changes, as well.  I also want to acknowledge that this piece may be largely intended for a white audience, although I don’t think it’s limited in that way.  

Written by Mike Murawski

As I sit down to write this post, I find myself reflecting on the sometimes frustratingly slow, pain-laden, and capricious path of change for museums, and my own role as an agent of change and accomplice in this work of making change happen.  I’ve got a towering pile of books on the shelf in front of me on museum change, activism, and inclusive practices along with a formidable pile of diversity statements and strategic plans that talk about equity and community. Conference after conference and convening after convening bring to the center themes of equity, inclusion, relevance, community, and audience. There are rapidly growing networks of activists and changemakers, with expanding movements connecting through social actions, events, book clubs, reading lists, online syllabi, and social media hashtags.  Yet given all this, why do some of the pivotal changes happening in museums right now feel tenuous and temporary? Why does deep and meaningful change feel a bit out of reach?

In a recent piece by poet, activist, and community organizer Jamara Wakefield that powerfully envisions a decolonized future for museums, she writes:

Museums could be one of our greatest allies in liberation struggles. They have the physical space, the means, and the public confidence to partake in a large scale social movement against colonial powers. Yet they reject this opportunity over and over again. They prefer to remain silent and hide in a world that desperately needs decolonizing.”

One of the things holding us museums back from this level of transformative change is our continued unwillingness to challenge the entrenched institutional structures that advance and maintain inequity. The pervasive hold of white supremacy is arguably one of the single greatest threats to the deep, transformational change that is needed within museums today.  It is a threat to racial equity; it is a threat to environmental and economic justice; it is a threat to the well-being of communities of color; it is a threat to human dignity; and it is a threat to those who are struggling to see these universal values of equity, justice, and dignity define our new institutional realities.  And it is a threat that is largely-unacknowledged by white museum professionals and leaders across the field.

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I realize that pressing this idea of examining white supremacy and white dominant culture within our museum institutions may bring forward some resistance, defensiveness, tension, and complexity.  During the past two years of spreading the #MuseumsAreNotNeutral campaign and message with co-creator La Tanya Autry, we have encountered resistance (sometimes staunch, sometimes more subtle) from some museum leaders and thinkers (all white) who are unable or unwilling to see, define, and critically reflect on white dominant culture in their institutions.  After all, for me, that campaign is so much about the simple yet powerful recognition that what museums take for granted as ‘neutral,’ ‘objective,’ ‘normal,’ ‘professional,’ and ‘high quality’ is all part of a system of white supremacy that perpetuates oppression, racism, injustice, and colonialism.

In an interview this past week, incoming Secretary of the Smithsonian Lonnie Bunch was asked about what #MuseumsAreNotNeutral means to him.  He replied:

“It’s crucially important for museums to open the veil, of how they do the work they do so that even they understand the complicit biases they carry. They understand the cultural baggage that shapes what we do.”

I frequently reference the words of scholar and activist Angela Davis who, while speaking to a gathering of Ferguson protesters in 2015, stated:

“Any critical engagement with racism requires us to understand the tyranny of the universal. For most of our history the very category ‘human’ has not embraced Black people and people of color. Its abstractness has been colored white and gendered male.”

White supremacy thrives within this tyranny of the universal, the neutral, the apolitical, the fair and balanced, and the objective. Acknowledging that ‘museums are not neutral’ is a meaningful and urgent step toward gaining awareness of the powerful role that white supremacy and white dominant culture play within our institutions.  It is a crucial step toward recognizing one’s own role in questioning it, interrupting it, and being a part of taking transformative action to replace it.

How can we define white dominant culture and white supremacy?

As part of this discussion, I want to bring in a couple definitions of white dominant culture and white supremacy that can be helpful for those who are new to these ideas.  If you hear these terms and limit their definitions to the acts of militant white nationalists and hate groups marching with torches, then I suggest you pause here and do some homework.  Take some time to connect with the wider discourse around this topic. It is important that we get past these reductive associations, and begin to develop more complex and shared understandings. Robin DiAngelo, author of White Fragility (2018), firmly states the importance of using language such as white dominance and white supremacy in these conversations.  She writes:

“White supremacy describes the culture we live in, a culture that positions white people and all that is associated with them (whiteness) as ideal. White supremacy is more than the idea that whites are superior to people of color; it is the deeper premise that supports this idea—the definition of whites as the norm or standard for human, and people of color as a deviation from that norm.” (33)

A useful and widely-recognized definition of white dominant culture comes from the work of Tema Okun and Kenneth Jones on dismantling racism:

“The explicit to subtle ways that the norms, preferences, and fears of white European descended people overwhelmingly shape how we organize our work and institutions, see ourselves and others, interact with one another and with time, and make decisions.”

From their collection of writings entitled How We Fight White Supremacy (2019), Akiba Solomon and Kenrya Rankin write:

“White supremacy defines our current reality. It is not merely a belief that to be White is to be better. It is a political, cultural, and economic system premised on the subjugation of people who are not White…. White supremacy is the voice in our collective heads that says it makes civilized sense that one group of people gets to annihilate, enslave, incarcerate, brainwash, torture, sterilize, breed, and terrorize other people.” (vii)

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Through their work on racism, Okun and Jones have also offered up a list of characteristics of white culture that can help us see where white dominant culture is showing up in our work and in our lives on a regular basis.  These include perfectionism, a sense of urgency, defensiveness, either/or thinking, a focus on quantity and valuing measurable goals, discomfort with emotion, a sense of paternalism in decision making, and fear of conflict, just to name a few.  

For some of you reading this, these characteristics may be strikingly familiar and precisely describe your workplace culture.  Have you taken a moment to step back and question some of these norms? How have you been involved in promoting and advancing this culture?  I can say that I have spent much of my career in management roles without actively questioning and interrupting these characteristics, playing my own role in maintaining these structures of inequity without being conscious of the impact.  My goal here is not to make this about blame or guilt (that happens far too often), but rather to invite white folks to recognize where this is showing up so we can work as part of a collective effort to interrupt and decenter it.

Aspects of white supremacy are showing up every moment of every day in the museum workplace (and in the galleries).  It dictates how people hold meetings together, who is invited to those meetings, who participates, and whose ideas are valued. It informs how students of color are treated during a field trip, and how a museum responds when instances of racism hit the media.  It controls how our front of house staff interact with visitors, who works in positions that interact with visitors, the types of training they receive, and who makes decisions about these trainings. It dictates how museum leaders and managers make decisions, who gets to have input into those decisions, and who is impacted by those decisions.  It is a controlling force in how we define ‘community,’ how we work with community partners, what we value about those partnerships, and how we resource those partnerships. It dictates the words that get written on museum labels, and who gets to write, edit, and approve those words. And each and every one of these moments (and thousands more) threatens to chip away at the humanity of our colleagues of color, visitors of color, and all those who are not defined within these norms of ‘whiteness.’  

Real harm is being done throughout every nook and cranny of our institutions, and we need to collectively recognize this before we can take actions to interrupt white dominance.  As Gita Gulati-Partee and Maggie Potapchuk state in their 2014 article on “Paying Attention to White Culture and Privilege”:

“not doing this examination means that any equity conversations and work will continue to take place in a larger container that is shaped by the very dynamics that the group aims to change.” (27)

Why am I  writing about this?

I want to be clear here. I understand that I am a product of white dominant culture and a participant in white dominant culture, not just as a white, heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied male in a position of power within a museum, but as a human being living and acting in our society. White supremacy is insidious, pervasive, and systemic.  It is the air we breathe.  It shapes our language, our relationships, our actions, our decisions, and our emotions. It is showing up in my words as I write this, even as I critique it. And while I have made choices to gain awareness of this domineering and harmful culture, it still floods all aspects of my being in this world.

I have chosen to make my messy and mistake-filled learning process more public, not to create harm but rather to recognize these challenges wherever, whenever, and however possible.  Throughout my museum career, I have leaned towards questioning the status quo and the “ways things are supposed to be” without necessarily having ‘the answer.’ I enjoy the more fluid exchange of ideas, questions, and experiences that we, as a broader collective of changemakers, can bring to these issues.  I find that it is important to open up larger and larger conversations about burning issues so that we can grow together as a community of change and work toward building a positive, thriving future for museums.

I raise these questions about white supremacy as part of a rapidly expanding group of museum workers, leaders, and advocates for change who see the language of diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility spread like wildfire on the surface of museums without necessarily seeing the deep institutional transformations that are needed within museums.  I also raise these questions as someone working within a museum that is changing and experiencing the pain and messiness of grappling with these deeper issues. My own learning has been happening over the course of many years in conversation and allyship with colleagues, mentors, friends, co-workers, and the many teachers in my life. I also recognize the long history of museum workers, activists, educators, community leaders, and radical transformers who have fought against white supremacy, and those who I see as powerful leaders and mentors in current efforts to dismantle racism and change museums (including La Tanya Autry, Monica Montgomery, Teressa Raiford, Keonna Hendrick, Porchia Moore, Radiah Harper, Nicole Ivy, Omar Eaton-Martinez, Chris Taylor, Janeen Bryant, nikhil trivedi, Jackie Peterson, Melanie Adams, Joanne Rizzi-Jones, Dina Bailey, PJ Gubatina Policarpio, Stephanie Cunningham, Aleia Brown, Adrianne Russell, Kayleigh Bryant Greenwell, Chieko Phillips, Elisabeth Callihan, Laura Raicovich, Aletheia Wittman, Alyssa Greenberg, Margaret Middleton, Toni Wynn, those working on MASS Action, the Museums and Race team, and many many others).  I am aware of, and grateful for, the deep thinking and action that has already been done around this issue, and that continues to be done today. 

Taking action to interrupt white supremacy

The work of interrupting and decentering white supremacy can seem overwhelmingly daunting when we’re faced with what seems like the insurmountable task of systemic change.  Furthermore, there is no easy fix, mandatory training, or simple pre-packaged strategy that can wash away these oppressive structures and legacies. As Solomon and Rankin aptly state, “if we had a magic button we could press to end this nightmare, we would have leaned on that bitch long ago” (x).

One important place to start, especially for white people, is to simply recognize and name when white culture is showing up in the workplace — and accept the discomfort that comes with identifying these moments without resorting to defensiveness (see “white fragility”).  In a widely-shared blog post on challenging white dominant culture in nonprofits, Lupe Poblano, Project Director at CompassPoint, writes, “White leaders … need to locate their own cultural whiteness and become aware of how their internalized superiority shows up and how it negatively impacts POC inside their own organization.”  He continues, “You, leaders within the white dominant leadership structure, need to be willing to change you first.”

Gulati-Partee and Potapchuk stress that “putting white culture and privilege on the table is critical to include in racial equity work—and it is fraught with challenges due to the complex manifestations of structural racism.”  For those doing the more transformational work in museums, I know that you feel these challenges each and every day. For most white people, myself included, the larger structures of white supremacy are elusive and invisible until we gain the awareness to see them.  And when we do see them more clearly, it feels like a punch in the gut. As Hannah Heller writes in her 2018 article “Working Towards White Allyship in Museums”:

“those moments that feel uncomfortable or anxious are exactly the moments to lean in to as an ally. That feeling is your Whiteness being tested and questioned. Start paying attention to the moments that make you pause….”

Recognizing these characteristics of white dominant culture is a pretty big step for many of us, yet it doesn’t end there.  Transformative change begins to happen in our institutional cultures when we examine, interrupt, decenter, and replace these harmful and oppressive organizing structures and habits of mind.  Okun and Jones offer an entire set of “antidotes” or alternatives that we can pivot to, moving away from the established norms of white workplace culture. The Museums as Sites of Social Action (MASS Action) toolkit also provides an extremely useful discussion of dominant culture, organizational culture, and inclusion in Chapter 3 and many other sections of the toolkit.

BlackSpaceManifestoI also highly recommend that folks check out the BlackSpace Manifesto, created by a collective of Black artists, architects, designers, urbanists, and changemakers working to amplify Black agency.  Their Manifesto provides a powerful set of practices that turn us away from white supremacy and center new modes of thinking and working based in equity, justice, love, and trust. I recently shared the Manifesto with a few white colleagues at my own institution, and we met to discuss our own roles in pivoting toward these practices. While it was just one conversation, it’s a small step toward doing things differently.

Download BlackSpaceManifesto (PDF)

After taking time to reflect with colleagues about how we might change workplace culture, I began working on a quick resource (below) that could be front and center on our desks and in our minds. At our museum, we have an existing set of Agreements in place that support our broader equity work, including things like “stay engaged,” “listen to understand,” and “be willing to do things differently.”  For about the past year, many staff have inserted the Agreements into their staff ID badge holders as a daily reminder to show up differently in our work.

Along these lines, I am interested in any way we can bring a more regular, daily awareness to white dominant culture and the ways we can collectively work to interrupt and decenter it. Please feel free to download, share, or print the Interrupt White Dominant Culture guide below, and use it to spark conversation and change within your organization or workplace.  Or simply use it yourself as a personal reminder to shift your focus and energy away from white supremacy.  It’s just an imperfect start to getting these conversations to happen more frequently in museums.  And the language and characteristics used in this guide come from the sources I have cited in this post along with much of the research and writing on white dominant culture.

InterruptWhiteDominantCulture

Download InterruptWhiteDominantCulture (PDF)

[TEXT OF INTERRUPT WHITE DOMINANT CULTURE GUIDE]

INTERRUPT WHITE DOMINANT CULTURE

  • Let’s work COLLECTIVELY to identify these and other elements of white dominant culture, and work toward dismantling racism in our organizations in in our lives.
  • Move from a focus on professional and transactional relationships toward relationships based on trust, care, and shared commitments.
  • Move from protecting power to sharing power.
  • Move from a culture of over-working to a culture of self-care and community care.
  • Move from a competition and struggle for limited resources to a mindset of collaboration and working to share resources.
  • Move away from prioritizing only degrees, work experience, and job titles toward a way of recognizing and centering lived experience
  • Move from a place of those with power making decisions for others toward a place where we work to include those affected by decisions in the decision-making process.

Speak Up. Take Action.

(recognizing the thinking and writings of Tema Okun, Kenneth Jones, Maggie Potapchuk, BlackSpace Manifesto, Radiah Harper, Hannah Heller, and Kai Monet)

Questioning the ways we make change happen

For me, the spark for writing this piece and creating the guide above came when I was invited to speak at the MuseumNext conference in London (June 2019).  The conference’s central theme was “Making Change Happen,” a topic I am extremely passionate about. I spent some time reflecting on the barriers we, as museum professionals and changemakers, face within institutions to make change happen, and how quickly (or slowly) we enact change.  For my presentation, I facilitated a bit of a workshop that created some space for conference attendees to think about the larger issues of dominant culture and white supremacy in their own personal work and within our institutions. 

I ended with a “Questions & Listening” session, rather than a typical “Question and Answer” thing — which is a strategy I’ve experimented with in the past.  This simply allows people to ask questions, gives those questions some space to be heard in a deeper way by everyone, and does not pretend that I (as the “presenter”) am in some kind of ‘expert’ position to give the answers.  It allows everyone in the room to reflect on the questions, and potentially have their own conversations about their responses.  It honors the knowledge in the room, not just in the “expert presenter.”  While this is always a bit awkward, since we’ve been trained to want to hear the answers from the single person on stage, I feel it is a worthwhile strategy to disrupt the white dominant culture that shows up in conferences. 

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I have also embraced a flood of questions racing through my mind before and after my presentation about change:  In our own impatience to see urgent and meaningful change take place, are we unintentionally setting up an antagonism between immediate action and deeper reflection?  Are we creating an either/or choice between making change happen now and taking time for conversation, listening, and collective understanding?  Do we place more value in the bigger, bolder public-facing actions and downplay the more intimate, personal, relationship-based evolution of change happening on a smaller scale?  How much of our mindset about change, and the pace of change, is dictated by white dominant culture?

I am open to your thoughts, insights, questions, and critiques as part of this broader conversation.  I intend to remain open-hearted in this work, recognizing that I have a lot of learning ahead of me and a lot of listening to do.  I’m committed to being a catalyst for these challenging conversations since I believe in the future of museums and I know in my heart that we collectively have the courage to change these institutions in deep, transformative ways.

“Museums could be powerful, liberatory spaces…”

I’m going to put an exclamation point on the end here by reconnecting with the incredible words of Jamara Wakefield (enormous gratitude to my friend Monica Montgomery for sharing this piece, which I have read about a dozen times in the last couple days).  In the articleMuseums could be powerful, liberatory spaces if they let go of their colonial practices,” Wakefield concludes with this:

“For my activist, artist, dreamer friends, and all who believe in another world, the one where our lives matter, our histories matter, our liberation matters: be prepared to fight in this world but never stop imagining liberation for our future selves. We owe this moment to our future selves.”

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About the Author

IMG_3517MIKE MURAWSKI: Changemaker, museum thinker, author, and nature lover living in Portland, Oregon, USA. Mike currently serves as the Director of Learning & Community Partnerships for the Portland Art Museum, and is the founding editor of ArtMuseumTeaching. He earned his MA and PhD in Education from American University in Washington, DC, focusing his research on educational theory and interdisciplinary learning. Prior to his position at the Portland Art Museum, he served as Director of School Services at the Saint Louis Art Museum as well as Coordinator of Education and Public Programs at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum at Washington University in St. Louis. He is a contributor to the Museums as Sites of Social Action (MASS Action) initiative supporting equity and inclusion in museums, and served as First Wave Project Advisor for OF/BY/FOR ALL initiative based out of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History helping civic and cultural organizations grow of, by, and for their communities.  Mike is proud to be the co-founder of the #MuseumsAreNotNeutral campaign aimed at erasing the myth of museum neutrality and demanding our institutions act as agents of change. He has spoken nationally and internationally on the social responsibilities of museums and how museums can serve as agents of positive change within their own communities.  Mike has also been invited to lead participatory workshops, lectures, panels, and training sessions at various institutions, including the Aspen Art MuseumCrocker Art Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art in San DiegoLos Angeles County Museum of ArtNational Gallery of ArtNelson Atkins Museum of ArtPhiladelphia Museum of Art, and Phoenix Art Museum, among others.  He is passionate about how we can come to see museums as agents of change in their communities as well as creative sites for transformative learning and social action.

Mike’s postings on this site are his own and don’t represent the Portland Art Museum’s positions, strategies, or opinions.

Finding Place: Art, Power, and Community through the Portland Art Museum’s Teacher Leadership Initiative

Written by Hana Layson (Head of Youth & Educator Programs) with Laura Bartroff (Director of Communications) and reposted from the Portland Art Museum’s News blog.

Last month, over 70 educators from across grade levels and disciplines gathered to experience the Portland Art Museum (Portland, OR) as a space of creativity, learning, and leadership. The event, Finding Place: Art, Power, and Community, is part of an initiative to nurture teacher leaders at the Museum through the 22-member Teacher Advisory Council, year-round professional development programs, and the Summer Teacher Leadership Fellows Program. The initiative receives generous support from the Oregon Community Foundation.

The Finding Place program was planned and facilitated by educators for educators. Twelve members of the Teacher Advisory Council began meeting last October to brainstorm a way to meaningfully celebrate the Council’s fifth anniversary. Through a series of open conversations, the group identified place, belonging, and equity as some of the most vital issues in education and art today. They decided to design an experience that would encourage social and emotional connections as well as intellectual inquiry. Perhaps most importantly, they wanted the experience to be joyful—an opportunity for educators to step away from the tedium of standardized tests and administrative meetings and to reconnect with the joy of learning, creating, and being part of a community.

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The day began with a story circles workshop for former and current Teacher Advisory Council members, facilitated by Charlene Martinez, Associate Director of Integrative Learning at Oregon State University and a current Council member. Story circles are a popular educational tool used in community organizing and arts-based social justice efforts. They offer a great way to build empathy and relationships quickly. For this session, participants were asked to respond to the prompt, “Think of a time when you did or did not feel you belonged to this nation.” Council members deepened their friendships with each other and came away with a new pedagogical technique to share with students and colleagues. As Dawn Nelson, a Language Arts teacher at Forest Grove High School, reflected afterwards, “The story circles not only gave me so much inspiration that day, but also when I used them in my classroom, they were so powerful—such a great way for a serious subject to inspire hope, joy, and community.”

Following the morning workshop, Teacher Advisory Council members opened up the program and welcomed all interested educators to the keynote presentation and a series of workshops inspired by the exhibition the map is not the territory. Dr. Natchee Blu Barnd, Associate Professor of Ethnic Studies and Native American Studies at Oregon State University, engaged participants with interactive activities to better understand decolonization, land and displacement, and how to implement concrete strategies for the classroom. Seven Council members facilitated small-group workshops connecting art and decolonization through a variety of disciplines, including movement and music, medicine and postcolonial literature, ink drawing and chipboard-sculpture-making. During one session, educators explored the exhibition independently, responding to prompts that encouraged reflection and dialogue.

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Along with the deep thinking and conversations, educators also played. They filled in bingo cards that asked them to “Take a selfie with someone you just met” and “Discuss what you love most about teaching.” They posed before a gold-sequined curtain at the photo booth. They shared a meal and conversation and laughter.

In building teachers as leaders within the Museum and their own schools, the Teacher Leadership Initiative further supports the Museum’s efforts to integrate the arts into classroom teaching.

“When we began the planning process for this event there was an emphasis on being welcomed and respected as collaborators,” said Lilly Windle, a visual art teacher at Lincoln High School in Portland. “Through a commitment to listening and building on shared ideas, we made progress, learned and built a program that kept the original vision of connection, joy, collaboration, community and power, clear and at the forefront.”

The continuum of empowering educators was evident as the inaugural Teacher Leadership Fellows joined the Teacher Leadership Council, and participated in hands-on, collaborative resource-sharing during the symposium. As 2018 Fellow and H.B. Lee Middle School teacher Franky Stebbins observed, the planning process and final program were “a reminder that the leaders I respect and appreciate the most are those who are DOING—who are willing to lead, but also jump in, be vulnerable, and co-create.”

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“For me personally, it felt grounding to experience a high-fidelity educator workshop addressing the many layers of connecting with the land and having Indian Country be visible,” said Carrie Brown, a teacher at the Native Montessori Preschool in Portland Public Schools. “So often, our Native families and students are invisible in university education courses and workshops. Much gratitude to the Portland Art Museum for hosting this workshop and supporting the exhibition the map is not the territory.”

#MassActionReadingGroup Launch: CHAPTER 1

It is amazing to see that close to 200 people from around the world have signed up to participate in the #MassActionReadingGroup initiative!  Huge thanks to everyone at the Incluseum and the team at Mia for making this reading group possible.

This week, we launch the project by releasing chapter 1 and worksheet 1 of the MASS Action Toolkit. 

We will meet on Twitter on Monday, April 29, 12:00-12:30pm Eastern time for our first Tweetchat that will focus on chapter 1!

Below is a chapter summary to orient you to this week’s content.

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Getting Started: What We Need to Change and Why

Written by Adam Patterson, Aletheia Wittman, Chieko Phillips, Gamynne Guillotte, Therese Quinn, Adrianne Russell

This introductory chapter establishes the underlying philosophy behind MASS Action and investigates the question: What does it mean for museums to be “sites of social action?” It calls for the urgency and necessity of museum practitioners throughout the field to sharpen their critical literacy, and their capability to unearth systemic issues such as structural racism and other forms of oppression that are inherently embedded in the institution.

There is a movement spreading across cultural organizations nationally asserting that museums are not neutral spaces. Complex problems related to colonialism, ableism, sexism, racism, and capitalism are all embedded in the institution and manifest themselves in the everyday operations of museums from hiring practices, staffing, organizational culture, management, fundraising, collection policies, to pedagogy, interpretation, and paradigms for engagement.

If museums and their staff claim to be relevant sites for engagement for their communities, this takes on huge responsibilities to not only acknowledge and navigate difficult issues, but to work towards sincere and critical action. The work of MASS Action centers justice, it does not leave it in the margins. There is a real moral imperative to this work as museums move forward collectively to set higher standards of conduct in the field.

Questions to consider as you read:

  • What would cultural transformation look like at your institution?
  • Why should your institution engage in this work?

This week’s downloads and links:

Again, the Chapter 1 Tweetchat will be held Monday, April 29,

12:00-12:30pm Eastern time.  Catch ya then!

MASS Action Toolkit: Join the Reading Group

MASS ActionMuseum As Site for Social Action–is a collaborative project that launched in 2016, centering on the question: How do you transform museums from the inside out? Through a series of public convenings and the creation of a toolkit of resources, this project’s intention is to share the strategies and frameworks needed to align museums with more equitable and inclusive practices.

In the Incluseum post of July 2018, Elisabeth Callihan, MASS Action co-founder and project manager, introduced the MASS Action Toolkit published in 2017. In this blogpost, we collaboratively present you with a new initiative of the Incluseum and the MASS Action team at the Minneapolis Institute of Art to bring people together to read and reflect on the tooklit over the next few months.  We invite you to join in:

The #MassActionReadingGroup

The #MassActionReadingGroup will be a group of museum enthusiasts, professionals, students, and/or activists who will come together to read and discuss the MASS Action Toolkit chapter-by-chapter over the course of 16 weeks. The Toolkit is made of 8 chapters and 8 accompanying worksheets that help dig deeper into the chapters’ content. Chapters are between 6 to 40 pages, with an average length of 20 pages. …That’s about 10 pages a week, manageable, don’t you think? In addition to the downloadable chapters and worksheets, we will have access to dialogue facilitation outlines that the Art Institute of Chicago’s 2018 MASS Action Organizing Team developed for each chapter! You can use these if you are interested in hosting a reading group with colleagues.

How it will workEvery-other-Monday, we will be “assigned” a chapter and worksheet from the MASS Action Toolkit and meet via Twitter for a 30 minute Tweetchat of the previous week’s assigned chapter. The chapters and worksheets will be posted every couple weeks on The Incluseum Blog, as well as this partnering blog here at Art Museum Teaching. All you have to do is download the chapter with its accompanying worksheet and participate!

Here is the Full Schedule:

  • Monday 04/15: Introductions
    • Assignment: Chapter 1 and Worksheet 1
  • Monday 04/29: Chapter 1: What We Need to Change and Why
    • 12pm EST: #MassActionReadingGroup Tweetchat: Chapter 1 and Worksheet 1
    • Assignment: Chapter 2 and Worksheet 2
  • Monday 05/13: Chapter 2: Moving Toward Internal Transformation: Awareness, Acceptance, Action 
    • 12pm EST: #MassActionReadingGroup Tweetchat: Chapter 2 and Worksheet 2
    • Assignment: Chapter 3 and Worksheet 3
  • Monday 05/27: Chapter 3: Organization Culture and Change: Making the Case for Inclusion
    • 12pm EST: #MassActionReadingGroup Tweetchat: Chapter 3 and Worksheet 3
    • Assignment: Chapter 4 and Worksheet 4
  • Monday 06/10: Chapter 4: Inclusive Leadership: Avoid a Culture of Leadership
    • 12pm EST: #MassActionReadingGroup Tweetchat: Chapter 4 and Worksheet 4
    • Assignment: Chapter 5 and Worksheet 5
  • Monday 06/24: Chapter 5: Interpretation: Liberating the Narrative
    • 12pm EST: #MassActionReadingGroup Tweetchat: Chapter 5 and Worksheet 5
    • Assignment: Chapter 6 (no worksheet this week)
  • Monday 07/08: Chapter 6: Sharing Authority: Creating Content and Experiences
    • 12pm EST: #MassActionReadingGroup Tweetchat: Chapter 6
    • Assignment: Chapter 7 and Worksheet 7
  • Monday 07/22: Chapter 7: Collections: How We Hold the Stuff We Hold in Trust
    • 12pm EST: #MassActionReadingGroup Tweetchat: Chapter 7 and Worksheet 7
    • Assignment: Chapter 8 and Worksheet 8
  • Monday 08/05: Chapter 8: Change-Making through Pedagogy
    • 12pm EST: #MassActionReadingGroup Tweetchat: Chapter 8 and Worksheet 8

Want to Participate?

Sign up here! Join us for a Tweetchat! Signing up isn’t mandatory, but will help give us an idea of who is taking part as we explore this collaborative reading journey together.

Want to make your reading journey even more meaningful? Ask a colleague or peer to participate with you. Teaming up offers many benefits, such as increased motivation, and a sense of community!

Tune in next week as we release chapter 1!

MASS Action Mia

Towards a More Community-Centered Museum, Part 3: Defining & Valuing Community

Written by Mike Murawski

Obviously, there is no single definition for the word ‘community.’  And it does not benefit this conversation to check with Webster’s dictionary, since the traditional definition of community is vague and outdated.  In his influential book Community: The Structure of Belonging (2008), Peter Block offers an exploration of community building and the ways that healthy, restorative communities emerge and sustain themselves.  Defining community as the experience of belonging, Block writes, “We are in a community each time we find a place where we belong.”  This core sense of belonging has two meanings.  It is about having a sense of relatedness and being a part of something, and it is about having a sense of ownership and acting as a creator or co-owner of that community.

First and foremost, then, community is about people.  At its core is a set of human relationships, not just a place, organization, idea, or internet platform. Second, it is important to recognize that people participate and identify with multiple communities at the same time.  We might belong to a church, feel affinity to people in our neighborhood, be connected with those at our school, and bond with others who share an aspect of our personal identity (age, sexuality, ethnicity, language, etc.)—all on the same day.  We all belong to many communities, some that we define for ourselves and some that are defined for us.  Our participation in certain communities might be deep, long-term, and really meaningful to us, while our involvement in other communities might be fairly thin and insignificant.

It’s also important to note that the social relationships that form communities are fluid, constantly shifting given time and changing circumstances.  While it seems obvious that formal institutions (schools, churches, museums, and non-profits) play an important role in forming communities, we also need to recognize the powerful role of informal institutions (the neighborhood barbershop, a local grocery co-op, a community choir group, or a gardening club).  Through each of these communities, we might come together to feel various degrees of shared belonging, trust, mutual interests, and safety.

On top of these ways to define community, I want to layer on the transformative belief in a ‘beloved community’ that comes from the teachings of Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as more recent writings by Grace Lee Boggs and bell hooks. It is the idea of community as an agent of change, engaged in the struggle for justice and the well-being of the whole.  In her book Killing Rage: Ending Racism (1996), hooks writes:

“Beloved community is formed not by the eradication of difference but by its affirmation, by each of us claiming the identities and cultural legacies that shape who we are and how we live in the world.”

This affirmative vision of community is based, in part, upon finding common ground through social justice and the possibility of radical change as well as the transformative element of shared responsibility.  Community is not merely a passive gathering of people around shared interests or shared geography, but rather the form through which these shared understandings take on life as collective action.

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artist Karina Puente with activists, community organizers, and warriors of justice Donna Hayes and Irene Kalonji at the Upstanders Festival, Portland Art Museum, May 2017.

This more active notion of community, or building community, also connects deeply to the concept of ‘bridging’ popularized by Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000).  In this groundbreaking book that has been part of the conversations in museums for many years, Putnam examines how we might begin to strengthen a sense of connection through social networks and building social capital. While one form of social capital is created through “bonding” among homogenous, exclusive, inward-facing groups, another more powerful form of social capital is created through “bridging” diverse, heterogeneous, inclusive, and outward-looking groups through activities of sharing, exchange, and consensus building.

The Better Together report, published by the Saguaro Seminar in 2000, takes a look at the role of the arts and museums in successfully building social capital in the United States. Elizabeth Crooke discusses this report in her fantastic book entitled Museums and Community (2007), in which she describes in more detail he various concepts of social capital. The Saguaro report argues that arts and culture organizations can nurture connectedness and bridging by “strengthening friendships, helping communities to understand and celebrate their heritage, and providing safe ways to discuss and solve difficult social problems.”  Overall, the report recommended key principles to guide the arts, including to encourage initiatives that “form bridges across race, income, gender, religion, and generations” as well as including arts and culture in community planning and organizing.

The concepts of beloved community and the social capital of bridging both celebrate difference, and work toward bringing people together to form and strengthen new relationships. Overlap these defining characteristics of community with the ideas of a human-centered museum, and we find deep commonalities of human connection, social relationships, and a commitment to change.  For me, these overarching ideas form the basis for any productive discussion of community and how we then work to specifically define a local community and build an institution’s connection within that community.

As Elizabeth Crooke so perfectly writes:

“To be of value, museums need to find significance within these communities—without those connections, the museum and its collections will be of little importance. It is people who bring the value and consequence to objects and collections; as a result, if a museum cannot forge associations with people, it will have no meaning.” (131)

Valuing Community

When museums begin to develop relationships with certain communities, they must understand the power dynamics involved.  Most museums hold a great deal of institutional power and authority, so many relationships or partnerships with community groups begin in a situation of imbalance and inequity.  In her introduction to the edited volume Museums and their Communities (2007), museum scholar Sheila Watson recognizes that museums are understood “to represent those who have privileges in society, i.e., the educated, the relatively wealthy, those who are in control through either their status … or through direct political power.”  This power extends to a museum’s architecture, collections and collecting practices, exhibitions, scholarship, and interpretation.

It is also important to recognize the tension in most museums between traditional academic scholarship and community input.  Consulting with community knowledge holders can often be viewed as an erosion of scholarship and curatorial confidence, and working with community-based artists can be seen as lowering accepted standards of ‘quality.’  On top of all of this baggage, the Western colonial concept of museums may not necessarily be relevant or valued in many communities who have been excluded or oppressed by this system.

For community relationships to grow and thrive, museums need to step back their role as authorities and see community members as experts on their own needs and local assets.  Identifying community assets and valuing resident participation works to empower residents and legitimize these community partnerships.  Stacey Marie Garcia, Director of Community Engagement at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, has both researched and enacted community and civic engagement practices, methods, and theories in museums.  In a post for Museum 2.0, she writes:

“it’s not solely about how museums can serve communities but rather what are the communities’ resources, knowledge and interests that can inform museum practice? Furthermore, how can museums and communities work together to share strengths in the community?”

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The Laundromat Project’s Kelly Street Housewarming Party. Photo by Osjua A. Newton, Copyright © 2015

At the core of our work with specific communities and local neighborhoods is the practice of identifying and embracing the strengths, creative skills, stories, languages, cultures, voices, and experiences that come from our communities.  In the overall research on community development, this is referred to as an “asset-based” approach or “capacity-focused” development.  This thinking runs counter to the mindset of a “needs-based” approach that focuses too much on problems and deficiencies in a community or neighborhood and, thus, how institutions can ‘serve their needs.’  “This phrase drives me nuts,” writes Nina Simon in her most recent book The Art of Relevance (2016). “It smacks of paternalism. As if it weren’t enough to be experts on our subject matter. Now we’re the experts on what people ‘need’ too?”  Rather than telling communities what they need and how they should do things differently, museums can instead center the gifts and creative capacities of communities as we work toward building relationships based in trust and mutual respect.

According to foundational work in the field of asset-based community development (check out “What is asset-based community development?”), this approach should focus on identifying community assets and strengths, and be both community-driven and relationship-driven.  Rather than asking ‘what are the needs of your community?,’ we can approach these conversations from a asset-based and community-driven approach.  Key questions might instead be: What do you value most about our community?  When was a time you felt our community was at its best?  What is the essence of our community that makes it unique and strong?

Finally, thinking about community development work through an asset-based approach tends to build relationships among community members.  As Graeme Stuart, community development specialist and activist, writes:

“The real value in asset mapping is bringing people together so they can discover each other’s strengths and resources, and to think about how they can build on what is already in the community. One way we can do this is by fostering the relationships, or the place, where assets can be productive and powerful together.”

Museums and cultural organizations hold the potential to be these places where community assets can be powerful together.  We just need to take bold steps to value the skills, interests, culture, and heritage of our communities and neighborhoods and begin to de-center the traditional power structures of museum institutions.

And as uncomfortable and messy as this might be for so many museums, we have got to start somewhere and make this change happen.

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ABOUT THE SERIES: Through this series of posts, I am exploring a range of ideas, challenges, and strategies for building community-centered practices in museums and advocating for deeper connections between institutions and community.    What do we mean by ‘community’?  How can we value community?  What are some strategies for change that we can enact now in our institutions?

I’m open to all types of critiques and questions, as long as they are aimed at moving this collective work forward.  My ideas, thoughts, and questions have emerged from decades of meaningful conversations with others, so I don’t claim ownership of these ideas — I simply hope they can spark new conversations and allow us all to add to our learning and growth as we work to transform museums.

Other Posts in This Series:

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About the Author

MIKE MURAWSKI: Founding author and editor of ArtMuseumTeaching.com, museum educator, and currently the Director of Education & Public Programs for the Portland Art Museum. Mike earned his MA and PhD in Education from American University in Washington, DC, focusing his research on educational theory and interdisciplinary learning in the arts. Prior to his position at the Portland Art Museum, he served as Director of School Services at the Saint Louis Art Museum as well as coordinator of education and public programs at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum at Washington University.  He is involved in the Museums as Sites of Social Action (MASS Action) initiative, contributing author to the MASS Action toolkit, and co-created the #MuseumsAreNotNeutral tshirt campaign with LaTanya Autry to erase the myth of museum neutrality. As a cultural activist and museum professional, he is passionate about how we can come to see museums as agents of change in their communities as well as sites for transformative learning and social action. He has led workshops and presented at conferences and institutions nationally and internationally, including a keynote at the 2016 MuseumNext conference. Mike’s postings on this site are his own and don’t represent the Portland Art Museum’s positions, strategies, or opinions.

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Header Photo: Queens Museum’s New New Yorkers Program student council at the Immigrant Movement International community gathering space.  Photo from https://queensmuseum.org/new-new-yorkers. 

Towards a More Community-Centered Museum, Part 2: Is ‘Community’ a Meaningless Word?

Written by Mike Murawski

The term ‘community’ may very well be one of the most frequently used words these days when it comes to describing the shifting goals, values, programs, exhibitions, staff, audience demographics, and communication strategies of museums.  To be honest, I use the word pretty regularly myself.  For decades, museums (and most funding organizations) have been increasingly using phrases like “aiming to serve our community,” “reaching out to our communities,” and “strengthening our community” to create a sense of a museum’s broader mission and social purpose.  In describing some of its more recent funding initiatives, for example, the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) states that “museums are at the forefront of change in our communities” and they serve as “strong community anchors.”  In their  thirteen-page Strategic Plan for 2018-2022 entitled Transforming Communities (which is worth a read), the word ‘community’ or ‘communities’ is used thirty-six times.

Museums and cultural organizations are constantly being asked how effectively we’re serving our communities and how well we represent our community.  But foundations, granting organizations, civic entities, and funders do not have a consistent definition of what they even mean by community.  We can begin to read between the lines when we are asked about the ZIP codes we serve, the number of Title I schools visiting, and what programs we have for “at-risk” youth or “underserved” audiences (I really dislike those labels, BTW).  In many cases, community is defined as “people of diverse geographic, cultural, and socioeconomic backgrounds” or “families and individuals of diverse cultural and socio-economic backgrounds and needs.”  Whether we are defining these groups based on geography, interests, or experience, are we essentially talking about people who are not engaging with our institutions?

Nina Simon writes about this common misuse of the word community to refer to the general public or “everyone who doesn’t currently visit here.”  Inclusion catalyst and museum expert Porchia Moore discusses the dangers of using the word ‘community’ in a reductive way, such as when it is used to describe a large group of different people by focusing on a single attribute.  In the context of discussions about inclusion, Moore writes,Community’ becomes code for discussing black and brown visitors.”  Referring to a group as “the black community” or “the LGBTQ community” can be problematic when groups are perceived as a monolithic or singular community.  Moore advocates for museums to dig deeper into this language and how it reflects the decisions we make to develop one-off programs or exhibitions.

Museums have certainly been dedicating significant time and resources to reach this elusive and mysterious ‘community’ we so badly want to connect with and engage.  Institutions large and small now have staff positions dedicated to Community Outreach, Community Programs, or Community Partnerships, indicating this increased investment in what engaging community means for many institutions.  There also seem to be more departments or divisions within museums with “Community” added to the title—Learning and Community Programs, Family and Community Programs, Community Engagement, Access and Community Initiatives, etc.   And I must confess, I’m regularly interested in changing the title of my own department from Education and Public Programs to something that more closely reflects the work we’re doing to advance community-centered practices.

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community social justice art project at Portland Art Museum, 2016

Overall, there is a generally agreed-upon sense that reaching out to and engaging with community is a good thing for museums.  When we add this word to a staff position, department, or to our mission statements, it is done as a symbol of good intentions. Yet how do we effectively do this work and advocate for it if we don’t truly have a sense of what it means beyond connecting with “those other people” out there?

As museums vaguely define community or communities as groups that might not be engaging or connecting with the museum, there is also a troubling binary and divide we have created between ‘museum’ and ‘community.’  It’s so ingrained in the way so many of us talk about our work, myself included.  Museums are perceived as separate from communities; they are seen as buildings with collections, objects, exhibitions, and experts that are made available to communities on a limited basis.  Referring to some functions of the museum as “outreach” just reinforces this separation.  By default, museums then exist as disconnected, disengaged, and distanced from this idea of community.  And not thinking about where museum staff and volunteers fit into the idea of ‘community’ is problematic. When we use the word ‘community’ in our institutions, are we thinking about staff and those who work for the institution?  Overall, we are really feeding this gap by simply not addressing it.

So has the word ‘community’ just become a vague and almost meaningless expression?  Museum professionals use it too frequently and in ways that overlook its inherent complexities.   I fully realize that by writing this series of blog posts, I’m engaging in overuse of the term myself, but my interest here lies in unpacking the term and opening up many of the rich complexities tied up in this concept.

Rather than stop using this word or replace it with something else, I’m advocating for those working for and with museums to gain a deeper understanding of what community means.  I believe it is an extremely meaningful concept, and I am thoroughly excited to see it being used more frequently by museums and funding organizations.  We just need to explore and address the complexities involved with defining community and communities for our institutions.

Stay tuned for my next post in this series, which will lay out some of the ways we can define community in our practice.  Future posts will also address strategies for thinking more deeply about these issues and developing ways to bridge these gaps.

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ABOUT THE SERIES: Through this series of posts, I am exploring a range of ideas, challenges, and strategies for building community-centered practices in museums and advocating for deeper connections between institutions and community.    What do we mean by ‘community’?  How can we value community?  What are some strategies for change that we can enact now in our institutions?

I’m open to all types of critiques and questions, as long as they are aimed at moving this collective work forward.  My ideas, thoughts, and questions have emerged from decades of meaningful conversations with others, so I don’t claim ownership of these ideas — I simply hope they can spark new conversations and allow us all to add to our learning and growth as we work to transform museums.

Other Posts in This Series:

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About the Author

MIKE MURAWSKI: Founding author and editor of ArtMuseumTeaching.com, museum educator, and currently the Director of Education & Public Programs for the Portland Art Museum. Mike earned his MA and PhD in Education from American University in Washington, DC, focusing his research on educational theory and interdisciplinary learning in the arts. Prior to his position at the Portland Art Museum, he served as Director of School Services at the Saint Louis Art Museum as well as coordinator of education and public programs at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum at Washington University.  He is involved in the Museums as Sites of Social Action (MASS Action) initiative, contributing author to the MASS Action toolkit, and co-created the #MuseumsAreNotNeutral tshirt campaign with LaTanya Autry to erase the myth of museum neutrality. As a cultural activist and museum professional, he is passionate about how we can come to see museums as agents of change in their communities as well as sites for transformative learning and social action. He has led workshops and presented at conferences and institutions nationally and internationally, including a keynote at the 2016 MuseumNext conference. Mike’s postings on this site are his own and don’t represent the Portland Art Museum’s positions, strategies, or opinions.