Written by Mike Murawski
Throughout this summer, I have been thinking quite a bit about how museums respond to the events going on in the world around us as well as in our own communities (especially about the urgent role of empathy in museums as tragic events flood the headlines, but also the ways in which museums have responded to Ferguson and interact with the Movement for Black Lives). There are so many challenging questions that urgently need to be asked and addressed:
- What is the social and emotional responsibility of museums, especially as many public institutions strive to be a vital part of their local communities?
- How can our collections and exhibitions help visitors critically and thoughtfully engage with present-day realities?
- How do museums decide which political or social issues to engage with, and which ones to be silent about?
- If these issues don’t directly relate to something in our galleries, can museums still be a site for people to gather and grapple with these difficult topics?
- And finally—perhaps the biggest and most provocative question—can museums be neutral in all of this? What is the value, if any, of remaining silent?
These questions—and many more—are being asked this summer at the museum I work for, the Portland Art Museum, which recently opened two exhibitions that relate directly to the politically charged realities of our time: an immersive multimedia project by artist Josh Kline entitled Freedom, and a focus exhibition of the work of Portland artist Arvie Smith. As we personally responded to the news cycles of the summer, we wondered how our visitors might bring their feelings of anger, fear, grief, pain, hope, love, and healing to their experience with these exhibitions and our collection. Should we do anything different, or just allow the art to spark that connection on its own with the people who happen to visit?
After a few rapidly planned cross-departmental meetings combined with some unplanned hallway conversations, the general consensus was to do something. One of our attempted strategies, among others, was to develop a guide to support productive conversation and dialogue in the galleries. After all, the idea of ‘conversation’ has been such a core value for gallery teaching at our institution for many years, as well as for my own personal teaching practice (see “Reflecting on the Learning Power of Conversation in Museums”).
I am writing this post to share the prototype of our Have Conversations Here Guide, and talk briefly about the various resources that I pulled together to develop the text of this guide. While I know that this guide is far from perfect, I am such a fan of an ‘open source’ mindset and just simply getting it out there. I welcome productive feedback, other useful resources, and both success and failure stories for when others have experimented with strategies like this.
But before discussing the Guide in more detail, it only makes sense to provide a bit more information about the Kline and Smith exhibitions that essentially sparked this extended thinking about productive dialogue here at our museum.
Art Provokes Conversations
Taking up an entire floor of the museum’s modern and contemporary wing, Josh Kline’s exhibition Freedom explores issues of social justice activism, policing, surveillance technologies, and corporate/government power. The work includes video monitors; a recreation of Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan (a space taken over by Occupy Wall Street in 2011); life-size sculptures of police officers in tactical gear with Teletubby heads; videos embedded in the torsos of the police figures that include Black Lives Matter activists and retired police officers; and an installation of replicated donuts bearing police crests, handcuffs, asphalt, and broken auto glass. Inspired by his own participation in the Occupy movement, Kline asks visitors to confront the recent past and its repercussions, while contemplating our roles as citizens in this pivotal moment when the uses of technology, notions of privacy, and the social order are rapidly shifting.
In a different part of the museum, the brightly-colored paintings of Arvie Smith draw subject matter directly from his own African American roots and lived experience. A key work in the exhibition is Smith’s Strange Fruit (1992), depicting the lynching of a young black man by two robed KKK members, and borrowing its title from the Abel Meeropol song made famous by Billie Holiday. Additional works such as Hands Up Don’t Shoot (2015) include stereotyped caricatures of African Americans like Aunt Jemima and direct references to police violence and the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014.
Both Smith and Kline clearly see their work as intended to spark conversation and dialogue around these challenging issues, inviting visitors to not only grapple with the imagery and subject matter of their work but also with the connected realities of the world we are experiencing every day. In an interview with Portland Monthly Magazine, Kline talks about the relationship of activism and art, and the role he sees his art playing:
“Art doesn’t directly change the world. It provokes conversations and gives people space to think about their world in ways that aren’t usually possible through mass media, but it doesn’t have the power to topple corrupt governments or feed the hungry. Art operates via the ripple effect and through indirect influence. As an artist, I feel fortunate to have a public platform right now and I want to use it to speak out about issues that I feel are important—while at the same time making work that reflects the human experience in the present.”
Along these same lines, Smith discusses the importance of dialogue in an interview with the museum:
“I think everybody comes to these strong emotional situations from their own frame of reference, and I’m going to see things one way, someone else is going to see it another way—doesn’t mean I’m right; doesn’t mean their right or wrong. We have a difference of opinion. And, somewhere, through dialogue, hopefully, we can come together & make this a better world to live in.”
Developing a Conversation Guide
As part of our multifaceted conversations about how to support our visitors in having meaningful, respectful dialogue here at the museum (and after their visit), I spent time researching and developing a Conversation Guide that we could share. I scoured all of my existing resources on teaching, critical pedagogy, community activism, and museum learning, and printed out dozens of training manuals and facilitation guides that related directly to having conversations about difficult topics. My desk was completely covered.
After drafting up an extensive multi-page guide that included far too much text and too many prompts, I edited it all down until it fit on one single page. I sent this off to a few amazing colleagues at other museums, handed it to fellow staff at my museum, shared it with a few key community members, met with our director, and brought together all their feedback to create the final prototype: Have Conversations Here. We uploaded it to our website on the Visit page and emailed it to all staff and docents. I also began handing it out at programs and events developed through specific community outreach efforts related to these exhibitions, including the PDX Social Justice Community Art Project and a panel discussion “Race in America After Ferguson” with Rev. Traci Blackmon from Christ the King United Church of Christ in Florissant, Missouri.
As you’ll quickly notice, the key sources of inspiration and content for this guide included Hillel International’s Ask Big Questions, the Public Conversations Project, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance Project, the curriculum resources of Teaching for Change, and PBS’ Talking with Kids guides, especially their guide for Talking with Kids about the News. If you are not familiar with any of these project and resources, I highly recommend you check them out and share them with your staff or colleagues. I have been a huge fan of Ask Big Questions for years, and I found the field manuals from the Public Conversations Project to be incredibly detailed and useful (for creating this guide, as well as for my own professional practice).
I am pasting the full text of this Have Conversations Here guide below in this blog post, so anyone can use any portion of this without needing to surgically remove it from a PDF. I hope that some of you find this useful, and perhaps might use some of this content in your own museums (if you do, let me know, and please continue to cite the sources for this guide).
I couldn’t end this post without including the following quote from curator Michael Brenson (which sadly didn’t make it into the guide); a quote that has resonated with me for years and best represents what I value about the powerful kinds of conversations we can facilitate in museums.
“In the best conversations, no one is used; ownership is shared. Everyone leaves with a sense that the ideas exchanged belong to each person present. Everyone also leaves respecting those who were part of the exchange, whether or not there was agreement. For me, conversation does make connections, it helps make connection possible.”
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Full Text of “Have Conversations Here” Guide:
HAVE CONVERSATIONS HERE
You are welcome to talk and have conversations here at the museum. We encourage you to use the galleries throughout the museum as spaces for dialogue, while always remaining respectful of all visitors. Explore together, look closely, and find a place within the museum to sit and talk about what you see and experience.
Dialogue is a powerful mode of conversation that genuinely seeks mutual understanding. It can occur between friends, co-workers, family members, and even among strangers. And it can certainly occur between people who do not share the same experiences, perspectives, or ideas. Learning to listen carefully and disagree respectfully are essential skills in today’s world.
- Share your views.
- Ask questions.
- Listen with care.
“Talking in museums is one of the things that makes them matter, and the way in which we talk in museums is one of the things that define for us what they are.” – Adam Gopnik, writer
EXPLORE THE GALLERIES
Consider visiting artworks on view that more directly explore some of the politically- and socially-charged issues we see in the news today, including policing, racial violence, stereotypes, and social justice activism.
Josh Kline: Freedom (open July 23 – November 13)
APEX: Arvie Smith (open July 30 – November 13)
Take some time to experience these artworks, think about your responses, and have a conversation with someone else in which you share your perspective and listen to theirs. Consider these questions:
- How have events related to these issues affected you personally?
- What life experiences of your own might connect with the work by these artists?
- How are these artists challenging you?
If you’ve used this guide to spark any conversations with others—whether during or after your visit to the museum—think about any insights you’ve gained and how you might extend this experience.
- Have you noticed anything new about yourself and how you view the world?
- How might these conversations help you better understand someone else’s perspective?
- How might you create more opportunities for reflection and dialogue?
TALKING & LISTENING STRATEGIES FOR FAMILIES
Talking about issues of social justice and violence with kids can be challenging. Children are curious and constantly ask questions about the world around them. In one breath, they might ask about a range of topics — from the weather to something they heard on the news. Whether at home, in the car, or here at the museum, it can be difficult to know how respond when difficult questions come up.
To help support these types of conversations here at the museum for all ages, we wanted to offer a few flexible suggestions. These strategies might help your family talk together about some of the socially- or politically-charged artworks you might encounter during your visit to the museum.
Start by finding out what your child knows.
When a difficult issue comes up, ask an open-ended question like “What have you heard about it?” This encourages your child to let you know what they are thinking.
Ask a follow up question.
Depending on your child’s comments, ask another question to get them thinking, such as “Why do you think that happened?” or “What do you think people should do to help?”
Give children the information they need to know in a way that makes sense to them. At times, a few sentences are enough.
Listen and acknowledge.
If a child sees or hears something that might worry and upset them, recognize their feelings and comfort them. This acknowledges your child’s feelings, helps them feel secure, and encourages them to tell you more.
(Adapted from “Talking with Kids about the News,” a resource for parents available online at pbs.org/parents/talkingwithkids/news)
This guide draws from the following projects and resources to develop these strategies to promote active, productive dialogue and reflection. Learn more by visiting the websites listed here:
- PBS – Talking with Kids
- Ask Big Questions
- Teaching Tolerance
- The Public Conversation Project
- Teaching for Change
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Featured Header Image: Artist Demian DinéYazhi’ leading a conversation in the galleries of the Portland Art Museum’s Center for Contemporary Native Art with participants in the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) program. Photo by Cody Maxwell.