Written by Alyssa Greenberg, doctoral candidate in the Department of Art History at the University of Illinois at Chicago; founding member of Museum Workers Speak
Reposted from The Incluseum blog, an online forum advocating that inclusion become an integral priority for all museums and flourish through supportive community relationships.
On September 25-26, I participated in MuseumNext’s first stateside convening at the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA). Since 2009, MuseumNext has organized annual conferences in cities across Europe to highlight current best practices and future directions for the museum field. Starting with Indianapolis this year, MuseumNext will hold conferences annually in the fall in the States and in the spring in Europe. This fall’s topic was “Building Inclusive Museums” (not to be confused with the International Conference on the Inclusive Museum — though it’s great to see the topic gaining increasingly widespread attention).Through two days of jam-packed conference sessions, the themes explored ranged from sharing power and authority with museum audiences to fostering more inclusive hiring and labor practices within institutions. In this blog post, I’ll share two of my greatest takeaways from the conference.
1. Redefining and interrogating inclusion
There were at least as many definitions of inclusion as there were speakers at the podium. Something that came up again and again was the idea of sharing power and responsibility with communities beyond museum walls. For example, Independent Curator and and Public Engagement Consultant Sarah Schultz used the Open Field project, which she founded at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, as a case study to explain how inviting “community members” (a phrase that merits further unpacking) into the process of creating public programming is essential to creating an inclusive space.
Similarly, in the realm of exhibition development, Smithsonian Curator Masum Momaya advocated engaging community members “from concept to closing.” Manager of Digital Content/Social Media Lori Byrd-McDevitt shared a case study of a “community blogging” initiative at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis.The museum demonstrated “radical trust” by allowing selected bloggers free rein to create content for their website. Byrd-McDevitt anticipated that questions of compensation might arise in the audience, and she was clear that community bloggers received the benefit of blogging experience as well as perks such as meals, goodie bags, access to museum events, and museum membership — but not financial compensation.
Momaya followed up on this topic in the Q&A following Simon’s talk, asking how an activist museum director can address wage disparity and privilege. Though Simon’s talk was called “Fighting for Inclusion,” she responded that the issues of working conditions described by Momaya were “not our fight” — a viewpoint with which I disagree. When museum staff members partner with community members to do museum work, and there’s an imbalance in voice or compensation or decision-making power, that partnership can reinforce rather than challenge social inequalities. If we are to continue promoting inclusion as a value within our field, we will need to put more thought into how to address this tension. How can we persuade museum workers at all levels — including museum leaders — that equitable working conditions are central to inclusion?
2. Who’s (not) in the room
Museum Evangelist Adrianne Russell pointed out that the high registration cost (tickets were in the $400 range) (not to mention travel costs!) kept MuseumNext attendance out of reach of many museum workers. I was fortunate to be able to attend the conference with the help of a senior colleague, who let me ride with her from Chicago and even subsidized my lodging! This amazing, above-and-beyond support for an emerging professional from a leader in the field was instrumental — but not everyone can be so lucky.
I concur with Russell that while the free livestreaming went quite far in making the conference accessible to a wider audience, the impact of having a more diverse community of museum workers in the room would have had a significant impact on the conference discourse, especially if the conference had had a more audience-engaged format. Many people followed the stream and engaged the conference topics over Twitter, but having their voices physically present to ask questions and address the presenters in person would be a huge improvement.
Presenters and participants alike called attention to who was in the room — and who was missing. With a few exceptions, the “sea of white women” (to borrow an apt phrase someone used to describe the museum field at a Museum Workers Speak event in Chicago) was visible both behind the podium and in the audience. This topic deserves further interrogation. In her presentation, Co-Founder of Brown Girls Museum Blog Ravon Ruffin mentioned the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Art Museum Staff Demographic Survey and argued, “We can’t talk about museums unless we confront our own privilege to collectively be in this room.”
By far, the most radical and provocative presentations were delivered by women of color — specifically, Co-Founder of Museum Hue Monica O. Montgomery, Momaya, and Ruffin. Those are the presentations I encourage you, readers, to watch or rewatch. Throughout the conference, most of the presentations delivered by white women were operating in the “success story” mode pervasive in the museum field, flattering participants’ current understandings of inclusion without pushing further. Why was the critical role of pushing the field to work harder for inclusion seemingly left to women of color alone? And since they did speak up, will we listen?
Written by Emily Lytle-Painter, Los Angeles County Museum of Art
The MuseWomen Initiative started in 2013 as an impassioned breakout conference session to talk about women and leadership in the museum technology sector. More meet-ups have followed, and the community has responded positively- this is something people want to talk about! Discussion topics include money, skill acquisition, career advancement, as well as how the museum field could be an example for other technology sectors struggling with implementing diversity across their organizations.
The more we spoke about how to better support women in the field, the more we realized that we needed to move from talking to action, and thanks to the ongoing leadership of Brinker Ferguson (@brinkerf) throughout 2015, we have made some important strides in establishing two new projects.
Our pilot mentorship program, chaired by Liz Filardi (@lizfilardi) of the Met, is designed to supplement the MCN2015 conference experience (with no formal affiliation to MCN). Mentoring is one of the most important ways to establish a foothold in a community, and we created this program to bring intention and a lightweight structure to something you may already be doing unofficially.
Here’s how it will work: Prior to the conference, we will carefully assign mentor/mentee pairs based on the responses. On the first day, we will host a casual meet-up, and on the last day, we close with happy hour. That’s basically it. We’ll provide some tips to make the most of the experience, but you decide the rest: when to meet during the conference and if you want to keep in touch afterword.
Anyone attending MCN can participate as a mentor or a mentee. If you aren’t going to the conference, please share your email with us anyway, for (what we hope will be) future online iterations.
Additionally, we are collecting information to better understand some of the opportunities and roadblocks for women in the field. Designed by recent graduate Cait Reizman (@MuseumAdvoCait), this survey will help us to better understand the employment landscape for aspiring, current, and past museum workers, interns, and volunteers.
We seek responses from people of all gender identities who live in the United States. Data collected will be anonymized and used to report on women working in museums. We hope to present on the information gathered at future conferences as well as publish a report online in 2016.
Reposted from project CODE WORDS, an experiment in online publishing and discourse around issues of technology and theory in museums. Read more great essays by leading thinkers in the field by visiting the project on Medium. [republished with permission of the authors]
In the early nineteenth century, a small population of free people of color speckled the United States. Some of them did not disrupt the status quo, but revolutionaries like Denmark Vesey of Charleston, South Carolina called for the nation to burn.
A founding member of Emmanuel AME Church, Vesey primarily recruited church members for the insurrection. His plan leaked to slave owners before he could make Charleston a site of liberation. The Mayor organized a militia to catch all co-conspirators. Vigilante justice reigned over the city too, but it did not stop for good. On June 17, 2015 self-proclaimed white supremacist Dylan Roof reignited that spirit of vigilante justice and murdered nine Emmanuel AME Church parishioners with the intent to start a race war nearly a century after Vesey planned his uprising.
Black people have long struggled for their freedom and civil rights in America. Denmark Vesey is an example of this. Therefore, uprisings across the nation after repeated incidents of white police officers shooting unarmed black citizens is not just an inciting 2015 headline. It falls along the continuum of black people protesting against state sanctioned violence and over policing in their communities. So why do museums continually hesitate in responding to Ferguson and Baltimore and Staten Island and Cleveland and Charleston and…?
Are Museums Really Ready to Respond to Ferguson?
In Bridget McKenzie’s Code:Words piece, “Toward the Sociocratic Museum”, McKenzie proposes a new model of museum to counter the existing plutocratic and bureaucratic archetypes that have arisen from plunder and oppression or are discomfitingly in bed with problematic corporate entities, respectively. In theory, the sociocratic museum would forego being participatory and engaging on its surface for “governance that is non-hierarchical, consent-based and rooted in its communities.” Recently, museums have championed inclusion and engagement. But the digital landscape and communities of color have pushed back, creating spaces that discuss their lived experience and critiquing how other people view it.
McKenzie’s piece cited #museumsrespondtoFerguson, a Twitter chat we co-host the third Wednesday of each month 1PMCST/2PMEST, as an example of how people-driven movements in the digital realm can inspire change in museums. In 2014, tens of thousands of Americans took to the streets protesting the killings of unarmed black citizens by police in Staten Island, Beavercreek, Ferguson, Cleveland, Baltimore (and unfortunately many more in subsequent months). These actions were inspired, organized, shared (and ultimately spied on) via a host of digital platforms, most notably Twitter, which has the highest percentage of black adult users according to recent research. It’s the digital equivalent of an old-school office water cooler. It’s where news breaks, information is shared, and racist tomfoolery is dragged to the carpet.
Claiming Their Space Digitally
#BlackLivesMatter, and other movements, rallied marginalized people and amplified their unified voices. They claimed virtual space instead of waiting for it to be doled out to them. Traditional gatekeepers were rendered moot. Schools, arts organizations, libraries, and other entities responded with public statements denouncing police brutality, presented related programs, or offered their venues as community gathering spaces.
“No matter what a museum’s legal structure, whether publicly funded, or authorised by society to function as a charity, it is expected to contribute to the common good. If its basic values do not include solidarity with the excluded, then the museum is reinforcing that exclusion”
Museums pride themselves on embodying the common good, on honoring its social compacts, and being physically and virtually relevant. Precious resources are devoted to “engagement”, a term so buzzy and overused that it often elicits groans and eye-rolls from museum employees tasked with bringing the nebulous concept to life.
These colleagues regularly communicate via tags such as #musesocial, #musetech, and #museEd to crowdsource solutions and exchange practices, so convening in digital spaces isn’t new. However, using those spaces to openly examine anti-blackness in museums certainly is.
Twitter: The Tool for Activists Online
Social activism is inherently risky but protest in the physical world can take place with a certain degree of professional protection. You can demonstrate outside of work hours or anonymously donate to causes of your choice. But participating in a Twitter chat explicitly dedicated to confronting your current or potential employers’ systemic oppression under your personal account, which might even include your image (and almost overwhelmingly some variation of a “these ideas are mine alone” disclaimer), is practically an act of rebellion in an industry with a long history of conformity, exclusion, and aversion to transparency.
The aforementioned Joint Statement was born digitally and continues to live online, making it more accessible than a paper document. Conversations responding to overarching themes like race, police brutality and community relations dominate the online landscape now. The monthly Twitter chat is a limb of the statement, keeping the conversation alive. Twitter has been the most appropriate online social media platform seeing that it is the most immediate and democratic.
Facebook, the most popular social media platform, originally started exclusively for Harvard students. Eventually, it expanded to a service for all Ivy League schools along with Stanford University. It was not until 2006 that anyone of appropriate age could join the site. Contrarily, Twitter has always allowed anyone with a valid email address to join the site. Anyone can build a sizeable audience without educational, economic or social weight.
While one of the high points of Twitter is that it very democratic, that aspect also hurts our ability to account for everyone engaged in the conversation. Twitter allows participants to see the full conversation. It also gives them the choice to be an onlooker without forcing them to participate. Because of this, we know there is a group of people who read the Tweets but do not contribute to the conversation. This is frustrating because it does not allow us to capture a complete sample of the comments surrounding certain themes.
To capture the Tweets that are present in the chat, we use Storify. While Storify provides a great summary of the chat, it does not retain tweets if a user deletes them. We are still researching the best tools for tracking tweets on a limited (i.e. no) budget. So far, NodeXL (visual) and TAGS (archiving) are possible contenders due to free, open source templates, although the TAGS archive reflects some bias in its often incomplete results.
Twitter is also useful in the sense that it’s immediate. It’s a space for discourse and thinking aloud in public. And it has a record for social change. Among many other times, Egyptians most notably used Twitter in 2011 to organize actions in hopes of overthrowing President Hosni Mubarak. Its record for serving as a platform for social change made it the top choice for housing #museumsrespondtoFerguson.
This particular Storify, which focused on museums and oppression illustrates how Twitter introduced new perspectives and sources outside the mainstream to some of our chat participants. Margaret Middleton noted, #BlackLivesMatter has completely transformed the way I see the world.” Through these chats, Twitter continues to demonstrate to us that we can spread information that disrupts traditional narratives quickly and effectively.
The Stutter-Step Between Hashtag to Action
For all the good Twitter is, it still presents some challenges. How do we move out of an online safe space, to a space of action? We did not even provide a Storify for our fifth chat which asked participants to share anti-blackness work they have engaged since being a part of #museumsrespondtoFerguson. There were barely any tweets to archive. Instead of seeing action, that particular chat pulled back a veneer and exposed fear and tepid hopes. After several chats, it seemed like participants were still unsure about how to respond to Ferguson. We have pushed for museums and museum professionals to first examine the ways they perpetuate or dismantle oppression. Before museums can truly engage communities, they have to do the internal work. To be sure, this work is not easy, and it is far more complex than providing a tidy and succinct list of ten steps to engage with the black community.
Some comments, like one that relegated #museumsrespondtoFerguson to being “about museum staff talking amongst themselves — not a bad thing, but seems tangential in some way to community engagement,” are discouraging. Museums can’t engage communities of color before acknowledging and working through their role in marginalizing black and brown people. Furthermore, museum professionals cannot continue to cite early museologists like John Cotton Dana without providing the context that Newark struggled with desegregating its public spaces.
While John Cotton Dana wrote about engaging all people and making collections accessible and relevant, black people were not necessarily included in this plan. Dana demonstrated progressive ideas about gender, but never explicitly advocated for race equity. This is the type of deconstruction that needs to take place before museums attempt to engage a community that they have historically turned away. Learning about the likes of Mabel Wilson, in addition to Dana, makes for a more thoughtful and relevant approach to engaging black communities. #museumsrespondtoFerguson seeks to expose participants to different voices and thought processes that museums continue to ignore.
The chat generates thoughtful commentary, and has also inspired #MuseumWorkersSpeak, a conversation about labor and equity in the field. However, participants express some hesitancy, and even fearfulness, in putting these conversations to action. This was especially evident in our fifth chat where participants could barely answer the questions because they had not actually put in work to evaluate or comment on. We have not found the best solution for moving the conversation to action. Jumping back to the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, participants in their online advocacy never hesitated to take action. Action was intuitive. They believed in change and were willing to work for it.
Maybe, in this country racial change is not intuitive. And while Twitter can foster productive conversations, it has not fostered enough tangible actions in the museum community. The Charleston Massacre unfortunately connects us to the nineteenth century motto of vigilante justice against black people. Museums can no longer view contemporary iterations of racialized violence as traumatic headlines too difficult to work through in their spaces. As organizations with renewed commitment to community engagement, #museumsrespondtoFerguson needs to manifest in gallery spaces, programming and outreach.
Exceptional post that I wanted to reblog from Incluseum about the Northwest African American Museum’s response to Ferguson and the lessons learned. Thanks to Chieko Phillips, Leilani Lewis, and everyone at the Incluseum for sharing these insights.
In the weeks that have followed the grand jury’s decision not to indict Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of unarmed teen Michael Brown, museums and museum professionals across the country have been wondering how to respond. A twitter hashtag, #MuseumsRespondToFerguson, was launched the day after the verdict announcement to promote and document discussion on the topic. The Association of African American Museums (AAAM) released a statement and a group of museum bloggers collaborated on a response to the recent events (more on that soon). Examples of how museums have responded are few while questions about how to best respond abound. Given this situation, we are happy to share an article our friends Chieko Phillips and Lailani Lewis from the Northwest African American Museum (NAAM) wrote for the AAAM’s latest newsletter on how their museum responded to Mike Brown’s shooting back in August. The article below, which was also…
The recent series of events, from Ferguson to Cleveland and New York, have created a watershed moment. Things must change. New laws and policies may help, but any movement toward greater cultural and racial understanding and communication must be supported by our country’s cultural and educational infrastructure. Museums are a part of this educational and cultural network. What should be our role(s)?
Schools and other arts organizations are rising to the challenge. University law schools are hosting seminars on Ferguson. Colleges are addressing greater cultural and racial understanding in various courses. National education organizations and individual teachers are developing relevant curriculum resources, including the #FergusonSyllabus project initiated by Dr. Marcia Chatelain. Artists and arts organizations are contributing their spaces and their creative energies. And pop culture icons, from basketball players to rock stars, are making highly visible commentary with their clothes and voices.
Where do museums fit in? Some might say that only museums with specific African American collections have a role, or perhaps only museums situated in the communities where these events have occurred. As mediators of culture, all museums should commit to identifying how to connect to relevant contemporary issues irrespective of collection, focus, or mission.
We are a community of museum bloggers who write from a variety of perspectives and museum disciplines. Yet our posts contain similar phrases such as “21st century museums,” “changing museum paradigms,” “inclusiveness,” “co-curation,” “participatory” and “the museum as forum.” We believe that strong connections should exist between museums and their communities. Forging those connections means listening and responding to those we serve and those we wish to serve.
There is hardly a community in the U.S. that is untouched by the reverberations emanating from Ferguson and its aftermath. Therefore we believe that museums everywhere should get involved. What should be our role — as institutions that claim to conduct their activities for the public benefit — in the face of ongoing struggles for greater social justice both at the local and national level?
We urge museums to consider these questions by first looking within. Are staff members talking about Ferguson and the deeper issues it raises? How do they relate to the mission and audience of your museum? Do you have volunteers? What are they thinking and saying? How can the museum help volunteers and partners address their own questions about race, violence, and community?
We urge museums to look to their communities. Are there civic organizations in your area that are hosting conversations? Could you offer your auditorium as a meeting place? Could your director or other senior staff join local initiatives on this topic? If your museum has not until now been involved in community discussions, you may be met at first with suspicion as to your intentions. But now is a great time to start being involved.
Join with your community in addressing these issues. Museums may offer a unique range of resources and support to civic groups that are hoping to organize workshops or public conversations. Museums may want to use this moment not only to “respond” but also to “invest”in conversations and partnerships that call out inequity and racism and commit to positive change.
We invite you to join us in amplifying this statement. As of now, only the Association of African American Museums has issued a formal statement (show link) about the larger issues related to Ferguson, Cleveland, and Staten Island. We believe that the silence of other museum organizations sends a message that these issues are the concern only of African Americans and African American museums. We know that this is not the case. This is a concern of all Americans. We are seeing in a variety of media – blogs, public statements, and conversations on Twitter and Facebook — that colleagues of all racial and ethnic backgrounds are concerned and are seeking guidance and dialogue in understanding the role of museums regarding these troubling events. We hope that organizations such as the American Alliance of Museums; the Association of Science-Technology Centers; the Association of Children’s Museums; the American Association for State and Local History and others, will join us in acknowledging the connections between our institutions and the social justice issues highlighted by Ferguson and related events.
You can join us by…
Posting and sharing this statement on your organization’s website or social media
Contributing to and following the Twitter tag #museumsrespondtoFerguson which is growing daily
In light of recent events concerning the situation in Ferguson, Missouri, and the ongoing protests, conversations, debates, arguments, emotional outpourings, and moments for learning that are occurring for all of us, I simply wanted to post some links to resources that might help support teaching and learning during this time of crisis and healing. Or perhaps to just start — or continue to build — a process of learning and peaceful conversation. Most of these have been circulating since August, and I have found them extremely useful for my own personal learning as well as broader implications for museum teaching practice. If any museums, libraries, teachers, or schools are utilizing other resources in terms of addressing these pressing issues with your communities, students, and audiences, please add them in the Comments section below or send them to me directly at email@example.com so I can add them here. This is considered as an organic, growing list of resources sourced by the ArtMuseumTeaching.com community and our readership.
My heart goes out to everyone in my hometown of St. Louis. Please stay safe.
“Whether you find yourself teaching in a schoolhouse, in your living room with your children, at a community meeting filled with movement members, in a church basement with others who seek racial reconciliation, or in a detention center common room, [these] resources … provide a snapshot of what is being taught, what is being felt, and what is being created each day.” – Marcia Chatelain
“Teaching the #FergusonSyllabus,” by Dr. Marcia Chatelain for Dissent Magazine online, reflecting on the #FergusonSyllabus project after the Grand Jury decision pertaining to Ferguson, Missouri.
The Illipsis: on Ferguson, riots and human limits— in this second installment of The Illipsis, Jay Smooth looks back at the events in #Ferguson and asks how we can truly apply Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s advice that “riots are the language of the unheard.”
Katherine Brooks wrote a short piece for HuffingtonPost on December 5th that surveyed how artists have been quick to echo the nation’s near constant calls for justice and clarity in the wake of Michael Brown’s killing in Ferguson, Missouri. As she writes, “The landscape of St. Louis might be marred by isolated acts of vandalism and law enforcement crackdowns, but art is still flourishing.”
“#BlackLivesMatter – Teachers and Students,” (VIDEO EMBEDDED BELOW) a live conversation on December 10, 2014, from Teachers Teaching Teachers and EdTechTalk, a collaborative open educational technology community. Thanks to the amazing Paul Allison and everyone who participated in these conversations.
“Ferguson – Share what you are learning and teaching,”(VIDEO EMBEDDED BELOW) a live conversation on December 7, 2014, from Teachers Teaching Teachers and EdTechTalk, a collaborative open educational technology community. Thanks to the amazing Paul Allison who hosted the conversation with Renee Watson, Christopher Rodgers, Chris Sloan, and Janae Williams to talk about police brutality, the murder of black men, racism, and what we are teaching after Ferguson, Michael Brown, Eric Garner… and more.
“Teaching #BlackLivesMatter: Countering the Pedagogies of Anti-Black Racism,” Friday, December 19, The Graduate Center, CUNY. An event where we can think through how to address racialization and state power as scholar-teachers, working at the level of both immediately executable plans for teaching/research, and longer term strategies for making the academy accountable to racial violence. The event will begin by breaking into smaller groups and contributing to a collaborative syllabus. Please feel free to add to it beforehand, or if you can’t be at the event, join the Google Doc around 10:00 am next Friday (12/19).
#MuseumsRespondToFerguson – Margaret Middleton of the Boston Children’s Museum began this hashtag now being used to track the way that museums are responding to issues related to Ferguson. Middleton also created a Pinterest Board “Museum Response to Ferguson” with relevant links and resources.
TWITTER CHAT: Dec. 17, 2014, 2-3 PM (EST). Join this live Twitter chat on social justice, advocacy, and the museum field’s responses to the issues of racism, injustice, and police brutality. Follow and join the conversation using the tag#museumsrespondtoferguson.
Written by Amanda Blake, Head of Family, Access, & School Experiences, and Danielle Schulz, Teaching Specialist, Dallas Museum of Art
Reposted from the Dallas Museum of Art’s education blog DMA Canvas, where the museum’s fantastic education team writes about creativity, community outreach, technology, and insights into the field of museum education.
Many people may not think that of an art museum as the ideal field trip location for a group of children with visual impairment, but when the Dallas Independent School District (DISD) contacted the Dallas Museum of Art (DMA) earlier this summer with such a tour request, we were eager to provide the best experience possible. When discussing the visit with vision teachers at DISD, they felt it was important to expose their students to art and wanted an experience that would illustrate to the students that they too have the ability to create and appreciate art just as well as any other student.
The Planning Process
The Dallas Museum of Art has never before offered guided touch tours to visitors with visual impairment, but after speaking with our Director of Exhibition Design, we learned that she fully supports inclusive gallery teaching, and thus was open to supporting the Museum’s first ever touch tour. We talked with our colleagues in the exhibitions and conservation departments and found that they too were fully supportive of trying out a touch tour with the DISD students. The DMA Sculpture Garden was identified as the best place for our inaugural touch tour, since the objects in the garden are designed for an outdoor space and are thus subject to (and able to withstand) a variety of natural elements. We also felt that it was essential for the students to have the galleries to themselves during the tour, so as not to confuse other visitors about the acceptability of touching works of art, as well as for the overall comfort of the students with vision impairment. We therefore decided to schedule the touch tour for a Monday, when the Museum is closed to the public.
Our next step in the planning process was to walk through the space as a group, making note of areas that may be problematic for someone with vision impairment to navigate. The team was comprised of education, conservation, and exhibitions staff, and everyone on the team raised thoughtful questions and contributed wonderful ideas! We discussed which works of art may be the best for a tactile experience, and our conservators suggested that the kids have the chance to touch the works of art without gloves (which is usually unheard of in other touch tours!). Our exhibitions team offered to wash and hand-clean the works we selected so that they would be nice and clean for the experience. And one conservator suggested we select works of art that were large enough to be touched by more than one student at a time, so that the students could talk to one another about what they felt as they each touched the artwork.
After squaring things away with the exhibitions and conservation teams, the education team began planning the educational experiences of the tour. We prepared for twenty-five students, ranging in age from six to thirteen years, all with a range of visual impairment. The majority of students in the group had some residual vision, while two students were very photophobic, and two were blind from birth. Due to the range of abilities of our tour group, our education team knew it was important to include a variety of artworks in the tour (in addition to those on the touch tour), integrate many descriptive explanations of works of art and hands-on activities, and to have numerous tactile objects available.
In the Galleries
When designing the overall tour, we selected a variety of objects that spanned time periods, artistic techniques, and geographic locations. We visited two contemporary art sculptures in the Sculpture Garden for the touch portion, two Abstract Expressionist works in the contemporary gallery, and a mask in the African gallery. Our aim was to engage all of the senses throughout our tour, as we believe that presenting multiple representations of content would effectively cater to the different learning styles of the group. We created a multi-modal experience by collecting auditory clips for sound stimulation, tactile materials and replica objects for touch, Jelly Belly jelly beans for taste sensations, and essential oils and scented colored pencils for olfactory information.
Each stop on the tour had a visual description of the gallery space and of the works of art we focused on, because it was important for us to situate ourselves, the children, and the art in space, as the sense of bodily awareness in space is something that many people without vision impairment may take for granted. Much of our time in the galleries was spent guiding students in tactile looking activities connected to specific works of art and facilitating conversations about texture and form. For instance, we created a reproduction of Jasper John’s Device so that the students could not only touch canvas and feel layers of paint, but they could also replicate moving the wooden stretchers back and forth across the canvas, while imagining the technique in which Johns spread the paint back and forth.
In the African galleries, we focused on a helmet mask made by the Kuba people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and passed around raffia, cowrie shells, feathers and other materials found in the mask. Additionally, we played sound clips of the various animals that related to the mask.
Relating to Richard Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park No. 29, we discussed how an artist could depict a place using sounds, smells, and taste. The students each ate a jelly bean and imagined the color they believed the flavor might represent. Next, they used a scented colored pencil to illustrate a place based on that smell. We also played sound clips of ocean waves and boat horns to recreate the Santa Monica locale that inspired Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park series.
Our tour concluded with a sensory drawing activity that took place at the large fountain outside the Museum’s Flora Street entrance. The students listened to the sounds created by the water in the fountain, and considered how the water (and space around it) might appear, what color the water would be, even how the smell would be rendered. We gave each student a piece of thin Styrofoam and a pencil to create their drawing of the fountain; the students were able to feel the indented lines they drew onto the Styrofoam and took turns sharing their creations with one another.
Until Next Time
This was an exceptional experience for DISD students, teachers, and DMA staff alike. One teacher who helped to organize this visit said that this experience “might be the only time this whole summer [the students] get this opportunity to learn tactually, through their auditory channels and their residual vision, which sighted people take so much for granted.” It was a transformative experience as well for our Museum. We are honored to have been a part of this experience, and cannot celebrate enough the fantastic support and collaboration exhibited by DMA staff from many different departments. A huge thank you to DISD for bringing their students, and a thousand thank you’s to the DMA’s conservation, exhibitions, visitor services, and security teams. This was a team effort and we appreciate the unified support and assistance—let’s hope this is the first of many touch tours to come!
Read more about the Dallas Museum of Art’s education programs, community outreach, and explorations in creativity through their educator blog: DMA Canvas.
Written by Marianna Pegno and Traci Quinn, University of Arizona
In our chapter entitled “Collaborating with Communities: New Conceptualizations of Hybridized Museum Practice” in Multiculturalism in Art Museums Today (2014), we explore Homi K. Bhabha’s ideas of hybridity and cultural translation as they apply to our own practices. We focused on two programs — Peaceful Migrations and Giving Voice — wherein participant voice was key to creating content, programmatic structures, and exhibition design. In this reflection we demonstrate how these guiding frameworks continue to inspire our practice as museum educators and researchers, and further explore how we utilized these ideas while developing an exhibition entitled [IN] Translation. Focusing on the concept of hybridity, we reflect on three continuing issues:
the difficulties of including many voices;
persistent hierarchy and departmental separation in museums; and
our desire to include the museum visitor as a key player in hybrid museum practice.
Bhabha (1994) explains hybridity as an act that “entertains difference without an assumed or imposed hierarchy” (p. 5). Through this lens, we view the museum as a place of multiple meanings that produces a mixing and mingling of ideas, opinions, and creative visions. For museum educators, it can foster new ways of thinking about educational practice, programmatic structure, and exhibition content not as separate entities but as collaborating endeavors. Thus, through the process of developing [IN]Translation, our goal was to work with audiences and artists to rethink how the museum pedagogy can be more experiential in nature. We were working to transform the museum into an empowering environment that conversed with multiple narratives rather than simply our own curatorial or educational voice.
Thoughts After Publication
We continue to grapple with hybridity as it relates to museum education and institutional structures. In the development of educational programs we are trying to include as many voices as possible — which is not always easy. We have continued working with refugee families who participated in Giving Voice to develop in-gallery activities in which participants collaboratively created narratives about artworks in the museum. As a result, some of these reflections were affixed as a wall label next to the respective artwork, empowering refugee participants to display ideas about an artwork. While the institution has been more accepting of our work to reflect hybridity within the museum space, it is not as widely pervasive as we would like and only selectively displayed and included.
In relation, we constantly face inquiries and pushback from individuals and colleagues who are unfamiliar with the projects or who have no desire to make museum practice more collaborative across departments and with audiences. The projects we discussed in the book chapter and the projects we continue to develop & research take significant effort and time in order to avoid falling back into the institutional habits of hierarchy.
Individuals that do not have a relationship with the projects are often reluctant to participate in shared planning – or simply cannot dedicate the necessary time. We believe that their experience in the field is invaluable to the success of collaborative efforts, and yet we are met with frustration when they remain separate from educational motivations and thus the program participants.
Another issue that emerged throughout the development of our chapter and ongoing practices was our inability to anticipate visitors’ responses to exhibitions and educational endeavors addressing racial, political, and cultural interpretations of hybridity. When addressing such content, many visitors revert to stereotypical views that we are hoping to complicate through hybridized co-creation. Thus, we have been pressed to develop new experiences in the gallery that foster hybridity within the audiences’ interaction with the museum space and artworks. This idea of including visitor voice was one of the central components to the curatorial and educational design of [IN] Translation.
Thoughts on [IN] Translation
Through [IN] Translation, which was displayed in an exhibition space where were not beholden to a defined structure or hierarchy, we were able to explore these above concerns further and reflect upon our practice under conditions that fostered an ideal hybrid between education, curation, artist, and visitor voice. More specifically, we designed educational installations to supplement the works of art, most of which included opportunities for visitors to add visual or text elements and share stories and reflections. The goal was for the works and the participatory elements to hold equal weight in the design of the exhibit.
[IN] Translation featured eight works of art: one commissioned multi-media work by collaborating curator and artist Anh-Thuy Nguyen, plus seven juried works. The educational component of each artwork was planned with the artists throughout the development of the exhibition, in order to ensure that the artwork was not inappropriately changed or compromised by the educational elements. This exhibition provided us an opportunity to challenge hierarchies within a gallery space. We were able to show how the multiple positionalities of educator, curator, artist, and visitor inform one another – migrate within, around, and through one another – in order to foster a different sense of a museum experience.
[IN] Translation was an opportunity to play with the boundaries that normally exist as impermeable divisions between curator, artist, educator, and visitor; we could question how these roles could be seen as transitional, or process based. Within this exhibition we recognized how ideal this space was, especially considering that freedoms from hierarchical structures will not always be present in a more traditional museum or gallery setting. However, the instance of hybridity, in which these four voices were all present, gave way to dynamic conversations and learning opportunities and are worth noting for our future practice in more traditionally defined spaces. As we evolve as researchers, museum educators, and collaborators, our goal is to continue to develop programming that positions experiential learning at the core of curatorial and educational design.
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ABOUT THE AUTHORS
TRACI QUINN: Doctoral student at the University of Arizona in the department of Art and Visual Culture Education. Traci’s research focuses on museum and community-based education. Currently, she is researching instances that challenge the hierarchical structure of museums and exhibition design and how exhibition and program can be collaboratively developed. After working in museums and community-based organizations for over 7 years, Traci has experience in the various facets of museum education including: program development, docent training, grant writing, community outreach, and institutional partnerships. As an art educator and a researcher, Traci is committed to the development of museum-based education as a catalyst for culturally rich and dynamic experiences.
MARIANNA PEGNO: Doctoral student at the University of Arizona in the department of Art and Visual Culture Education. Marianna’s research focuses on community and museum collaborations exploring instances of decentered authority and equitable partnerships. Having worked in museums for more than 8 years, Marianna has experience in museum management, educational programming, and curatorial practice. She has developed inclusive museum programming including tours for the visually impaired, K-12 enrichment programs for at-risk youth, and a multi-visit program for refugee families. In practice and research, Marianna aims to transform the museum into a community-centered institution, which is responsive to the voices of its constituency.
On August 20th, ArtMuseumTeaching.com brought together a group of authors and editors of the book Multiculturalism in Art Museums Today for a live discussion via Google+ Hangout. Those joining the Hangout included Joni Boyd Acuff, Marianna Adams, Briley Rasmussen, Alicia Viera, and Veronica Betancourt. Please find the video archive of this conversation below, and enjoy!
Don’t Have Your Copy of the Book Yet? No problem. As part of this collaboration with Rowman & Littlefield Publishers through this series of posts about Multiculturalism in Art Museums Today, we are able to offer ArtMuseumTeaching.com readers a special discount. To receive a 25% discount, go towww.rowman.com to order this book and enter the discount code: 4S14ACUEVA
Written by Joni Boyd Acuff, Ohio State University, and Laura Evans, University of North Texas
As dear friends and colleagues, we met in the middle for the book Multiculturalism in Art Museums Today (Rowman & Litlefield, 2014). We — Joni, an expert in critical multiculturalism, and Laura, whose specialty is art museum education — had known each other for years and talked about just about everything, but never truly understood what the other researched in more than a cursory manner. The idea to collaborate came from this uncomfortable space of not really knowing what the other person did with their work. We decided to find out instead of to continue in our ignorance of what was really important to the other person. And, hence, this book was born. We realized as the Venn diagram of our research interests intersected, that there was a big gap in the literature on multiculturalism in art museum education. “Why?” we wondered. And, secondly, “What can we do about it?”
The book, Multiculturalism in Art Museums Today, is the result of this curiosity and our inquiries, as well as the diligent, creative, and groundbreaking work of our contributors (some of whom will also be posting here on ArtMuseumTeaching.com in the next few weeks). In this post, we will attempt to explain why we think multicultural practices in art museum education are important, and give a context for the book. We welcome your thoughts, comments, and questions, and hope that we can provide a welcoming space for stories and sharing.
Why is a Book on Multiculturalism in Art Museum Education Important?
First of all, what is critical multiculturalism, in brief?
Critical multicultural education works to investigate the maintenance of authentic cultural history, the subjugation of non-dominant cultural knowledge and the continuous movement, fluidity and evolution of culture (May, 1999). Multiculturalism in Art Museums Today aims to consider ways in which museums can work more effectively to become “social systems that enable the spaces of equitable educative possibility” (Dixon-Roman, 2012, p.3). We conceptualize equitable education as inclusive, comprehensive and “ubiquitous to the social process of thinking, feeling, being, and doing everyday human experiences” (Dixon-Roman, 2012, p.3), as per the tenants of critical multiculturalism. Unfortunately, as historic and existing debate suggests, museums struggle to meet the educational needs of its diverse patrons. If a museum is a suggested way of seeing the world (Macdonald & Fyfe, 1996); it is fair to assert that it must support various cultural frames of reference, as well as numerous versions and translations of the world. A practical and theoretical resource on multicultural museum education is important for two main reasons:
the increasingly diversified population of the United States, and
the heightened attention (due to economic, political, cultural, and ethical stimulus in the museum profession) and added importance placed on museum educators as representatives of their institutions, their field, and their communities.
These two realities provide the basis for this book and for the readers, who we hope will benefit from a deeper understanding of critical multiculturalism and its applications to museum education.
The U.S. is diversifying at a rapid rate and it is important that museum educators acknowledge, accept, and learn how to utilize the educational benefits of having such diverse populations to consider. According to the 2010 U.S. census:
20% of the population over the age of five speaks a language other than English at home.
72% of citizens are white, non- Hispanic; 16% Hispanic or Latino; 13% black or African American; .9% American Indian or Alaska Native; 5% Asian; 1% Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander; 5.5% another race; and 2.4% two or more races.
The projected racial composition of the United States in the year 2050 is 50.1% white, non-Hispanic, 24.4% Hispanic, 14.6% black, 8% Asian, and 5.3% all other races.
These statistics show that America is a vastly diverse nation and will continue to become even more so. Therefore, issues surrounding multiculturalism and equity will remain relevant and important as social and political issues. The above statistics are a stark reminder that art museums should be institutions of inclusivity, rather than exclusivity, and they show us why it is important for museum educators to understand the complexities and practicalities of critical multiculturalism. As stated by Winter (1992):
“At issue is the social and educational responsibility of public institutions in the face of cultural diversity, as opposed to the moral assumption of the museum as repository, both of ‘Art’ and of cultural values.”
Multiculturalism in Art Museums Today seeks to situate the educational role of the museum as one of multicultural expansion rather than abbreviation.
Context for Multiculturalism in Art Museums Today
Some people believe that “isms” (ex: racism, sexism, classism, ableism, etc.) are no longer relevant to the discourse around museums. In reality, the goal for museums and museum educators to engage in critical multicultural education work is relevant more now than ever. While some scholars and educators argue that issues of race, class, gender and sexuality are problems of the past, current data reveals that oppression based on these social indicators persist and have actually magnified well into the twenty first century (Weber, 2010).
According to the U.S. Census Bureau and the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, since the year 2000, the international economic crisis has intensified inequities of race, ethnicity, gender, and class; specifically, accessibility to higher education decreased dramatically, as tuition and fees more than doubled, disproportionately affecting groups with low socioeconomic status most (Weber, 2010). In addition, sexual politics relating to same sex marriage and same sex adoption laws continue to be heavily contested in most states. Social inequalities are still heavily implicating the present and future of members of non-dominant groups (Weber, 2010). Therefore, it is imperative that we continue to call for critical pedagogies and praxis that “confront the racial, class, gender, and homophobic biases woven into the fabric of society” (Stuhr, Ballengee-Morris, and Daniel, 2008, p. 83).
Why are we attempting this call to action?
Because, if repetition is the precursor to establishing a habit, then we feel that it is necessary and important to continue checking in on issues of diversity in our museums so that, someday, things might change to a greater degree than the infinitesimal shift that has occurred so far in our museums. Eileen Hooper-Greenhill (2006) wrote a decade ago about the shift in museums, the “turn” towards the visitor. We would parenthetically like to add emphasis to Hooper-Greenhill’s call to action, to suggest that we need to (re)turn to the visitor. This shift in language alludes to the realization that, in turning to the visitor, we, as museum educators, need to revisit what turning to the visitor means in a rapidly diversifying society where museums are frequently being turned away from by public(s) that we do not serve. The authors who contributed to this book are a group of groundbreaking, talented, empathetic, creative, change agents. They are museum educators, researchers, writers, and human beings who care about the audiences they serve in deep and meaningful ways.
Through case-study examples, the authors of Multiculturalism in Art Museums Today address issues such as cultural misrepresentation in the museum, inequality as it relates to resources, and the exclusion of certain voices in the museum. They offer practical, contemporary educative practices that foster democratic, equitable museum practices. We believe that museums have the potential to be agents of social change and, in this way, our book is hopeful and inspiring, as it identifies and commends the effective practices that some museum educators and staff have enacted in an effort to be inclusive. We hope to show, through the chosen chapters, how the merger of museums and diversity initiatives can create positive change and can help guide, address, and suggest ways that museums can be more inclusive, supportive, and equitable spaces for all visitors.
Online Book Club Hangout (VIDEO)
On August 20th, ArtMuseumTeaching.com brought together a group of authors and editors of the book Multiculturalism in Art Museums Today for a live discussion via Google+ Hangout. Those joining the Hangout included Joni Boyd Acuff, Marianna Adams, Briley Rasmussen, Alicia Viera, and Veronica Betancourt. Please find the video archive of this conversation below, and enjoy!
Don’t Have Your Copy of the Book Yet? No problem. As part of this collaboration with Rowman & Littlefield Publishers through this series of posts about Multiculturalism in Art Museums Today, we are able to offer ArtMuseumTeaching.com readers a special discount. To receive a 25% discount, go to www.rowman.com to order this book and enter the discount code: 4S14ACUEVA
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ABOUT THE AUTHORS
JONI BOYD ACUFF: Assistant Professor of Art Education in the Department of Arts Administration, Education & Policy at Ohio State University. Before joining OSU, Acuff was an Assistant Professor of Art Education at the University of North Texas. She holds an MA in Community Based Art Education from the University of Texas at Austin and her PhD in Art Education from Ohio State University. Acuff has published about her research in varying scholarly, peer-reviewed journals such as Art Education, Studies in Art Education,and Visual Culture & Gender.Her research agenda and scholarship attends to critical multicultural art education, critical race theory in art education, community-based art education and culturally responsive teaching and curriculum development. Joni’s postings on this site are her own and do not necessarily represent Ohio State University’s positions, strategies, or opinions.
LAURA EVANS: Assistant Professor of Art History and Art Education and the Director of the Art Museum Education Certificate at the University of North Texas. Evans received her PhD in Art Education, with a Museum Studies specialization, at The Ohio State University, a Master’s in Museum Studies at the University of Toronto, and a Bachelor’s in Art History at Denison University. Previous to her PhD, Evans was a year-long fellow at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, in the Department of Education. She has also interned or worked at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, the Lodell Gallery in New Zealand, the Columbus Museum of Art, the Wexner Center for Contemporary Art, the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Florida, the Denison Museum of Denison University, and the University Art Centre at the University of Toronto. Laura’s postings on this site are her own and do not necessarily represent the University of North Texas’s positions, strategies, or opinions.
During most days here in New York (and especially the recent spring break), art museums are thronged with families. Parents, grandparents and their children of all ages orient themselves with maps, cruise galleries and favor an exhibit or two leaning in to read labels, manipulate interactives, ask questions and make observations together. They’ve come to be entertained, spend time together and invest in the value of informal education.
As most of us know, families build a foundation for behavior and learning strategies and research indicates that family museum visits lead to adults who find value and comfort in museums. So what happens when children are marginalized because they don’t visit museums with their families? How might they feel comfortable and find value in a museum? While museums turn to more inclusive programs, policies, and exhibits in order to reach more families, what can the individual classroom teacher do to help create lifelong museum visitors?
I am an English teacher at DeWitt Clinton High School, a large public high school in the Bronx. My school currently serves 2,745 students of which 76% receive free lunch and 21% are English Language Learners. Our total population is comprised of 62% Hispanic, 29% Black, 7% Asian, and 3% other. With the average museum visitor being white, college educated, and affluent, my students are certainly in the minority. On top of that, due to budget cuts and the growing focus on test scores, schools like ours are taking fewer and fewer field trips.
At the beginning of the year, 83% of my students claim to have never visited an art museum. Nevertheless, after their second field trip, 96% say they are “likely” or “very likely” to return to one. As I look at these results, I try to understand what makes this class work.
Exploring Museums as Cultural and Community Resources
During their senior year, students can elect to take my year-long Humanities class for English credit. As in most humanities classes, my students learn about a long line of classical texts and objects but in my class they also learn about critical issues related to the people and institutions that preserve, shape, and disseminate cultural knowledge. They analyze intentional learning communities from ancient libraries to contemporary museums to the internet through texts ranging from historical records to reviews of current exhibits. They ask:
Whose culture is being preserved and how is it represented?
Where are the silences and why might they persist?
What are the criteria for a good collection or exhibit?
How are informal learning spaces different from formal education? How are they the same?
In response, their mid-year project is to propose a museum exhibit on a subject of their choice and their year-end assignment is to design a public humanities project for their own community. Even if all my students don’t become museum curators and cultural events planners, at the very least they know that they can critically engage in public dialogue about cultural heritage, encounter deep experiences with works of art, and participate in self-directed learning in museums.
From day one, my students are engaged in object-based lessons. They read curatorial essays and look at several objects on a weekly basis, mostly from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. By focusing on the Met as a primary resource, my students come to understand it deeply as a public institution. At the same time, they focus on works of art in depth. Based on my studies with educational philosopher Maxine Greene and through professional development at the Lincoln Center Institute, I have learned to infuse my classroom with aesthetic education practices.
A typical lesson in my classroom involves students in a combination of deep noticing, embodied experiences, play, analysis, discussion, art making, questioning, researching, making connections, and meta-cognitive reflection. Together we wonder about why art matters, why history matters, how both get made, and how both get preserved. In addition, my students learn how to approach an object. In the classroom, groups lean in to an image on an iPad or stand back and discuss an image projected on the wall. They look at the object first and annotate the label second. They learn to look together as well as individually, to listen for their curiosities, find comfort with ambiguity, and to follow through with informal research.
By late fall we are ready for our first self-guided tour and we visit the Met’s Greek Art galleries. It didn’t take long for me to learn that students need preparation for male nudity in theses galleries, so in the days prior to our visit we look closely at nudity and consider its role in ancient Greek culture. This way their field of vision goes beyond the nudity and they can see these objects from multiple perspectives. At the museum, students look at a few pre-selected objects making connections to our study of Homer’s The Odyssey. Next, they explore the galleries in pairs looking for patterns in order to draw conclusions about motifs. Finally, students are encouraged to explore independently and gravitate toward one object which they will eventually research and write about. After our trip, we reflect on our visit and share our research.
In the spring, we return to the Met for a second visit, this time to experience the Islamic Art galleries. My students are noticeably more comfortable during this visit and are able to take on an additional assignment. This assignment asks students to use photography to develop intimate engagement as well as critical distance. Each student is asked to submit four distinct shots: an architectural detail, a fleeting moment, a close up of an object (one they will also research), and a selfie. Upon returning to the classroom we view our collection of photographs, share our research, and reflect on the visit as seen through our own eyes.
Creating Deep Connections with Museums
When students visit museums, they gain experiences and build knowledge. As teachers and museum educators, we often activate schema before, during, or after experiencing a particular object or exhibit in order to make meaning. We do this to help students make connections. But the schema that experienced museum visitors activate is not only related to the content of objects and exhibits. It’s about what to expect from a museum visit and how to make the most of it. How to lean in and look deeply, how to explore independently and together, how to listen to and follow our curiosities. Even how to play or to take a critical stance.
When students don’t visit museums with their families they need classroom teachers to introduce them to the inroads of experiencing one. Otherwise they might never feel welcome or even inclined to try a visit. From my experience, curriculum and lessons based on aesthetic education practices that also familiarize students with museums as a resource need to happen through repetition over an extended period of time, spiraling throughout the course of a semester or a year. This is possible when teachers choose one museum to focus on using objects and text related to their collections. I also believe that teachers need to layer their curriculum with a range of critical questions and projects related to the sources of our cultural heritage. By becoming aware of the ways our cultural heritage is shaped and disseminated, students are empowered and see themselves as active participants in cultural dialogue.
Where else can we find success in reaching marginalized youth and what other roles can classroom teachers play? And finally, how can more teachers be persuaded to create deep connections with museums?
About the Author
CLARE HAGAN: Humanities teacher at DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, NY. At DeWitt Clinton, Clare has developed and implemented curriculum based on museums as a resource, museums as an object of study, aesthetic education and object-based lessons. She has presented her Humanities curriculum at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and has conducted professional development workshops on object-based lessons. In addition to her MA in English Education from Teachers College, Columbia University, she has studied critical issues in museum education at Teachers College and aesthetic education at Lincoln Center Institute. Currently, through generous funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, she is studying Islamic verse and will be publishing her museum infused curriculum online this summer. Clare’s postings on this site are her own and don’t necessarily represent DeWitt Clinton High School’s positions, strategies, or opinions.
Written by Mike Murawski, Director of Education & Public Programs, Portland Art Museum;and Deana Dartt, Curator of Native American Art, Portland Art Museum
In 1989, the Portland Art Museum brought together a group of about twenty people to discuss the museum’s Rasmussen Collection of Northwest Coast Native American Art. Gathering in the museum’s basement, the group included museum staff, art experts, anthropologist and historian James Clifford, and a group of Tlingit elders accompanied by translators. Objects from the collection were brought out one by one, presented to the elders for comment with the expectation that they would tell museum staff about how each object was used or by whom they were made. Instead, as Clifford recounts:
“the objects in the Rasmussen Collection, focus for the consultation, were left—or so it seemed to me—at the margin. For long periods no one paid any attention to them. Stories and songs took center stage” (“Museums as Contact Zones,” p. 189).
Rather than providing historical details and context that could be easily converted into research files or didactic labels, the session brought forth voices, songs, dances, ongoing stories, and lived experiences that challenged the museum with alternative perspectives on these objects as well as a potential way of decentering the museum’s authorial voice. Instead of envisioning ways to bring these voices and stories into dialogue with the collection, the Museum bid the group goodbye and archived the audio and video footage of the consultation.
Twenty-five years after these ‘conversations in the basement,’ the Portland Art Museum is actively working to re-address many of the issues around interpreting its Native American collection. This post highlights a new interpretation project—being prototyped as part of the museum’s Object Stories initiative— that has gathered stories from Yup’ik tribe members in southwestern Alaska to share these voices and stories directly with museum visitors both online and in the galleries.
Framed by larger challenges facing museums in the 21st century, the Portland Art Museum has been involved in a broader process of rethinking how it relates to its public audience and exploring strategies to be more relevant to its community. It was out of this ongoing thinking that the Object Stories initiative was born in 2011. Since its inception, Object Stories has evolved into an educational platform for engaging audiences and bringing community voices into the process of interpreting the collection. By capturing, honoring, and sharing participants’ stories, Object Stories aims to demystify the museum, making it more accessible, welcoming, and meaningful to a greater diversity of communities. This initiative also allows the museum to explore how new media and other technological innovations can contribute to more genuinely inclusive engagement with audiences and communities.
Scholars have questioned how a museum’s voice might be changed from monovocal (single voice, often an institutional “voice from nowhere”) to a more polyvocal (many voices, without much sense of hierarchy).
“In this scenario, museums are encouraged to give up some of their control and their authorial voice to allow the public or specific communities to speak for themselves and be heard in a public space.” (“One Voice to Many Voices?”, 164)
Connecting Collections with Communities: Yup’ik Stories
Early in 2013, education and curatorial staff at the Portland Art Museum collaborated with Alaskan artist and photographer Katie Basile to record a series of “object stories” with native Yup’ik elders, artists, and youth. During several visits to the southwest Alaskan communities of Quinhagak, Kotlik, and Bethel, Basile captured stories from these individuals that reflect upon objects of personal significance as well as selected Yup’ik masks and dance wands from the Museum’s collection. For this project, Basile used a new iPad app designed for the Object Stories project to allow for recording stories outside the walls of the museum.
As part of the larger initiative to generate knowledge and interpretive resources with the Native community in the public spaces of the museum, these Yup’ik stories have been exhibited in the Arctic Native American Art gallery through an iPad listening station adjacent to their related objects. Bringing together personal object stories and collection-based stories, the museum is offering visitors a layered and nuanced learning experience as the Yup’ik tribe members share their personal and cultural perspectives. The organic, first-person narratives presented here allow for an emphasis on individual Native voices and begin to disrupt the stereotype of a “community voice” that assumes a single “Native” way of being, thinking, and art-making.
The content developed during this pilot Yup’ik storytelling project has proven so meaningful that the Museum plans to expand the model to targeted communities, utilizing the connections and expertise of Native artists to record community members’ stories as part of the Object Stories initiative. First-person narratives by origin community members will then be available to museum visitors through iPads, online collections, and other digital strategies.
Bringing Back the Story
In 1989 (pre-NAGPRA), the Portland Art Museum was bold and progressive, if only somewhat ethnocentric, to secure NEH funding to bring Tlingit tribal members to the museum to help the institution tell a more meaningful story of the ancestral objects as it redesigned the Native American galleries. While motives were pure and collaboration was intended, the museum stood between the objects and the stories. The museum attempted to serve as the bridge for the visitors between the ancestral object and the descendent storyteller. However, the stories and objects out of context required much more interpretation than time allowed, so the tapes sat idle with museum staff clueless about any connection to the collection the stories were intended to enliven. Museums have continued to mediate the connection between story and object. We hope to step out of the way.
Object Stories allows people to bring story back to objects disembodied from their cultures and their people. We hope that through this work we can reunite the ancestors with (while introducing museum visitors to) the energy, language, and living traditions of Native people. Initiatives like Object Stories have the potential to transform museums from “sites where knowledge is transmitted to passive audiences to potential forums or contact zones where new voices and visibilities are raised and new knowledge(s) actively constructed” (Viv Golding, Museums and Communities, 25).
In many ways, the Object Stories platform challenges the museum, its audiences, and its communities to consider the complex types of exchange and dialogue that might occur with its collections beyond the traditional experience of passive, didactic looking. This platform is enabling us to facilitate, and then share, the dialogue between the maker and the viewer and through a process of shared authority and unmediated connection may transform the way museums see, utilize, and present Native American art.
Editor’s Note: While ArtMuseumTeaching.com does not frequently republish posts from other sites, there are interesting and urgent issues raised periodically that, I feel, could spark productive conversations, exchange, and potentially even change in our field. The provocative post below published at Opine Season has already sparked lots of thinking and questioning, and I’d like to utilize the online space and community of ArtMuseumTeaching.com to allow for an OpenThink on these meaningful issues of diversity, audience, community, and social responsibility. As the letter’s authors state below, “we write this not as disgruntled individuals wanting access to one event. We write this as a collective who are asserting their voice to hold the institutions in their community accountable to a higher responsibility of service.” I invite everyone to share thoughts, questions, and experiences below.
Written by Chaun Webster, Jeremiah Bey Ellison, Arianna Genis, Shannon Gibney and Valerie Deus
We have learned that on October 30, The Walker Art Center will be showing the film, 12 Years a Slave, directed by Steve McQueen, and followed by a talk with the director on Nov 9. This film is perhaps one of the most honest and visceral visual representations of the horrors that were part and parcel of the institution of slavery. Furthermore from the beginning, 12 Years a Slave has been, from its firsthand account, to the writer, to the director and leading actor, one of the most highly recognized, fully Black cinematic collaborations in the history of film.
We are concerned that though this film is being shown, that peoples of African descent, whose ancestors’ lives and histories were disrupted by the slaveocracy, will be largely underrepresented in the audience. Our position is that equity is not just about the diversity in the art being shown but the material work of creating greater access to exhibitions to ensure that audiences are representative of the subject matter.
We understand that these events were publicized to members of The Walker and on The Walker’s website. As you may or may not know, when marketing strategies are limited in media and points of origin, the race, class, gender and other layers of social location are also limited.
Within the Walker Art Center’s Mission Statement the institution is described as “a catalyst for the creative expression of artists and the active engagement of audiences” and having programs which “examine the questions that shape and inspire us as individuals, cultures and communities.” Which communities do you seek to inspire and what questions do you seek to examine with the creative expression of artists?
Over the years we have become acutely aware of the way that art institutions are guided by an exceptionalism that will welcome works of art by select artists of African descent and other historically marginalized groups but will largely have little to no relationship with members of those communities. This in no small way contributes to the issue of representative audiences.
Representative audiences insure that narratives are not placed in a vacuum where art institutions can be absolved of responsibility to the cultures and traditions that those stories come from. When white-dominated spaces, often of a homogenous class, bring work like McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave in, they in many ways manage the narrative and the way that it gets interpreted. In these spaces the participant/viewers are freed of any responsibility, social or otherwise, to historically marginalized groups and in so doing re-inscribe the roles of colonialism in art production, distribution, and consumption. In other words, in this case, African art can be present and maybe even a few “exceptional” African artists, but by and large African bodies are unwelcome.
In light of all of this we are calling on The Walker Arts Center to recognize their exclusive practice of not intentionally involving historically marginalized groups at the table for this occasion. This recognition can in part take the form of publishing this letter as an addendum to the material circulated at the screening of 12 Years a Slave and director talk.
We urge The Walker to open up more ticket space for both the screening and the discussion with Steve McQueen. This ticket space would be freely given to reputable organizations of our choice that work with underrepresented youth.
We urge The Walker to arrange another screening and talk with the director that we would host in a community space of our choosing.
Lastly we are calling on The Walker to host a panel discussion at The Walker where we can convene a public conversation on art and social responsibility as it relates to the artist and art institutions.
The tremendous contributions of Africans, on the continent, in the United States, and other parts of the diaspora cannot be understated. These contributions stand in chorus with that of other historically marginalized groups whose communities continue to be denied access to tables carved from their own wood.
The Walker can serve a role in equity as it relates to the production, distribution, and consumption of art in the Twin Cities, but that will require a resolve to listen to its diverse constituents who represent a variety of cultural and ideological perspectives. We write this not as disgruntled individuals wanting access to one event. We write this as a collective who are asserting their voice to hold the institutions in their community accountable to a higher responsibility of service. It is our belief that this is not only possible but imperative as we move forward.
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About the Author
Chaun Webster is a Twin Cities activist, publisher, and poet in the Black radical tradition. Founding Free Poet’s Press in 2009 with the intention of empowering Black and Brown artists to control their own images, Webster is a 2011 Verve Grant recipient and is preparing for the release of HaiCOUP: a fieldguide in guerrilla (po)ethics. More information about Chaun Webster and Free Poet’s Press can be found at www.freepoetspress.com.