Tag Archives: community engagement

We Don’t Need New Models, We Need a New Mindset

Editor’s Note: I have been following EmcArts ever since they announced their first round of Innovation Labs for Museums back in 2011, and have had the pleasure of meeting with their staff as well as those working with the ArtsFwd initiative.  I was also fortunate enough to be invited to attend the Association of Art Museum Directors meeting this summer in Dallas, where Richard Evans gave a great presentation on innovation as part of that organization’s thinking around education.  The team at EmcArts and ArtsFwd is working to help make a break with our patterns of “business as usual” and develop new capacities and mindsets to tackle the major adaptive challenges facing museums in the 21st century. The post below by Karina Mangu-Ward does such a fantastic job of highlighting this shift in practice and ‘mindset’, to use her word.  I thought it was worth sharing with ArtMuseumTeaching community as a way for museum professionals at all levels of their organizations to reflect on the models and mindsets underlying our practice as well as the real challenges we face.  I invite readers to comment below about how you see these models operating at your institution, and how you might help support change towards a new mindset in museums.

Written by Karina Mangu-Ward, Director of Activating Innovation at EmcArts

Reposted from the blog at ArtsFwd, an online community of arts and culture leaders committed to doing things differently in their organizations in order to stay relevant and vital in a changing world.

I’m thrilled to announce that I’ve been selected as a guest at the Dinner-vention 2, organized by Barry Hessenius of Barry’s Blog and WESTAF. On October 9, I’ll join seven other dynamic, forward-thinking leaders in the arts to discuss some of the most pressing challenges across the field. I’m looking forward to meeting everyone and engaging in what should be a spicy conversation.

To prepare for the Dinner-vention, Barry asked all of us to capture our preliminary thinking in a briefing paper that responds to the topic: “Broken Models: Picking Up the Pieces and Moving Forward.”

I’ve shared my briefing paper below. I encourage you to read the papers of the other seven guests, which you can find here.

What’s a model, exactly?

I’m a very literal person, so the first thing I did when tasked with this briefing paper was look up the definition of “model.”

Model (n): 1) A standard, an example for imitation or comparison

OK, got it. A model is like a blueprint. Or a recipe. So, this Dinner-vention is a debate about standard or best practices in our field. We’re taking a long hard look at the routines we’ve replicated again and again because they work, or at least they’re supposed to, or they once did.

What models are we questioning?

My next step was to plainly state what I see as the old model in each of the areas Barry mentions (plus I added strategic planning, evaluation, and artistic development).

However, I assume every model evolved to meet a particular challenge. So I also tried to name the challenge I think we’re facing right now in that area. For me, there’s nothing worse that poor problem definition. We can reform our models until we’re blue in the face, but that’s useless unless we get clear about the future we want and the challenges we’ll face in getting there. Only then can we answer the question: why aren’t our models working?

I think this was a useful exercise, so I’ve shared the results below. It’s wide open for debate. My hope is that it serves as a starting place for a shared understanding of the standard practices we’re questioning and the real challenges we’re faced with as a field, so that we can begin to understand whether our approaches are the right ones.

In each case, I see a stark disconnect. The old models we’re using aren’t matching up with the deeply complex challenges we’re faced with right now.

Income/Revenue

  • Old model: Ticket sales + government + foundation + corporate + wealthy patrons + small donors + endowment income = Balanced budget
  • New challenge: To generate new sources of sustained revenue and capital

Audience development

  • Old model: Sell subscriptions and market shows
  • New challenge: To engage new and more diverse groups of people in meaningful arts experiences

Governance

  • Old model: Give/get boards focused on fiduciary oversight and maintaining stability
  • New challenge: To cultivate boards that are partners in change

Evaluation

  • Old model: More ticket sales, more revenue, bigger budget, nice building = Success!
  • New challenge: To evaluate the success of our organizations based on the value they create in people’s lives

Leadership development

  • Old model: Attend leadership conferences and seminars, build your network, wait for your boss to finally leave/retire/die. (Alternatively, change jobs every year.)
  • New challenge: To develop a generation of new leaders equipped with the tools they’ll need to tackle the wickedly complex challenges the future has in store

Artistic development

  • Old model: MFA programs, residencies, commissions, occasionally a grant, get a day job
  • New challenge: To support artists in making a living and a life

Strategic planning

  • Old model: Decide where you want to be in 5 years. Outline the steps to get there in a long document no one will read.
  • New challenge: To plan for the future in a way that allows us to stay close to our core values and make incremental improvement while also making room for experimentation, failure, and rapidly changing conditions.

Funding allocation

  • Old model: The money goes to whoever the funder says it to goes to. Usually bigger organizations run by white people in major cities.
  • Our challenge today: To distribute funds in a way that is equitable, geographically diverse, and creates the most value

Note: I decided I was too ignorant in the areas of creative placemaking, advocacy and arts education to weigh in. I’ll leave that to my colleagues.

Here’s my main argument

Over 60 years in the field, we’ve developed standard practices, or models, in all these different areas. They worked for a while. Now they don’t. This has given us a false notion that we need new models in each area. This is wrong.

Models, best practices, recipes, and blueprints work only when your challenge has a knowable, replicable solution. Sure, there are some challenges that fit this mold. I’d argue that having a great website, designing an effective ad, doing a successful crowd funding campaign, and producing a complicated show are all challenges where best practices, models, and experts are really valuable. You might not know the solution, but someone does, and you can find it out.

But what happens when there actually isn’t a knowable solution to your challenge? When there is no expert, no model to call upon? When the only way forward is through experimentation and failure?

I’d argue that every one of the big challenges I name above falls into the realm of complexity, where the search for replicable models is fruitless. There isn’t going to be a new model for generating revenue that the field can galvanize around that will work for every or even most arts organizations. Nor is there going to be a long lasting model for community engagement that can be replicated by organizations across the country. For the deeply complex challenges we face today, there simply isn’t a knowable solution or model that can reliably help us tackle them. These kinds of challenges require a new way of working.

We don’t need new models, we need a new theory of practice

Instead of new models, I’d argue that we need a new theory of practice, one that champions a different set of priorities in how we do our work.

Our old models imply a vision of success that’s rooted in growth, stability, and excellence. They drive us towards efficiency and competition by perpetuating an atmosphere of scarcity. They are not as creative as we are.

What if a new vision of success in our field could prioritize resilience, flexibility, and intimacy? What if we could be enablers, not producers? What if we could harness the abundance of creative potential around us?

This new vision of success doesn’t demand consensus around a new set of standards, best practices, or “examples for imitation,” it demands a new way of thinking and acting that empowers us to shift and change our routines all the time, as needed.

A proposed theory of practice for the future

Here is my call to the field: a proposed set of practices that align with the world as it is today, not as it was before:

  • Let’s get clear about the challenges we’re facing and if they’re complex, treat them as such
  • Let’s ask hard questions, listen, do research, and stay vulnerable to what we learn.
  • Let’s question our assumptions and let go of what’s no longer working.
  • Let’s embrace ambiguity and conflict as a crucial part of change
  • Let’s bring together people with different experiences and lean into difference
  • Let’s experiment our way forward and fail often
  • Let’s recognize the system in which we’re operating.
  • Let’s rigorously reflect and continuously learn

In conclusion

When I set out to write this post, I wanted to question the premise that a conversation about “broken models” could even be useful in a time when expertise, excellence and replicability are the values of the past. I wanted to propose that we move past the very notion of models – let’s jettison the word itself from our vocabulary.

In the end, I guess you could call what I’ve proposed a kind of “new model.” But I’d rather think of it as a new mindset.

Read more about Innovation Stories, the National Innovation Summit, and tools & activities you can use in your own organization by connecting to the ArtsFwd blog.

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About the Author

karina-mangu-wardKARINA MANGU-WARD: Director of Activating Innovation for EmcArts, Inc. Karina leads the development of ArtsFwd, an interactive online platform that extends learning about innovation among arts leaders and organizations nationally and internationally. She took on the role of Director of Activating Innovation in August 2011. In addition to her work at EmcArts, Karina is a New York based producer and filmmaker, whose projects include an original web series, an interactive online documentary series, promos, how-to videos, and event videography. She received her MFA in Theater Management & Producing from Columbia University, where she wrote her thesis on the strategic use of online tools and technologies for arts organizations. She holds a BA from Harvard College.

Reflecting on a Hybridized Museum Practice

Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series on ArtMuseumTeaching.com during August that focuses on the recent book Multiculturalism in Art Museums Today (2014). Find links below to additional posts in this series by several of the book’s authors, and please join us for an Online Book Club via Google Hangout on August 20th.

Written by Marianna Pegno and Traci Quinn, University of Arizona

In our chapter entitled “Collaborating with Communities: New Conceptualizations of Hybridized Museum Practice” in Multiculturalism in Art Museums Today (2014), we explore Homi K. Bhabha’s ideas of hybridity and cultural translation as they apply to our own practices.  We focused on two programs — Peaceful Migrations and Giving Voice — wherein participant voice was key to creating content, programmatic structures, and exhibition design.  In this reflection we demonstrate how these guiding frameworks continue to inspire our practice as museum educators and researchers, and further explore how we utilized these ideas while developing an exhibition entitled [IN] Translation.  Focusing on the concept of hybridity, we reflect on three continuing issues:

  1. the difficulties of including many voices;
  2. persistent hierarchy and departmental separation in museums; and
  3. our desire to include the museum visitor as a key player in hybrid museum practice.

Bhabha (1994) explains hybridity as an act that “entertains difference without an assumed or imposed hierarchy” (p. 5).  Through this lens, we view the museum as a place of multiple meanings that produces a mixing and mingling of ideas, opinions, and creative visions. For museum educators, it can foster new ways of thinking about educational practice, programmatic structure, and exhibition content not as separate entities but as collaborating endeavors.   Thus, through the process of developing [IN]Translation, our goal was to work with audiences and artists to rethink how the museum pedagogy can be more experiential in nature.  We were working to transform the museum into an empowering environment that conversed with multiple narratives rather than simply our own curatorial or educational voice.

 Thoughts After Publication

InTranslation installation view
InTranslation installation view

We continue to grapple with hybridity as it relates to museum education and institutional structures.  In the development of educational programs we are trying to include as many voices as possible — which is not always easy.  We have continued working with refugee families who participated in Giving Voice to develop in-gallery activities in which participants collaboratively created narratives about artworks in the museum.  As a result, some of these reflections were affixed as a wall label next to the respective artwork, empowering refugee participants to display ideas about an artwork. While the institution has been more accepting of our work to reflect hybridity within the museum space, it is not as widely pervasive as we would like and only selectively displayed and included.

In relation, we constantly face inquiries and pushback from individuals and colleagues who are unfamiliar with the projects or who have no desire to make museum practice more collaborative across departments and with audiences.  The projects we discussed in the book chapter and the projects we continue to develop & research take significant effort and time in order to avoid falling back into the institutional habits of hierarchy.

Individuals that do not have a relationship with the projects are often reluctant to participate in shared planning – or simply cannot dedicate the necessary time. We believe that their experience in the field is invaluable to the success of collaborative efforts, and yet we are met with frustration when they remain separate from educational motivations and thus the program participants.

Another issue that emerged throughout the development of our chapter and ongoing practices was our inability to anticipate visitors’ responses to exhibitions and educational endeavors addressing racial, political, and cultural interpretations of hybridity.  When addressing such content, many visitors revert to stereotypical views that we are hoping to complicate through hybridized co-creation.  Thus, we have been pressed to develop new experiences in the gallery that foster hybridity within the audiences’ interaction with the museum space and artworks.   This idea of including visitor voice was one of the central components to the curatorial and educational design of [IN] Translation.

Thoughts on [IN] Translation

 Visitor participating with Kristen Cochran's "Notes to self" from the exhibition [IN]Translation ARTIST WEBSITE:  http://kristencochran.com/home.html
Visitor participating with Kristen Cochran’s “Notes to self” from the exhibition [IN]Translation
ARTIST WEBSITE: http://kristencochran.com/home.html
Through [IN] Translation, which was displayed in an exhibition space where were not beholden to a defined structure or hierarchy, we were able to explore these above concerns further and reflect upon our practice under conditions that fostered an ideal hybrid between education, curation, artist, and visitor voice.   More specifically, we designed educational installations to supplement the works of art, most of which included opportunities for visitors to add visual or text elements and share stories and reflections. The goal was for the works and the participatory elements to hold equal weight in the design of the exhibit.

[IN] Translation featured eight works of art: one commissioned multi-media work by collaborating curator and artist Anh-Thuy Nguyen, plus seven juried works.  The educational component of each artwork was planned with the artists throughout the development of the exhibition, in order to ensure that the artwork was not inappropriately changed or compromised by the educational elements.  This exhibition provided us an opportunity to challenge hierarchies within a gallery space. We were able to show how the multiple positionalities of educator, curator, artist, and visitor inform one another – migrate within, around, and through one another – in order to foster a different sense of a museum experience.

[IN] Translation was an opportunity to play with the boundaries that normally exist as impermeable divisions between curator, artist, educator, and visitor; we could question how these roles could be seen as transitional, or process based.  Within this exhibition we recognized how ideal this space was, especially considering that freedoms from hierarchical structures will not always be present in a more traditional museum or gallery setting. However, the instance of hybridity, in which these four voices were all present, gave way to dynamic conversations and learning opportunities and are worth noting for our future practice in more traditionally defined spaces.  As we evolve as researchers, museum educators, and collaborators, our goal is to continue to develop programming that positions experiential learning at the core of curatorial and educational design.

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ABOUT THE AUTHORS

TraciQuinnTRACI QUINN: Doctoral student at the University of Arizona in the department of Art and Visual Culture Education. Traci’s research focuses on museum and community-based education.  Currently, she is researching instances that challenge the hierarchical structure of museums and exhibition design and how exhibition and program can be collaboratively developed.  After working in museums and community-based organizations for over 7 years, Traci has experience in the various facets of museum education including: program development, docent training, grant writing, community outreach, and institutional partnerships.   As an art educator and a researcher, Traci is committed to the development of museum-based education as a catalyst for culturally rich and dynamic experiences.

MARIANNA PEGNO: Doctoral student at the University of Arizona in the department of Art and Visual Culture Education. Marianna’s research focuses on community and museum collaborations exploring instances of decentered authority and equitable partnerships. Having worked in museums for more than 8 years, Marianna has experience in museum management, educational programming, and curatorial practice.  She has developed inclusive museum programming including tours for the visually impaired, K-12 enrichment programs for at-risk youth, and a multi-visit program for refugee families.  In practice and research, Marianna aims to transform the museum into a community-centered institution, which is responsive to the voices of its constituency.

OTHER POSTS IN THIS SERIES:

“Building Canopies for Multiculturalism: (Re)Turning to the Visitor,” by Joni Boyd Acuff & Laura Evans

“It’s Not Always about You: Facilitating Critical Self-Reflection in Others,” by Keonna Hendrick

“Eggs, Oreos, and Solidarity: MCRP in Our Daily Lives,” by Melissa Crum

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Online Book Club Hangout (VIDEO)

On August 20th, ArtMuseumTeaching.com brought together a group of authors and editors of the book Multiculturalism in Art Museums Today for a live discussion via Google+ Hangout.  Those joining the Hangout included Joni Boyd Acuff, Marianna Adams, Briley Rasmussen, Alicia Viera, and Veronica Betancourt.  Please find the video archive of this conversation below, and enjoy!

Don’t Have Your Copy of the Book Yet?  No problem.  As part of this collaboration with Rowman & Littlefield Publishers through this series of posts about Multiculturalism in Art Museums Today, we are able to offer ArtMuseumTeaching.com readers a special discount.  To receive a 25% discount, go towww.rowman.com to order this book and enter the discount code: 4S14ACUEVA

Building Canopies for Multiculturalism: (Re)Turning to the Visitor

Written by Joni Boyd Acuff, Ohio State University, and Laura Evans, University of North Texas book-cover

As dear friends and colleagues, we met in the middle for the book Multiculturalism in Art Museums Today (Rowman & Litlefield, 2014). We — Joni, an expert in critical multiculturalism, and Laura, whose specialty is art museum education — had known each other for years and talked about just about everything, but never truly understood what the other researched in more than a cursory manner. The idea to collaborate came from this uncomfortable space of not really knowing what the other person did with their work. We decided to find out instead of to continue in our ignorance of what was really important to the other person. And, hence, this book was born. We realized as the Venn diagram of our research interests intersected, that there was a big gap in the literature on multiculturalism in art museum education. “Why?” we wondered. And, secondly, “What can we do about it?”

The book, Multiculturalism in Art Museums Today, is the result of this curiosity and our inquiries, as well as the diligent, creative, and groundbreaking work of our contributors (some of whom will also be posting here on ArtMuseumTeaching.com in the next few weeks). In this post, we will attempt to explain why we think multicultural practices in art museum education are important, and give a context for the book. We welcome your thoughts, comments, and questions, and hope that we can provide a welcoming space for stories and sharing.

Why is a Book on Multiculturalism in Art Museum Education Important?

First of all, what is critical multiculturalism, in brief?

Critical multicultural education works to investigate the maintenance of authentic cultural history, the subjugation of non-dominant cultural knowledge and the continuous movement, fluidity and evolution of culture (May, 1999). Multiculturalism in Art Museums Today aims to consider ways in which museums can work more effectively to become “social systems that enable the spaces of equitable educative possibility” (Dixon-Roman, 2012, p.3). We conceptualize equitable education as inclusive, comprehensive and “ubiquitous to the social process of thinking, feeling, being, and doing everyday human experiences” (Dixon-Roman, 2012, p.3), as per the tenants of critical multiculturalism. Unfortunately, as historic and existing debate suggests, museums struggle to meet the educational needs of its diverse patrons. If a museum is a suggested way of seeing the world (Macdonald & Fyfe, 1996); it is fair to assert that it must support various cultural frames of reference, as well as numerous versions and translations of the world. A practical and theoretical resource on multicultural museum education is important for two main reasons:

  1. the increasingly diversified population of the United States, and
  2. the heightened attention (due to economic, political, cultural, and ethical stimulus in the museum profession) and added importance placed on museum educators as representatives of their institutions, their field, and their communities.

These two realities provide the basis for this book and for the readers, who we hope will benefit from a deeper understanding of critical multiculturalism and its applications to museum education.

The U.S. is diversifying at a rapid rate and it is important that museum educators acknowledge, accept, and learn how to utilize the educational benefits of having such diverse populations to consider. According to the 2010 U.S. census:

  • 20% of the population over the age of five speaks a language other than English at home.
  • 19% of Americans have disabilities.
  • About 1.2 million Americans live with a same-sex partner and 11% of all unmarried partners are same-sex couples (Alternatives to Marriage Project, n.d.).
  • 72% of citizens are white, non- Hispanic; 16% Hispanic or Latino; 13% black or African American; .9% American Indian or Alaska Native; 5% Asian; 1% Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander; 5.5% another race; and 2.4% two or more races.
  • The projected racial composition of the United States in the year 2050 is 50.1% white, non-Hispanic, 24.4% Hispanic, 14.6% black, 8% Asian, and 5.3% all other races.

These statistics show that America is a vastly diverse nation and will continue to become even more so. Therefore, issues surrounding multiculturalism and equity will remain relevant and important as social and political issues. The above statistics are a stark reminder that art museums should be institutions of inclusivity, rather than exclusivity, and they show us why it is important for museum educators to understand the complexities and practicalities of critical multiculturalism. As stated by Winter (1992):

“At issue is the social and educational responsibility of public institutions in the face of cultural diversity, as opposed to the moral assumption of the museum as repository, both of ‘Art’ and of cultural values.”

Multiculturalism in Art Museums Today seeks to situate the educational role of the museum as one of multicultural expansion rather than abbreviation.

Context for Multiculturalism in Art Museums Today

Some people believe that “isms” (ex: racism, sexism, classism, ableism, etc.) are no longer relevant to the discourse around museums. In reality, the goal for museums and museum educators to engage in critical multicultural education work is relevant more now than ever. While some scholars and educators argue that issues of race, class, gender and sexuality are problems of the past, current data reveals that oppression based on these social indicators persist and have actually magnified well into the twenty first century (Weber, 2010).

CelebrARTE at Denver Art Museum. http://denverartmuseum.org/calendar/celebrarte-chocolate
CelebrARTE at Denver Art Museum. http://denverartmuseum.org/calendar/celebrarte-chocolate

According to the U.S. Census Bureau and the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, since the year 2000, the international economic crisis has intensified inequities of race, ethnicity, gender, and class; specifically, accessibility to higher education decreased dramatically, as tuition and fees more than doubled, disproportionately affecting groups with low socioeconomic status most (Weber, 2010). In addition, sexual politics relating to same sex marriage and same sex adoption laws continue to be heavily contested in most states. Social inequalities are still heavily implicating the present and future of members of non-dominant groups (Weber, 2010). Therefore, it is imperative that we continue to call for critical pedagogies and praxis that “confront the racial, class, gender, and homophobic biases woven into the fabric of society” (Stuhr, Ballengee-Morris, and Daniel, 2008, p. 83).

Why are we attempting this call to action?

Because, if repetition is the precursor to establishing a habit, then we feel that it is necessary and important to continue checking in on issues of diversity in our museums so that, someday, things might change to a greater degree than the infinitesimal shift that has occurred so far in our museums. Eileen Hooper-Greenhill (2006) wrote a decade ago about the shift in museums, the “turn” towards the visitor. We would parenthetically like to add emphasis to Hooper-Greenhill’s call to action, to suggest that we need to (re)turn to the visitor. This shift in language alludes to the realization that, in turning to the visitor, we, as museum educators, need to revisit what turning to the visitor means in a rapidly diversifying society where museums are frequently being turned away from by public(s) that we do not serve. The authors who contributed to this book are a group of groundbreaking, talented, empathetic, creative, change agents. They are museum educators, researchers, writers, and human beings who care about the audiences they serve in deep and meaningful ways.

Through case-study examples, the authors of Multiculturalism in Art Museums Today address issues such as cultural misrepresentation in the museum, inequality as it relates to resources, and the exclusion of certain voices in the museum. They offer practical, contemporary educative practices that foster democratic, equitable museum practices. We believe that museums have the potential to be agents of social change and, in this way, our book is hopeful and inspiring, as it identifies and commends the effective practices that some museum educators and staff have enacted in an effort to be inclusive. We hope to show, through the chosen chapters, how the merger of museums and diversity initiatives can create positive change and can help guide, address, and suggest ways that museums can be more inclusive, supportive, and equitable spaces for all visitors.

Online Book Club Hangout (VIDEO)

On August 20th, ArtMuseumTeaching.com brought together a group of authors and editors of the book Multiculturalism in Art Museums Today for a live discussion via Google+ Hangout.  Those joining the Hangout included Joni Boyd Acuff, Marianna Adams, Briley Rasmussen, Alicia Viera, and Veronica Betancourt.  Please find the video archive of this conversation below, and enjoy!

Don’t Have Your Copy of the Book Yet?  No problem.  As part of this collaboration with Rowman & Littlefield Publishers through this series of posts about Multiculturalism in Art Museums Today, we are able to offer ArtMuseumTeaching.com readers a special discount.  To receive a 25% discount, go to www.rowman.com to order this book and enter the discount code: 4S14ACUEVA

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ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Joni Acuff2013JONI BOYD ACUFF: Assistant Professor of Art Education in the Department of Arts Administration, Education & Policy at Ohio State University. Before joining OSU, Acuff was an Assistant Professor of Art Education at the University of North Texas. She holds an MA in Community Based Art Education from the University of Texas at Austin and her PhD in Art Education from Ohio State University. Acuff has published about her research in varying scholarly, peer-reviewed journals such as Art Education, Studies in Art Education, and Visual Culture & Gender. Her research agenda and scholarship attends to critical multicultural art education, critical race theory in art education, community-based art education and culturally responsive teaching and curriculum development. Joni’s postings on this site are her own and do not necessarily represent Ohio State University’s positions, strategies, or opinions. LauraEvans

LAURA EVANS: Assistant Professor of Art History and Art Education and the Director of the Art Museum Education Certificate at the University of North Texas.  Evans received her PhD in Art Education, with a Museum Studies specialization, at The Ohio State University, a Master’s in Museum Studies at the University of Toronto, and a Bachelor’s in Art History at Denison University. Previous to her PhD, Evans was a year-long fellow at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, in the Department of Education.  She has also interned or worked at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, the Lodell Gallery in New Zealand, the Columbus Museum of Art, the Wexner Center for Contemporary Art, the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Florida, the Denison Museum of Denison University, and the University Art Centre at the University of Toronto. Laura’s postings on this site are her own and do not necessarily represent the University of North Texas’s positions, strategies, or opinions.

REFERENCES & RESOURCES

OTHER POSTS IN THIS SERIES:

“It’s Not Always about You: Facilitating Critical Self-Reflection in Others,” by Keonna Hendrick

“Eggs, Oreos, and Solidarity: MCRP in Our Daily Lives,” by Melissa Crum

“Reflecting on a Hybridized Museum Practice,” by Marianna Pegno and Traci Quinn

Sharing Authority / Sharing Perspectives: Native Voices

Written by Mike Murawski, Director of Education & Public Programs, Portland Art Museum; and Deana Dartt, Curator of Native American Art, Portland Art Museum

In 1989, the Portland Art Museum brought together a group of about twenty people to discuss the museum’s Rasmussen Collection of Northwest Coast Native American Art. Gathering in the museum’s basement, the group included museum staff, art experts, anthropologist and historian James Clifford, and a group of Tlingit elders accompanied by translators.  Objects from the collection were brought out one by one, presented to the elders for comment with the expectation that they would tell museum staff about how each object was used or by whom they were made.  Instead, as Clifford recounts:

“the objects in the Rasmussen Collection, focus for the consultation, were left—or so it seemed to me—at the margin. For long periods no one paid any attention to them. Stories and songs took center stage” (“Museums as Contact Zones,” p. 189).

Rather than providing historical details and context that could be easily converted into research files or didactic labels, the session brought forth voices, songs, dances, ongoing stories, and lived experiences that challenged the museum with alternative perspectives on these objects as well as a potential way of decentering the museum’s authorial voice. Instead of envisioning ways to bring these voices and stories into dialogue with the collection, the Museum bid the group goodbye and archived the audio and video footage of the consultation.

Twenty-five years after these ‘conversations in the basement,’ the Portland Art Museum is actively working to re-address many of the issues around interpreting its Native American collection. This post highlights a new interpretation project—being prototyped as part of the museum’s Object Stories initiative— that has gathered stories from Yup’ik tribe members in southwestern Alaska to share these voices and stories directly with museum visitors both online and in the galleries.

Object Stories

Object Stories gallery at the Portland Art Museum.
Object Stories gallery at the Portland Art Museum.

Framed by larger challenges facing museums in the 21st century, the Portland Art Museum has been involved in a broader process of rethinking how it relates to its public audience and exploring strategies to be more relevant to its community. It was out of this ongoing thinking that the Object Stories initiative was born in 2011. Since its inception, Object Stories has evolved into an educational platform for engaging audiences and bringing community voices into the process of interpreting the collection.  By capturing, honoring, and sharing participants’ stories, Object Stories aims to demystify the museum, making it more accessible, welcoming, and meaningful to a greater diversity of communities.  This initiative also allows the museum to explore how new media and other technological innovations can contribute to more genuinely inclusive engagement with audiences and communities.

Scholars have questioned how a museum’s voice might be changed from monovocal (single voice, often an institutional “voice from nowhere”) to a more polyvocal (many voices, without much sense of hierarchy).

“In this scenario, museums are encouraged to give up some of their control and their authorial voice to allow the public or specific communities to speak for themselves and be heard in a public space.” (“One Voice to Many Voices?”, 164)

Connecting Collections with Communities: Yup’ik Stories

Early in 2013, education and curatorial staff at the Portland Art Museum collaborated with Alaskan artist and photographer Katie Basile to record a series of “object stories” with native Yup’ik elders, artists, and youth. During several visits to the southwest Alaskan communities of Quinhagak, Kotlik, and Bethel, Basile captured stories from these individuals that reflect upon objects of personal significance as well as selected Yup’ik masks and dance wands from the Museum’s collection.  For this project, Basile used a new iPad app designed for the Object Stories project to allow for recording stories outside the walls of the museum.

As part of the larger initiative to generate knowledge and interpretive resources with the Native community in the public spaces of the museum, these Yup’ik stories have been exhibited in the Arctic Native American Art gallery through an iPad listening station adjacent to their related objects. Bringing together personal object stories and collection-based stories, the museum is offering visitors a layered and nuanced learning experience as the Yup’ik tribe members share their personal and cultural perspectives. The organic, first-person narratives presented here allow for an emphasis on individual Native voices and begin to disrupt the stereotype of a “community voice” that assumes a single “Native” way of being, thinking, and art-making.

The content developed during this pilot Yup’ik storytelling project has proven so meaningful that the Museum plans to expand the model to targeted communities, utilizing the connections and expertise of Native artists to record community members’ stories as part of the Object Stories initiative. First-person narratives by origin community members will then be available to museum visitors through iPads, online collections, and other digital strategies.

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Alaska Native artist Drew Michael, whose stories are featured as part of this project. Photo by Katie Basile.

Bringing Back the Story

Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde Center for Native American Art, Portland Art Museum.
Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde Center for Native American Art, Portland Art Museum.

In 1989 (pre-NAGPRA), the Portland Art Museum was bold and progressive, if only somewhat ethnocentric, to secure NEH funding to bring Tlingit tribal members to the museum to help the institution tell a more meaningful story of the ancestral objects as it redesigned the Native American galleries. While motives were pure and collaboration was intended, the museum stood between the objects and the stories. The museum attempted to serve as the bridge for the visitors between the ancestral object and the descendent storyteller. However, the stories and objects out of context required much more interpretation than time allowed, so the tapes sat idle with museum staff clueless about any connection to the collection the stories were intended to enliven. Museums have continued to mediate the connection between story and object. We hope to step out of the way.

Object Stories allows people to bring story back to objects disembodied from their cultures and their people. We hope that through this work we can reunite the ancestors with (while introducing museum visitors to) the energy, language, and living traditions of Native people. Initiatives like Object Stories have the potential to transform museums from “sites where knowledge is transmitted to passive audiences to potential forums or contact zones where new voices and visibilities are raised and new knowledge(s) actively constructed” (Viv Golding, Museums and Communities, 25).

In many ways, the Object Stories platform challenges the museum, its audiences, and its communities to consider the complex types of exchange and dialogue that might occur with its collections beyond the traditional experience of passive, didactic looking.  This platform is enabling us to facilitate, and then share, the dialogue between the maker and the viewer and through a process of shared authority and unmediated connection may transform the way museums see, utilize, and present Native American art.

Experimenting in Museums: What do you need most today?

Photo: Yang Weidong – http://www.smh.com.au

For the past 4 years, Chinese artist Yang Weidong has posed a deceptively simple question to over 300 Chinese intellectuals: “What do Chinese people need most today?”  These wide-ranging interviews have now become the core of a book by Yang as well as a in-progress documentary film titled “Xu Yao” or “Need” in Chinese, and “Signal” in English.  As for their answers … “Of China’s thinkers,” Yang tells NPR’s Louise Lim,  “more than 95 percent of those I interviewed need freedom, though they used different ways to express this.”

“Freedom of speech,” “freedom of expression,” and “free space for creative work” are combined with other responses in which people talked about the need for faith or spiritual life.  As the Sydney Morning Herald’s John Garnaut succinctly puts it, Yang’s project is about “China’s thirst for freedom.”  His simple question opened up some really powerful conversations with China’s intellectual and creative class about sincere needs and legitimate concerns — conversations that, interestingly enough, have not yet been shut down by the Chinese government (despite repeated searches of Yang’s home and after some of the interview tapes have been confiscated).

Taking the spark of motivation from Yang’s inspiring and ongoing “Need” project, I recently decided to develop an experimental prototype that would explore how museums might interact with this idea of personal/universal needs — real, sincere needs that could build toward new forms of public engagement. For the second year in a row, I am facilitating the Summer Museum Teaching Internship Program at the Saint Louis Art Museum, a unique program that brings together a diverse group of undergraduate and graduate students to explore and create different types of museum teaching and learning experiences.

On the first day of this summer’s program, I invited each of our 18 interns to take some time and reflect on the big question: “What do you need most today?”  Not thinking about museums or art in anyway, their task was simply to dig into their own, personal needs and decide on one that seemed urgent right now (‘today’).  After everyone had identified their “I need” statement, they wrote their needs on large pieces of posterboard and stood on the front steps of the art museum so I could take each intern’s photo (see the Pinterest board of all the photos).

For me, this was planting the seeds of a 10-week project through which these interns are slowly and intentionally developing their own public engagement projects to be enacted in August. And the next step pushed things in that direction the following week, as each intern was invited to reflect on their need statement and think about how, in some way, museums might fulfill that need — thinking creatively and outside-the-box.  Below are just a few excerpts from those reflections:

An engaged community: “Experiencing art is a tangible way to engage with and learn about others – it’s an opportunity to have a conversation, which builds a community by sharing experiences that can be taken home with you. In this way, the art museum offers a unique setting for community engagement. I believe that viewing art as this kind of open invitation is what inspires visitors to return, and it is the museum’s responsibility to continue this discussion”

A variety of choices: “I believe the museum setting encourages a structured approach to the works contained within them … the standard Look, Read, Look, Move On.  [B]ut without encouraging or allowing new ways to interact with the works, most viewers will stay within the confines of the standard viewing methods.  By encouraging a variety of ways to interact with the works within the museum, it will allow for a visit that breaks from the norm, and encourages the development of new avenues of interest, and make visits a more unique experience.”

Stories: “People love stories — to feel connected to their fellows even across the boundaries of nationality, culture, and language.  We like to know that we are not alone in our desires, our longings, and our needs. [And] an art museum seems to me to be the perfect place to go to find stories.  One could invent a story based on a single painting or sculpture; perhaps all the works in a gallery could be different parts of the story; maybe the different parts of a story are scattered across the museum and the game is to find them all.  Art museums have endless possibilities for finding stories.”

For the past 3 weeks now, we have been extending our conversations about these needs and how they might build toward a public engagement project at the museum.  First, we laid out everyone’s needs and did a short mapping activity — a great way to make our thinking visible and allow us to explore potential connections and relationships among the group’s needs.  Then, from there, everyone got into pairs based on “adjacent” needs on the map, and each pair interviewed each other about their need and how it might translate into a museum-based project.  Most recently, we all connected with experimental museum work at institutions such as the Walker Art Center’s Open Field and the Hammer Museum’s Public Engagement programs, paralleling our learning about “public engagement” and social practice with our own developing ideas.

As we enter our 4th week of this summer’s program, I think we’re heading in interesting directions.  This week, we will begin to form more concrete ideas and develop prototypes for projects.  While I know we have lots of questions to ask and issues to navigate, I am excited to have launched into this project over the summer.  The Summer Museum Teaching Internship Program has always been an exceptional time and place for experimentation, especially due to the diverse and energetic group of students who participate each summer.  For me, exploring museum work from the point of view of personal and universal “needs” has the potential to make these projects so much more relevant, sincere, and “real” (however you define that).  And these are all things on the minds of museums — and especially museum educators — as we trudge through the second decade of the 21st century.

Much like artist Yang Weidong’s “Need” project, mindful museums have tremendous potential and power in their engagements with communities and the issues that these communities care about most.  Sometimes simply discovering those needs is an important first step, building up from them to create opportunities for engagement and learning that are more responsive and relevant to the issues facing us ‘today.’  Towards the conclusion of his 2009 book entitled Museums in a Troubled World, Robert Janes provides us with some provocative thoughts that may connect with why this type of work is valid and valuable:

“All museums have the responsibility and the opportunity to become synthesizers, and foster an understanding of the interconnectedness of the problems we face, both environmental and social. A mindful museum can empower and honour all people in the search for a sustainable and just world — by creating a mission that focuses on the interconnectedness of our world and its challenges, and promotes the integration of disparate perspectives.” (p. 166)

“It has been noted that ‘There is no power for change greater than a community discovering what it cares about.’ Will communities continue to care about museums in their current guise? Will museums discover what they care about? Or are museums at risk?” (p. 168)

I will certainly be posting again as the summer’s intern program continues and we get closer to the series of public engagement projects we plan to enact on August 9 and 10.  So stay tuned.  In the meantime, I invite your thoughts and perspectives below.  How might you tap into “needs” (external/internal/audience) as a core for experimental program development?  How important is this type of work for museums?  Share your stories and practices here or on Twitter via @murawski27.

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SERIES NOTE: This post is part of a series from ArtMuseumTeaching.com designed to respond to and grow from the ideas explored in An Elastic Manifesto for Museums & Artists, first presented at the 2012 American Association of Museums Annual Meeting. If you have your own response or project to share, please contact me via Twitter @murawski27.  See all posts in the series by clicking here.