Over the past year, our news cycles and social media exchanges have often seemed to be platforms for increasingly one-way communication. People of all political affiliations are using what tools they have to share their ideas as fully formed faits accomplis. Should anyone try to question or discuss those ideas, the tone of the discourse often devolves even further, with the result that little–if any–empathy or understanding is reached.
This was the state of affairs last spring and summer, when Lenka Clayton and Jon Rubin’s . . . circle through New York project sent six different items and ideas rotating through six different locations around Manhattan, the Bronx, and Queens. In July, the Guggenheim hosted “A Call to Action against Social Injustice,” a thoughtful appeal composed by St. Philip’s Church in Harlem. An interdepartmental team of curators and educators came together to brainstorm ideas for how to take action in response, and after some discussion, we decided to focus in on this section: “Always be just as ready to listen as you are emboldened to speak out for or against others.”
As the Manager of Public Engagement at the Guggenheim, I train and manage a number of educators who regularly talk with our visitors. I encourage the educators to be participants in two-way conversations, not experts delivering one-way content. To respond to the call to action, we embraced that idea and decided to make our visitors the experts, with museum staff as their attentive listeners.
We crafted a question to ask our visitors that’s been on the minds of many museum workers: What roles can cultural institutions play in times of social and political change?
Then we put out an invitation to any interested Guggenheim staff, especially those who don’t usually interact directly with visitors. Who wanted to head out into our galleries to pose this question to visitors and record what they said in response? Nineteen staff members from six different departments (Education, Curatorial, Marketing, Security, Library & Archives, and Development) volunteered. Since many of these staffers were nervous about opening themselves up to these conversations—after all, we were asking people to discuss a sensitive topic with strangers where the answers might be directly opposed to their own thoughts and feelings—we hired Keonna Hendrick, a cultural strategist and educator, to provide some professional (and personal) development sessions.
All of the participants were required to attend one of Keonna’s training sessions, where she focused on techniques for listening, even when we might not agree. We also encouraged our staff to truly embody that role of listener, to encourage and record visitors’ thoughts without judgment and without engaging in debate, giving our visitors the metaphorical microphone.
With these tools and guidelines under their belts, the staff volunteers went out into the galleries for a total of about forty hours of listening to our visitors. Over that period, we learned that out of nearly two hundred responding visitors, significant percentages of them see museums as places for dialogue, for learning, for sanctuary, and for direct social engagement. Sometimes these desires are at odds with each other. To me, that is the value of hearing what our visitors have to say. They are not a monolithic group, and they look to museums to play different roles in their lives. Here are a few of the things they told us:
“A cultural institution becomes a venue for creative minds to showcase the social and political change of every era.”
“Culture can’t be divorced from politics and cultural institutions must reflect this! Especially now, reflect back and uplift the voices of the vulnerable—communities of color, women, immigrants, LGBTQI, etc.”
“Dare [to] criticize and challenge left-wing orthodoxy.”
I like to think that in addition to getting direct contact with our visitors’ points of view, our staff gained another benefit from their participation in . . . circle through New York. When it came time to gather feedback from them on how it felt to take part in this listening action, many of them shared an appreciation for the direct visitor insights, but just as many referenced the listening itself as their most powerful or significant takeaway. One staffer noted, “The biggest takeaway for me from this experience was the act of listening . . . We need more communication that is free from judgment and mutually respectful.” Another remarked, “The training workshop was really helpful for me and I am finding it applicable in work and life.”
At a time when so much of our public discourse is aggressive or aggrieved, hurting or hurtful, with little in between, I’m holding onto the lessons from our month of listening. I have outlined our process here, hoping that other museums might be able to adapt this approach to learn from their own visitors and foster real-time, face-to-face conversation.
Here’s to meaningful listening, in 2018 and beyond.
RACHEL ROPEIK: Manager of Public Engagement at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Previously, she served as a museum educator at the Brooklyn Museum and the Museum of Modern Art; a Smarthistory contributor; and cultural docent for Context Travel. She holds a B.A. from Wellesley College, M.A. from the Courtauld Institute of Art, and her current professional interests are in the places where accessibility, technology, and multi-modal learning intersect with art museums. She can also perform a passable jazz dance routine and tell you a dissertation’s worth about 19th century European menswear.
In the current air of divisiveness and disconnection, it can feel more challenging each day to bring people together in meaningful ways. When I listen to the news on my commute to work each day, the negativity and misunderstandings can seem overwhelming when compared to the small changes and connections I might make possible through my own work in a museum. As we celebrate communities, cultures, histories, memories, and stories in our museums, others deride them and shape a narrative that negates their value here in our society.
Yet at this time when we are surrounded by an increasingly fragmented society of ‘us versus them,’ I continue to firmly believe that museums have the potential to be powerful catalysts for empathy and human connection. As museums respond to issues affecting our communities, both locally and globally, there is a clear shift toward focusing on human connection and the role museums play as catalysts for empathy and cohesion in a society rife with intolerance, discrimination, inequality, social isolation, and self-segregation.
In their essay included in the recently published volume entitled Fostering Empathy Through Museums(2017), a team of leaders and changemakers (past and present) from the Levine Museum of the New South powerfully reflect on their decade-long commitment to dialogue and civic engagement:
“With shared empathy, individuals can move from isolation to belonging, from division to connection, from suspicion to trust, and come together to begin the hard work of creating a cohesive diverse community that values and gives opportunity to all its residents” (235)
Embracing a human-centered mindset in museums asks us to advance these concepts of empathy and connection as integral elements to our museums’ values and culture. And it is time to take these principles seriously, and recognize the essential need for museums to lead and take action rather than just follow and passively react.
Expanding Our Definitions of Empathy
While there are many definitions of empathy out there (and we certainly throw the word around quite a bit these days, present company included), I really appreciated how this concept was framed by educator Thom Markham in a January 2018 article for KQED’s Mind/Shift about empathy and learning in our connected world. I would whole-heartedly agree that we need to move beyond narrowly defining empathy as ‘I like others’ or ‘walking in someone else’s shoes.’ A more complex definition of empathy considers it as a “deep interpersonal skill necessary for effective teaming, customer design, and other aspects of life that require openness to the flow of information.” It involves collectively working toward the common good and making a positive difference in the world. I’m interested in how we can expand our definitions of empathy to consider its relationship with social justice, so that striving for a culture of empathy means that we’re also committing to actions and convictions that lead to more equitable and just communities.
These core social functions of museums have been clearly emerging as museum leaders and professionals reflect on how institutions can be relevant and sustainable now and in the future. The Alliance of American Museums 2017 TrendsWatch highlighted empathy and social justice as key forces of change in the field. In a chapter devoted to empathy, Elizabeth Merritt states that “museums’ inherent strengths position them to be effective ‘empathy engines’ helping people to understand the ‘other’ and reinforcing social bonds” (8). To embrace these values, museums are working to build experiences based in storytelling, lived experience, memory, healing, and civic engagement. Exhibitions are being designed in partnership with community members, content is being co-created between museum staff and visitors, and marginalized voices are being brought into the core of museum spaces.
Strategies for Change
How can we more fully integrate these values in our own museum practice and institutional culture? How can those of us working in, for, and with museums begin to make this shift happen toward a more human-centered mindset? In addition to rethinking hierarchies and internal structures, another key starting place for this type of change is simply practicing more empathy within the workplace environment and culture of a museum institution.
Building Empathy on an Individual Level
While this sounds very broad, it can start with anyone at any level of an organization. In many museums, especially large ones, the proliferation of departments and reporting structures combined with an over-reliance on email communication can lead to silos and barriers among staff within the organization. People are not connecting with other people in meaningful ways.
I can speak from my own personal experience, having been in plenty of tense meetings in which everyone comes in with their defenses up, ready to battle. A curator is certain that the education staff are going to ‘dumb down’ their ideas. An educator assumes that their suggestions to make an exhibition more accessible to families will be belittled by an exhibition designer. Situations like these are happening in museums everyday, and they are creating and maintaining barriers to change. We’re making assumptions about other people’s values and positions without ever listening to their perspectives.
To counteract this, we can begin to form a culture of empathy through the basic building blocks of conversation and listening. Building empathy on an individual level means identifying those people in your organization or in your community about which you might be making assumptions, then spending time having face-to-face conversations with them, taking a step back to truly listen, and trying to gain a greater sense of what they value and why. Being a human-centered museum starts with the human connections and social relationships we build within the institution and among our community. Getting this process started can be as easy as having coffee with co-workers that you find yourself rarely interacting with or even butting heads with. Removing these smaller-scale disconnections is a powerful way to start working toward change in your institution, one conversation at a time.
Building Institutional Empathy
In addition to embracing empathy on an individual level, it is vital to consider how museums can embrace a broader form of institutional empathy. Just as individuals can practice listening to and responding to the needs of other individuals, museums have the ability as institutions to mirror those same skills in building empathy with their communities. The amazing work of the Empathetic Museum group has focused on helping organizations move towards a more empathetic future. According to their model, “an empathetic museum is so connected with its community that it is keenly aware of its values, needs, and challenges.”
Using a rubric called the Maturity Model, museum staff and leaders can assess their own institution’s commitment to building empathy across a series of characteristics such as civic vision, institutional body language, community resonance, and sustainability. For museums just beginning to think about their work as human-centered, models such as this can provide a spark for meaningful conversations among staff about what it means to be empathetic and better reflect the values of your community. For museums at more advanced stages of this change process, this model can help structure goal setting and inform strategic planning.
Identifying and Advancing Core Values
So this all sounds great, but what if just a few passionate staff are advocating for these ideas and models within an institution? How can these human-centered values of empathy and human connection be integrated into the DNA of an organization, and not just fade if those few passionate staff get frustrated or even leave?
Beyond advancing individual empathy as described above (an important strategy toward spreading empathy within an organization), one key strategy is developing core values and a values statement that reflect these ideas. If your museum does not have any type of core value statement, there is never a bad time to get one drafted.
Traditionally, this type of institutional language has been created through a top-down process and likely doesn’t have the buy-in of most staff and volunteers. Rather, it’s best to go through a process that allows staff at all levels (perhaps even some volunteers and community members) a chance to express their thoughts about a museum’s core values. These conversations might start during hallway conversations or cross-departmental meetings, and trickle up to the leadership team. The goal here is to develop a simple, clear, open, and transparent set of values that can guide everyday decisions and help organizations answer difficult questions and challenges when they arise. If an organization’s overall culture does not seem ready for this (yet), a similar process can occur within a single department and then often spread from there.
Having established a set of values based in human connection can more effectively lead to institutions becoming more human-centered and making decisions that reflect these values.
Share Your Thoughts
These conversations and actions cannot take place solely behind museum walls or in the isolation of professional conferences. We need to work together to realize the full potential of museums and discover how a human-centered focus on social action can transform your practice, your museum, and your community.
Are you working to embrace empathy in your organization? How do you define empathy in your practice? What challenges do you face in this work, or in thinking about empathy in museum practice? This conversation deserves to be more complex, and bring in as many perspectives as possible. Add your voice to the comments below or via social media (@murawski27), and share your experiences or questions as part of this effort to make change happen in museums.
Let’s be a part of making this change happen together!
Check out the previous post on rethinking hierarchies, and stay tuned for further posts in this series about how museums might become more human-centered institutions working toward positive impact in our communities, including reflecting on personal agency.
Header Image: “Wall of Empathy (6)” photo by David Goehring, not changed, CC BY 2.0. Photo depicts a “wall” of sticky notes installed by an artist group in selected San Francisco BART stations following the 2016 presidential election. This project was inspired by a similar one in the New York subway.
As common sense and straightforward as it sounds to think about museums as people- and human-centered institutions—a concept you’ve heard me write about quite a bit—this idea has faced a legacy of rather fierce opposition grounded in outdated traditions and histories. How many museums have mission statements that prioritize the colonizing actions of “collecting” and “preserving” objects, rather than fore-fronting the people-centered work of building community, growing empathy and understanding, celebrating human creativity, and cultivating engaged citizenship? How often do museum leaders and boards make decisions that value objects and collections over staff, volunteers, and museum visitors? What if museum leaders and professionals considered human relationships and human impact, first and foremost, when making decisions about exhibitions, interpretation, programs, facilities, policies, and practices? Embracing a human-centered mindset in museums asks us to do just that, advancing empathy, human potential, and collective well-being as integral elements to our institution’s values and culture. And this is not just putting visitors at the center of our thinking, but all of the people that make up a museum’s community—visitors, staff, volunteers, members, donors, and community partners as well as neighbors and residents of our localities and regions. All of these individuals are part of a museum’s interconnected human ecosystem.
Embracing a mindset of openness, participation, and social connectivity allows museums the chance to extend the boundaries of what is possible, and serve as sites for profound human connection in the 21st century. In their 2011 book Humanize: How People-Centric Organizations Succeed in a Social World, Jamie Notter and Maddie Grant discuss their ideas for developing a more human organization in a world affected by social media and the Internet.
“We need organizations that are more human. We need to re-create our organizations so that the power and energy of being human in our work life can be leveraged. This has the power not only to transform our individual experiences in the work world, but also to access untapped potential in our organizations” (p. 4).
Jasper Visser writes about museums and these aspects of a social business, quoting the Social Business Forum in defining a social business as “an organization that has put in place the strategies, technologies, and processes to systematically engage all the individuals in its ecosystem (employees, customers, partners, suppliers) to maximize the co-created value.” The model of a social business, therefore, focuses on building relationships and connections among its entire community, or ecosystem of people. For museums, this goes beyond just being visitor-centered and means thinking about staff and volunteers as well as neighbors and the broader public. As Visser states:
“museums and most other cultural institutions are inherently social organizations to begin with. They have always thrived on intimate relations with all individuals involved in the joint creation of value.”
Insert cliche image of people working together (couldn’t resist, sorry)…
This concept of a social museum relies on each and every stakeholder working together toward change, value, and impact (which is why using the stock image above actually makes sense to use in representing museums). The key elements of a social organization—embracing networks of people, considering social relationships inside and outside the organization, and enhancing collaboration in a way that crosses traditional boundaries—are all core to developing a human-centered mindset in museums.
Strategies for Change
So how can those of us working in museums begin to make this shift happen toward a more human-centered mindset? In order to become social organizations that achieve positive impact in their communities, museums need to be rethinking their internal organization structures. Most museums rely on deeply ingrained, top-down structures that rely on territorial thinking, defined protocols, and traditional reporting structures based on academic degrees, power, silos, division, and oppression. In these traditional hierarchies, communication flows from the top to the bottom which means that “innovation stagnates, engagement suffers, and collaboration is virtually non-existent” (Jacob Morgan, “The 5 Types of Organizational Structures: Part 1, The Hierarchy,” Forbes, July 6, 2015).
Furthermore, as stated in the nationwide report Ready to Lead: Next Generation of Leaders Speak Out (2008), organizations that maintain traditional hierarchies “risk perpetuating power structures that alienate emerging leadership talent in their organizations” (p. 25). The sluggish bureaucracy of this embedded management structure prevents a museum from being responsive to its staff and its broader community. In other words, traditional top-down museums are just not very human-centered. They tend to be leader-centered or focused on a few powerful individuals at the top. So how can this be changed? What steps can museum professionals take to think about and enact alternative structures?
To be more people-centered, museum leaders and staff can work toward more participatory, democratic, and flatter models for organizational structure. In their recent book Creating the Visitor-Centered Museum(2017), Peter Samis and Mimi Michaelson discuss this transformation taking place in museums taking a more visitor-centered approach: “new ways of working ultimately shift traditional structures and may end up equalizing roles or flattening hierarchies” (p. 6). Efforts to decentralize decision-making and promote broader collaboration lead to museums that are more innovative, more responsive to change, and more likely to have a shared central purpose across its staff, volunteers, visitors, and community stakeholders—its human ecosystem. When we rethink and replace the outdated hierarchies, there is clearly a greater potential for a broader base of individuals to feel personal ownership over the meaningful work of museums in their communities.
In 2011, the Oakland Museum of California (OCMA) made major changes to their structure that resulted in a new cross-disciplinary and cross-functional model focused on visitor experience and community engagement. Referred to within OCMA as “the flower,” this new organizational structure has attempted to rid the museum of some of the barriers formed by outdated ways of operating. In 2016, their updated organizational chart had “visitor experience & public participation” at its very center, and only text references to the CEO and executive team floating around the outside. What started as a “rake” of institutional silos, according to Executive Director Lori Fogarty, became a “flower” of cross-functional teams emphasizing transparency, input, and communication. The more decentralized flower structure has positioned this civic-minded institution to better serve and engage its community. Here is Fogarty speaking at an ArtsFwd event in 2014:
But What Can I Do?
Aside from reinventing your entire museum’s organizational structure (which is awesome, but quite challenging and rare), there are smaller action steps that anyone can take within their own institution.
One way to make these types of changes happen is to work toward flattening communication and expanding participation in decision-making. Seek ideas and input from staff and colleagues on a regular basis, and you don’t have to be a manager to do this. For example, instead of using meetings to passively report out information about upcoming projects or policies, use these times to also discuss critical issues and gather input. Even a large staff meeting can be a platform for two-way communication. In addition, empower staff at all levels to participate in setting goals for their departments and for the museum. This can happen at any level of an organization, and sometimes making changes at the smaller ‘grass roots’ level of an organization can eventually lead to significant changes at the top. And involving more staff input in goal setting may take a greater investment in time across an organization, it will lead to broader feelings of ownership once those goals are being implemented and achieved on the floor with visitors. Involving staff at all levels of an organization in goal-setting and decision-making can also work toward cultivating leadership at all levels. Human-centered museums are institutions that recognize leaders across all levels and departments, not just at the top.
Finally, one important strategy for embracing a human-centered mindset in museums involves replacing outdated “org charts” with new ways of visualizing connections. Everyone reading this is probably familiar with the org charts that have each position in a box, and lines connect everyone based on management and reporting. Who manages who? Who evaluates who? Who has power over who? These charts fan out from the Director or CEO box at the top, ending at the bottom with lots of little boxes filled with part-time staff, security guards, volunteer docents, etc. Not only are these charts confusing (and oftentimes quite ugly), but they emphasize oppressive power relationships and do not accurately represent the way a museum works and how staff interact with each other.
Your museum or organization might have something that looks a bit like this:
We need to replace these old org charts with new maps that emphasize human connection and collaboration. And you don’t need to be the human resources director or CEO to give this a try. Take a piece of paper, draw a circle to represent yourself, and then begin adding in other staff, volunteers, or partners based on your working relationships with them. Who do you collaborate with on a regular basis? What working group meetings or committee meetings do you attend? What are some of the social connections you have within your organization (yes, these count, too)? Soon, you begin creating an organic map of your organization based on human relationships and connection. Maybe something a bit more like this:
Not only is this a great way to visualize and map your existing connections with others, but you can also use this as a way to identify individuals or departments in your organization that you are currently not connected with. What are some ways you might begin to develop new connections to those people? What impact might building new connections have on your work, their work, and the museum’s work in the broader community?
Share Your Thoughts
These conversations and actions cannot take place solely behind museum walls or in the isolation of professional conferences. We need to work together to realize the full potential of museums and discover how a human-centered focus on social action can transform your practice, your museum, and your community.
Are you working toward rethinking hierarchies and outdated structures in your organization? Add your voice to the comments below or via social media (@murawski27), and share your experiences or questions as part of this effort to make change happen in museums.
Let’s be a part of making this change happen together!
* * *
Check out additional posts in this series about how museums might become more human-centered institutions working toward positive impact in our communities, including reflecting on personal agency as well as embracing a culture of empathy.
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.
Reposted from the Skirball Cultural Center’s Building a Better World blog, a place on their website dedicated to sharing some of the ways Skirball educators partner with families, schoolchildren, teachers, and community organizations to take concrete action to promote a more just society.
Written by Anna Schwarz, Skirball Cultural Center
The Skirball’s in-school residency program is one of the rare opportunities we have to work closely with students, exploring issues that are important in their lives and how art can be a tool for civic and social action. Over the course of eight to ten weeks, one class of students and their teacher collaborate with skilled teaching artists and a Skirball educator (in this case, me!) to build identity and community through collaborative and creative practices. As we tailor every residency to the exhibition content presented at the Skirball in a given year, the teaching artists and the art medium also change yearly. Recent residency projects have ranged from dance pieces exploring gender disparity, to radio stories about incarceration, to noir-style films about contemporary high school issues. Through these various projects, educators and students creatively explore how art can become a platform for student voices and storytelling.
In our most recent residency earlier this year, we wanted to focus on the Skirball’s mission, particularly the imperative to “help build a more just society.” We collaborated with poet and arts educator Kahlil Almustafa, writer and performer Julia Grob, and one class of tenth grade LAUSD students from the Community Health Advocates School (CHAS) at Augustus Hawkins High School. Maria Gaspar, a social studies teacher at CHAS, invited us into her classroom where we met twice a week. During the one-hour workshops, students practiced using poetry as a vehicle for self-expression and activism.
The residency began with setting intentions. Together, we decided to create an anthology of poems to document students’ lives and their hopes and dreams for the future. We also planned for students to share a selection of these poems in a culminating performance at the Skirball in front of their peers from all over LA. In preparation, students listened to voices of contemporary poets—young and experienced—including Audre Lorde, Elizabeth Acevedo, and finalists of the Brave New Voices festival created by Youth Speaks. The teaching artists, Kahlil and Julia, also performed live in the classroom, which made the entire experience even more special and personal. With all this inspiration, students asked questions and began creating their own original poetry.
Similar to other creative projects, our original intentions evolved as the students explored how they could use spoken word as a tool for building self-confidence and imagination. A pivotal moment in this evolution was the students’ visit to the Skirball for a powerful performance of the play Riot/Rebellion, presented by the Watts Village Theater Company. Through a theatrical interpretation of first-person interviews with residents and community members, Riot/Rebellion introduced students to the history of the 1965 Watts uprising. The residency class felt a deep connection to the themes of the play—especially having recently protested the US presidential election and inauguration. Moved by Riot/Rebellion and the discussion with the actors and creators following the show, the students decided to change the plan for the residency. Instead of each person creating his or her own poems, the students decided to work together to develop a play that incorporated elements of poetry and focused on the value of protest. With six weeks to go, students began their work on a script for their very first original play, Walkout!, and they transformed into writers, editors, actors—and leaders.
On March 22, 2017, I sat in the audience filled with excitement and emotion as CHAS students proudly presented their work-in-progress on stage at the Skirball. Over 200 of their peers from other LA-area high schools filled the seats. Like Riot/Rebellion, Walkout! incorporated first-hand stories of the students’ experiences. But this play was truly unique—the personal poems throughout the performance were a reflection of the trust and support this group of young people had built with one another. Their dedication to the project and personal connection to the material translated on stage into a beautiful community of people celebrating the opportunity to speak their truth and build a more just society. It was a true joy to be a part of such a strong and meaningful process!
Reposted from Anabel Roque Rodriguez’s blog. Anabel is a curator, writer, and historian who focuses on political art, the artist as activist, art as labor, feminism, photography and the art market. ArtMuseumTeaching is thrilled to share her thoughts about the issue of museums and neutrality.
Written by Anabel Roque Rodriguez
The online dictionary Merriam-Webster defines neutrality as “the quality or state of not supporting either side in an argument, fight, war, etc. : the quality or state of being neutral”. The question is whether institutions who deal with primary sources, historical and contemporary narratives and a culture that decides which discourses get public attention should engage in neutrality? My opinion is that Museums are not neutral.
We live in a time where people mourn their dead, fear crawls into daily life and one headline leads to another. A certain narrative seems predominant these days trying to make us believe that we are divided by more than we have in common – depriving us of our humanity. There is no question whether museums can be part of these dialogues. They can, in fact, they have to and their museum policy resembles the questions of our time. The core of every institution is its people: the arts professionals employed there, artists and their own narrations their bringing, and, of course, the public. How could we not embrace the dialogue when people come together? And aren’t museums exactly a space for encounter, for getting acquainted with familiar problems that we engage with, or with unfamiliar things that spark our curiosity and of course with narrations we find problematic, and where silence is no longer an option.
I find myself often in passionate conversations about, whether museums are (still) relevant and/ or that museums should be neutral. Let me state loud and clear, that museums have never been neutral. An important part of a museum is to state facts. There shouldn’t be a confusion about whether museums need to speak up against any form of misinformation, lack to state the sources, fight any form of hate in its community, protect the values that embrace the integrity of minorities and discuss which narratives need to be enforced.
And still, I do find myself in arguments that if museums use public money they should not have any political opinion; that museums are temples of knowledge and need to keep their neutrality as they are above the everyday; that art in general cannot change anything…; What these people don’t acknowledge is the fact that museums have evolved from a temple of muses and knowledge that preserved the purity of the genius of a few (usually straight white men) to huge and central figures in the cultural and economic life of a city. There is no doubt that museums enrich the cultural economy of cities and become leading tourist attractions. As soon as there is money involved interests come into conflict (Sponsorship does matter!).
The range of visibility of big museums and museum brands like the Guggenheim, Tate or Louvre is different than the one of more regional or local museums. Nevertheless, museums cannot act outside the circumstances of the time they are in. If we want them to freely act as pillars of our cultural dialogues we need to carefully talk about their sensitivity to political decisions, censorship and the financial economy.
I sometimes do get the impression that the people who argue so passionately that museums need to keep their neutral role are afraid to endanger the purity of the art temple and that art might suddenly be complicated and relevant, and actually be open to engage with the whole public and not just with a few who are able to decipher the art code. And there is indeed the danger that if museums do take a stand, they might get instrumentalized by politics, be more sensitive to suffer financial cut backs and they risk not being “liked” by everybody anymore (has there ever been an illusion that we are?). A clear language might not be common in a world in which we talk in PR statements and a so called thought leader constructed a concept that we actually refer to as “alternative facts”. But if museums, who deal with history and the contemporary, choose neutrality they choose silence and as history has shown us in many examples: Silence means complicity with the demons of their times.
IF WE WANT TO ENGAGE CRITICALLY WITH HISTORY AND WITH OUR PRESENT TIMES WE NEED TO ENGAGE WITH THESE QUESTIONS:
If our definition on the neutrality of museums is based on (hetero)normative standards, shouldn’t museums engage with what and who states the “norm”?
There should be no doubt that commemorative culture is highly political. Which narrative gets valued in our historical thinking? Who gets publicly commemorated and space or monuments to enforce the narrative?
How can museums engage with their communities without turning into dispassionate agents?
How can museums take a stand and still try to be sensitive to the future discussions without limiting themselves to the possible outcome? Museums can’t dictate what people are going to think or how they’re going to respond and react.
How much freedom of expression are institutions willing to give to all of their employees?
How can a code of ethics concerning the limits of museums neutrality look like? An ICOM Code of Ethics for Museums does exist but it does not contain concrete parts on museum neutrality and resulting conflicts. Keywords such as diversity, equality and community engagement are never free of political implications.
What you’ve just read is my opinion and I hope that more people will join this conversation. I’d love to hear from you. Have a look at the hashtag #MuseumsAreNotNeutral and make yourself heard.
This post is part of a series focused on the myth of museum neutrality. My friend and colleague, LaTanya Autry, and I decided to collaborate to create a t-shirt along with a campaign to spark conversations about the role of museums, while raising funds to support the work of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
We hope you can order a t-shirt, wear it proudly, and talk about the potential of museums to do good work, advocate for human rights, and take a stand against hate. Museums can be agents of positive social change in our communities, and it’s up to us to make this happen together.
The profits from each t-shirt purchased go directly to support the critical work of the Southern Poverty Law Center in combating hate, injustice, and discrimination through education, legal services, advocacy, and anti-bias resources. You can also donate directly to the Southern Poverty Law Center through this link to their Donate page.
Museums have the potential to be relevant, socially-engaged spaces in our communities, acting as agents of positive change. 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. Let’s come together and spread this message.
My friend and colleague, LaTanya Autry, and I decided to collaborate to create this t-shirt along with a campaign to spark conversations about the role of museums. For the first run of this campaign, more than 500 people purchased t-shirts and we worked together to raise $5,669.79 total for the Southern Poverty Law Center! So amazing! We just recently launched our second version of this campaign (including some new colors), and we’re donating 100% of the profits to support World Central Kitchen, an initiative using the power of food to empower communities and strengthen economies. 100% of the profits from this campaign will go to support World Central Kitchen’s efforts in Puerto Rico. World Central Kitchen has demonstrated its in-depth commitment to Puerto Rico, its people, economy, health and future.
We hope you can order a t-shirt, wear it proudly, share your pics with our hashtag #MuseumsAreNotNeutral, and talk about the potential of museums to do good work, advocate for human rights, and take a stand against hate. Museums can be agents of positive social change in our communities, and it’s up to us to make this happen together.
Here is a list of blog posts and articles that discuss the issues of museum neutrality (last updated January 2018). Stay tuned for more, and be sure to follow the hashtag #MuseumsAreNotNeutral on social media to get connected to the community.
The first time I experienced a Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center (APAC) Culture Lab, a pop-up museum experience, it was as a visitor repeating the word “finally.” Crosslines: A Culture Lab on Intersectionality took over the Smithsonian’s Arts & Industries Building during Memorial Day weekend in 2016, and was APAC’s first Culture Lab. It was a truly immersive experience with emotional weight—over 40 artists from all over the country created original works of art and interactive spaces where visitors of all ages and backgrounds entered to learn about, challenge, and be challenged by the Lab’s theme of intersectionality. The atmosphere was festive with a constant murmur of excitement as deep conversation filled the air of an historic building erected as the first United States National Museum. Since Crosslines, APAC has co-created Culture Labs in New York City (CTRL+ALT: A Culture Lab on Imagined Futures) and most recently in Honolulu (‘Ae Kai: A Culture Lab on Convergence). Culture Labs are built with communities, a co-created and collaborative experiment that has since impacted the way we think about and approach the idea of what a museum should be.
I am grateful to be a part of APAC as their Education Specialist. Since joining the team earlier this year, I find the one question I get asked by my fellow museum educators is, “What does museum education look like at a Culture Lab?” My answers can be found in APAC’s Culture Lab Manifesto, which was published this July in an all-Asian American issue of Poetry Magazine (see full text below, along with links to Culture Lab’s Manifesto page).
As a museum educator, I think back to my impressions of Crosslines, and how surprising it was to walk into a museum space feeling like I belong, like my voice would be heard and that I would experience genuine empathy. How often can you walk up to an artist at a museum and jump right into conversations about intersectionality, what our futures may hold, and how our stories may converge into paths of better understanding? What I love most about being a museum educator is what is learned and shared from visitors of all ages and backgrounds. Creative dreaming and building with communities is something we don’t often allow ourselves the time and space to do in our professional realm. This manifesto was created out of a team effort steeped in reflection and proactive energies—it was time to share our vision and belief in how museums could be re-built with communities.
As an education program builds at APAC and future Culture Labs, I welcome conversation, idea sharing, and creative dreaming. I hope you will take a look at our manifesto and reach out if you would like to discuss re-building museum spaces with communities.
Culture Lab Manifesto
BY SMITHSONIAN ASIAN PACIFIC AMERICAN CENTER
We at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center believe the soul of a museum lies not in its brick-and-mortar walls but in what happens inside those walls — the experiential friction between guests and hosts, history and future. We believe that curation can be a form of community organizing; that art can be collaborative, participatory, and socially responsible; that those who have historically been pushed to the margins hold the stories that will center our future.
With these beliefs, we introduce the Culture Lab into the fold of museum practice. Culture Labs are fleeting, site-specific happenings that recognize art and culture as vehicles that can bring artists, scholars, curators, and the public together in creative and ambitious ways.
The images in this slideshow are from the first two Culture Labs: CrossLines: A Culture Lab on Intersectionality (May 2016, Washington, DC) and CTRL+ALT: A Culture Lab on Imagined Futures (November 2016, New York City). What you see are alternatives to traditional museum exhibitions — or perhaps their next evolution. What follows is a declaration of principles for you to consider as you envision the museum experiences of today and tomorrow.
We at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center believe that museums engaging communities should be built upon:
A CULTURE OF MEMORY. Every place embodies genealogies we must honor. Amplifying hidden histories builds empathy. Intervening in public space enriches our collective memory.
A CULTURE OF REPRESENTATION. Prioritize local artists, participants, and organizers. Nothing about communities without those communities.
A CULTURE OF AMBITION & EVOLUTION. Scale up. Open yourself to growth through conversation. Push both your ideas and practices.
A CULTURE OF IMAGINATION. Place value on daydreaming. Not everything is a logistic. Find the amazing in the margins.
A CULTURE OF PRESENCE. Live-time interaction — nothing replaces human contact. Make all spaces maker spaces.
A CULTURE OF EQUITY. Pay artists. Pay artists fairly. Dismantle hierarchies. Everyone shares in the work.
A CULTURE OF COMMUNITY. Create lasting collectives. Come to museums to be challenged, to change, to fall in love.
A CULTURE OF INTERSECTIONALITY. Step outside the silos that constrain our narratives. Allow yourself to think, feel, and remember in the same complex ways that we live.
A CULTURE OF RELEVANCE. Choose to engage in what matters right now.
A CULTURE OF BELONGING. Forge brave space. Extend welcome and safety to all peoples and communities. Make room for the marginalized, especially by questioning what marginalizes them.
A CULTURE OF BEAUTY. Who gets to decide what counts as beautiful? Question aesthetic classifications and priorities.
A CULTURE OF INSPIRATION. Open the process. Dream together. Make together.
A CULTURE OF FUN. Play is innovation. Play is care. Play is life.
A CULTURE OF ACTION. Stay woke. We have a social contract with one another to protect the vulnerable and ensure human rights for everyone.
—Adriel Luis, Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis, Nafisa Isa, Kālewa Correa, Jeanny Kim, Hana Maruyama, Clara Kim, Nathan Kawanishi, Emmanuel Mones, Desun Oka, Carlo Tuason, Lisa Sasaki, Andrea Kim Neighbors, Deloris Perry, and Emily Alvey.
“By looking at the art we can talk about topics that people don’t usually like to talk about.” – Rumaisha Tasnim
“Each viewer sees the art. What you see in it is your truth, it doesn’t have to be my truth.” – Kelsey Trollinger
Recent high school graduates Rumaisha and Kelsey spent much of the past two years at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. As original members of the Nasher Teen Council (NTC), they led public programs, installed exhibitions, met artists, and created their own art. Their quotes are from artist talks they gave this month at an exhibition of work by the teens at a downtown gallery. Paintings and collages from the exhibition Nina Chanel Abney: Royal Flush inspired much of their work.
As they spoke about the power of art to encourage meaningful conversations and validate individual experiences, Rumaisha and Kelsey–along with the other council members–joined their voices with countless other leaders who recognize the critical role art plays in civic discourse and the growth of a community. During times of uncertainty, political upheaval, and protest, we have to seek out these voices, both past and present, which celebrate what we know to be true about the critical need for influential artists and art institutions.
John F. Kennedy, a powerful champion for the arts, stated, “I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilization than the full recognition of the place of the artist.” His message, from over fifty years ago, still offers inspiration and leadership on the political role of art in a democratic society.
In a 1963 speech from Amherst College given in honor of Robert Frost, Kennedy begins with praise for the role of universities and an important reminder that “with privilege goes responsibility.” He asks the listener, “What good is a private college or university unless it’s serving a great national purpose?” He insists that the benefits and pleasures of an academic institution are not merely for the graduates to achieve individual economic advantage. Instead, he argues, the cultural agreement is that graduates must use their advantages for the public interest.
After reminding universities of their cultural obligations, Kennedy praises Frost and his poetry. More broadly, he celebrates art as a democratic institution and applauds artists as foundational to America’s greatness. He states, “For art establishes the basic human truths which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment. The artist [. . .] becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state.” Rather than considering artists “who question power” a threat, he welcomes their critiques as “indispensable.”
Nina Chanel Abney critically examines the world through her body of work and requires the same of her viewers. Nina Chanel Abney: Royal Flush, her first solo museum exhibition, addresses politics, celebrity gossip, race, gender, power, and more. In it, Abney spotlights some of the most heated topics in American culture and boldly holds accountable those who misuse their power.
In The Boardroom, 2008, the nearly naked, sometimes bleeding bodies represent the financial leaders who valued profit over stability and led to economic collapse. Either depicted as clowns or wearing yellow gloves that allow them to keep their hands clean from their dirty work, Abney literally strips these men of the power and prestige often afforded to them by their business suits and corner offices.
Six years later, in a more abstracted and digital style, Abney turns her critical eye towards the issues of race, gun violence, and police brutality in the piece UNTITLED (FUCK T*E *OP), 2014. While her geometric “emojification” of this work differs greatly from the painterly style of The Boardroom and other earlier works, Abney still uses her platform to question societal power structures.
In his Amherst speech, JFK states, “the highest duty of [. . .] the artist is to remain true to himself and to let the chips fall where they may. In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation.” Abney echoes his voice in more contemporary language saying, “I like to just drop the bomb and start the conversation and then leave out the room.”
The gallery conversations that Abney starts with UNTITLED (FUCK T*E *OP) often include visitor descriptions of the scene as chaotic and confusing. As viewers examine the painting, patterns emerge. Visitors identify elements that remind them of pinball machines, streetlights, and the visual noise of cable news channels, the internet, and New York’s Times Square. Visitors consider her use of language. Viewers may read the simplified language, such as “POW” and “YO”, as references to digital culture and the abbreviated communications of texts and tweets. The discussion frequently shifts to Abney’s use of the “X” symbol in this piece and questions of who is a target, who is silenced, and who has a voice. Reading “FUCK T*E *OP” in the top left corner of this painting, conversations may include what language is, and is not, censored, both in her work and, more broadly, in society.
As a leading voice, Abney opens up the conversation to everybody by sharing her visual vocabulary without fully translating the meaning. Remaining intentionally ambiguous about her work, she encourages others to bring their life experiences to their viewing of the truths she depicts and create their own interpretations.
Abney’s examination of societal power structures and contemporary digital culture continues with the most recent painting in the exhibition, Catfish, 2017. Abney says of this piece, “I feel like I am combining everything here.” A monumental portrait of selfie culture, Catfish depicts provocatively positioned female figures who meet the viewer’s gaze directly and self-assuredly. Surrounding the women are dollar signs, many of Abney’s “X” symbols, and language that again reflects the brevity of the digital world. Whatever assumptions a visitor first makes about these women are questioned by the Catfish title. The term “catfish” suggests the bottom-feeding fish, as well as the practice of misrepresenting oneself online, often for financial gain. With this painting, Abney simultaneously incorporates the aesthetic of digital culture and questions how representations of self are used, or misused, within that culture.
At a time when many political and economic leaders ignore the responsibilities of privilege and dismiss the need for critical voices, artists and institutions can turn to the words of JFK for encouragement and guidance and to the contemporary artists, like Abney, doing the important work of examining societal structures. Emerging artists, like Rumaisha and Kelsey, are also adding their voices to the dialogue. They will continue the work of JFK and Abney, as well as shape the conversation in ways we cannot yet imagine.
To end his speech, JFK shares his hope for the arts saying, “I look forward to an America which will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all of our citizens.” Fortunately, in many places, that America has arrived. It is imperative that we continue to seek new voices – historic and contemporary, spoken and visual – to lead the continued march forward and together.
What voices – established or emerging – are leading you today?
Nina Chanel Abney: Royal Flush, is at the Nasher Museum through July 16, 2017. After that, it will travel to multiple locations. Go check it out!
Chicago Cultural Center: February 10 – May 6, 2018
The Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles: September 23, 2018 – January 20, 2019
Neuberger Museum of Art, SUNY, Purchase: April 7 – August 4, 2019
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About the Author
JESSICA RUHLE is Director of Education & Public Programs at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. Jessica has worked at the Nasher Museum since 2010. Previously, Jessica worked at the North Carolina Museum of History, the North Carolina Museum of Art, and Marbles Kids Museum. Before arriving in North Carolina, she worked at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Jessica has an MAT in Museum Education from The George Washington University, as well as a BA in Art History from Davidson College. Jessica’s postings on this site are her own and do not necessarily represent the Nasher Museum of Art’s positions, strategies, or opinions.
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Header Image: Ayubi Kokayi, NTC member, performs spoken word in front of The Boardroom, 2008, photo by J Caldwell.
In support of the most recent exhibition at the Portland Art Museum, Rodin: The Human Experience, Rodin Remix was a hands-on space where visitors could create figures based on Rodin’s process of reusing previously-made sculpted arms, legs, and heads, into new works. It put a modern spin on Rodin’s method of mass production by showcasing 3D printed versions of Rodin’s sculptures.
3D Printing and Rodin?
I came into the Portland Art Museum in October, relatively new to interpretation. My guidelines for the Rodin project were to create an in-gallery multi-sensory experience for all ages that would communicate 3D elements of Rodin’s process. After researching Rodin, his assemblages struck me – it was creative and clever to reuse cast offs, fragments of plaster casts that had already been made, by recombining them into new sculptures.
I wanted to visitors to experience for themselves Rodin’s reuse of plaster casts, but we needed a 3D reusable material that could go in the gallery, not plaster. At first I thought of paper dolls, since they were easily reusable, simple to produce, and people might know how to put paper dolls together. But then at a brainstorming meeting, 3D printing came up – we could produce 3D plastic parts of Rodin’s sculptures with connections for constructing and deconstructing.
We partnered with the Portland 3D Printing Lab, a local Meet-Up group of enthusiasts, to produce 3D prints of Rodins. They were so enthusiastic, and figured out that magnets were the key to make the pieces of 3D printed sculpture easily stick together and break apart. The prints were made from free online STL files under the Creative Commons license, and, later, from scans of the Rodins in the show. We decided to scan some of the Rodins in the show because not every Rodin can be found in STL-file form online. The scanning process was surprisingly simple, and to show the public how it worked, it was filmed in a Facebook Live, the Museum’s first. The files that were used to print can now be found on the exhibition page of the Portland Art Museum’s exhibition website.
3D printing fit with other elements of Rodin’s process as well. Rodin would sculpt a model in clay, then pass it to his assistants. They rendered the work again in marble or bronze, sizing it up or down according to Rodin’s and his patron’s wishes. A 3D scan of an object can be similarly re-sized, to make a print of the desired height.
Rodin’s assistants made hundreds of casts of the same model, all official Rodins, in a sort of artistic mass-production. Smaller bronzes, produced in large quantities, were more affordable. These relatively inexpensive bronzes widened the range of people who could purchase a Rodin, earning the sculptor more money and popularity. Just as Rodin mass-produced bronze casts of the same sculpture in multiple sizes and media, the Portland 3D Printing Lab made many 3D prints of Rodin sculptures, experimenting with size and color.
Visitors were also encouraged to Instagram a photo of their creation in front of a backdrop of Rodin’s studio, which showed the plaster fragments he used. Each Monday during the run of the show I reposted a visitor’s photograph to the @portlandartmuseum Instagram, with the tag #rodinremix. Over 125 people Instagrammed their Rodin Remixes, and the comments we received on our reposts were reflective and positive.
How did it go?
My goal was to make a fun, exciting interpretive space that used 3D prints to communicate to visitors about two parts of Rodin’s process: his assemblages, and his mass-production and use of resizing sculptures. This is my first interpretive space, and my first evaluation, and I am not positive this project fully met all of my learning goals.
Visitors, especially those with children, clearly enjoyed their time in Rodin Remix, laughing, talking, and playing – making the sculptures interact with each other. Docents used the 3D prints for tours for people who are blind or have low vision, and for ArtNow, PAM’s program for people living with dementia and their partners. The ability to touch Rodin’s forms, to understand 3D printing, and to Instagram were all appreciated. And, multiple members of the Portland 3D Printing Lab who had not been to the museum in years, if ever, came, because their work was displayed in the galleries.
A little over half of the 250 people that I observed participated in the hands-on part of the interpretive space, and 145 people stayed in the space for more than 2 minutes. These numbers are skewed somewhat by two school tours I observed, since both of those had a lot of participation.
But my hope that the space would communicate Rodin’s process may not have always worked. When I asked a few visitors what they thought the purpose of the space was, on average, they felt it was to touch, play, and interact. That was part of it, but not the entirety. I did enjoy the couple who said, “He really churned them out” – they clearly understood the mass-production angle. I could have crafted more precise questions for my evaluation, and my evaluation should have been more survey-based than observatory. It is possible more people understood the learning goals than I thought, but I did not capture their responses well.
Attempting to cover two elements of Rodin’s process (mass-production and assemblage) in the same space, using 3D printing to illustrate both, confused people. Similarly, placing the space just outside the exhibition, in a throughway, meant Rodin Remix was not clearly a part of the exhibition. Rodin Remix evolved over time as well, which was both a boon and a complication. We planned for it to be a prototype space that would change, but it also evolved because even simple 3D prints took fifteen to twenty hours to print, and with over 20 prints in the space, the hours added up. The ability to change allowed me to experiment and improve. But Rodin Remix also did not look finished until the last month of the exhibition.
The most exciting part of this project was working with the Portland 3D Printing Lab. They were generous throughout, coming to the museum and bringing others, advertising through their own channels, and on the second to last Friday of the show, bringing a 3D printer to the museum and printing live, in the gallery, which drew a crowd all evening. The success of this partnership may allow for future 3D printing projects at the Portland Art Museum, as well as other evolving interpretive projects, which the education department continues to develop.
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About the Author
JEANIE NOTO is the Kress Interpretive Fellow at the Portland Art Museum, where she produces interactives and descriptive information to support the permanent collection and visiting exhibitions. Before coming to Portland, she worked as the Academic Intern at the Norton Simon Museum, and got her M.A. in Art History from the Courtauld Institute of Art.
Participation in the museum sector has become a buzzword, used at such a high frequency that it can oftentimes be misunderstood amongst museum professionals or, in some cases, so that it becomes meaningless from overuse. When talking about participation, it is essential to discuss the theoretical aspects of what participation is, what it can be and/or what it should be, as well as how these participatory practices are grounded in practice; in other words, what are the theories of participation and how are these theories employed in museum practice?
Nina Simon is our go-to model for what participation in the museum is and/or what it should look like. While her blogs and her writing are a great resource, it is only natural that multiple voices, views, and opinions on this topic exist and — if you will allow me to particularly corny — they should be allowed to participate in the conversation too.
The Maastricht Centre for Arts and Culture, Conservation and Heritage hosted a conference in March 2017 with just that particular goal in mind: practitioners and researchers from various backgrounds in arts and culture gathered to discuss the multiple meanings and practices of participation within the arts and heritage sector.
In this post, I’ll discuss some of the outcomes and more significant thoughts and discussions that occurred during the conference as well as their relevance to museums and learning in the museum space.
Participation seems like the natural next step in the evolution of museums away from the uni-directional, aristocratic collectors’ cabinets of curiosities of yore, right?
There are many reasons to integrate participation into the institution of the museum — if you are low on funds, volunteers are great; if you are trying to reach a new community, allowing the voices of that community into your institution is the best way to reach them (see again: Nina Simon’s The Art of Relevance); if you want your visitors to engage in the museum content in a less uni-directional, top-down manner, participatory practices can be the key. Just from the examples listed above, it becomes obvious that participation can be defined in many different ways: volunteering can be participation, encouraging visitors to create their own meaning and perhaps contribute that to an exhibition can be participation, etc.
Overall, participation involves parties from outside of the museum institution, often in a way that invites them to contribute in a meaningful way — meaning that they contribute in a way that has some kind of effect or impact either on their experience of the museum, on visitors around them, or on the institution as a whole.
How should participation be integrated into museums?
For most of us, we see participation only as a possibility in the outreach, marketing, or education departments. The curators will remain the curators — experts in their fields — but educators are the ones who must create this (illusion of?) participation within the museum space. Although I will admit that this is a great step for many institutions, this is definitely and obviously short of institutional change.
Lena Porsmo Stoveland’s presentation on her experience as a student curator wonderfully reflected the various levels at which participation can take place. She argued in her presentation that the life of the object was a participatory one: a. the object of her discussion was an altarpiece created by several craftsmen, b. the altarpiece was used by church members in Sweden, c. the altarpiece became a museum object, and d. the altarpiece was restored and conserved by a collaboration of Finnish, Sweden, and Norwegian university students.
Building on this in his presentation on “the uncomfortable conversation between artworks and communities,” Dr. Jeroen Boomgaard formulated the identity-forming interaction between artworks and viewers. In other words, communities attribute meaning to artworks (despite the intent of the artist and/or commissioner) which results in an evolving object biography. Rogier Brom later expanded on this with his case study of a clothespin-shaped sculpture located in the courtyard of a school: the sculpture is no longer referred to by its name but by “wasknijper” (clothespin in Dutch); it was once located near the entrance of the school but, after a renovation, it is now located behind the school; and there was once a gardener that hated the sculpture so much that he let the bushes grow wild around so as to consume the entire sculpture, hiding it from view completely.
Sure, the interaction between public artworks and communities differs from that between museum objects and museum visitors, but these interactions have a familiar ring to them: although museum objects remain relatively static in their position within the museum space, the meanings attached to them are still in flux, dependent upon the visitors in the gallery or the way that the exhibitions are arranged at the time. In a participatory museum, the meanings attached to museum objects should always be in flux; rather than the museum telling visitors the significance of the object, visitors should be encouraged to connect with the object on their own terms. As Boomgaard and Brom elaborated, this process is inevitable in the case of public art, because an institution typically does not mediate the interactions between the public and the art.
Participatory practices and learning in museums
Although it was great fun to absorb new information and perspectives about different levels and variations of participation within arts and heritage, this is a museum education/learning blog after all and I am a museum educator and researcher, so I must return to participation and learning.
One of the last panels of the conference focused on participation and learning in arts and culture, of which the three presenters focused on participation and learning in the museum setting: Stefanie Metsemakers presented on the learning experience of adolescent volunteers in art museums, Emilie Sitzia focused on the learning potential of participatory practices through the lens of narrative theory, and I discussed the potential for the integration of play in the museum space to instigate participation and, thus, learning.
By inviting visitors to contribute to the museum in a variety of ways, participation aligns with affect theory as well as Falk and Dierking’s Contextual Model of Learning (as well as narrative, as Sitzia focused on her presentation — but that is a big enough topic for another blog post… or dissertation).
In essence, participatory practices in the museum setting validate visitors’ contributions, feelings, thoughts, reactions, and emotions, which, in turn, confirms the significance of visitors’ affective experiences. For example, by asking visitors questions or by asking them to participate in certain activities that require their input in relation to artworks in the galleries, visitors are notified that their reactions to or experiences of museum objects are valid. The immersive model proposed by Sitzia is parallel to the idea of participation in the museum space, in which visitors are immersed in the museum and immersed in the artworks, whereas the discursive model proposed by Sitzia relies on the traditional top-down model of the museum.
This also links with the Contextual Model of Learning, which posits that the physical, sociocultural, and personal contexts are fundamental to the learning process. Again, by asking participants to contribute, participatory practices draw upon visitors’ backgrounds, earlier experiences, dispositions, opinions, etc. and can also encourage visitors to participate with other visitors in a social manner, which is also a significant element of the learning process.
Through our three presentations, it became clear that learning is an experience in the museum space and encouraging active participation — to various degrees and in different manners — sets the learning process in motion.
The next steps forward
Although many museum researchers, academic, and practitioners would pat themselves on the back for researching participation within the museum space or implementing a participatory program at their institution, the academics and practitioners present at the MACCH conference in March 2017 stumbled upon something: participation is just an extension of that uni-directional model, isn’t it?
When we began to discuss what participation itself actually means, we realized that participation still implies that visitors or stakeholders are invited to partake in something. The fact that the institution has to grant the invitation means that the institution still holds the power; the museum grants an invitation on its own grounds and may still deny access depending on its own boundaries, wishes, desires, or needs.
Despite our attempts to focus more and more on our visitors, many museum practitioners — as well as visitors themselves, for that matter — often view aesthetic and social value as dichotomous, which Professor Gabriella Giannachi refuted outright in her keynote presentation about the epistemology of participation. In other words, increasing the social value or participatory practices within the museum space does not necessitate the diminishment of the aesthetic or artistic value of the museum objects, nor the intellectual value of curators and museums.
Hopefully, by inviting stakeholders and visitors to participate in the first place, this dynamic will begin to change; by inviting visitors on their own terms — not ours.
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About the Author
DANIELLE CARTER is a freelance museum educator and researcher based in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. She studied Art, Art History, and Museum Studies (2013) at Florida State University before moving to the Netherlands to pursue her Master’s degree in Arts and Heritage: Policy, Management, and Education (2015) at Maastricht University. Through her experiences as an arts and museum educator in the United States and abroad, she has become interested in the museum (learning) experience, the narrative of the museum (learning) experience, interactions between visitors and museum objects, the mediatory role of the museum, and play in the museum space. In Amsterdam, she bikes, takes advantage of the sun every time it comes out, and falls in love with every dog that she sees. To find out more about Danielle’s activities, visit her website (tangibleeducation.nl) or send her an email at email@example.com.