Last summer (2017) I made my first-ever visit to the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History (MAH)—a long overdue pilgrimage to this institution led by author and change agent Nina Simon. She had invited me to be a ‘camp counselor’ for their summer MuseumCamp, and I could not turn down a chance to visit the MAH, see what makes it tick, and be a part of this community of changemakers that gather each summer for the MuseumCamp experience. Not only have I known Nina for several years and been a dedicated reader of her Museum 2.0 blog and her books on museums, but the MAH had just officially opened Abbott Square, an adjacent public plaza that the museum converted to a bustling community gathering place and food market. For me, the Santa Cruz museum is fundamentally one of the exemplars in turning an institution toward a focus on its local community. Since arriving in 2011, Nina has worked with her team to tirelessly transform the MAH into a thriving museum and community center for Santa Cruz.
I was fortunate to visit during their exhibition Lost Childhoods, an issue-driven exhibition that the MAH staff created with their community. Showcasing the stories, struggles, and triumphs of youth who are aging out of foster care, this powerful exhibition was co-created with the Foster Youth Museum and a group of over one hundred local foster youth, artists, and youth advocates. This community was at the core of the exhibition, and there was even a large wall text that boldly declared “We made this with our community.” Through years of getting to know its local community and becoming intertwined in its people, the MAH team has embodied a shift from being a museum ‘for’ its community to being a museum ‘of’ and ‘by’ its community. And most recently they launched the global OF/BY/FOR ALL movement to bring these community-centered practices to institutions everywhere (watch the MuseumNext 2018 keynote presentation by Nina).
Amidst all the workshops, small group discussions, beach trips, and conversations with over a hundred passionate changemakers last summer during my first MuseumCamp experience, one moment still resonates with me more than any other—perhaps because of how simple and straightforward it was. Portland-based writer, game critic, and creative entrepreneur Josh Boykin stepped up to the microphone during a series of fast-paced lightning talks. Josh works outside of museums yet cares a great deal about building community; and while he lives and works in Portland, Oregon, our paths had not yet crossed. His lightning talk was personal and inspiring, yet there’s one simple thing about his talk that has stuck in my mind. Projected on the screen behind him during the entire duration of his talk were four words, large and bold: “Let Your Community In.”
Since that moment, Josh’s message has become one of my mantras when it comes to museum practice. How do museums let community in? Is community always separate and outside of museums, in need of being ‘let in’? What does ‘community’ even mean? Like many museum professionals, I have grappled with these questions my entire career, yet the complexities and challenges of engaging communities has come into focus in recent years as my own institution has created opportunities to advance this work.
It’s so important for museums to be a local place intertwined and inseparable from local realities and issues. We are located in our communities, but we’re also a part of those communities. How do we, as museum professionals, define our place, our town, our city, our neighborhood, our community? How do we identify ways to break down the barriers between museums and their communities as well as build relevance through local community partnerships? How do we learn about the people of our places (past and present), learn about what connects us and what brings people together into a community?
Right now, at this moment, some of the more challenging questions for me are: why open up museums to the challenges and potential failures of community-centered work? Why invest the time, staff, energy, and resources it takes to do this work really well? Why take on such risks? Wouldn’t it be easier to just keep with business as usual?
When faced with these questions, I often find myself going to museum scholar Stephen Weil’s befitting statement: “The museum that does not prove an outcome to its community is as socially irresponsible as a business that fails to show a profit. It wastes society’s resources.” (Weil 2003, p. 43, as cited in Watson, ed. Museums and Their Communities, 1). As museums and other institutions take steps to embrace community engagement, it is important to understand why this shift is occurring toward working with communities and local residents. The meaning of community requires more thoughtfulness and deliberation than we typically give it. Going forward, museum professionals and leaders must embrace this complexity as they strive to understand and create social change. It is not enough for museums to become an essential part of our communities—our communities also need to become an essential part of our museums. Are we ready to let our community in, as Josh Boykin proclaimed, and allow neighbors, local residents, community members, and those who may have traditionally been excluded from our institutions to shape practices, programs, and policies?
Echoing the words of bell hooks, what would it mean for museums “to be in community, to work in community, and to be changed by community”?
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Through a new series of posts, I am exploring a range of ideas, challenges, and strategies for building community-centered practices in museums and advocating for deeper connections between institutions and community. What do we mean by ‘community’? How can we value community? What are some strategies for change that we can enact now in our institutions? I’m open to all types of critiques and questions, as long as they are aimed at moving this collective work forward. My ideas, thoughts, and questions have emerged from decades of meaningful conversations with others, so I don’t claim ownership of these ideas — I simply hope they can spark new conversations and allow us all to add to our learning and growth as we work to transform museums.
About the Author
MIKE MURAWSKI: Founding author and editor of ArtMuseumTeaching.com, museum educator, and currently the Director of Education & Public Programs for the Portland Art Museum. Mike earned his MA and PhD in Education from American University in Washington, DC, focusing his research on educational theory and interdisciplinary learning in the arts. Prior to his position at the Portland Art Museum, he served as Director of School Services at the Saint Louis Art Museum as well as coordinator of education and public programs at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum at Washington University. He is involved in the Museums as Sites of Social Action (MASS Action) initiative, contributing author to the MASS Action toolkit, and co-created the #MuseumsAreNotNeutral tshirt campaign with LaTanya Autry to erase the myth of museum neutrality. As a cultural activist and museum professional, he is passionate about how we can come to see museums as agents of change in their communities as well as sites for transformative learning and social action. He has led workshops and presented at conferences and institutions nationally and internationally, including a keynote at the 2016 MuseumNext conference. Mike’s postings on this site are his own and don’t represent the Portland Art Museum’s positions, strategies, or opinions.
Reposted from the blog of the Coalition of Museums for Climate Justice, which works to mobilize and support Canadian museum workers and their organizations in building public awareness, mitigation and resilience in the face of climate change. To join the Coalition, please visit their Facebook Page or contact them directly.
Written by Douglas Worts
Last year, there was a flurry of activity within professional museum circles revolving around the assertion that ‘Museums are not Neutral’. This initiative has been motivated by the desire that museums should move out of the margins of societal relevancy and take their place as central forums for addressing the issues that define the culture of our era. Whereas the tradition of museums has been to avoid controversial topics like the plague, there is a burgeoning sense that museums can be vital contexts for addressing controversial issues.
When museum education leader[s] Mike Murawski [and LaTanya Autry] created and publicized a T-shirt with the logo “Museums are not Neutral” emblazoned on the front, [they] opted to use a provocation to generate both reflection and dialogue.
Since then, there have been many conversations about the role of museums as activists. I have encountered numerous online museum discussion groups that have engaged with Murawski [and Autry]’s public statement. At times I could feel a tendency within these discussion groups to simply adopt the position. At other times I have witnessed a deeper analysis emerge. The following is my attempt to add value to this conversation.
We seem to exist in an era that has embraced slogans
It seems to me that the field of marketing is taking over the world. With its roots firmly in business – enticing people to act in ways that they may not have otherwise done (i.e. to purchase products and deliver profits to businesses) – the reach of marketing has spread in a rather malignant way. Recent shock waves have erupted from the widespread use of electronic data mining to manipulate people towards scary destinations. Forensic technology analysts are drawing convincing lines between the manipulative activities of a range of right-wing enterprises and large swaths of populations in numerous countries. These enterprises used nefarious means to cull data from social media, providing pathways to getting at voters in so-called democratic electoral activities, and manipulate the electorate towards their self-centred ends. They also have developed ways of using fake news and polarization tactics in a bid to sway political processes. Out of this, some very peculiar voting patterns have emerged — in the USA, the UK and even in Canada.
It feels like democracy has all but died – because it is being directed not by an honest commitment to dialogue, respect, equality and responsibility, but rather by partisan, manipulative and devious activities. If it weren’t for the groundswell in grass-roots, public resistance to some of these shocking trends, I suspect that democracy might be officially on its way out. Several years ago, close to home, in Toronto, we were subjected to the ideological rantings of Rob Ford who could rarely muster much more than his favourite slogan of ‘we’re going to stop the gravy train’. Hmmm. As a result of the Ford mayoralty fiasco, the Trump presidency and Brexit, I am very leery of slogans – and that includes the “Museums are not Neutral” slogan.
Slogans can be powerful things. Like mottos, slogans have a long-standing place in the world. At their best, they can communicate an idea, value or a vision succinctly and memorably. The real problem with slogans occurs when they are being used to pre-empt thoughtful, respectful, considerate reflection and dialogue.
“Make America Great Again” is a good example of a twisted, retrograde, manipulative attempt to stoke the fires of popular discontent with a suggestion that the solution to the USA’s complex problems lie in revisiting some version of a romanticized idea of the past. It is like a snake oil salesman selling a simplistic dream to people who have real problems, but ones that won’t be fixed with snake oil.
Even when one considers the traditional ‘successes’ of slogans at driving growth within businesses and economic markets – humanity is slowly realizing that economic growth is not only not a solution to our current problems, but is itself a malignant direction. Since humanity has tied economic growth to consumption, and consumption is tied to carbon, and carbon is bound to climate change – nothing good is going to come out of this direction. Slogans are unhelpful, even dangerous, when they boil down actions into simple adopting of a new position, when what is required is a full appreciation of the complexities of a problem and a plan to address the issues.
“Museums are not Neutral” is a a puzzling slogan to me because it is not clear just where this line of thinking is going. I would be the first to agree that museums are not neutral. As an audience researcher in a large art museums for many years, I know only too well how the simple act of walking into a museum – especially an art museum – creates a sense of intimidation for many people. The quiet sense/ expectation of authority, institutional integrity and trust that is projected by museums often squelches potentially creative and thoughtful engagement with visitors.
Beyond this, I am very familiar with how museums have historically claimed a necessity to be ‘neutral’ in relationship to topical issues – such as racism, climate change, growth-based economies and much more. Museums have been grappling with the ‘problem of controversial topics’ for decades! In my experience, this ridiculous claim about needing to be neutral (i.e. avoiding any controversy) was based on the systemic insecurity and fear of museum managers/boards that really had little idea of what the cultural ‘to what end?’ of museums might involve – if museums were to be involved in the living culture. Since they assumed that museums’ roles involved collecting and exhibiting, they didn’t want to put those activities in jeopardy by becoming embroiled in some messy, controversial topic.
But this institutional ‘neutrality’ was not harmless avoidance.
By avoiding the issues of the day, museums were at times responsible for a museum systems-level perpetuation of a host of cultural ills, such as social inequality.
For example the use of museum mission statements and collection policies enabled many art museums to keep the visual culture of Indigenous communities out of collections and exhibits for decades. One rationale for this policy was rooted in the argument that historical visual cultural objects linked to Indigenous communities were “not art… they were ethnology, and belonged in ethnological museums. The siloed, and often self-centred world of academic disciplines had a hand to play in this type of situation. Thankfully, most museums today are trying to correct those past wrongs.
Being activist can be a difficult and uncomfortable place to stay for very long
As for the Jillian Steinhauer article, I have a lot of sympathy for her ‘call to action’. Museums need to be venturing into the middle of the issues that are defining our living culture. I have considered myself an activist in all kinds of ways, over most of my life. It can be a difficult and uncomfortable place to stay for very long. However, venturing into the middle of vital issues – be it decreasing social/economic equity, increasing environmental degradation, increases in the high-jacking of political processes, increasing guns and violence, etc. – should not mean simply taking and holding a position. In many ways, if there is one cultural pattern that needs to be broken here, it is that of everyone having to decide what slogan to stand under.
In our pluralist, urban, globalized, economically driven world, there is a need to open up the conversations and find ways to truly create societies based on peace, empathy, creativity, relationships and some viable form of balance within the natural systems of our planet.
Steinhauer speaks about artists taking up activist positions. Artists do react to the world in powerful and provocative ways – hopefully that stimulate others to reflect deeply on issues, take a hard look at where they stand personally on such issues, foster respectful and empathetic dialogue between people who hold various views and ultimately lead to responsible, engaged actions.
I see the role of artists as very different from the role of museums
The complex, fast-paced changing world that we live in needs systems to help facilitate how citizens engage as fully as possible with cultural dynamics.
By bringing people together in ways that build bridges within and across human communities, museums have the ability to strive towards supporting our living culture in making room for deep personal reflections, public dialogue and human action.
Of course artworks, history, science, storytelling, shared spaces, and more can help provide the catalyst for these processes. But we need to be clear that our goal is not simply to push out a perspective into the world through the work of our institutions, through our various discipline-based lenses.
We need our cultural organizations to be nimble, engaged, in-tune, skilled, humble facilitators of the kind of meaning-making that is required of in our era.
This likely means that museums can and should stretch far beyond the walls of traditional museums/collections. Similarly, they should operate far outside the confines of the leisure-time economy.
More than anything else, from my perspective, museums desperately need to develop cultural feedback loops that are rooted in living communities to help guide their activities towards meaningful cultural impacts. These ‘impact measures’ and feedback loops – essential how museums assess their ‘success’ at being relevant – will need to be stratified, so that they shed light on impacts on individuals, groups, communities, organizations, cities, economic and social systems and more. New skills will be needed. But museums have the ability to venture into the middle of vital cultural issues of our time.
I don’t think it works if they see themselves as ‘activists’, because, if museums and their staffs take sides, they will have a very limited ability to be effective facilitators within the culture.
My gut feeling is that we need fewer slogans and more honest dialogue.
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About the Author
DOUGLAS WORTS is a culture & sustainability specialist with WorldViews Consulting, in Toronto, Canada. Douglas approaches culture broadly, as ‘how we live our lives’, seeing museums as potential facilitators in forging an emerging ‘culture of sustainability’. His professional work combines a 35+-year career in museums with over two decades exploring how culture shapes and directs the prospects for global human sustainability.
Editor’s Note: As we strive to work more closely with our local communities, be a more inclusive institution, and connect meaningfully to the issues that affect the lives of those living in our city, I wanted to share a recent interview with Manuel Padilla. Manuel is the Executive Director of Portland Meet Portland, a local non-profit dedicated to welcoming immigrants and refugees to the Portland area, enriching community by creating mutually beneficial mentoring opportunities that promote cross-cultural learning, enhance work skills, and build trust. The Portland Art Museum is proud to partner with Portland Meet Portland on programs, events, and a community gallery related to our current special exhibition Common Ground: Photographs by Fazal Sheikh. This partnership is part of our broader efforts to focus on building community, and the following interview is part of efforts to recognize this work and tell these stories as core to our museum’s purpose and mission.
This partnership and relationship with Portland Meet Portland led to the co-creation of a series of public programs, community events and workshops, an in-gallery resource for reflection and action, and a community-centered gallery space within the exhibition (see 2 photos of the gallery below). I have enormous gratitude for Manuel, everyone with Portland Meet Portland, and all of the community members and organizations that have come together to make this happen. I also want to recognize everyone on the Education team here at the Portland Art Museum for their dedication when it comes to making our museum matter, and the curator of this exhibition for being open to community involvement and for valuing the knowledge, voices, and experiences of community members whose knowledge, voices, and experiences are largely devalued by the institutions of museums. None of this would be possible without a growing community of change within and beyond the walls of our museum, and I have so much gratitude for being a part of this work and for being a learner in this process. -Mike Murawski
The following interview was posted on the Portland Art Museum’s blog on February 27, 2018, and is republished here with permission.
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An interview with Portland Meet Portland’s Manuel Padilla
How is Portland Meet Portland involved in the Common Ground exhibition?
Portland Meet Portland is working with the Portland Art Museum’s Department of Education and Public Programs as, what could be called a “community partner in residence.” We are co-creating the educational and interpretive programming in connection with the exhibition. This involves a broad range of things like designing and facilitating dialogues with museum participants, producing podcasts, working with the museum and refugees to provide content for the interpretive space, training docents, and helping create informational resource guides for visitors and docents alike. It has, and continues to be, a very inspiring and meaningful partnership for us.
How has the experience of working with an art museum been similar or different than other projects and partners that PMP works with?
Working with the Portland Art Museum is a unique and special experience for us. We have worked with the museum before on an Object Stories exhibition, and this is a deepening of that partnership. Words I would use to describe working with the museum are: dynamic, collaborative, creative, and celebratory. Our work together has been synergistic and generative, each person strongly contributing to breathing this project into life. One of the most fundamental points I want to stress is the museum’s direct, hands on participation with refugee community members. This experience was crucial to the cross-cultural learning and growth of everyone involved and gave vital context to exactly what it takes to make sure refugees can be truly relevant in their participation in projects like these. Institutional flexibility and change are at the heart of that level of participation. Ownership and agency of refugees’ own work and needs, throughout this partnership, was always prioritized.
What do you hope that visitors learn about their own community through the Common Ground exhibition and related programs?
Primarily, I hope people visiting this exhibition, and interacting with all of the great programming, are challenged to examine their own narratives of refugees and the narratives that are manufactured for them. And I want visitors to not only learn, but to find moments where they are outside of their heads and more into their hearts. Learning information means little if it does not become instrumental, in some way, in our own lives.
I would like visitors to understand how truly segregated Portland is and how different things could be if we made a decision to remove barriers and injustices that divide us. How quickly the black and white of segregation could turn into a Kodachrome of connection. But desegregation and cross-cultural relationship building with refugee individuals and communities requires that dominant culture give something up, and that is the primacy of its interpretation of the world. And dominant culture must leave open the possibility of being transformed by that. This is no less true when thinking of dominant culture’s relationship with any historically marginalized or underrepresented community. Yet, when we do this, we find we gain so much more than we have given up.
It’s important, too, to realize that refugees are more than just the sum of their experiences fleeing violence and persecution. They are more than victims. Thinking about refugees only as victims crystallizes their identities and marginalizes them even further. We should honor those experiences of suffering AND understand they had lives before and after that. We are all more than the worst moments of our lives. Right relationship with refugees means a “walking with,” sharing in the full nature of our personhood together.
Lastly, I want people to understand that refugees have often lived longer in Portland than the person reading this sentence right now. I want to blur the lines between newcomer and local. Also, resettlement to a new country and community can be the most traumatizing event in the experience of becoming and being a refugee.
Do you think or how do you think about the power of art to serve as a platform for big/ tough conversations?
I love this question and the answer seems at once both obvious and elusive. In my work I have dealt a lot with something called Cognitive Theory of Metaphor. There is a book called Metaphors We Live By by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. The idea is that our entire cognitive structure, how we navigate and make meaning in the world, is determined by the foundational metaphors that emerge linguistically and pre-linguistically in our culture and society. The fundamental comparison of one thing to another in terms of “like” and “unlike” forms the building blocks of our worldview. If we think of art in terms of symbol, sign, and metaphor, then art IS the conversation. Aesthetic, in that sense, is not simply mood to us, but morality. What we consider beautiful or ugly takes on much more significance than simply being a matter of taste.
So, if we can challenge or change cultural aesthetic, if we can change the “art” on which society is built, then we have not only been able to navigate tough conversations, but we have, in doing so, changed the composition of the conversation itself. Art (and the people who create and consume it) are individual and collective manifestations of moments in dialogue. Photos, painting, dance, music, pottery, comics, movies, and other forms of art are part of the syntax and grammar, punctuation and silence in the language of art that we use to speak aesthetic reality into being for and with each other. Therefore, they are also the tools at our disposal to be able to speak and be different to one another. Through this we have emergent relationship, we can challenge one another and create mutual understanding and build trust.
How can people learn more and/or get involved with Portland’s refugee community?
Well I would be remiss if I did not answer with “get involved with and support the work of Portland Meet Portland!” It’s a little shameless, but true. I am proud of our organization, what we are doing, and where we are headed. But, coming to visit Common Ground is certainly a place to start as well. The museum is hoping, through the exhibition, to provide perspective on the continuum of life “as a refugee.” This might help to ground and encourage you to take a step toward being in closer relationship with refugees in your own neighborhood and the larger Portland community. From there, I would point people toward the printed and on-line resource page [PDF] on the museum website that is connected to this exhibition. That should give you what you need to start to get involved.
Anything else you want to share?
I just want to thank all of the people who were instrumental in making this project happen. All of the people in the Department of Education and Public Programs at the museum, other staff of Portland Meet Portland, and particularly the refugee community members that are sharing their time, expertise, and lives with us through this museum space.
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Learn more about some of the organizations working to support refugees and immigrants here in Portland and Oregon, and find ways to get involved.
In the current air of divisiveness and disconnection, it can feel more challenging each day to bring people together in meaningful ways. When I listen to the news on my commute to work each day, the negativity and misunderstandings can seem overwhelming when compared to the small changes and connections I might make possible through my own work in a museum. As we celebrate communities, cultures, histories, memories, and stories in our museums, others deride them and shape a narrative that negates their value here in our society.
Yet at this time when we are surrounded by an increasingly fragmented society of ‘us versus them,’ I continue to firmly believe that museums have the potential to be powerful catalysts for empathy and human connection. As museums respond to issues affecting our communities, both locally and globally, there is a clear shift toward focusing on human connection and the role museums play as catalysts for empathy and cohesion in a society rife with intolerance, discrimination, inequality, social isolation, and self-segregation.
In their essay included in the recently published volume entitled Fostering Empathy Through Museums(2017), a team of leaders and changemakers (past and present) from the Levine Museum of the New South powerfully reflect on their decade-long commitment to dialogue and civic engagement:
“With shared empathy, individuals can move from isolation to belonging, from division to connection, from suspicion to trust, and come together to begin the hard work of creating a cohesive diverse community that values and gives opportunity to all its residents” (235)
Embracing a human-centered mindset in museums asks us to advance these concepts of empathy and connection as integral elements to our museums’ values and culture. And it is time to take these principles seriously, and recognize the essential need for museums to lead and take action rather than just follow and passively react.
Expanding Our Definitions of Empathy
While there are many definitions of empathy out there (and we certainly throw the word around quite a bit these days, present company included), I really appreciated how this concept was framed by educator Thom Markham in a January 2018 article for KQED’s Mind/Shift about empathy and learning in our connected world. I would whole-heartedly agree that we need to move beyond narrowly defining empathy as ‘I like others’ or ‘walking in someone else’s shoes.’ A more complex definition of empathy considers it as a “deep interpersonal skill necessary for effective teaming, customer design, and other aspects of life that require openness to the flow of information.” It involves collectively working toward the common good and making a positive difference in the world. I’m interested in how we can expand our definitions of empathy to consider its relationship with social justice, so that striving for a culture of empathy means that we’re also committing to actions and convictions that lead to more equitable and just communities.
These core social functions of museums have been clearly emerging as museum leaders and professionals reflect on how institutions can be relevant and sustainable now and in the future. The Alliance of American Museums 2017 TrendsWatch highlighted empathy and social justice as key forces of change in the field. In a chapter devoted to empathy, Elizabeth Merritt states that “museums’ inherent strengths position them to be effective ‘empathy engines’ helping people to understand the ‘other’ and reinforcing social bonds” (8). To embrace these values, museums are working to build experiences based in storytelling, lived experience, memory, healing, and civic engagement. Exhibitions are being designed in partnership with community members, content is being co-created between museum staff and visitors, and marginalized voices are being brought into the core of museum spaces.
Strategies for Change
How can we more fully integrate these values in our own museum practice and institutional culture? How can those of us working in, for, and with museums begin to make this shift happen toward a more human-centered mindset? In addition to rethinking hierarchies and internal structures, another key starting place for this type of change is simply practicing more empathy within the workplace environment and culture of a museum institution.
Building Empathy on an Individual Level
While this sounds very broad, it can start with anyone at any level of an organization. In many museums, especially large ones, the proliferation of departments and reporting structures combined with an over-reliance on email communication can lead to silos and barriers among staff within the organization. People are not connecting with other people in meaningful ways.
I can speak from my own personal experience, having been in plenty of tense meetings in which everyone comes in with their defenses up, ready to battle. A curator is certain that the education staff are going to ‘dumb down’ their ideas. An educator assumes that their suggestions to make an exhibition more accessible to families will be belittled by an exhibition designer. Situations like these are happening in museums everyday, and they are creating and maintaining barriers to change. We’re making assumptions about other people’s values and positions without ever listening to their perspectives.
To counteract this, we can begin to form a culture of empathy through the basic building blocks of conversation and listening. Building empathy on an individual level means identifying those people in your organization or in your community about which you might be making assumptions, then spending time having face-to-face conversations with them, taking a step back to truly listen, and trying to gain a greater sense of what they value and why. Being a human-centered museum starts with the human connections and social relationships we build within the institution and among our community. Getting this process started can be as easy as having coffee with co-workers that you find yourself rarely interacting with or even butting heads with. Removing these smaller-scale disconnections is a powerful way to start working toward change in your institution, one conversation at a time.
Building Institutional Empathy
In addition to embracing empathy on an individual level, it is vital to consider how museums can embrace a broader form of institutional empathy. Just as individuals can practice listening to and responding to the needs of other individuals, museums have the ability as institutions to mirror those same skills in building empathy with their communities. The amazing work of the Empathetic Museum group has focused on helping organizations move towards a more empathetic future. According to their model, “an empathetic museum is so connected with its community that it is keenly aware of its values, needs, and challenges.”
Using a rubric called the Maturity Model, museum staff and leaders can assess their own institution’s commitment to building empathy across a series of characteristics such as civic vision, institutional body language, community resonance, and sustainability. For museums just beginning to think about their work as human-centered, models such as this can provide a spark for meaningful conversations among staff about what it means to be empathetic and better reflect the values of your community. For museums at more advanced stages of this change process, this model can help structure goal setting and inform strategic planning.
Identifying and Advancing Core Values
So this all sounds great, but what if just a few passionate staff are advocating for these ideas and models within an institution? How can these human-centered values of empathy and human connection be integrated into the DNA of an organization, and not just fade if those few passionate staff get frustrated or even leave?
Beyond advancing individual empathy as described above (an important strategy toward spreading empathy within an organization), one key strategy is developing core values and a values statement that reflect these ideas. If your museum does not have any type of core value statement, there is never a bad time to get one drafted.
Traditionally, this type of institutional language has been created through a top-down process and likely doesn’t have the buy-in of most staff and volunteers. Rather, it’s best to go through a process that allows staff at all levels (perhaps even some volunteers and community members) a chance to express their thoughts about a museum’s core values. These conversations might start during hallway conversations or cross-departmental meetings, and trickle up to the leadership team. The goal here is to develop a simple, clear, open, and transparent set of values that can guide everyday decisions and help organizations answer difficult questions and challenges when they arise. If an organization’s overall culture does not seem ready for this (yet), a similar process can occur within a single department and then often spread from there.
Having established a set of values based in human connection can more effectively lead to institutions becoming more human-centered and making decisions that reflect these values.
Share Your Thoughts
These conversations and actions cannot take place solely behind museum walls or in the isolation of professional conferences. We need to work together to realize the full potential of museums and discover how a human-centered focus on social action can transform your practice, your museum, and your community.
Are you working to embrace empathy in your organization? How do you define empathy in your practice? What challenges do you face in this work, or in thinking about empathy in museum practice? This conversation deserves to be more complex, and bring in as many perspectives as possible. Add your voice to the comments below or via social media (@murawski27), and share your experiences or questions as part of this effort to make change happen in museums.
Let’s be a part of making this change happen together!
Check out the previous post on rethinking hierarchies, and stay tuned for further posts in this series about how museums might become more human-centered institutions working toward positive impact in our communities, including reflecting on personal agency.
Header Image: “Wall of Empathy (6)” photo by David Goehring, not changed, CC BY 2.0. Photo depicts a “wall” of sticky notes installed by an artist group in selected San Francisco BART stations following the 2016 presidential election. This project was inspired by a similar one in the New York subway.
In September 2017, I was honored to be a part of the Smith Leadership Symposium in San Diego, an annual program of the Balboa Park Cultural Partnership. Not only was this my second year being involved in this program, but I was also fortunate to be among a powerful group of presenters that included Shamell Bell (community organizer and choreographer), Milenko Matanovic (artist and community builder), and Monica Montgomery (founding director of the Museum of Impact). Throughout our conversations leading up to the symposium and that day, we shared ideas about the value of community dialogue and the role of community care in our personal and professional work.
My talk entitled “Changing the Things I Cannot Accept” was inspired, in part, by the writings of scholar and activist Angela Davis. Davis’s powerful work had been on my mind after being encouraged by a colleague to read the recently published collection of her writings and interviews entitled Freedom is a Constant Struggle. I am so grateful that this and other works by Davis made it to my ‘must read’ list, as she brings forward the urgency of feminism, intersectionality, and global solidarity to the struggles against injustice and oppression in our country.
In a speech to a gathering of Ferguson protesters in St. Louis in 2015, she stated: “Any critical engagement with racism requires us to understand the tyranny of the universal. For most of our history the very category ‘human’ has not embraced Black people and people of color. Its abstractness has been colored white and gendered male.” It is within this tyranny of the universal, the neutral, the apolitical, the fair and balanced, and the objective that my frustrations lie when it comes to the role of museums in our society and in our communities. Which brings me right back to the often-quoted words of Angela Davis:
“I’m no longer accepting the things I cannot change…. I’m changing the things I cannot accept.”
These words have resonated with me for quite some time. Not because this has become an internet meme since the election, but instead because I hear these words repeated by activists that I greatly admire and respect in my own community and beyond. And on that day of the Smith Symposium in San Diego, two of the other keynote presenters also included this exact quote from Davis in their slides.
So what are the things we can no longer accept when it comes to museum practice?
Well, for me, it is certainly not enough to lay out a laundry list of ‘things I cannot accept’ and continue to make the assumption that these are also ‘things that I cannot change.’ I think I was stuck in that long, deep rut earlier in my museum career. I still hear many museum professionals talk about “the way things are” in museums and our inability to change things from where we are located in our organization (and in these power structures, more importantly). Many of the entrenched behaviors, policies, and practices in museums are based in a whole set of false stories we tell ourselves — self-sabotaging and oppressive narratives that hold us back, maintain the status quo, and create a fearful and hesitant attitude towards change.
I came across this specific idea of recognizing our false stories in a self-help book by Jen Sincero called You Are A Badass(ok, so not everything I read is as intellectual and hard-hitting as Angela Davis). In it, Sincero writes:
“Because we’re so set in our ways and committed to our stories about who we are and what our reality looks like, we only scratch the surface of all that’s available to us every single moment.”
I’ve used Sincero’s framework in a few workshops I’ve led with museum professionals this year, working to identify the potential false stories that create barriers to change in our professional work, and then creating new powerful stories of change to replace them. In a couple instances, we made our new powerful stories of change public by writing them outside museums using sidewalk chalk (I’ll never forget how it looked to have these messages written all across the main entrance plaza to the Museum of Art & History in Santa Cruz — thanks Nina!). We have too often upheld a systemic ‘big bad no’ that has dramatically limited the potential of museums to be agents of positive social change.
Rather than simply re-hashing the same concerns and complaints over and over again, it is far more vital and urgent to take action and change these things we cannot accept. It is on us to replace these false stories with new powerful stories that envision a bold future for museums. Below is my raw attempt at creating a new set of stories that I am working to tell myself — a set of stories that can lead to action and change in the work that we do as museum professionals as well as citizens, civic leaders, and members of our communities.
This modest manifesto – first shared with the community of museum changemakers that came together for the Smith Symposium in September — brings the forces driving change in my own work out in a public, transparent, and vulnerable place. No doubt this list is incomplete, imperfect, abbreviated, and oversimplified, yet I invite readers to add on to this list, flesh it out, and help us all move forward to change the things we can no longer accept:
1. I cannot accept that museums are neutral. Museums have the potential to be relevant, socially-engaged spaces in our communities. Yet, too often, they strive to remain “above” the political and social issues that affect our lives — embracing a myth of neutrality. Well, MUSEUMS ARE NOT NEUTRAL, plain and simple. In a 2015 article entitled “The End of Neutrality: A Modest Manifesto,” scholar Robert Janes writes, “neutrality is not a foundational principle of museum practice, but rather a result of the museum’s privileged position in society.” He continues, “complacency, the absence of continuous learning, and the weight of tradition are persistent factors in the inability or unwillingness to rethink the meaning of neutrality and its implications for the role and responsibilities of museums in contemporary society.” It’s time to erase the tyranny of neutrality and move past this entrenched, limiting idea of museums.
2. I cannot accept that museums are entirely object-centered and their primary purpose is to serve and preserve their collections. Museums are human-centered institutions, in the broadest and most inclusive sense. This means more than just being visitor-centered or audience-centered. It’s a mindset that recognizes the human potential and impact of our work, externally as well as internally. It’s a mindset that has the power to inform our decisions as museum professionals (around exhibitions, programs, partnerships, budgets, security, collections management, etc.) in a way that places a spirit of human connection at the core of our thinking, rather than just the objects.
3. I cannot accept that museums function as separate from their communities. We often use language that externalizes those outside of our walls, setting up a false ‘us’ versus ‘them’ dichotomy. Museums can, instead, think of themselves as part of their communities. All museum staff, volunteers, members, donors, trustees, and partners are members of the community, and we only need to strive to be more inclusive and reflective of the broader local community.
4. I cannot accept the thought that involving community members and their knowledge in a museum’s core practices will lower the quality of content and decrease overall trust in a museum’s authority. I’ve heard this too many times. Instead, let’s repeat and amplify the words that changemaker Josh Boykin projected on the wall behind him during his entire lightning talk this summer at MuseumCamp: “Let Your Community In.” Our communities know more than we do, and we need to recognize and embrace the knowledge, creativity, and lived experiences of these communities. It’s no longer enough for museums to strive to be an essential part of their communities; we need to be working to ensure that our communities become an essential part of our museums. Quoting the transformative words of the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center’s Culture Lab Manifesto, “those who have historically been pushed to the margins hold the stories that will center our future.”
5. I cannot accept that museums do not consistently and persistently recognize the indigenous peoples on whose ancestral lands our institutions now stand. It’s time – now, today — to regularly and consistently honor the indigenous peoples of our place as well as the genealogies and hidden histories embodied in these spaces. It’s time to work toward decolonizing our institutions, and partnering with indigenous communities (artists, leaders, educators, activists) as we rethink the roles and responsibilities of museums.
6. I cannot accept that issues such as immigration, refugees, police violence, transgender rights, water, and climate change are too political for museums. Museums are inextricably linked to these complex issues that are relevant to us today, and they permeate everything we do (whether we choose to acknowledge it or not). I believe we can boldly come together around a respect for each other and the environment, rather than continue to allow these issues to divide us.
7. I cannot accept that museums still use ‘keeping their donor base happy’ as an excuse to not be socially relevant and forward thinking. This fear of losing donors and patrons is far too pervasive. No way. I’m not buying it. If museums have a clear, bold, community-based vision for inclusion and social change, donors will support this work. We need to have more trust in those individuals and foundations that support our institutions, and begin working with new funding sources specifically seeking organizations dedicated to inclusion, social change, and building stronger communities. Some supporters may leave, but new ones will join in. Like the old proverb says, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” Get that tree planted today! — And I wanted add to this a powerful, brutally-honest sentence from Brene Brown’s latest book Braving the Wilderness: “When the culture of any organization mandates that it is more important to protect the reputation of a system and those in power than it is to protect the basic human dignity of the individuals who serve that system or who are served by that system, you can be certain that the shame is systemic, the money is driving ethics, and the accountability is all but dead.”
8. I cannot accept that many museums are hesitant or afraid to proclaim that Black Lives Matter and black life matters, or work with activists in the Movement for Black Lives and other intersectional movements standing up for human rights. Museums need to unapologetically recognize and engage the brave, transformative work of the Movement for Black Lives and their vision to “move towards a world in which the full humanity and dignity of all people is recognized” (Vision for Black Lives), as well as other important movements fighting for these same basic principles of human rights. We should look toward the leadership and vision of the Ford Foundation, a global organization leading efforts to support social justice and human welfare. In their statement “Why black lives matter to philanthropy,” they bravely proclaimed, “now is the time to stand by and amplify movements rooted in love, compassion, and dignity for all people.”
9. I cannot accept that, for museums, being socially responsible is just a liberal trend. Museums have the potential to serve as agents of social change, bringing people together, contributing to local communities, and changing people’s lives. It is time for our institutions to respond to the challenges of our times by making a bigger difference. This is not a trend that involves museums starting a few new programs or pulling together an exhibition that is socially-engaged – this is a movement to re-envision the purpose of museums as collaborative, participatory, and socially responsible spaces in a way that will affect all of the work that museums do.
10. I cannot accept that we, as museum professionals and as citizens, do not fully recognize and celebrate the work we do to be inclusive, relevant, and responsive to the issues affecting the lives of our communities, our neighborhoods, our audiences, and our staff & volunteers. We must fiercely and consistently recognize the work we’re already doing to make positive change in our society and for our planet, and build communities of changemakers within and across institutions. This is some of the most meaningful, relevant work happening in museums right now, so let’s work to make these stories the central stories of our museums. People across our institutions—not just educators but directors, curators, marketing staff, board members, donors, etc.—need to be publicly and visibly proud of the programs, exhibitions, projects, and strategic & structural changes that actively embrace equity, unheard stories, dialogue about provocative questions, and the diverse and rich lived experiences of those living in our communities. More comprehensive support for this work can lead to an expanded focus on social impact and community partnership in a museum’s strategic goals and mission, in its exhibition and program planning process, in its staffing and hiring decisions, and in its overall allocation of resources.
* * *
In his introduction to Freedom Is a Constant Struggle, journalist and activist Frank Barat brings light to an unexpected key aspect of activism and change: trying. “Trying to change the world…,” he writes, “That is victory in itself.”
“Everyone and everything tells you that ‘outside’ you will not succeed, that it is too late, that we live in an epoch where a revolution cannot happen anymore. Radical changes are a thing of the past. You can be an outsider, but not outside the system, and you can have political beliefs, even radical ones, but they need to stay within the bounds of the permissible, inside that bubble that has been drawn for you by the elites.”
Time to break outside that bubble, and be an active part of creating a new, radical future for museums.
Reposted from the Skirball Cultural Center’s Building a Better World blog, a place on their website dedicated to sharing some of the ways Skirball educators partner with families, schoolchildren, teachers, and community organizations to take concrete action to promote a more just society.
Written by Anna Schwarz, Skirball Cultural Center
The Skirball’s in-school residency program is one of the rare opportunities we have to work closely with students, exploring issues that are important in their lives and how art can be a tool for civic and social action. Over the course of eight to ten weeks, one class of students and their teacher collaborate with skilled teaching artists and a Skirball educator (in this case, me!) to build identity and community through collaborative and creative practices. As we tailor every residency to the exhibition content presented at the Skirball in a given year, the teaching artists and the art medium also change yearly. Recent residency projects have ranged from dance pieces exploring gender disparity, to radio stories about incarceration, to noir-style films about contemporary high school issues. Through these various projects, educators and students creatively explore how art can become a platform for student voices and storytelling.
In our most recent residency earlier this year, we wanted to focus on the Skirball’s mission, particularly the imperative to “help build a more just society.” We collaborated with poet and arts educator Kahlil Almustafa, writer and performer Julia Grob, and one class of tenth grade LAUSD students from the Community Health Advocates School (CHAS) at Augustus Hawkins High School. Maria Gaspar, a social studies teacher at CHAS, invited us into her classroom where we met twice a week. During the one-hour workshops, students practiced using poetry as a vehicle for self-expression and activism.
The residency began with setting intentions. Together, we decided to create an anthology of poems to document students’ lives and their hopes and dreams for the future. We also planned for students to share a selection of these poems in a culminating performance at the Skirball in front of their peers from all over LA. In preparation, students listened to voices of contemporary poets—young and experienced—including Audre Lorde, Elizabeth Acevedo, and finalists of the Brave New Voices festival created by Youth Speaks. The teaching artists, Kahlil and Julia, also performed live in the classroom, which made the entire experience even more special and personal. With all this inspiration, students asked questions and began creating their own original poetry.
Similar to other creative projects, our original intentions evolved as the students explored how they could use spoken word as a tool for building self-confidence and imagination. A pivotal moment in this evolution was the students’ visit to the Skirball for a powerful performance of the play Riot/Rebellion, presented by the Watts Village Theater Company. Through a theatrical interpretation of first-person interviews with residents and community members, Riot/Rebellion introduced students to the history of the 1965 Watts uprising. The residency class felt a deep connection to the themes of the play—especially having recently protested the US presidential election and inauguration. Moved by Riot/Rebellion and the discussion with the actors and creators following the show, the students decided to change the plan for the residency. Instead of each person creating his or her own poems, the students decided to work together to develop a play that incorporated elements of poetry and focused on the value of protest. With six weeks to go, students began their work on a script for their very first original play, Walkout!, and they transformed into writers, editors, actors—and leaders.
On March 22, 2017, I sat in the audience filled with excitement and emotion as CHAS students proudly presented their work-in-progress on stage at the Skirball. Over 200 of their peers from other LA-area high schools filled the seats. Like Riot/Rebellion, Walkout! incorporated first-hand stories of the students’ experiences. But this play was truly unique—the personal poems throughout the performance were a reflection of the trust and support this group of young people had built with one another. Their dedication to the project and personal connection to the material translated on stage into a beautiful community of people celebrating the opportunity to speak their truth and build a more just society. It was a true joy to be a part of such a strong and meaningful process!
Reposted from Anabel Roque Rodriguez’s blog. Anabel is a curator, writer, and historian who focuses on political art, the artist as activist, art as labor, feminism, photography and the art market. ArtMuseumTeaching is thrilled to share her thoughts about the issue of museums and neutrality.
Written by Anabel Roque Rodriguez
The online dictionary Merriam-Webster defines neutrality as “the quality or state of not supporting either side in an argument, fight, war, etc. : the quality or state of being neutral”. The question is whether institutions who deal with primary sources, historical and contemporary narratives and a culture that decides which discourses get public attention should engage in neutrality? My opinion is that Museums are not neutral.
We live in a time where people mourn their dead, fear crawls into daily life and one headline leads to another. A certain narrative seems predominant these days trying to make us believe that we are divided by more than we have in common – depriving us of our humanity. There is no question whether museums can be part of these dialogues. They can, in fact, they have to and their museum policy resembles the questions of our time. The core of every institution is its people: the arts professionals employed there, artists and their own narrations their bringing, and, of course, the public. How could we not embrace the dialogue when people come together? And aren’t museums exactly a space for encounter, for getting acquainted with familiar problems that we engage with, or with unfamiliar things that spark our curiosity and of course with narrations we find problematic, and where silence is no longer an option.
I find myself often in passionate conversations about, whether museums are (still) relevant and/ or that museums should be neutral. Let me state loud and clear, that museums have never been neutral. An important part of a museum is to state facts. There shouldn’t be a confusion about whether museums need to speak up against any form of misinformation, lack to state the sources, fight any form of hate in its community, protect the values that embrace the integrity of minorities and discuss which narratives need to be enforced.
And still, I do find myself in arguments that if museums use public money they should not have any political opinion; that museums are temples of knowledge and need to keep their neutrality as they are above the everyday; that art in general cannot change anything…; What these people don’t acknowledge is the fact that museums have evolved from a temple of muses and knowledge that preserved the purity of the genius of a few (usually straight white men) to huge and central figures in the cultural and economic life of a city. There is no doubt that museums enrich the cultural economy of cities and become leading tourist attractions. As soon as there is money involved interests come into conflict (Sponsorship does matter!).
The range of visibility of big museums and museum brands like the Guggenheim, Tate or Louvre is different than the one of more regional or local museums. Nevertheless, museums cannot act outside the circumstances of the time they are in. If we want them to freely act as pillars of our cultural dialogues we need to carefully talk about their sensitivity to political decisions, censorship and the financial economy.
I sometimes do get the impression that the people who argue so passionately that museums need to keep their neutral role are afraid to endanger the purity of the art temple and that art might suddenly be complicated and relevant, and actually be open to engage with the whole public and not just with a few who are able to decipher the art code. And there is indeed the danger that if museums do take a stand, they might get instrumentalized by politics, be more sensitive to suffer financial cut backs and they risk not being “liked” by everybody anymore (has there ever been an illusion that we are?). A clear language might not be common in a world in which we talk in PR statements and a so called thought leader constructed a concept that we actually refer to as “alternative facts”. But if museums, who deal with history and the contemporary, choose neutrality they choose silence and as history has shown us in many examples: Silence means complicity with the demons of their times.
IF WE WANT TO ENGAGE CRITICALLY WITH HISTORY AND WITH OUR PRESENT TIMES WE NEED TO ENGAGE WITH THESE QUESTIONS:
If our definition on the neutrality of museums is based on (hetero)normative standards, shouldn’t museums engage with what and who states the “norm”?
There should be no doubt that commemorative culture is highly political. Which narrative gets valued in our historical thinking? Who gets publicly commemorated and space or monuments to enforce the narrative?
How can museums engage with their communities without turning into dispassionate agents?
How can museums take a stand and still try to be sensitive to the future discussions without limiting themselves to the possible outcome? Museums can’t dictate what people are going to think or how they’re going to respond and react.
How much freedom of expression are institutions willing to give to all of their employees?
How can a code of ethics concerning the limits of museums neutrality look like? An ICOM Code of Ethics for Museums does exist but it does not contain concrete parts on museum neutrality and resulting conflicts. Keywords such as diversity, equality and community engagement are never free of political implications.
What you’ve just read is my opinion and I hope that more people will join this conversation. I’d love to hear from you. Have a look at the hashtag #MuseumsAreNotNeutral and make yourself heard.
This post is part of a series focused on the myth of museum neutrality. My friend and colleague, LaTanya Autry, and I decided to collaborate to create a t-shirt along with a campaign to spark conversations about the role of museums, while raising funds to support the work of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
We hope you can order a t-shirt, wear it proudly, and talk about the potential of museums to do good work, advocate for human rights, and take a stand against hate. Museums can be agents of positive social change in our communities, and it’s up to us to make this happen together.
The profits from each t-shirt purchased go directly to support the critical work of the Southern Poverty Law Center in combating hate, injustice, and discrimination through education, legal services, advocacy, and anti-bias resources. You can also donate directly to the Southern Poverty Law Center through this link to their Donate page.
Museums have the potential to be relevant, socially-engaged spaces in our communities, acting as agents of positive change. Yet, too often, they strive to remain “above” the political and social issues that affect our lives — embracing a myth of neutrality.
Well, MUSEUMS ARE NOT NEUTRAL, plain and simple. Let’s come together and spread this message.
My friend and colleague, LaTanya Autry, and I decided to collaborate to create this t-shirt along with a campaign to spark conversations about the role of museums. For the first run of this campaign, more than 500 people purchased t-shirts and we worked together to raise $5,669.79 total for the Southern Poverty Law Center! So amazing! We just recently launched our second version of this campaign (including some new colors), and we’re donating 100% of the profits to support World Central Kitchen, an initiative using the power of food to empower communities and strengthen economies. 100% of the profits from this campaign will go to support World Central Kitchen’s efforts in Puerto Rico. World Central Kitchen has demonstrated its in-depth commitment to Puerto Rico, its people, economy, health and future.
We hope you can order a t-shirt, wear it proudly, share your pics with our hashtag #MuseumsAreNotNeutral, and talk about the potential of museums to do good work, advocate for human rights, and take a stand against hate. Museums can be agents of positive social change in our communities, and it’s up to us to make this happen together.
Here is a list of blog posts and articles that discuss the issues of museum neutrality (last updated January 2018). Stay tuned for more, and be sure to follow the hashtag #MuseumsAreNotNeutral on social media to get connected to the community.
The first time I experienced a Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center (APAC) Culture Lab, a pop-up museum experience, it was as a visitor repeating the word “finally.” Crosslines: A Culture Lab on Intersectionality took over the Smithsonian’s Arts & Industries Building during Memorial Day weekend in 2016, and was APAC’s first Culture Lab. It was a truly immersive experience with emotional weight—over 40 artists from all over the country created original works of art and interactive spaces where visitors of all ages and backgrounds entered to learn about, challenge, and be challenged by the Lab’s theme of intersectionality. The atmosphere was festive with a constant murmur of excitement as deep conversation filled the air of an historic building erected as the first United States National Museum. Since Crosslines, APAC has co-created Culture Labs in New York City (CTRL+ALT: A Culture Lab on Imagined Futures) and most recently in Honolulu (‘Ae Kai: A Culture Lab on Convergence). Culture Labs are built with communities, a co-created and collaborative experiment that has since impacted the way we think about and approach the idea of what a museum should be.
I am grateful to be a part of APAC as their Education Specialist. Since joining the team earlier this year, I find the one question I get asked by my fellow museum educators is, “What does museum education look like at a Culture Lab?” My answers can be found in APAC’s Culture Lab Manifesto, which was published this July in an all-Asian American issue of Poetry Magazine (see full text below, along with links to Culture Lab’s Manifesto page).
As a museum educator, I think back to my impressions of Crosslines, and how surprising it was to walk into a museum space feeling like I belong, like my voice would be heard and that I would experience genuine empathy. How often can you walk up to an artist at a museum and jump right into conversations about intersectionality, what our futures may hold, and how our stories may converge into paths of better understanding? What I love most about being a museum educator is what is learned and shared from visitors of all ages and backgrounds. Creative dreaming and building with communities is something we don’t often allow ourselves the time and space to do in our professional realm. This manifesto was created out of a team effort steeped in reflection and proactive energies—it was time to share our vision and belief in how museums could be re-built with communities.
As an education program builds at APAC and future Culture Labs, I welcome conversation, idea sharing, and creative dreaming. I hope you will take a look at our manifesto and reach out if you would like to discuss re-building museum spaces with communities.
Culture Lab Manifesto
BY SMITHSONIAN ASIAN PACIFIC AMERICAN CENTER
We at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center believe the soul of a museum lies not in its brick-and-mortar walls but in what happens inside those walls — the experiential friction between guests and hosts, history and future. We believe that curation can be a form of community organizing; that art can be collaborative, participatory, and socially responsible; that those who have historically been pushed to the margins hold the stories that will center our future.
With these beliefs, we introduce the Culture Lab into the fold of museum practice. Culture Labs are fleeting, site-specific happenings that recognize art and culture as vehicles that can bring artists, scholars, curators, and the public together in creative and ambitious ways.
The images in this slideshow are from the first two Culture Labs: CrossLines: A Culture Lab on Intersectionality (May 2016, Washington, DC) and CTRL+ALT: A Culture Lab on Imagined Futures (November 2016, New York City). What you see are alternatives to traditional museum exhibitions — or perhaps their next evolution. What follows is a declaration of principles for you to consider as you envision the museum experiences of today and tomorrow.
We at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center believe that museums engaging communities should be built upon:
A CULTURE OF MEMORY. Every place embodies genealogies we must honor. Amplifying hidden histories builds empathy. Intervening in public space enriches our collective memory.
A CULTURE OF REPRESENTATION. Prioritize local artists, participants, and organizers. Nothing about communities without those communities.
A CULTURE OF AMBITION & EVOLUTION. Scale up. Open yourself to growth through conversation. Push both your ideas and practices.
A CULTURE OF IMAGINATION. Place value on daydreaming. Not everything is a logistic. Find the amazing in the margins.
A CULTURE OF PRESENCE. Live-time interaction — nothing replaces human contact. Make all spaces maker spaces.
A CULTURE OF EQUITY. Pay artists. Pay artists fairly. Dismantle hierarchies. Everyone shares in the work.
A CULTURE OF COMMUNITY. Create lasting collectives. Come to museums to be challenged, to change, to fall in love.
A CULTURE OF INTERSECTIONALITY. Step outside the silos that constrain our narratives. Allow yourself to think, feel, and remember in the same complex ways that we live.
A CULTURE OF RELEVANCE. Choose to engage in what matters right now.
A CULTURE OF BELONGING. Forge brave space. Extend welcome and safety to all peoples and communities. Make room for the marginalized, especially by questioning what marginalizes them.
A CULTURE OF BEAUTY. Who gets to decide what counts as beautiful? Question aesthetic classifications and priorities.
A CULTURE OF INSPIRATION. Open the process. Dream together. Make together.
A CULTURE OF FUN. Play is innovation. Play is care. Play is life.
A CULTURE OF ACTION. Stay woke. We have a social contract with one another to protect the vulnerable and ensure human rights for everyone.
—Adriel Luis, Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis, Nafisa Isa, Kālewa Correa, Jeanny Kim, Hana Maruyama, Clara Kim, Nathan Kawanishi, Emmanuel Mones, Desun Oka, Carlo Tuason, Lisa Sasaki, Andrea Kim Neighbors, Deloris Perry, and Emily Alvey.
“By looking at the art we can talk about topics that people don’t usually like to talk about.” – Rumaisha Tasnim
“Each viewer sees the art. What you see in it is your truth, it doesn’t have to be my truth.” – Kelsey Trollinger
Recent high school graduates Rumaisha and Kelsey spent much of the past two years at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. As original members of the Nasher Teen Council (NTC), they led public programs, installed exhibitions, met artists, and created their own art. Their quotes are from artist talks they gave this month at an exhibition of work by the teens at a downtown gallery. Paintings and collages from the exhibition Nina Chanel Abney: Royal Flush inspired much of their work.
As they spoke about the power of art to encourage meaningful conversations and validate individual experiences, Rumaisha and Kelsey–along with the other council members–joined their voices with countless other leaders who recognize the critical role art plays in civic discourse and the growth of a community. During times of uncertainty, political upheaval, and protest, we have to seek out these voices, both past and present, which celebrate what we know to be true about the critical need for influential artists and art institutions.
John F. Kennedy, a powerful champion for the arts, stated, “I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilization than the full recognition of the place of the artist.” His message, from over fifty years ago, still offers inspiration and leadership on the political role of art in a democratic society.
In a 1963 speech from Amherst College given in honor of Robert Frost, Kennedy begins with praise for the role of universities and an important reminder that “with privilege goes responsibility.” He asks the listener, “What good is a private college or university unless it’s serving a great national purpose?” He insists that the benefits and pleasures of an academic institution are not merely for the graduates to achieve individual economic advantage. Instead, he argues, the cultural agreement is that graduates must use their advantages for the public interest.
After reminding universities of their cultural obligations, Kennedy praises Frost and his poetry. More broadly, he celebrates art as a democratic institution and applauds artists as foundational to America’s greatness. He states, “For art establishes the basic human truths which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment. The artist [. . .] becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state.” Rather than considering artists “who question power” a threat, he welcomes their critiques as “indispensable.”
Nina Chanel Abney critically examines the world through her body of work and requires the same of her viewers. Nina Chanel Abney: Royal Flush, her first solo museum exhibition, addresses politics, celebrity gossip, race, gender, power, and more. In it, Abney spotlights some of the most heated topics in American culture and boldly holds accountable those who misuse their power.
In The Boardroom, 2008, the nearly naked, sometimes bleeding bodies represent the financial leaders who valued profit over stability and led to economic collapse. Either depicted as clowns or wearing yellow gloves that allow them to keep their hands clean from their dirty work, Abney literally strips these men of the power and prestige often afforded to them by their business suits and corner offices.
Six years later, in a more abstracted and digital style, Abney turns her critical eye towards the issues of race, gun violence, and police brutality in the piece UNTITLED (FUCK T*E *OP), 2014. While her geometric “emojification” of this work differs greatly from the painterly style of The Boardroom and other earlier works, Abney still uses her platform to question societal power structures.
In his Amherst speech, JFK states, “the highest duty of [. . .] the artist is to remain true to himself and to let the chips fall where they may. In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation.” Abney echoes his voice in more contemporary language saying, “I like to just drop the bomb and start the conversation and then leave out the room.”
The gallery conversations that Abney starts with UNTITLED (FUCK T*E *OP) often include visitor descriptions of the scene as chaotic and confusing. As viewers examine the painting, patterns emerge. Visitors identify elements that remind them of pinball machines, streetlights, and the visual noise of cable news channels, the internet, and New York’s Times Square. Visitors consider her use of language. Viewers may read the simplified language, such as “POW” and “YO”, as references to digital culture and the abbreviated communications of texts and tweets. The discussion frequently shifts to Abney’s use of the “X” symbol in this piece and questions of who is a target, who is silenced, and who has a voice. Reading “FUCK T*E *OP” in the top left corner of this painting, conversations may include what language is, and is not, censored, both in her work and, more broadly, in society.
As a leading voice, Abney opens up the conversation to everybody by sharing her visual vocabulary without fully translating the meaning. Remaining intentionally ambiguous about her work, she encourages others to bring their life experiences to their viewing of the truths she depicts and create their own interpretations.
Abney’s examination of societal power structures and contemporary digital culture continues with the most recent painting in the exhibition, Catfish, 2017. Abney says of this piece, “I feel like I am combining everything here.” A monumental portrait of selfie culture, Catfish depicts provocatively positioned female figures who meet the viewer’s gaze directly and self-assuredly. Surrounding the women are dollar signs, many of Abney’s “X” symbols, and language that again reflects the brevity of the digital world. Whatever assumptions a visitor first makes about these women are questioned by the Catfish title. The term “catfish” suggests the bottom-feeding fish, as well as the practice of misrepresenting oneself online, often for financial gain. With this painting, Abney simultaneously incorporates the aesthetic of digital culture and questions how representations of self are used, or misused, within that culture.
At a time when many political and economic leaders ignore the responsibilities of privilege and dismiss the need for critical voices, artists and institutions can turn to the words of JFK for encouragement and guidance and to the contemporary artists, like Abney, doing the important work of examining societal structures. Emerging artists, like Rumaisha and Kelsey, are also adding their voices to the dialogue. They will continue the work of JFK and Abney, as well as shape the conversation in ways we cannot yet imagine.
To end his speech, JFK shares his hope for the arts saying, “I look forward to an America which will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all of our citizens.” Fortunately, in many places, that America has arrived. It is imperative that we continue to seek new voices – historic and contemporary, spoken and visual – to lead the continued march forward and together.
What voices – established or emerging – are leading you today?
Nina Chanel Abney: Royal Flush, is at the Nasher Museum through July 16, 2017. After that, it will travel to multiple locations. Go check it out!
Chicago Cultural Center: February 10 – May 6, 2018
The Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles: September 23, 2018 – January 20, 2019
Neuberger Museum of Art, SUNY, Purchase: April 7 – August 4, 2019
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About the Author
JESSICA RUHLE is Director of Education & Public Programs at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. Jessica has worked at the Nasher Museum since 2010. Previously, Jessica worked at the North Carolina Museum of History, the North Carolina Museum of Art, and Marbles Kids Museum. Before arriving in North Carolina, she worked at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Jessica has an MAT in Museum Education from The George Washington University, as well as a BA in Art History from Davidson College. Jessica’s postings on this site are her own and do not necessarily represent the Nasher Museum of Art’s positions, strategies, or opinions.
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Header Image: Ayubi Kokayi, NTC member, performs spoken word in front of The Boardroom, 2008, photo by J Caldwell.
This week, at the Portland Art Museum’s Members Night, I was asked to work with our Curator of Prints & Drawings and our Conservator to give a series of pecha kucha presentations telling the story about our museum collection coming to life. We all decided to dive into a recent exhibition on the work of Corita Kent entitled Spiritual Pop, which pulled from and enhanced the museum’s holdings of works by this inspiring artist and activist.
Kent, a nun widely known as Sister Corita, was a highly-influential artist, educator, theorist, and activist who gained international fame in the 1960s for her vibrant, revolutionary screenprints. She grew up in Los Angeles and, after high school, joined the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. She began screenprinting in the 1950s and by the 1960s had embraced L.A.’s chaotic cityscape as a source of inspiration, transforming the mundane into inspiring and often subversive messages of hope and social justice. One critic once wrote, “Her mission seems to be to surprise us into awakening to delight.”
Kent used the element of surprise to awaken her audience to issues of social justice, in particular, world hunger. The theme of food and nourishment run throughout much of her work, including her 1965 series “Power Up,” which appropriates the slogan of Richfield Oil gasoline in combination with smaller texts from a sermon on spiritual fulfillment by activist priest Dan Berrigan.
It was Kent’s “Power Up” that really stood out in this exhibition, and reached out to visitors and our community. And for my part of our pecha kucha presentation to Members, I chose to tell the simple yet inspirational story of “Power Up.”
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When we visit an art museum, deep down inside, we’re largely seeking out creativity, beauty, joy, energy, strength, connection, even love. When we stand in front of a work of art, perhaps we’re even looking to connect with something bigger than ourselves. Corita Kent brought all of that to the museum and our community in powerful ways. Having her work on view here at the museum and seeing its deep transformative effect, I am drawn to reflect on how the power of art does spread out to a community and beyond the walls of a museum.
During the Spiritual Pop exhibition, we had dozens of programs and projects that allowed visitors to connect with her printmaking and activism—from conversations in the gallery, guest lecturers, a POWER UP evening for LGBTQ teens, and regular printmaking workshops and demos. At our Miller Family Free Day program, we invited families and children to make a print that reflected something they love about Portland or their hopes for this city. These prints were compiled into an artist-made book, and a small team of us from the museum hand-delivered it to our newest mayor, Ted Wheeler, just weeks after his inauguration. That book immediately brought him joy, and it still sits in his office as a symbol of the creativity and love of this city.
Corita Kent’s print series “Power Up” itself has been a catalyst for community connections and outreach, providing an uplifting message of social justice for so many across Portland. During the confusing, challenging, and unstable times we have found ourselves in these past several months, this single artwork became (and continues to be) a source of energy, joy, and resiliency for many.
Also during the Corita Kent exhibition, we hosted a series here at the museum called Portland Prints, featuring this city’s energetic, thriving, and innovative printmaking scene. In partnership with the amazing Independent Publishing Resource Center (IPRC), the museum hosted a series of mini-residencies in which artists made new prints inspired by Corita Kent and Andy Warhol, and visitors could get directly engaged with printmaking. Illustrator and educator extraordinaire Kate Bingaman-Burt was one of those artists. She was immediately inspired by Corita Kent’s “Power Up,” and invited designers from around the world to submit their own “power up” drawings and illustrations.
And in they came. Power up! POWER UP! Power UP! power up! As our country neared the end of a contentious and emotional campaign season and then into the election itself, there was a tremendous thirst for “power up.”
Kate brought all these messages together into a single poster print, and here at the museum on the Friday and Saturday following the Election, she printed them.
And then printed more. And then some more. Over a day and a half, she had printed and distributed over 800 Power Up posters. These prints that now hang on office walls, cubicles, school classrooms, and people’s homes across the city (including mine). The ripple effect of Corita Kent’s activist message of love and humanity exists now in the daily lives of so many individuals.
Thanks to Kate, the Power Up message spread further through zine workshops, design events, and even awesome t-shirt designs by Michael Buchino. Just this month, our Education team decided to purchase these Power Up t-shirts as an expression of camaraderie and yet another way of keeping this uplifting energy alive.
Back in January, Kate brought her Power Up poster design to the Women’s March in Washington, DC, nearly 3000 miles away from this museum. The uplifting message of Corita Kent that had inspired our community here was now part of an even larger experience. Hundreds more of these prints were made and distributed there. The reverberations of “Power Up” were felt in our nation’s capital and as part of the millions of people who marched that day in solidarity, including over 100,000 here in Portland. Corita Kent, bless her soul, is undoubtedly looking down upon all of this with a strong sense of joy—seeing her civil rights message from 1965 resonating so strongly and proudly in 2017.
An incredible story sparked from one simple print that hung on the wall in the lower level of an art museum in Portland, Oregon.
Are you a passionately-creative thinker who wants to make a positive change in your community? Are you frustrated with the slow pace of change at your museum, non-profit organization, community group, or school? Are you tired of conferences filled with static presentations and “show and tell” sessions that don’t seem to connect with your goals and vision for change? Do you dream big about taking action, making new things possible, and thinking outside the box? Do you thrive in a diverse environment filled with others who share your passion, energy, and vision? Then you need to be seriously thinking about applying for this year’s MuseumCamp at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (MAH).
MuseumCamp is an annual professional development event hosted by MAH and the inspiring Nina Simon. Each year, the camp brings together diverse, passionate people for a sleep-away experience for adults who learn together through active, creative workshops and activities. The 2017 MuseumCamp theme is CHANGEMAKERS, and I am so proud to be working with this summer’s group as a Counselor along with the phenomenal Ebony McKinney, Founding Director of Emerging Arts Professionals/SFBA — a network focused on empowerment, leadership, and growth of next generation arts and culture workers in the San Francisco Bay Area.
In beautiful Santa Cruz, we will spend 2.5 days together exploring the ways we make change in our work, our communities, and the world. We will focus specifically on how we can use creative projects as catalysts for community action and change. Whether you are dreaming about change, making it happen, or have battle scars to share, we want you here this year.
This year’s MuseumCamp will be challenging — but not in a frenetic, obstacle course way. It will challenge us to confront our fears about change, empower others, and create the future we seek.
Learn more about the details of this year’s MuseumCamp here, and Apply Now — the deadline for applications is March 15th, so you need to get online now and make it happen.
I look forward to seeing many of you there this summer!!!!
Dive into co-creative project design. A month before MuseumCamp, the MAH is opening a new exhibition, Lost Childhoods, co-developed with foster youth, youth advocates, and artists in our community. You’ll tour the exhibition with the team, discuss its impact, and explore the process behind it. This project is experimental, complicated work. Foster youth are central to every decision and direction. Artists are striving to follow their direction to beautiful ends. Dozens of youth advocates and partners co-own the process and are bringing their own dreams, talents, and connections to the work. At MuseumCamp, we’ll pull back the curtain on Lost Childhoods’ process and product. We’ll brainstorm how to partner with your community on projects that ignite social action.
Meet amazing colleagues and counselors. MuseumCamp attracts creative changemakers of all stripes and backgrounds. Last year Camp welcomed academics, museum folk, librarians, poets, artists, bike advocates, engineers, and one American Ninja Warrior. This year’s applicants include social scientists, activists, entrepreneurs, educators, and artists. We’ve got two incredible outside counselors–Ebony McKinney and Mike Murawski–and more partners coming onboard. You want to meet these people. You want to learn with them. MuseumCamp will help you build a diverse network of inspiring compatriots for your own personal journey to creative change.
Build – and share – a creative action plan for change. The central activity of MuseumCamp is a whole-camp project where we work in teams to make something. (Check out past projects here.) This year, we’re building a creative change toolkit. As a team, you will design it. After Camp, the MAH team will turn it into a beautiful product for you to keep. You’ll create it, use it, and share it with others around the world.
Find out what happens when a museum breaks out of its building. Later this spring, the MAH is opening a major expansion in Abbott Square, the plaza adjacent to the museum. Abbott Square will be a creative heart for the city, offering free events, workshops, performances, and playful programs in partnership with community groups. At MuseumCamp, you’ll be among the first to experience it. If you or your organization are considering doing more work in public space, this is a great opportunity to learn more firsthand.
Relax, recharge, and explore. Swim with sea lions. Ride a 100-year old wooden roller coaster. Sleep in a museum. All optional. All incredible. All at MuseumCamp.