Right now, I realize that we are all affected by the current coronavirus pandemic in wide-ranging yet different ways. From the realities of severe economic downturn and the daily experience of physical distancing to concerns about our own health and the well-being of our families, friends, and loved ones, this is a challenging time for us all — our entire global family. Moments like this change us. And I believe that it is part of our collective human responsibility to reflect on moments like this, to write about our experiences, and to share our stories with each other. Stories that allow us to be vulnerable, open, honest, and more human.
At times in my own life when I feel the most challenged, I reach for the writings of Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron. In her transformative book When Things Fall Apart, Chodron explores the human response to moments of intense despair and loss. I grabbed my copy of this book off the shelf last week, and began flipping through the pages, reading bits from each section. One sentence stood out to me more than all the others: “This very moment is the perfect teacher.”
Open Call for Writings and Reflections
So here is my invitation and open call. I would love to gather together a series of posts over the next weeks and months from anyone willing to share their own reflections during this time of crisis, this very moment. There are few if any guidelines here, and I’m open to any type of personal writing as well as creative responses that open up new ways for us to share our stories.
Here are some questions that are interesting me, but more importantly I want to know what interests you about what you are seeing, hearing, and feeling during this time.
How have you been affected by the current crisis?
How are you and others taking care of yourselves and each other through these difficult times?
What does strong, compassionate leadership look like for you right now?
How can museums continue the vital, necessary work of dismantling systems of oppression during and after this crisis?
As we move further into this crisis, how can museum leaders (and those who remain working for these institutions) place human care and relationships above all else?
In what ways can museums and cultural organizations serve as places of healing and connection for our communities?
What is something that has gone unspoken or unsaid since the beginning of this pandemic and its impact on museums and cultural institutions?
How to Submit
If you are interested in submitting or have something to submit for publishing online as part of this series, please just send me an email at email@example.com. I only have one requirement for these posts — each submission must have at least one image or photograph (that we can reproduce here on this blog); and I’m happy to help find an image if you don’t have one.
Share this Open Call to anyone in your community who might be interested.
I am continuously grateful for everyone who has come together to support each other during this pandemic. I hope this series of posts, writings, and stories can be a way for us to be listening to each other and find human connection, loving-kindness, and compassion amidst the darkness of these difficult times.
Reposted from the Museum Education Roundtable blog, a space created to address timely issues that we face in the field of museum work, reflect on member events, and expand upon recent Journal of Museum Education (JME) issues.
Submitted by Michelle Dezember
In a new format aimed at incorporating multiple perspectives on current topics in our field, the Museum Education Roundtable blog introduces “4 x 4” interview, in which they invite four thought leaders to answer four questions related to a chosen theme. This playful approach seeks to navigate pressing topics with the personal touch of a conversation. The first theme features four approaches to “self-care.” Below is the first interview in this series.
Aligning with the transition into the autumn season, Michelle Dezember, Chief Program Officer of the Aspen Art Museum and MER board member, caught up with Mike Murawski, Director of Education & Public Programs for the Portland Art Museum and Founding Editor at ArtMuseumTeaching.com, to talk about their experiences in nature, its restorative benefits, and what we can learn from reconnecting with the natural world.
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Michelle Dezember: Which came first, your love of museums or your love of nature? How do you see these as related?
Mike Murawski: I grew up in St. Louis with my back yard right up next to Laumeier Sculpture Park, so my play in nature as a child also involved sculptures and art. I don’t remember visiting a museum until eighth grade, and so my first real experience with art was outdoors in more uncontrolled, wild spaces where I could run around, unsupervised and certainly not quiet. Maybe as a result, my work within museums has not always accepted the structures of organizational culture that restrict our experiences with art and make them feel like they have to be quiet, untouchable, or clean instead of messy. I do think that something happened for me at the sculpture park as a child that ties together my love of nature and my love of art. It all goes back to me loving being out in open play.
Michelle: A “wild space” is in direct contrast with the “white cube,” isn’t it? Even though you and I might not change museums architecturally, we can certainly engender a wild space through our teaching and programming. I think that happens when we immerse ourselves into that space with deep curiosity. This makes me think about the idea of “forest bathing,” which you introduced me to. Can you talk about what this is and what impact it has on your life and work?
Mike: Across the long history of the human species, we’ve only been sitting at a desk, in front of a screen, walking on pavement, hearing industrial sounds of machines, or even wearing shoes for a tiny fraction of that time. When was the last time you were somewhere that you couldn’t hear the sounds of the human-made world? I honestly can’t remember, because even when you’re in the middle of a national park you might still hear an airplane fly overhead. We just simply don’t connect with nature in slow and intimate ways any more, but a desire for that connection is ingrained in our DNA. Forest bathing allows us to have experience where we take in nature through our sense, not on a hike or anything, but through a slow, immersive, meditative experiences. There’s a lot of interesting research that has been done in the last several years about the positive impact of being in nature on our health and physical well-being. Forest bathing actually even taps into our spiritual well-being and how we identify our whole self by seeing nature as a core part or our being and origin.
This summer I led a brief forest bathing experience at MuseumCamp at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History. We gathered in a nearby park and shared a series of meditative, yoga-like experiences that allowed us to be present in the moment and connect with the forest through all of our senses. Going on a hike is about ‘getting there’ but forest bathing is about ‘being here’ and taking in the moment, in the place we are in.
It can happen in backyards, parks, gardens, anywhere there is some greenery. At the Sustain retreat you hosted at the Aspen Art Museum, we took our shoes off during one of the sessions, and then we did a walking meditation as part of another experience. We should all do that more often, because there’s something in our DNA that responds positively to opening ourselves up to that kind of connection with nature and the world around us.
Back to your question about what we can learn from this connection to nature that could be applied to our work—I think it all starts with slowing down. Through much of the equity, inclusion, and accessibility work we’re doing at the Portland Art Museum, we frequently talk about how much we could achieve if we slow down and trust the process. What’s the worst that can happen if we don’t prioritize the same pace of deadlines and work flow, and we take the time to be in the moment and have the difficult and important conversations we need to be having (but often take time)?
The other thing that has been important to me is tactile, physical engagement with things. How many times have you gone on a hike and maybe not touched anything? We have an idea that getting dirty is bad, but in Santa Cruz I asked people to take their shoes off in the dirt (totally inspired by our walking meditation in Aspen). I invited people to rub the dirt in their hands, smell it, and let your body reconnect with what surrounds us. So often the white cube doesn’t invite that tactile engagement, but as educators we can open up a whole new range of experiences. We’re inviting a much closer relationship with objects and people when we engage in all of our senses, not just sight.
Michelle: You touched on the spirituality of experiences with nature. It seems that feeling humbled or part of something bigger might happen most easily in immersive experiences that disconnect us from our routine. What can people who don’t have easy access to expansive public lands do?
Mike: Living in the Pacific Northwest, I definitely have the privilege of living close to incredible old growth forests, and it’s part of the culture and identity of this place. It’s certainly not like that everywhere. Yet everyone has some sort of green space nearby. Botanical gardens or nearby parks are amazing places to visit and unplug. Go back to a place to watch how it changes through the seasons. One of the exercises in forest bathing is to think of a memory of a tree from your childhood, maybe one you would climb or build forts around. It shows us that all we need is one tree to form a connection. Visit a tree and make a leaf collection, draw some of the leaves, wonder how long that tree has been there, and think about the story it has to tell. Or, can you take your meetings outdoors for a walk around the block? All of these gestures ground us in the moment and provide us with the sense of connection needed to be present.
Michelle: Which is so important! Right now is autumn, which I love for the reminder to embrace change. What symbolism does autumn have for you?
Mike: Autumn has traditionally been the time of things dying, fading, or leaves falling off the trees. But in Portland, the summer is so dry that everything turns brown. When it starts raining in the fall, life comes back with green moss and mushrooms. Re-growth is the best way to describe it. It’s very restorative and powerful.
We had a bad wildfire last year outside of Portland that burned 50,000 acres, including many popular hiking trails. Just a couple of weeks ago, my partner and I took our first hike through the area since it has started to re-open. To walk through the forest and see the scarring of burn marks on the trees and then bright green ferns and moss growing all around them – that reminded me that nature can come back after terrible devastation with new life.
There’s a resilience that nature can teach us if we are paying attention. There is a gift that comes from dramatic change.
Things will grow back, and often even stronger.
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Michelle Dezember is the Chief Program Officer of the Aspen Art Museum and serves on the Board of Directors for the Museum Education Roundtable.
Mike Murawski is the Director of Education & Public Programs for the Portland Art Museum and founding author and editor of ArtMuseumTeaching.com. He earned is MA and PhD in Education from American University, focusing his research on educational theory and interdisciplinary learning in the arts. He has also served in education departments at the Saint Louis Art Museum, the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, and led workshops, lectures, and trainings at museums across the country. 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.
Reposted from the blog of the Coalition of Museums for Climate Justice, which works to mobilize and support Canadian museum workers and their organizations in building public awareness, mitigation and resilience in the face of climate change. To join the Coalition, please visit their Facebook Page or contact them directly.
This programme is based on 17 sustainable development goals; these are just brilliant for museums to connect with, whether locally, globally, or locally and globally. More information can be found here.
If you click on the icons you get more information, and detailed targets. So, for museums with natural heritage collections, for example, some obvious links would be:
4.7 – By 2030, ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development
11.4 – Strengthen efforts to protect and safeguard the world’s cultural and natural heritage
12.8 – By 2030, ensure that people everywhere have the relevant information and awareness for sustainable development and lifestyles in harmony with nature
13.3 – Improve education, awareness-raising and human and institutional capacity on climate change mitigation, adaptation, impact reduction and early warning
Any museum could find something to connect with among the 135-odd targets, and indeed it could be very fruitful to connect different types of museums and networks together to create new opportunities for people to explore sustainable futures.
I’m interested to hear people’s initial responses to this. Is this the kind of thing you and your museums are interested in supporting/connecting with? Beyond time and money, what support would you need to do so?
I’m doing a couple of talks at the summit and it would be great to hear that at least some people are on board with this, or that this is something that they would be interested in progressing, or what concerns would need to be addressed. No names or organisations would be mentioned in the presentations, and just a very short reply will be fine.
My personal feeling, beyond being very, very supportive of the initiative, is that:
it’s important to recognise that most people don’t think scientifically (yes, it’s true) – and that while the evidence and information may be derived from science, transferring that into action will not be achieved by more and more facts, depressing information, or telling people what they should do. We need to connect the science with what people care about themselves, what motivates them and inspires them.
This isn’t about diluting the science, but deploying it effectively to help people always move forwards.
If inspiration is the feeling that moves us to action, our job is to help people feel (and hold onto) that feeling, and enable them to act on it beyond our four walls.
Investigate how to engage even more effectively with local communities and increasingly diverse audiences, and keep the focus on gender differences in engagement.
Continue taking actions that have a positive global impact and that will make people everywhere more aware of the opportunities that science and technology hold for the sustainable advancement of humankind.
Draw the attention of decision makers and the media to the essential role of public engagement with science and technology by setting up high-profile global activities.
Endeavour to leverage the position of science centres as “trusted” places to introduce the public to new technological solutions and sustainable technologies, and to broaden the potential use of these solutions.
Take the lead in developing the best methods for engaging learners and optimizing their education in both formal and informal settings using appropriate technologies in widely varying contexts.
Engage the public more directly with research, using this engagement to help empower people, broaden attitudes and ensure that the work of universities and research institutions is relevant to society and to wider social concerns on a global scale.
Work together in a creative celebration of the International Science Centre Year 2019, encouraging people throughout the world to take part in shared experiences relating to science and technology and society.
About the Author
HENRY MCGHIE is Head of Collections and Curator of Zoology at Manchester Museum, part of the University of Manchester. He wants to find ways for museums to effectively support people to engage with the natural environment, and to create opportunities to discuss and shape the future we want for ourselves and others.
In September 2017, I was honored to be a part of the Smith Leadership Symposium in San Diego, an annual program of the Balboa Park Cultural Partnership. Not only was this my second year being involved in this program, but I was also fortunate to be among a powerful group of presenters that included Shamell Bell (community organizer and choreographer), Milenko Matanovic (artist and community builder), and Monica Montgomery (founding director of the Museum of Impact). Throughout our conversations leading up to the symposium and that day, we shared ideas about the value of community dialogue and the role of community care in our personal and professional work.
My talk entitled “Changing the Things I Cannot Accept” was inspired, in part, by the writings of scholar and activist Angela Davis. Davis’s powerful work had been on my mind after being encouraged by a colleague to read the recently published collection of her writings and interviews entitled Freedom is a Constant Struggle. I am so grateful that this and other works by Davis made it to my ‘must read’ list, as she brings forward the urgency of feminism, intersectionality, and global solidarity to the struggles against injustice and oppression in our country.
In a speech to a gathering of Ferguson protesters in St. Louis in 2015, she 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.” It is within this tyranny of the universal, the neutral, the apolitical, the fair and balanced, and the objective that my frustrations lie when it comes to the role of museums in our society and in our communities. Which brings me right back to the often-quoted words of Angela Davis:
“I’m no longer accepting the things I cannot change…. I’m changing the things I cannot accept.”
These words have resonated with me for quite some time. Not because this has become an internet meme since the election, but instead because I hear these words repeated by activists that I greatly admire and respect in my own community and beyond. And on that day of the Smith Symposium in San Diego, two of the other keynote presenters also included this exact quote from Davis in their slides.
So what are the things we can no longer accept when it comes to museum practice?
Well, for me, it is certainly not enough to lay out a laundry list of ‘things I cannot accept’ and continue to make the assumption that these are also ‘things that I cannot change.’ I think I was stuck in that long, deep rut earlier in my museum career. I still hear many museum professionals talk about “the way things are” in museums and our inability to change things from where we are located in our organization (and in these power structures, more importantly). Many of the entrenched behaviors, policies, and practices in museums are based in a whole set of false stories we tell ourselves — self-sabotaging and oppressive narratives that hold us back, maintain the status quo, and create a fearful and hesitant attitude towards change.
I came across this specific idea of recognizing our false stories in a self-help book by Jen Sincero called You Are A Badass(ok, so not everything I read is as intellectual and hard-hitting as Angela Davis). In it, Sincero writes:
“Because we’re so set in our ways and committed to our stories about who we are and what our reality looks like, we only scratch the surface of all that’s available to us every single moment.”
I’ve used Sincero’s framework in a few workshops I’ve led with museum professionals this year, working to identify the potential false stories that create barriers to change in our professional work, and then creating new powerful stories of change to replace them. In a couple instances, we made our new powerful stories of change public by writing them outside museums using sidewalk chalk (I’ll never forget how it looked to have these messages written all across the main entrance plaza to the Museum of Art & History in Santa Cruz — thanks Nina!). We have too often upheld a systemic ‘big bad no’ that has dramatically limited the potential of museums to be agents of positive social change.
Rather than simply re-hashing the same concerns and complaints over and over again, it is far more vital and urgent to take action and change these things we cannot accept. It is on us to replace these false stories with new powerful stories that envision a bold future for museums. Below is my raw attempt at creating a new set of stories that I am working to tell myself — a set of stories that can lead to action and change in the work that we do as museum professionals as well as citizens, civic leaders, and members of our communities.
This modest manifesto – first shared with the community of museum changemakers that came together for the Smith Symposium in September — brings the forces driving change in my own work out in a public, transparent, and vulnerable place. No doubt this list is incomplete, imperfect, abbreviated, and oversimplified, yet I invite readers to add on to this list, flesh it out, and help us all move forward to change the things we can no longer accept:
1. I cannot accept that museums are neutral. Museums have the potential to be relevant, socially-engaged spaces in our communities. Yet, too often, they strive to remain “above” the political and social issues that affect our lives — embracing a myth of neutrality. Well, MUSEUMS ARE NOT NEUTRAL, plain and simple. In a 2015 article entitled “The End of Neutrality: A Modest Manifesto,” scholar Robert Janes writes, “neutrality is not a foundational principle of museum practice, but rather a result of the museum’s privileged position in society.” He continues, “complacency, the absence of continuous learning, and the weight of tradition are persistent factors in the inability or unwillingness to rethink the meaning of neutrality and its implications for the role and responsibilities of museums in contemporary society.” It’s time to erase the tyranny of neutrality and move past this entrenched, limiting idea of museums.
2. I cannot accept that museums are entirely object-centered and their primary purpose is to serve and preserve their collections. Museums are human-centered institutions, in the broadest and most inclusive sense. This means more than just being visitor-centered or audience-centered. It’s a mindset that recognizes the human potential and impact of our work, externally as well as internally. It’s a mindset that has the power to inform our decisions as museum professionals (around exhibitions, programs, partnerships, budgets, security, collections management, etc.) in a way that places a spirit of human connection at the core of our thinking, rather than just the objects.
3. I cannot accept that museums function as separate from their communities. We often use language that externalizes those outside of our walls, setting up a false ‘us’ versus ‘them’ dichotomy. Museums can, instead, think of themselves as part of their communities. All museum staff, volunteers, members, donors, trustees, and partners are members of the community, and we only need to strive to be more inclusive and reflective of the broader local community.
4. I cannot accept the thought that involving community members and their knowledge in a museum’s core practices will lower the quality of content and decrease overall trust in a museum’s authority. I’ve heard this too many times. Instead, let’s repeat and amplify the words that changemaker Josh Boykin projected on the wall behind him during his entire lightning talk this summer at MuseumCamp: “Let Your Community In.” Our communities know more than we do, and we need to recognize and embrace the knowledge, creativity, and lived experiences of these communities. It’s no longer enough for museums to strive to be an essential part of their communities; we need to be working to ensure that our communities become an essential part of our museums. Quoting the transformative words of the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center’s Culture Lab Manifesto, “those who have historically been pushed to the margins hold the stories that will center our future.”
5. I cannot accept that museums do not consistently and persistently recognize the indigenous peoples on whose ancestral lands our institutions now stand. It’s time – now, today — to regularly and consistently honor the indigenous peoples of our place as well as the genealogies and hidden histories embodied in these spaces. It’s time to work toward decolonizing our institutions, and partnering with indigenous communities (artists, leaders, educators, activists) as we rethink the roles and responsibilities of museums.
6. I cannot accept that issues such as immigration, refugees, police violence, transgender rights, water, and climate change are too political for museums. Museums are inextricably linked to these complex issues that are relevant to us today, and they permeate everything we do (whether we choose to acknowledge it or not). I believe we can boldly come together around a respect for each other and the environment, rather than continue to allow these issues to divide us.
7. I cannot accept that museums still use ‘keeping their donor base happy’ as an excuse to not be socially relevant and forward thinking. This fear of losing donors and patrons is far too pervasive. No way. I’m not buying it. If museums have a clear, bold, community-based vision for inclusion and social change, donors will support this work. We need to have more trust in those individuals and foundations that support our institutions, and begin working with new funding sources specifically seeking organizations dedicated to inclusion, social change, and building stronger communities. Some supporters may leave, but new ones will join in. Like the old proverb says, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” Get that tree planted today! — And I wanted add to this a powerful, brutally-honest sentence from Brene Brown’s latest book Braving the Wilderness: “When the culture of any organization mandates that it is more important to protect the reputation of a system and those in power than it is to protect the basic human dignity of the individuals who serve that system or who are served by that system, you can be certain that the shame is systemic, the money is driving ethics, and the accountability is all but dead.”
8. I cannot accept that many museums are hesitant or afraid to proclaim that Black Lives Matter and black life matters, or work with activists in the Movement for Black Lives and other intersectional movements standing up for human rights. Museums need to unapologetically recognize and engage the brave, transformative work of the Movement for Black Lives and their vision to “move towards a world in which the full humanity and dignity of all people is recognized” (Vision for Black Lives), as well as other important movements fighting for these same basic principles of human rights. We should look toward the leadership and vision of the Ford Foundation, a global organization leading efforts to support social justice and human welfare. In their statement “Why black lives matter to philanthropy,” they bravely proclaimed, “now is the time to stand by and amplify movements rooted in love, compassion, and dignity for all people.”
9. I cannot accept that, for museums, being socially responsible is just a liberal trend. Museums have the potential to serve as agents of social change, bringing people together, contributing to local communities, and changing people’s lives. It is time for our institutions to respond to the challenges of our times by making a bigger difference. This is not a trend that involves museums starting a few new programs or pulling together an exhibition that is socially-engaged – this is a movement to re-envision the purpose of museums as collaborative, participatory, and socially responsible spaces in a way that will affect all of the work that museums do.
10. I cannot accept that we, as museum professionals and as citizens, do not fully recognize and celebrate the work we do to be inclusive, relevant, and responsive to the issues affecting the lives of our communities, our neighborhoods, our audiences, and our staff & volunteers. We must fiercely and consistently recognize the work we’re already doing to make positive change in our society and for our planet, and build communities of changemakers within and across institutions. This is some of the most meaningful, relevant work happening in museums right now, so let’s work to make these stories the central stories of our museums. People across our institutions—not just educators but directors, curators, marketing staff, board members, donors, etc.—need to be publicly and visibly proud of the programs, exhibitions, projects, and strategic & structural changes that actively embrace equity, unheard stories, dialogue about provocative questions, and the diverse and rich lived experiences of those living in our communities. More comprehensive support for this work can lead to an expanded focus on social impact and community partnership in a museum’s strategic goals and mission, in its exhibition and program planning process, in its staffing and hiring decisions, and in its overall allocation of resources.
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In his introduction to Freedom Is a Constant Struggle, journalist and activist Frank Barat brings light to an unexpected key aspect of activism and change: trying. “Trying to change the world…,” he writes, “That is victory in itself.”
“Everyone and everything tells you that ‘outside’ you will not succeed, that it is too late, that we live in an epoch where a revolution cannot happen anymore. Radical changes are a thing of the past. You can be an outsider, but not outside the system, and you can have political beliefs, even radical ones, but they need to stay within the bounds of the permissible, inside that bubble that has been drawn for you by the elites.”
Time to break outside that bubble, and be an active part of creating a new, radical future for museums.
“Art is the highest form of hope.” —Gerhard Richter
Some of the most exciting conversations I have with the public about art happen right after we open a new exhibition. When I see the artwork installed for the first time, I almost get butterflies noticing elements that seem familiar and foreign. While this romance of discovery is possible after dozens or even hundreds of encounters with an artwork, surely the first experiences are heightened by an awareness of all there is yet to know.
On November 5, 2016, I gave my first tour of a new rotation of exhibitions here at the Aspen Art Museum. It included Danh Võ’s We The People(Detail) (2011) in the museum’s Roof Deck Sculpture Garden, an installation I was eager to discuss. The copper sculpture is part of the artist’s long-term project to re-create the Statue of Liberty in 1:1 scale, but rather than exhibiting the work as a complete reconstruction, Võ exhibits it in pieces around the world. Our group was silent as we approached the sculpture. Even after I shared the artist’s interests and intentions, the four visitors and I scanned the surfaces of the sculpture, knowing there was something more. Something still unknown.
The artist John Outterbridge once said, “Art has the audacity to be anything it needs to be at any given time.” As the sensational events of the election would unfold over the next few days, I considered more deeply Võ’s decision for his project to be shown as fragments, incomplete, and against our expectations of the icon’s typical display. I wasn’t so much in search of answers as I was of perspective—to know that I was part of something, much like the piece of a larger puzzle.
As I thought about this dichotomy, I remembered Rebecca Solnit’s writings and her ability to capture seemingly contradicting ideas, such as finding oneself in the process of getting lost. Serendipitously, this year, she wrote a new foreword to her 2004 book Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities. Solnit’s treatise on the radical possibilities of hope argues, amongst many other things, that we lose hope because we lose perspective. And just as my encounters with art continuously provide perspective, I believe that they also provide hope.
Hope, like art, is many things to many people. But it also is, quite often, unavailable to many. In a recent Gallup study of K–12 students’ perceptions in my community, Aspen Community Fund’s Cradle to Career Initiative found that local Hispanic students reported much lower on feelings of hopefulness than both white students in the same community and Hispanics across the nation. As I consider how the museum can respond to despair, it is important to recognize what hope is not: it is not a simple solution, nor to escape from reality. In a recent essay for the New Yorker, Junot Díaz responds to a woman who reached out for advice and solidarity:
“But all the fighting in the world will not help us if we do not also hope. What I’m trying to cultivate is not blind optimism but what the philosopher Jonathan Lear calls radical hope. ‘What makes this hope radical,’ Lear writes, ‘is that it is directed toward a future goodness that transcends the current ability to understand what it is.’” (65)
Similarly, Solnit, well versed in the inequalities of our world, does not believe that hope is capable of erasing injustice, but rather “is about broad perspectives with specific possibilities, ones that invite or demand that we act” (xiii). How are these perspectives of hope provided by art?
To propose the power of hope for the practice of art museum education, I have drawn from Solnit’s writings to select three conditions that are necessary for its survival.
Twenty-four-hour cable news networks propagate a desire for immediacy, as does social media’s ability to constantly refresh content. How does this urgency affect our ability to reflect? Perhaps newness ignores the generosity of history, forgetting the lessons learned through even the most challenging moments. To revisit the popular proverb “time heals all wounds,” it is important to recognize that what we do with this time determines how we may benefit. If we are to passively await a solution, then we dwell in the state of victimhood. But by recognizing our participation in a continuum of unfolding of actions, we are offered the bountiful gift of history. This also applies to having hope, which can be positioned as movement toward a positive, healing future.
Solnit identifies the ground condition for hope as the belief that anything is possible because we have no guarantee of what our futures hold. Time is a necessary ingredient to progress, for it allows us to prove our commitment to our values as we respond to challenges. Having hope asserts that we matter and our aspirations matter through our sustained engagement with them. It also, however, needs to embrace the fact that we might not know our impact for some time. As Solnit explains:
“It’s the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand.” (xiv)
This suggestion runs counter to many learning evaluation strategies, which often seek to immediately understand the outcomes of our programs that we design around or measure against. Having hope requires patience, for the fruits of our efforts may only be discernible far into the future, if we stay dedicated and attentive.
Hope is equally weighted in the present as much as the future. Emily Pringle, Head of Learning Practice and Research at the Tate, is a critical friend with whom I exchange conversations about our field. She once explained the dangers of worry, which by its nature takes us out of the present, either by reliving the past or by forecasting the future. This is not to say that the past and future are unworthy of attention, but rather that productive means of addressing them can be found from the vantage point of the present. In 1970, anthropologist Margaret Mead sat with writer and social critic James Baldwin in a public discussion later published as A Rap on Race. During their conversation, Baldwin quotes a poem written by an incarcerated teen who had effectively lost all hope. Baldwin’s stance on the preservation of hope was to say, “If we don’t manage the present, there will be no future.” The coexistence of our attention on these contradictions is precisely the dynamic that makes growth possible.
To be whole, we must recognize that we are fragments. Võ’s We The People is an extraordinary example of embracing contradiction: a monumental figure in a small scale, a symbol of unity shown as a fragment, a familiar icon that is not entirely recognizable. Solnit equally encourages us to resist the desire to consider our world as static, and rather, to appreciate its dynamic inconsistencies. She uses the example of paradise, which in her opinion is not a fixed place, but rather the very pursuit of it through hope. More plainly put, “Perfection is a stick with which to beat the possible” (77). It is possibility that gives us purpose, and it is imperfection and not knowing that allows us to learn.
As social creatures, it is rarely enough to accept that we don’t know—we constantly strive to make sense of the world and our place in it. And while it is easier for us to grasp that the future is not yet written, it is more challenging to posit that history does not have a conclusion. Artists candidly embrace that which they do not know about the past, present, and future in order to make works that show us something in an entirely new light.
Just as art begins with not knowing, so should our experience of it. Within this context, we return to hope, which is neither optimistic nor pessimistic, but retains qualities of both in order to navigate the unknown. Solnit elaborates saying:
“Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists. Optimists think it will all be fine without our involvement; pessimists take the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting.” (xiv)
The two qualities are necessary: optimism (often conflated with hope) believes in progress; and pessimism believes in a need for caution. While the Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci was imprisoned for his neo-Marxists beliefs from 1926–35, he maintained sanity through covert writings that were later published as The Prison Notebooks. In them, he wrote that he found hope through “the pessimism of the intellect, [and] optimism of the will.” Similarly, how can we find hope in difficult moments with our museum learners? According to Gramsci and Solnit, the key is embracing that which we do not know. We must not take any knowledge as a given, but rather observe it as cautiously as a pessimist and as unguardedly as an optimist.
As art museum educators, it is not enough to recognize the power or responsibility that we have to positively influence our learners. We must act to create opportunities for them to find hope. Art provides a wonderful vehicle for us to do this, functioning much like an activist. When we engage our community with art, we make producers of meaning, not simply consumers. Solnit summarizes our call to action:
“How do people recognize that they have the power to be storytellers, not just listeners? Hope is the story of uncertainty, of coming to terms with the risk involved in not knowing what comes next, which is more demanding than despair and, in a way, more frightening. And immeasurably more rewarding.” (7)
How can we give more time for hope to play out? Where do we embrace contradictions, and where do we shy away? How can we find power in not knowing?
About the Author
MICHELLE DEZEMBER is the Learning Director at the Aspen Art Museum, where she oversees all aspects of education, public programs, and interpretive projects. Previously, she was Deputy Director of Programming and Special Projects at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Qatar, where she also served as Acting Director and Head of Education. She has also worked as a museum educator in California and New York, and as a Fulbright scholar at the Museum of the History of Immigration in Barcelona. She holds a dual degree in Art History and Sociology from Santa Clara University, a diploma in Visual Cultural Studies from the University of Barcelona, and an MA in Museum Studies from the University of Leicester.
Featured Header Image: Participants of Aspen Art Museum’s Art Studio after-school workshop for K–4 grades working on a collective artwork inspired by Danh Võ’s We The People.
By Emily Kotecki and Jill Taylor, North Carolina Museum of Art
Over the last year, the North Carolina Museum of Art has been documenting the design process we’ve been using in our IMLS planning grant on the role of museums in next-generation learning. On Saturday, January 30, 2016 (after a week’s delay due to weather), we held a Thought Partner Summit for our two advisory panels and a Future of Learning panel discussion for the public to reflect on the work we’ve done so far and prepare for the final stretch of our grant.
In the morning, our collaborative planning team of P-16 educators from across the state met with three out of the nine thought partners (the other six were not able to attend the rescheduled event). These thought partners are national leaders in the fields of education, museums, and technology. Working in affinity groups, they shared ideas about teacher professional development, experiences for students that happen online and onsite, and participatory gallery spaces. Thought Partners helped groups become aware of potential models for programs, recognize gaps in our planning, and find connections between prototype ideas.
We then invited the public to join the discourse in a lively panel discussion that afternoon (#NCMAfuturelearn) investigating the future of learning and the role of the art museum in shaping and supporting that future. Sylvea Hollis, from the Center for Future of Museums, moderated a panel featuring Corey Madden, executive director of the Thomas S. Kenan Institute for the Arts; Matthew Rascoff, Vice President of Learning Technology and Innovation at the University of North Carolina; and Dr. Keith Sawyer, Morgan Professor of Educational Innovation at UNC-Chapel Hill. The full panel discussion recording is linked here through Livestream.
Here are three (of many) big takeaways from the panel that help us take a closer look at what the future of learning might look like and what role museums might play in that future.
1. How to maximize the learning space
The environment in which people learn can have a huge effect on how they learn, what they learn, the questions they ask, the ideas they generate and so on. Corey Madden used her combined experience as a leader at Kenan Institute for the Arts and a practicing artist to think about how spaces can help shape a learner’s perspective and develop new ideas.
“The key idea of education and art is the creation of perspective. What I’m most interested in, is to give that experience to the audience…It’s not me imposing [my] perspective on them…it’s an invitation, a provocation…to use their curiosity to find themselves in a place where that new perspective is created and that generates more and more ideas.”
But what if that space is virtual? Physical? A hybrid? What are opportunities in person that are not possible online, and vice versa?
For all the technology we have access to, the “social cultural needs of human beings haven’t changed,” says Corey. We can watch a lecture online and then use that to catapult us into a lively discussion with peers when we get to class or the museum. Technology can free up learners to engage with the human part of themselves. She continues:
“If you combine the portal of technology, the reality of the actual space, and the incredible imaginative capacity of students, you can imagine that you can use place and space to transform how people learn.”
2. Imagining jazz-inspired learning frameworks
If you listen to improvisational jazz, it’s not completely improv. That smooth melody is guided by some sort of structure, whether it’s a genre, chord, or song form. Similarly, Dr. Keith Sawyer, a jazz pianist, sees effective creative learning as “a process of discovery, a process of experimentation, a process of making failures, and switching gears. I think of it as an improvisational process that is necessary to … becoming an effective creator.”
But the paradox he sees for educators is to: (A) engage in “an improvisational dialogue where the teacher is the one that provides the guidance,” and then (B) balance the top down constraints that come from institutional budgets, state testing, and curricula with the necessary need for “bottom up improvisational creativity that is driven by the learner.”
During the Q&A portion of the panel, a student in the audience who is also a member of the NCMA Teen Arts Council, shared her experience with a teacher who made learning AP Calculus engaging, creative, and relevant to her.
“I’m bad at math, that’s why I love art so much, but I’m in an AP Calculus BC course and I’m doing well in it because my teacher knows how to create an environment where I can learn the way that’s best for me. For example, I made a music video about calculus. Instead of ‘Take me to Church’ by Hozier, [we created a video called] ‘Take me to Calc.’”
Sawyer added that creative learning is not and should not be isolated to the arts, but creative learning should be happening in all fields. “We need creative scientists, we need creative writers, we need creative historians, and we need creative mathematicians.”
3. Technology: Enabler of Human Connections
Matthew Rascoff predicts two categories of technology that will have the biggest impact on the future of education. The first, that he believes is “years off,” is incorporating adaptive learning into education. In this scenario, computers understand the learner’s patterns, make sense of those patterns, and then tailor the experience to exactly what the learner needs at that time.
The second category of edtech which is not years off, but in fact happening right now and will continue to do so, is “using technology as an enabler of better connections among and between people.” It can foster communities of learning so anyone can access and benefit from knowledge about a topic. For example, the Brooklyn ASK app connects curators to the general public in real time. As visitors have questions about an object, they can connect with an expert to share insight and answer their questions.
Shelley Bernstein, Brooklyn Museum’s Vice Director of Digital Engagement & Technology, speaks to this exact point in an interview with Nina Simon:
“The pilots showed us visitors were looking for a personal connection with our staff, wanted to talk about the art on view, and wanted that dialogue to be dynamic and speak to their needs directly.”
Echoing Corey’s point earlier – learners can use technology to enhance the human experience and desire for learning.
This discussion was interesting because it focused on themes, ideas, and projections for education as a whole and never got stuck in talking about one ‘type’ of education. In the quotes above and throughout the event, the panelists use the terms ‘educators’ and ‘learners’ interchangeably with ‘student’ and ‘teacher.’ This change in language is one step in the right direction to breaking down silos between educational institutions and organizations. The takeaways are applicable to myriad learning spaces, whether they’re on a college campus, in a museum, community center, or even senior center.
Please share your feedback, comments, or responses on how museums are integral to the future of learning.
Header photo: Courtesy of NC Museum of Art. Christopher Ciccone, photographer
In recent years, there has certainly been increased awareness and discussion about salaries within the museum profession. I can speak from my own place within the field of museum education when I say that this has become a very frequent (and more urgent) topic of conversation at conferences, leadership convenings, and professional meetings in recent months. Thanks to the efforts of museum activists involved with movements such as Museum Workers Speak, #MuseumsRespondtoFerguson, protests at individual museums, and several leaders in our field, we are seeing an increase in awareness around museum labor practices, hiring, and worker pay as well as the intersection of these issues with race, gender, and class.
Last week, Joan Baldwin wrote an insightful and widely-read piece entitled “Museums and the Salary Conundrum” via the Leadership Matters blog — a site that emerged in conjunction with the 2013 book of the same name written with Anne Ackerson and studying museum leadership in history and cultural heritage organizations. In her post, Baldwin so clearly and boldly frames the problem of museum salaries:
“we work in an underpaid, under-resourced field. And for too long, too many people have told us that it is such a privilege to participate, that we should suck it up, deal with the fact that we’re thirty and still need roommates to pay the rent, and revel in the fact that we have a museum position.”
Joan quickly followed her post with another this week entitled “The Salary Agenda,” in which she and Anne take a stab at what they think a Museum Salary Agenda for the 21st Century could look like. I really appreciated this action-focused series of items, which can begin to help the conversation focus on real change — from professional organizations and institutions to graduate programs and individuals. Here is a quick repost of their Agenda, and I invite everyone to read their entire post and add comments to the already-active conversation on their blog.
Be prepared to negotiate. Be prepared to say no. A dream job isn’t a dream if your parents are still paying your car insurance and your mobile phone bills.
Ask about the TOTAL package not just salary. If you are the trailing spouse and don’t need health insurance but do need time, make that part of your negotiations.
Network. Know what’s going on in your field, locally, regionally, nationally.
What Graduate Programs Can Do:
Be open about job placement statistics
Teach students to negotiate salaries and benefits.
Teach students to calculate a Living Wage plus loan payments and quality of life.
Encourage networking, mentoring and participation in the field.
Just as Joan and Anne are not speaking from a position of having solved all these problems, neither am I. However, I wanted to share their recent writings and ideas as a way to ensure that this conversation remains strong within the field of museum education. As we enter the spring season of conferences (AAM, NAEA, etc.), let’s make sure to keep these issues at the forefront of many of our conversations about diversity, inclusion, and leadership and work toward making appropriate and necessary changes within our professional organizations and institutions.
Thank you to Joan (and Anne) for sparking another important exchange around these vital issues to our field, and thanks to all the museum thinkers and activists pushing this issue through Twitter chats each week and in-person meet-ups across the country.
“For the understanding of a picture, a chair is needed. Why a chair? To prevent the legs, as they tire, from interfering with the mind.” –Paul Klee
I’m pushing myself, and I’m tired. There are too many museums in Washington, D.C., on my list, and I am running out of time before I have to fly to the other side of the country. My foot hurts, too, because I twisted it walking on the capital’s irregular sidewalks; it is bruised badly, but I press onward as I am determined to squeeze in yet another museum. I’m driven. Foolishly, I thought my heavy travel-ready backpack would be ok for this last venture that somehow I could manage it well enough on my shoulders balanced against my back. But now in the Smithsonian American Art Museum, this backpack has become a problem as the guards—properly, I’ll add—keep telling me to wear it on my front. In this position the straps are too tight, so I attempt to hold it near the ground on my side. That position doesn’t work either because it is too heavy for my arm alone. I then compromise by holding the pack at the front of my body with my arms wrapped awkwardly around it.
Whenever I find myself in a museum with short time, I mentally and emotionally agree that I’m going to metaphorically strap on some roller skates and cruise through it all. I like getting a sense of the whole of any museum, even if it is much larger than a skate-cruise allows. This time, with the mix of guard admonishments and sore foot, my push to see everything isn’t working. Completely frustrated, I spot a bench in a dark room placed before a quite garish painting. I head for the bench, not the painting.
The bench is instantly satisfying, cushioned—quite comfortable. Backpack down next to me, I sigh to gather myself, then look up. The painting looks quite different than it did when I initially walked into the room. It takes me a bit to figure out just what is happening before me; very slowly, the lights illuminating the painting seem to shift into what begins to feel like the slow revolving of a Christmas tree light wheel display. As the colors change, the relationships of the shapes and patterns within the artwork alter, making some versions visually delightful. I’m taken away from my foot misery, fascinated. It’s a celebration of the full color spectrum—a Roy G. Biv tribute. Time is passing and I don’t care; I’m now mesmerized by the work, and comfortable enough to take some time looking. It’s hooked me; I’ve stopped skating. I’m looking deeply, asking questions. Wondering.
I’m lucky this visit–there are few visiting this part of the gallery, so there is no crowd to subtly press me to move on. I welcome the one person who steps into the gallery space, and when he sits next to me—the bench is a long one and could accommodate many—we talk a bit about what we notice in the abstract world of the painting that changes before us. After viewing a second round of the color cycle, I finally get up to find the label. The work’s painter initially surprises and slightly wounds my pride that I didn’t actually know him immediately, it’s David Hockney’s Snail’s Space with Vari-Lites, “Painting as Performance”. From the label I’m curious to what a Vari-Lite is? With the color spell broken I make myself move on, away from the comfortable bench.
Later, when I look for more details online, I find a static picture on the SAAM collections site that shows none of the subtle color changes. With a further Internet search, I find a few not-very-equivalent to the real thing YouTube phone-captured videos. These videos just vaguely give a sense of the piece. This is a you-must-see-it-to-get-it artwork. The SAAM thoughtfully gives us a bench so we can sit and see for some time.
I have no idea if anyone else has been struck in the same way I am with this particular painting. Thinking about my experience, I am reminded of one of my first museum visits as a child at the Columbus Museum of Art where there was a machine that demonstrated color light mixing using transparent gels showing how three light primaries (red, blue, green) combine to create magenta, yellow, and cyan. My mother had to drag this whining eight-year-old away from it as I could have played for hours. Years later, I desperately wanted to make something like it for my science project. So I’m moved by color, perhaps in the same way some are moved by music. Color feeds me in a way few other things do.
One of my other color memories is thanks to a Windsor chair, notably with a back, so I could really relax while viewing a painting. This chair was placed before one of the most well known paintings in D.C., Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party. My circumstances were similar to those with the Hockney: I was at my first National Docent Conference, overfilled with conversation about art, and in a different twist for me, was being dragged by others for one last look at art before we headed to our flight. Upon hitting the galleries, my goal was to sit and gather myself, so I wandered through in search of a chair aiming to take the first one I could find. At the time, some almost 30 years ago, an available chair seemed a novel thing. And equally unexpected, the guards at The Phillips Collection were students from nearby universities dressed in everyday clothing. I remember asking an approachable gallery attendant if I could sit in the chair, assuming I could not, and being told that it was there for people to take in the paintings. The atmosphere was welcoming, and the chair made it more so.
The room was full of Impressionist paintings; I was full of a disdainful attitude about them, internally wearing my smugness of ‘I’d been there, I’d done impressionism.’ One of the lessons I learned that day sitting in that welcoming chair has stayed with me since: you don’t know what you don’t know unless you see something for yourself. Being in that chair, the painting invited me in to look, and the more I looked the more I wondered, the more intrigued I became, and suddenly my respect for this work increased. Not having the Internet to turn to in those days, I soon found myself in the bookstore buying information on this masterpiece. Today this 20-minute experience remains vivid in my mind’s eye.
When I recently talked about this with my colleague Peter Samis, Associate Curator of Interpretation at SFMOMA, he suggested that both of these works are clear instances of what he calls Visual Velcro. The Hockney and the Renoir readily hook the viewer into the work in part because of the color dramas they present. The Visual Velcro with them hooked me so well that I might have stayed for a while to look anyway. Having a place to sit in both instances helped me physically endure a much longer visual journey. Access to seating can also support our viewing works that are not as easy on the eyes, those that are more unsettling or socially challenging. For instance, the color used in the recent show Rewind at The Baltimore Museum of Art is quite purposeful, the artist has made KKK robes in colorful Kente cloth and other patterned fabrics. While the Rewind show has the visual allure of color, the content is more socially charged; I want to sit in a chair especially in that exhibition. The longer I can be with any artwork, the more I will notice, the more I will feel.
Comfortable chairs in the right places within our galleries are critical. Not only do they offer a place for the weary to rest, but also are an invitation to stop, stare, and wonder. In many ways, in this online venue, I’m preaching to the converted: we know this. But you might want to remind yourself of the interpretive value of a chair.
When was the last time you sat in one in front of a work and let yourself just see?
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SUSAN SPERO, Ph.D. teaches Museum Studies at the John F. Kennedy University in Berkeley CA. Her classes focus on all aspects of the visitor experience, including discussions on creature comforts. She also serves on the Museum Education Roundtable Board.
When you’re regularly working 10-hour days doing everything from implementing strategic initiatives to signing timesheets, how do you manage to be a leader in those circumstances? Ask any exempt staff (1) and they’ll no doubt share stories of being overworked, under-resourced, and despite the best of intentions, feeling overwhelmed and less than effective. Given this reality, beyond your personal conviction and will power to do a good job, what makes a great leader? What supports do leaders today and tomorrow need to be successful? What strengths and skills can museum educators bring to leadership roles?
These questions guided an interactive session we led at the National Art Education Association Annual Convention in March 2015. During the session, colleagues shared the qualities they believe make a great leader. If you think about a great leader from your own life, you’ll probably recognize many of these same qualities including:
is a great listener
speaks the truth
accepts and learns from failure
is strategic when fighting battles
knows when to follow rather than lead
models behavior for staff
brings others along and empowers others
is a chief storyteller
From there, we split into groups and tackled the top three leadership issues we face, as chosen by those assembled:
developing and supporting staff
institutional culture change
making change at your level
Since we believe in the power of collective minds, and know that there are incredibly smart, capable people in our work, we endeavored to develop solutions or, at least, resources and places to begin. Here’s what we learned…
Create interdisciplinary teams and use Design Thinking to create solutions. Change takes time and is an investment – you’ll need to weather storms and stay more than two to three years at an institution. It takes courage to run with it, create a space that doesn’t exist, and ask forgiveness later, not permission. Flip authority within by trusting others with the reins.
Making change at your level
Whether you are a volunteer, intern, part-time staff, full-time staff, or a director, hold yourself to high standards while knowing your limitations. Modeling change versus talking about change is more impactful. Awareness of change leads to more collaboration, which leads to growing success and less discouragement, which generates more ideas. The book Tempered Radicals was recommended.
As we reflected on the outcomes of that session recently, we realized the values, challenges, solutions all still feel relevant to us. When we talked about our current environments and work realities however, some new questions and challenges emerged:
has vision – what if others on your team don’t share that vision?
is innovative – what if others define innovation differently?
is a great listener – what if others aren’t listening to you?
speaks the truth – what if others don’t want to hear it?
is courageous – what if your courage backfires?
accepts and learns from failure – what if failure negatively impacts your job or career? What if others in your institution don’t value failure?
is strategic when fighting battles – when does strategy become political and personality-driven?
knows when to follow rather than lead – how do you follow when there’s a lack of trust?
models behaviour for staff – what if staff are not receptive? For example, emerging and mid-career professionals tend to prefer flat rather than hierarchical organizational structures compared to more senior professionals.
brings others along and empowers others – what if they disappoint?
is a chief storyteller – what if it’s a story others aren’t ready to hear? What if your story is competing for airtime, or there’s no one to hear it?
Perhaps these questions, or similar versions, have emerged in your setting as well, whether quietly or loudly. How do leaders tackle these very real, messy issues? What sources of strength, knowledge, or wisdom can we mine to support both ourselves and others?
We invite your thoughts and responses to these and other questions — add to the Comments below, or share your questions via social media.
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 The U.S. Fair Labor Standards Act determines many employment standards, including who is or is not “exempt” from overtime pay. Many museum workers are exempt from overtime pay due to their work duties.
About the Authors
WENDY NG: Manager, Learning at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Canada, where she oversees School Visits, Traveling Programs, and the Hands-on Galleries. Previously, Wendy worked at the Art Gallery of Ontario as Coordinator, Elementary School and Teacher Programs, and other museums in Washington, DC and London, England. She holds a BFA and BEd from York University, a MAT in Museum Education from George Washington University, and is certified by the Ontario College of Teachers.
RACHEL TRINKLEY: Director of Education for Explore! Children’s Museum of Washington DC, a new children’s museum being developed for the nation’s capital. Prior to joining the museum, she worked at the Freer|Sackler Galleries, Smithsonian Institution, and at the Columbus Museum of Art (Ohio), where she managed the docent program and served as Assistant Director of Learning. She holds a BA from Saint Mary’s College, Indiana, and an MA in art history from Ohio State University.
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?
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