The recent series of events, from Ferguson to Cleveland and New York, have created a watershed moment. Things must change. New laws and policies may help, but any movement toward greater cultural and racial understanding and communication must be supported by our country’s cultural and educational infrastructure. Museums are a part of this educational and cultural network. What should be our role(s)?
Schools and other arts organizations are rising to the challenge. University law schools are hosting seminars on Ferguson. Colleges are addressing greater cultural and racial understanding in various courses. National education organizations and individual teachers are developing relevant curriculum resources, including the #FergusonSyllabus project initiated by Dr. Marcia Chatelain. Artists and arts organizations are contributing their spaces and their creative energies. And pop culture icons, from basketball players to rock stars, are making highly visible commentary with their clothes and voices.
Where do museums fit in? Some might say that only museums with specific African American collections have a role, or perhaps only museums situated in the communities where these events have occurred. As mediators of culture, all museums should commit to identifying how to connect to relevant contemporary issues irrespective of collection, focus, or mission.
We are a community of museum bloggers who write from a variety of perspectives and museum disciplines. Yet our posts contain similar phrases such as “21st century museums,” “changing museum paradigms,” “inclusiveness,” “co-curation,” “participatory” and “the museum as forum.” We believe that strong connections should exist between museums and their communities. Forging those connections means listening and responding to those we serve and those we wish to serve.
There is hardly a community in the U.S. that is untouched by the reverberations emanating from Ferguson and its aftermath. Therefore we believe that museums everywhere should get involved. What should be our role — as institutions that claim to conduct their activities for the public benefit — in the face of ongoing struggles for greater social justice both at the local and national level?
We urge museums to consider these questions by first looking within. Are staff members talking about Ferguson and the deeper issues it raises? How do they relate to the mission and audience of your museum? Do you have volunteers? What are they thinking and saying? How can the museum help volunteers and partners address their own questions about race, violence, and community?
We urge museums to look to their communities. Are there civic organizations in your area that are hosting conversations? Could you offer your auditorium as a meeting place? Could your director or other senior staff join local initiatives on this topic? If your museum has not until now been involved in community discussions, you may be met at first with suspicion as to your intentions. But now is a great time to start being involved.
Join with your community in addressing these issues. Museums may offer a unique range of resources and support to civic groups that are hoping to organize workshops or public conversations. Museums may want to use this moment not only to “respond” but also to “invest”in conversations and partnerships that call out inequity and racism and commit to positive change.
We invite you to join us in amplifying this statement. As of now, only the Association of African American Museums has issued a formal statement (show link) about the larger issues related to Ferguson, Cleveland, and Staten Island. We believe that the silence of other museum organizations sends a message that these issues are the concern only of African Americans and African American museums. We know that this is not the case. This is a concern of all Americans. We are seeing in a variety of media – blogs, public statements, and conversations on Twitter and Facebook — that colleagues of all racial and ethnic backgrounds are concerned and are seeking guidance and dialogue in understanding the role of museums regarding these troubling events. We hope that organizations such as the American Alliance of Museums; the Association of Science-Technology Centers; the Association of Children’s Museums; the American Association for State and Local History and others, will join us in acknowledging the connections between our institutions and the social justice issues highlighted by Ferguson and related events.
You can join us by…
Posting and sharing this statement on your organization’s website or social media
Contributing to and following the Twitter tag #museumsrespondtoFerguson which is growing daily
Reposted from CODE | WORDS, an experimental publishing project on Medium exploring emerging issues concerning the nature of museums in light of the impact of digital technologies on society. This collection of essays has since been published in book form by Museums Etc.
As the AMC series Mad Men aired its midseason finale back in May 2014, more than two million viewers were graced with an unexpected song and dance performance from senior advertising executive Bert Cooper, played by actor and past Broadway star Robert Morse. In this musical equivalent to hitting the pause button on a much anticipated final season that does not resume until next spring, Morse crooned the lyrical lines first written in 1930: “The moon belongs to everyone; the best things in life are free.”
For me, it was certainly one of the most intriguingly beautiful and surprising moments on television in recent years. The song comes during the last two minutes of an episode in which the daily dramas of the show’s characters are laid on top of, and intertwined with, the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing. At one point in the episode, everyone gathers around a television, wherever they are, to watch Neil Armstrong take that small step onto the surface of the moon — engaging in one of the most memorable shared human experiences of the 20th century (an estimated 600 million people worldwide were watching the moon landing live on television at that very moment).
Technology, engineering, and new media undeniably acted to create a profound connection. In her Los Angeles Times column about the Mad Men episode, Meredith Blake wrote:
“It was an unexpectedly hopeful hour of television, one that reaffirms the possibility of positive collective experience while contradicting the notion that technological progress must come at the expense of human connection.”
This perspective has particularly resonated with me at a time when I have been grappling with the effects of digital technologies and media on the educational role of museums. Are my own core values of human connection, shared experience, and community co-creation a part of the digital transformation happening in museums? When we’re overly suspect of digital technologies, are we missing out on a greater opportunity to embrace a ‘digital is everywhere’ mentality—a mindset that brings together thinking about digital technologies and the new ways in which humans connect, share, and learn in a digital age?
Yes, and yes.
Well …. how did I get there?
In May 2013, I gave a talk at the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego (followed by a short thinking piece online) entitled “Museums Un/Plugged: Are We Becoming Too Reliant on Technology?” that explored my uncertainties about the growing emphasis on technology in museums. Far from being anti-technology, I was, however, exploring some burning questions I, myself, had about the role of digital technology in museum learning and visitor engagement through the polemical dichotomy of ‘plugged in’ versus ‘unplugged.’ Among many questions, I asked:
“As we focus more and more on digital and online experiences, are we sacrificing any of the human-centered elements that have been at the core of museum education for more than a century? If your museum lost power, how would that affect the learning experiences in the galleries and across programming?”
After seeing some museums investing more in a single digital project than other museums have in their entire annual operating budget, I was genuinely concerned that we might be losing sight of the basic ‘unplugged’ human interactions at the core of learning that allow these institutions and their collections to have public value and mean something to the communities they serve. I even wrote, “when I head into the galleries to facilitate a learning experience, technology often falls away and I find myself focusing entirely on the analog elements of museum teaching.”
Yet, I have come to realize that we can no longer unplug the effect of digital technologies and Internet culture on the ways we think about and re-imagine museums today. If the lights go out in the museum and all the WiFi hotspots and screens go dark, we might lose the physical technology infrastructure, but we do not lose the powerful participatory, networked, open source culture that has taken root in our audiences and communities in the 21st century. In this regard, digital technology cannot simply fall away.
In the 2014 Let’s Get Real 2 report developed from the second Culture24 Action Research Project involving 22 arts and cultural organizations, experts from across the field noted that institutions are struggling to embrace the new realities of audience behavior (via the web, mobile devices, social media, etc.). Jane Finnis, Project Lead, remarks in her foreword to the report:
“this challenge is absolutely not about technology, which we are often guilty of fetishising as a solution to problems. It is first and foremost about audience and the ways in which digital technologies are changing their behaviours: at work, at home, on the move, learning, playing, questioning, socialising, sharing, communicating. Forever.”
For museums in the 21st century, becoming more aware and responsive to these changes requires a shift in thinking at all levels — a shift that embraces a wider ‘digital mindset.’ This approach envisions a deeper fluency and understanding of web behaviors, mobile behaviors, and social media behaviors across all areas of museum practice, rather than relegated to the IT, online collections, or website functions of a museum. In her core essay from the 2014 Sharing is Caring anthology (a must read, by the way) entitled “This Belongs to You: On Openness and Sharing at Statens Museum for Kunst,” Curator of Digital Museum Practice Merete Sanderhoff sets out to define “a new foundation for our work, one that comprises digital infrastructure and a digital mindset in equal measure” (23). She continues:
“Technology should not govern the museums’ work. But in order to learn and understand how we can use new technologies and benefit from the opportunities they open up for us, we must explore and incorporate not just technologies themselves, but also the changes in behaviour and expectations they prompt in users. We must think like users.”
So how might we begin to think more like users, and see our audience as users, as well?
Be More Open
With the rise of the Internet, the phrase ‘open source’ began as a way to describe open access to software source code and the collaborative model for how it is developed. Key elements of this development model have been: universal free access and redistribution of the source code, an openness for users to modify and adapt that blueprint in any way desired, and an emphasis on transparency and collaboration.
In museums today, one of the direct effects of this open source movement can be found in the ways through which institutions have released their collection data. As the OpenGLAM (Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Museum) initiative coordinated by the Open Knowledge Foundation asserts:
“The internet presents cultural heritage institutions with an unprecedented opportunity to engage global audiences and make their collections more discoverable and connected than ever, allowing users not only to enjoy the riches of the world’s memory institutions, but also to contribute, participate and share.”
In 2013, the Rijksmuseum released 150,000 copyright-free, high resolution images of public domain works — one of several art museums that have made collection data and images openly available online. But they have gone beyond simply releasing images and data, and actively encouraged people to share their collection, remix the artworks to create personalized collections, print reproductions (including everything from posters and canvas prints to coffee mugs and bed covers), and allow artists free reign to use these images to create something new. As of October 2014, visitors had created more than 169,000 new virtual exhibitions through the RijksStudio web platform. Ed Rodley’s recent CODE | WORDS essay “The Virtues of Promiscuity” lays out an interesting case for museums like the Rijksmuseum being promiscuous with its collection.
Pushing open use of a collection even farther, in January 2014 the Walters Art Museum hosted its second Art Bytes hackathon to bring together technology and creative communities to use the museum’s rather new API to create games, Twitter bots, scavenger hunts, 3D prints, web apps, e-books, digital docents, etc. This competition not only utilized the collection data to inspire community-wide creative rethinking about the Walters, but it led to a whole series of incredible adaptations, recreations, and visitor experiences with the collection at the core.
One of Denmark’s leading IT lawyers, Martin von Haller Grønbæk, writes in his essay “GLAMourous Remix: Openness and Sharing for Cultural Institutions” from the 2014 Sharing is Caring anthology:
“All cultural institutions should endeavor to be as open as possible in the sense that as many people as possible should have the easiest access possible to the institution’s content. At the same time the institution should seek to ensure that the freely available content is shared, enriched, and processed by users, whether they are citizens, students, scholars, researchers, or commercial ventures.” (142)
If we think of the concept of ‘open’ in the broadest way possible (beyond releasing collection data), it has the potential to challenge museums to let go of some of their control and the limitations that come with this control. Embracing a mindset of openness changes the way we think about museum practice, inspiring a more participatory mentality focused around creating, transforming, and adapting — without the traditional restrictions that have limited forms of public cultural learning.
“With the web has come a new collaborative approach to knowledge generation and sharing, a recognition of multiple perspectives, and an expectation by users that they will be able to contribute and adapt/manipulate content to meet their own needs.” (Graham Black, Transforming Museums in the 21st Century, 6)
A hundred years ago, people relied on museums as a repository for the knowledge and information related to its cultural collections. If you wanted to learn more about the artists, artworks, cultures, and places of its collection, you walked inside a museum’s grand halls of knowledge. Today, that has completely shifted. Visitors can access far more information through their smartphone or mobile device than any museum could ever hold (as of October 2014, 87% of people in the US use the Internet, 67% own smartphones, and they have access to more than 672 billion gigabytes of data from more than 1 billion websites).
During a visit to the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, I found myself sitting in front of an amazing Franz Kline painting entitled “Turin” in their Abstract Expressionism collection. While the pithy 98-word unattributed ‘voice of god’ label offered a few tidbits (“Kline used commercial house paints,” and that the painting was “named after a city in northern Italy”), I quickly went to my iPhone to search for more—I was hungry for more. From the 350,000 Google search responses, I instantly found videos, photos, Wikipedia entries, curatorial essays, poetry, music, visitor comments, slow looking reflections, and links to dozens of other museums that had works by Kline in their own collections. While I may have been standing in the Nelson Atkins building, I found myself reaching outside of its walls and connecting digitally with a wide distributed network of authorities and communities of knowledge—even sharing my own content to this mix with tweets and Instagram photos. When I sat down with docents in front of this painting for deeper conversations, we opened up further layers of thoughts, insights, and questions that were not part of the authoritative knowledge repository of the museum.
We have rapidly moved out of the era of passive consumption of content selected by a few experts, and museums now have an opportunity to actively reshape their own authority in this new equation. The digital age does not negate the authority of museums and curatorial expertise, but, rather, it puts this authority in public conversation and dialogue with a wider network of knowledges, voices, and experiences. Cultural authority is not something solely established by a didactic label, curatorial essay, or published catalog; it is negotiated through discussion and collective participation, and shared with our community and the users (yes, I said ‘users’ instead of ‘audience’). with which we connect. In his 2009 essay “A Manual for the 21st Century Gatekeeper,” New York-based curator Michael Connor explores the ways in which the internet, social media, and new collaborative ways of working are fundamentally changing the relationship between arts organizations and their audiences. He writes:
“A curator’s authority pales in comparison to the audience’s vast collective stores of knowledge and passion. How can gatekeepers redefine their role in ways that harness the power of the audience without losing the sense of subjectivity and personal risk that lie behind aesthetic decisions?”
As museums work toward sharing authority, they can begin to allow for the voices of specific communities and the public to be heard inside the walls of these institutions—to speak for themselves. In her guest editor preface to the July 2013 issue of the Journal of Museum Education focused on this theme of “shared authority,” Elizabeth Duclos-Orsello includes a powerful quote from historian Karen Halttunen that relates to the role museum staff play as workers in these public institutions:
“We [must] divest ourselves of the special authority sometimes granted to us … [and we must] enter democratic partnerships with other members of our communities.”
For me, the Memory Jar Project a couple years ago at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History really stands out in terms of a museum working to renegotiate traditional, monolithic structures of authority (using a ‘digital mindset’ in an analog way). Part of a larger community-sourced exhibition project called Santa Cruz Collects, visitors were invited to ‘bottle up’ a memory in a jar, label it, and leave it as part of this exhibit to share with others. The Portland Art Museum’s Object Stories initiative also continues to strive toward shared authority and multiple voices (see “Sharing Authority/Sharing Perspectices: Native Voices”). By redefining authority through these processes of co-creating knowledge and meaning with the community, a museum has the potential to be far more than just a place that holds and disseminates knowledge.
At the core of the digital age are new ways of relating to one another, new ways of interacting, new kinds of groups, and new ways of sharing, learning, collaborating, and connecting. In their 2012 book Networked: The New Social Operating System, Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman argue that the large online social circles of familiar platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, etc. actually expand opportunities for learning, problem solving, and personal interaction. Their work at the Pew Internet Project and the NetLab (especially research for the Connected Lives Project) suggests that digital technologies are not isolated — or isolating — systems, but rather networked systems built upon these social networking platforms as well as mobile device technologies.
“People’s relationships remain strong — but they are networked. Neighbors, and neighborhoods still exist, to be sure, but they occupy a smaller portion of people’s lives. It is hard to borrow a cup of sugar from a Facebook friend 1,000 miles away, but it has become easier to socialize, get advice, and exchange emotional support at whatever distance. Where commentators had been afraid that the internet would wither in-person ties, it is clear that they enhance and extend them.”
Through countless digital projects and social media activities, museums are tapping into global networks and becoming more connected to this growing virtual community (that, in many cases, actually has a strong relationship with a museum’s physical community). As Paola Antonelli, senior curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art, stated in a 2014 New York Times piece, “We live not in the digital, not in the physical, but in the kind of minestrone that our mind makes of the two.”
Through the Portland Art Museum’s #captureParklandia project, we were able to effectively explore the interconnected network of interest-based social media communities (via Instagram) and the physical communities in Portland itself. The overall reach of this project through Instagram was far larger than the museum’s annual in-person attendance, motivating us to rethink how we define our audiences and the new ways in which we might bring them together through moments of exchange. Rob Stein explores related ideas in his CODE | WORDS essay “Museums… So What?”, writing:
“… the face-to-face dialog that happens in real life at the museum is critically important, but I keep thinking about all the ways we could enhance and improve this dialog digitally and online. What if we considered how we might detect when meaningful discourse happens in our social media and online activities?”
The Question Bridge project is a particularly powerful example of using digital technologies in a participatory way to bring people together in dialogue and exchange. Organized by artists Chris Johnson and Hank Willis Thomas in collaboration with Bayeté Ross Smith and Kamal Sinclair, this innovative transmedia art project aims to facilitate a question-and-answer dialog between black men from diverse and contending backgrounds and create a platform for representing and redefining black male identity. In addition to its online interactive site, the project has been installed at over 25 museums and galleries, including the Brooklyn Museum, Fabric Workshop and Museum, Milwaukee Art Museum, Oakland Museum, Cleveland Museum of Art, the Exploratorium, and the Missouri History Museum, and includes a multiple-screen video installation as well as a youth development curriculum and specialized community engagement events. The project (about which I encourage you to learn more) is all about dialogue and listening, and it taps into both technology and a digital mindset in order to enhance the connective and collective experience of participants in a digital age.
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In her book Museums in the Digital Age, Susana Smith Bautista discusses how notions of place, community, and culture are changing for museums in the digital age. In her conclusion, she writes:
“If museums are to remain relevant, vital, and meaningful, then they must adapt to a changing society, which means not only recognizing and incorporating new digital tools for communication, but more importantly, recognizing the changing needs and aspirations of society as reflected in their communities of physical and virtual visitors.” (225).
As the behaviors of our audiences and communities change, so do the ways in which they learn. A core part of this digital transformation in museums (see “Museums Morph Digitally”) involves expanding our concepts of learning and engagement to be responsive to an Internet culture defined by participation — and not just ‘participation for the sake of participation,’ but as serious involvement in the deep, connected forms of cultural and creative learning that can occur with museums.
Embracing a digital mindset of openness, participation, and 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 much the same way that new technologies brought people together for that powerful shared moment 45 years ago to witness Neil Armstrong’s ‘giant leap.’
After all … the moon belongs to everyone.
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On November 12, 2014, the NAEA Museum Education Division hosted a Peer2Peer Hangout that focused on these ideas of ‘digital mindset’ and ‘digital museum practice’ with Ed Rodley, Chelsea Kelly, Michelle Grohe, and Juline Chevalier. It was a lively conversation with lots of good questions from people watching live. View the video archive of this Hangout below:
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.
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.
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
Old model: Sell subscriptions and market shows
New challenge: To engage new and more diverse groups of people in meaningful arts experiences
Old model: Give/get boards focused on fiduciary oversight and maintaining stability
New challenge: To cultivate boards that are partners in change
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
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
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
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.
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
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-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.
Written by Marianna Pegno and Traci Quinn, University of Arizona
In our chapter entitled “Collaborating with Communities: New Conceptualizations of Hybridized Museum Practice” in Multiculturalism in Art Museums Today (2014), we explore Homi K. Bhabha’s ideas of hybridity and cultural translation as they apply to our own practices. We focused on two programs — Peaceful Migrations and Giving Voice — wherein participant voice was key to creating content, programmatic structures, and exhibition design. In this reflection we demonstrate how these guiding frameworks continue to inspire our practice as museum educators and researchers, and further explore how we utilized these ideas while developing an exhibition entitled [IN] Translation. Focusing on the concept of hybridity, we reflect on three continuing issues:
the difficulties of including many voices;
persistent hierarchy and departmental separation in museums; and
our desire to include the museum visitor as a key player in hybrid museum practice.
Bhabha (1994) explains hybridity as an act that “entertains difference without an assumed or imposed hierarchy” (p. 5). Through this lens, we view the museum as a place of multiple meanings that produces a mixing and mingling of ideas, opinions, and creative visions. For museum educators, it can foster new ways of thinking about educational practice, programmatic structure, and exhibition content not as separate entities but as collaborating endeavors. Thus, through the process of developing [IN]Translation, our goal was to work with audiences and artists to rethink how the museum pedagogy can be more experiential in nature. We were working to transform the museum into an empowering environment that conversed with multiple narratives rather than simply our own curatorial or educational voice.
Thoughts After Publication
We continue to grapple with hybridity as it relates to museum education and institutional structures. In the development of educational programs we are trying to include as many voices as possible — which is not always easy. We have continued working with refugee families who participated in Giving Voice to develop in-gallery activities in which participants collaboratively created narratives about artworks in the museum. As a result, some of these reflections were affixed as a wall label next to the respective artwork, empowering refugee participants to display ideas about an artwork. While the institution has been more accepting of our work to reflect hybridity within the museum space, it is not as widely pervasive as we would like and only selectively displayed and included.
In relation, we constantly face inquiries and pushback from individuals and colleagues who are unfamiliar with the projects or who have no desire to make museum practice more collaborative across departments and with audiences. The projects we discussed in the book chapter and the projects we continue to develop & research take significant effort and time in order to avoid falling back into the institutional habits of hierarchy.
Individuals that do not have a relationship with the projects are often reluctant to participate in shared planning – or simply cannot dedicate the necessary time. We believe that their experience in the field is invaluable to the success of collaborative efforts, and yet we are met with frustration when they remain separate from educational motivations and thus the program participants.
Another issue that emerged throughout the development of our chapter and ongoing practices was our inability to anticipate visitors’ responses to exhibitions and educational endeavors addressing racial, political, and cultural interpretations of hybridity. When addressing such content, many visitors revert to stereotypical views that we are hoping to complicate through hybridized co-creation. Thus, we have been pressed to develop new experiences in the gallery that foster hybridity within the audiences’ interaction with the museum space and artworks. This idea of including visitor voice was one of the central components to the curatorial and educational design of [IN] Translation.
Thoughts on [IN] Translation
Through [IN] Translation, which was displayed in an exhibition space where were not beholden to a defined structure or hierarchy, we were able to explore these above concerns further and reflect upon our practice under conditions that fostered an ideal hybrid between education, curation, artist, and visitor voice. More specifically, we designed educational installations to supplement the works of art, most of which included opportunities for visitors to add visual or text elements and share stories and reflections. The goal was for the works and the participatory elements to hold equal weight in the design of the exhibit.
[IN] Translation featured eight works of art: one commissioned multi-media work by collaborating curator and artist Anh-Thuy Nguyen, plus seven juried works. The educational component of each artwork was planned with the artists throughout the development of the exhibition, in order to ensure that the artwork was not inappropriately changed or compromised by the educational elements. This exhibition provided us an opportunity to challenge hierarchies within a gallery space. We were able to show how the multiple positionalities of educator, curator, artist, and visitor inform one another – migrate within, around, and through one another – in order to foster a different sense of a museum experience.
[IN] Translation was an opportunity to play with the boundaries that normally exist as impermeable divisions between curator, artist, educator, and visitor; we could question how these roles could be seen as transitional, or process based. Within this exhibition we recognized how ideal this space was, especially considering that freedoms from hierarchical structures will not always be present in a more traditional museum or gallery setting. However, the instance of hybridity, in which these four voices were all present, gave way to dynamic conversations and learning opportunities and are worth noting for our future practice in more traditionally defined spaces. As we evolve as researchers, museum educators, and collaborators, our goal is to continue to develop programming that positions experiential learning at the core of curatorial and educational design.
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ABOUT THE AUTHORS
TRACI QUINN: Doctoral student at the University of Arizona in the department of Art and Visual Culture Education. Traci’s research focuses on museum and community-based education. Currently, she is researching instances that challenge the hierarchical structure of museums and exhibition design and how exhibition and program can be collaboratively developed. After working in museums and community-based organizations for over 7 years, Traci has experience in the various facets of museum education including: program development, docent training, grant writing, community outreach, and institutional partnerships. As an art educator and a researcher, Traci is committed to the development of museum-based education as a catalyst for culturally rich and dynamic experiences.
MARIANNA PEGNO: Doctoral student at the University of Arizona in the department of Art and Visual Culture Education. Marianna’s research focuses on community and museum collaborations exploring instances of decentered authority and equitable partnerships. Having worked in museums for more than 8 years, Marianna has experience in museum management, educational programming, and curatorial practice. She has developed inclusive museum programming including tours for the visually impaired, K-12 enrichment programs for at-risk youth, and a multi-visit program for refugee families. In practice and research, Marianna aims to transform the museum into a community-centered institution, which is responsive to the voices of its constituency.
On August 20th, ArtMuseumTeaching.com brought together a group of authors and editors of the book Multiculturalism in Art Museums Today for a live discussion via Google+ Hangout. Those joining the Hangout included Joni Boyd Acuff, Marianna Adams, Briley Rasmussen, Alicia Viera, and Veronica Betancourt. Please find the video archive of this conversation below, and enjoy!
Don’t Have Your Copy of the Book Yet? No problem. As part of this collaboration with Rowman & Littlefield Publishers through this series of posts about Multiculturalism in Art Museums Today, we are able to offer ArtMuseumTeaching.com readers a special discount. To receive a 25% discount, go towww.rowman.com to order this book and enter the discount code: 4S14ACUEVA
Written by Joni Boyd Acuff, Ohio State University, and Laura Evans, University of North Texas
As dear friends and colleagues, we met in the middle for the book Multiculturalism in Art Museums Today (Rowman & Litlefield, 2014). We — Joni, an expert in critical multiculturalism, and Laura, whose specialty is art museum education — had known each other for years and talked about just about everything, but never truly understood what the other researched in more than a cursory manner. The idea to collaborate came from this uncomfortable space of not really knowing what the other person did with their work. We decided to find out instead of to continue in our ignorance of what was really important to the other person. And, hence, this book was born. We realized as the Venn diagram of our research interests intersected, that there was a big gap in the literature on multiculturalism in art museum education. “Why?” we wondered. And, secondly, “What can we do about it?”
The book, Multiculturalism in Art Museums Today, is the result of this curiosity and our inquiries, as well as the diligent, creative, and groundbreaking work of our contributors (some of whom will also be posting here on ArtMuseumTeaching.com in the next few weeks). In this post, we will attempt to explain why we think multicultural practices in art museum education are important, and give a context for the book. We welcome your thoughts, comments, and questions, and hope that we can provide a welcoming space for stories and sharing.
Why is a Book on Multiculturalism in Art Museum Education Important?
First of all, what is critical multiculturalism, in brief?
Critical multicultural education works to investigate the maintenance of authentic cultural history, the subjugation of non-dominant cultural knowledge and the continuous movement, fluidity and evolution of culture (May, 1999). Multiculturalism in Art Museums Today aims to consider ways in which museums can work more effectively to become “social systems that enable the spaces of equitable educative possibility” (Dixon-Roman, 2012, p.3). We conceptualize equitable education as inclusive, comprehensive and “ubiquitous to the social process of thinking, feeling, being, and doing everyday human experiences” (Dixon-Roman, 2012, p.3), as per the tenants of critical multiculturalism. Unfortunately, as historic and existing debate suggests, museums struggle to meet the educational needs of its diverse patrons. If a museum is a suggested way of seeing the world (Macdonald & Fyfe, 1996); it is fair to assert that it must support various cultural frames of reference, as well as numerous versions and translations of the world. A practical and theoretical resource on multicultural museum education is important for two main reasons:
the increasingly diversified population of the United States, and
the heightened attention (due to economic, political, cultural, and ethical stimulus in the museum profession) and added importance placed on museum educators as representatives of their institutions, their field, and their communities.
These two realities provide the basis for this book and for the readers, who we hope will benefit from a deeper understanding of critical multiculturalism and its applications to museum education.
The U.S. is diversifying at a rapid rate and it is important that museum educators acknowledge, accept, and learn how to utilize the educational benefits of having such diverse populations to consider. According to the 2010 U.S. census:
20% of the population over the age of five speaks a language other than English at home.
72% of citizens are white, non- Hispanic; 16% Hispanic or Latino; 13% black or African American; .9% American Indian or Alaska Native; 5% Asian; 1% Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander; 5.5% another race; and 2.4% two or more races.
The projected racial composition of the United States in the year 2050 is 50.1% white, non-Hispanic, 24.4% Hispanic, 14.6% black, 8% Asian, and 5.3% all other races.
These statistics show that America is a vastly diverse nation and will continue to become even more so. Therefore, issues surrounding multiculturalism and equity will remain relevant and important as social and political issues. The above statistics are a stark reminder that art museums should be institutions of inclusivity, rather than exclusivity, and they show us why it is important for museum educators to understand the complexities and practicalities of critical multiculturalism. As stated by Winter (1992):
“At issue is the social and educational responsibility of public institutions in the face of cultural diversity, as opposed to the moral assumption of the museum as repository, both of ‘Art’ and of cultural values.”
Multiculturalism in Art Museums Today seeks to situate the educational role of the museum as one of multicultural expansion rather than abbreviation.
Context for Multiculturalism in Art Museums Today
Some people believe that “isms” (ex: racism, sexism, classism, ableism, etc.) are no longer relevant to the discourse around museums. In reality, the goal for museums and museum educators to engage in critical multicultural education work is relevant more now than ever. While some scholars and educators argue that issues of race, class, gender and sexuality are problems of the past, current data reveals that oppression based on these social indicators persist and have actually magnified well into the twenty first century (Weber, 2010).
According to the U.S. Census Bureau and the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, since the year 2000, the international economic crisis has intensified inequities of race, ethnicity, gender, and class; specifically, accessibility to higher education decreased dramatically, as tuition and fees more than doubled, disproportionately affecting groups with low socioeconomic status most (Weber, 2010). In addition, sexual politics relating to same sex marriage and same sex adoption laws continue to be heavily contested in most states. Social inequalities are still heavily implicating the present and future of members of non-dominant groups (Weber, 2010). Therefore, it is imperative that we continue to call for critical pedagogies and praxis that “confront the racial, class, gender, and homophobic biases woven into the fabric of society” (Stuhr, Ballengee-Morris, and Daniel, 2008, p. 83).
Why are we attempting this call to action?
Because, if repetition is the precursor to establishing a habit, then we feel that it is necessary and important to continue checking in on issues of diversity in our museums so that, someday, things might change to a greater degree than the infinitesimal shift that has occurred so far in our museums. Eileen Hooper-Greenhill (2006) wrote a decade ago about the shift in museums, the “turn” towards the visitor. We would parenthetically like to add emphasis to Hooper-Greenhill’s call to action, to suggest that we need to (re)turn to the visitor. This shift in language alludes to the realization that, in turning to the visitor, we, as museum educators, need to revisit what turning to the visitor means in a rapidly diversifying society where museums are frequently being turned away from by public(s) that we do not serve. The authors who contributed to this book are a group of groundbreaking, talented, empathetic, creative, change agents. They are museum educators, researchers, writers, and human beings who care about the audiences they serve in deep and meaningful ways.
Through case-study examples, the authors of Multiculturalism in Art Museums Today address issues such as cultural misrepresentation in the museum, inequality as it relates to resources, and the exclusion of certain voices in the museum. They offer practical, contemporary educative practices that foster democratic, equitable museum practices. We believe that museums have the potential to be agents of social change and, in this way, our book is hopeful and inspiring, as it identifies and commends the effective practices that some museum educators and staff have enacted in an effort to be inclusive. We hope to show, through the chosen chapters, how the merger of museums and diversity initiatives can create positive change and can help guide, address, and suggest ways that museums can be more inclusive, supportive, and equitable spaces for all visitors.
Online Book Club Hangout (VIDEO)
On August 20th, ArtMuseumTeaching.com brought together a group of authors and editors of the book Multiculturalism in Art Museums Today for a live discussion via Google+ Hangout. Those joining the Hangout included Joni Boyd Acuff, Marianna Adams, Briley Rasmussen, Alicia Viera, and Veronica Betancourt. Please find the video archive of this conversation below, and enjoy!
Don’t Have Your Copy of the Book Yet? No problem. As part of this collaboration with Rowman & Littlefield Publishers through this series of posts about Multiculturalism in Art Museums Today, we are able to offer ArtMuseumTeaching.com readers a special discount. To receive a 25% discount, go to www.rowman.com to order this book and enter the discount code: 4S14ACUEVA
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ABOUT THE AUTHORS
JONI BOYD ACUFF: Assistant Professor of Art Education in the Department of Arts Administration, Education & Policy at Ohio State University. Before joining OSU, Acuff was an Assistant Professor of Art Education at the University of North Texas. She holds an MA in Community Based Art Education from the University of Texas at Austin and her PhD in Art Education from Ohio State University. Acuff has published about her research in varying scholarly, peer-reviewed journals such as Art Education, Studies in Art Education,and Visual Culture & Gender.Her research agenda and scholarship attends to critical multicultural art education, critical race theory in art education, community-based art education and culturally responsive teaching and curriculum development. Joni’s postings on this site are her own and do not necessarily represent Ohio State University’s positions, strategies, or opinions.
LAURA EVANS: Assistant Professor of Art History and Art Education and the Director of the Art Museum Education Certificate at the University of North Texas. Evans received her PhD in Art Education, with a Museum Studies specialization, at The Ohio State University, a Master’s in Museum Studies at the University of Toronto, and a Bachelor’s in Art History at Denison University. Previous to her PhD, Evans was a year-long fellow at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, in the Department of Education. She has also interned or worked at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, the Lodell Gallery in New Zealand, the Columbus Museum of Art, the Wexner Center for Contemporary Art, the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Florida, the Denison Museum of Denison University, and the University Art Centre at the University of Toronto. Laura’s postings on this site are her own and do not necessarily represent the University of North Texas’s positions, strategies, or opinions.
Written by Mike Murawski, Director of Education & Public Programs, Portland Art Museum;and Deana Dartt, Curator of Native American Art, Portland Art Museum
In 1989, the Portland Art Museum brought together a group of about twenty people to discuss the museum’s Rasmussen Collection of Northwest Coast Native American Art. Gathering in the museum’s basement, the group included museum staff, art experts, anthropologist and historian James Clifford, and a group of Tlingit elders accompanied by translators. Objects from the collection were brought out one by one, presented to the elders for comment with the expectation that they would tell museum staff about how each object was used or by whom they were made. Instead, as Clifford recounts:
“the objects in the Rasmussen Collection, focus for the consultation, were left—or so it seemed to me—at the margin. For long periods no one paid any attention to them. Stories and songs took center stage” (“Museums as Contact Zones,” p. 189).
Rather than providing historical details and context that could be easily converted into research files or didactic labels, the session brought forth voices, songs, dances, ongoing stories, and lived experiences that challenged the museum with alternative perspectives on these objects as well as a potential way of decentering the museum’s authorial voice. Instead of envisioning ways to bring these voices and stories into dialogue with the collection, the Museum bid the group goodbye and archived the audio and video footage of the consultation.
Twenty-five years after these ‘conversations in the basement,’ the Portland Art Museum is actively working to re-address many of the issues around interpreting its Native American collection. This post highlights a new interpretation project—being prototyped as part of the museum’s Object Stories initiative— that has gathered stories from Yup’ik tribe members in southwestern Alaska to share these voices and stories directly with museum visitors both online and in the galleries.
Framed by larger challenges facing museums in the 21st century, the Portland Art Museum has been involved in a broader process of rethinking how it relates to its public audience and exploring strategies to be more relevant to its community. It was out of this ongoing thinking that the Object Stories initiative was born in 2011. Since its inception, Object Stories has evolved into an educational platform for engaging audiences and bringing community voices into the process of interpreting the collection. By capturing, honoring, and sharing participants’ stories, Object Stories aims to demystify the museum, making it more accessible, welcoming, and meaningful to a greater diversity of communities. This initiative also allows the museum to explore how new media and other technological innovations can contribute to more genuinely inclusive engagement with audiences and communities.
Scholars have questioned how a museum’s voice might be changed from monovocal (single voice, often an institutional “voice from nowhere”) to a more polyvocal (many voices, without much sense of hierarchy).
“In this scenario, museums are encouraged to give up some of their control and their authorial voice to allow the public or specific communities to speak for themselves and be heard in a public space.” (“One Voice to Many Voices?”, 164)
Connecting Collections with Communities: Yup’ik Stories
Early in 2013, education and curatorial staff at the Portland Art Museum collaborated with Alaskan artist and photographer Katie Basile to record a series of “object stories” with native Yup’ik elders, artists, and youth. During several visits to the southwest Alaskan communities of Quinhagak, Kotlik, and Bethel, Basile captured stories from these individuals that reflect upon objects of personal significance as well as selected Yup’ik masks and dance wands from the Museum’s collection. For this project, Basile used a new iPad app designed for the Object Stories project to allow for recording stories outside the walls of the museum.
As part of the larger initiative to generate knowledge and interpretive resources with the Native community in the public spaces of the museum, these Yup’ik stories have been exhibited in the Arctic Native American Art gallery through an iPad listening station adjacent to their related objects. Bringing together personal object stories and collection-based stories, the museum is offering visitors a layered and nuanced learning experience as the Yup’ik tribe members share their personal and cultural perspectives. The organic, first-person narratives presented here allow for an emphasis on individual Native voices and begin to disrupt the stereotype of a “community voice” that assumes a single “Native” way of being, thinking, and art-making.
The content developed during this pilot Yup’ik storytelling project has proven so meaningful that the Museum plans to expand the model to targeted communities, utilizing the connections and expertise of Native artists to record community members’ stories as part of the Object Stories initiative. First-person narratives by origin community members will then be available to museum visitors through iPads, online collections, and other digital strategies.
Bringing Back the Story
In 1989 (pre-NAGPRA), the Portland Art Museum was bold and progressive, if only somewhat ethnocentric, to secure NEH funding to bring Tlingit tribal members to the museum to help the institution tell a more meaningful story of the ancestral objects as it redesigned the Native American galleries. While motives were pure and collaboration was intended, the museum stood between the objects and the stories. The museum attempted to serve as the bridge for the visitors between the ancestral object and the descendent storyteller. However, the stories and objects out of context required much more interpretation than time allowed, so the tapes sat idle with museum staff clueless about any connection to the collection the stories were intended to enliven. Museums have continued to mediate the connection between story and object. We hope to step out of the way.
Object Stories allows people to bring story back to objects disembodied from their cultures and their people. We hope that through this work we can reunite the ancestors with (while introducing museum visitors to) the energy, language, and living traditions of Native people. Initiatives like Object Stories have the potential to transform museums from “sites where knowledge is transmitted to passive audiences to potential forums or contact zones where new voices and visibilities are raised and new knowledge(s) actively constructed” (Viv Golding, Museums and Communities, 25).
In many ways, the Object Stories platform challenges the museum, its audiences, and its communities to consider the complex types of exchange and dialogue that might occur with its collections beyond the traditional experience of passive, didactic looking. This platform is enabling us to facilitate, and then share, the dialogue between the maker and the viewer and through a process of shared authority and unmediated connection may transform the way museums see, utilize, and present Native American art.
“For arts marketers, it’s no secret that the engagement models of yesterday are being cast off in favor of fresh, bold ideas to boost audience development and revenue. If we’re keeping track, however, some of the new approaches that have been successful for organizations across the country would have seemed downright weird in decades past. Inviting naked cyclists into a museum to find new audiences? Bringing art to the local laundromat to promote community dialogues? Bringing random strangers together to interpret permanent collection pieces? These concepts may seem bold, but for [these 3 organizations], weird strategies like these have fostered an organizational culture that draws in the community and gives patrons an experience they won’t soon forget.”
Hack the Museum 2.0
Should anyone be surprised to find Nina Simon and the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History at the top of the list of experimental, participatory organizations? I mean, she wrote the book on this type of work … literally. But instead of getting into a rut or taking any easy routes, Nina continues to lead her institution as a pioneer of participatory practice. And, more importantly, she is working to support and scaffold this type of work well beyond the walls of her museum — this summer’s “Hack the Museum Camp” brought together 75 creative and museum professionals for 48 hours to create a museum exhibition that challenges the way people think about displaying the art, history, and the heart of Santa Cruz.
Through this experience, the Museum of Art & History becomes a petri dish for participatory practice that is inevitably expanding to artistic and institutional practice far outside of the ‘innovative sunshine’ of California. The camp’s website nicely sums up the “Why”:
“To invite unusual collaborations, to give people a space to test out their craziest dreams, to push professionals to do something quickly, to encourage experimental thinking and prototyping.”
Wash Clothes, Make Art, Build Community: The Laundromat Project
I was truly inspired by the report’s feature on the Laundromat Project, a unique project that brings engaging, community-responsive art and artists into local coin-op laundromats across Greater New York City. As Rise Wilson, founder and creator, describes, the project focuses on bringing art to where the people are, and thinking about laundromats as unique community gathering spaces.
Not only are people across New York engaging in arts experiences as they wait for their wash cycle to end, but these neighborhood locations become creative spaces with the transformative potential to bring out new conversations, relationships, and a meaningful form of public art practice that spills out across the community.
“The power to harness our own imaginations is connected to a sense of freedom and agency to make the change we want in the world,” states LP Executive Director Kemi Ilesanmi. “Creativity is the engine, and we are together, with our neighbors, trying to make the world a more just and artful place one creative, unconventional, and artful intervention at a time.”
On Naked Ambition: Portland Art Museum
I vividly remember that night back in June when nearly 10,000 stripped-down cyclists converged in the park directly adjacent to the Portland Art Museum, preparing to launch the world’s largest World Naked Bike Ride to date. Instead of keeping its doors closed (which was tempting for various reasons), the Museum made the bold decision to not only open to the public that night, but to embrace the community energy and “weirdness” that is the World Naked Bike Ride.
Scantily-clad cyclists entered the Museum for $1 per item of clothing, and many (for obvious reasons) entered for free. As chance would have it, this was also the opening day for the Museum’s summer exhibitions Cyclepedia: Iconic Bike Design and Gaston Lachaise (in case you don’t know Lachaise’s work, we’re talking some monumental nude figures). 1,000 naked or mostly-naked cyclists entered the Museum from 8-10pm that night, and aside from averting my eyes as much as possible, I was reminded why I love the Portland Art Museum.
The Cyclepedia exhibition itself was a focused effort to engage in community collaborations outside of the “weirdness” of the Naked Bike Ride, with the Museum partnering with 26 organizations, bringing 40 programs to the Museum and the region, and connecting with bike builders, designers, collectors, and cycling enthusiasts across the Northwest and the globe. We brought local bicycle designers’ voices into the galleries through the Object Stories project (which can be found by searching for “Bicycle” here), and hosted a series of Summer Joy Rides that had groups exploring art and bicycle culture via community bike rides.
As the NAMP e-book declares, if any town in the US truly captures the spirit of the “weird,” it’s the artistic, DIY-loving city of Portland. And I can say, after being here for almost a year, nothing could be more true. The Museum is dedicated to relinquishing control and gaining broader community involvement, as well as experimenting with participatory engagement and social practice with programming like Shine a Light (no doubt I’ll write more on this in the coming months).
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Karina Mangu-Ward, Director of Activating Inovation at EmcArts, pinpoints the change she sees happening across the arts non-profit sector:
“We see art organizations shifting from seeing themselves as producers of content to seeing themselves as platforms for engagement. This is a huge shift; one that requires a letting go of old ways of doing things and has profoundly exciting implications for organizations and the field.”
I know that this is happening in countless organizations across the US and the globe. Tell us about how your organization is getting “weird” or paving the path for more unconventional, risk-taking work? What changes have you seen in your organization recently that are providing space for meaningful participatory practice and playful thinking?
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.
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.