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
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.
“Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.”
—Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Early in 2012, I came across a particularly inspiring TED talk by Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Her talk entitled “The Danger of a Single Story,” quoted above, warns that if we tell or hear only a single story about a people or culture, we risk a critical misunderstanding. Our lives and our cultures are composed of many overlapping stories, and all of those stories matter and deserve to have a voice. As I was listening to Adichie’s transformative words, I immediately thought about museums and the cultural power they have historically possessed to tell a single story—the single story. As museums continue to adapt to become more relevant in the 21st century, they have also been struggling with whose stories to tell, whose voices can participate in that telling, and how much power can or should be handed over to our communities to tell and share their own stories.
Since first listening to Chimamanda Adichie’s talk almost a year ago, I have experienced an exciting career and life transition as I moved from St. Louis to Portland, Oregon, to become the Director of Education & Public Programs at the Portland Art Museum. And these issues of power, voice, storytelling, and community engagement are central to one of the Museum’s most widely expanding educational projects, Object Stories. Launched almost 3 years ago, this project begins to address the need for museums to reject the single story, to create and share a multiplicity of stories around its collection, and to bring the meaning-making process of storytelling into the galleries. This post provides a much-needed spotlight on the Object Stories project, and I will definitely follow-up with future posts that reflect on the further challenges and successes of this exciting work.
The Portland Art Museum’s Object Stories project was recently featured by EmcArts and ArtsFwd in their ‘Business Unusual’ Contest, and I’m very proud to say that we won the contest with a broad base of support from across our community (the Mayor of Portland even gave us a shout out, along with dozens of other cultural organizations across Oregon). Originally posted on ArtsFwd.org, the text below was created through a full team effort from the Education Department, including Stephanie Parrish, Amy Gray, Danae Hutson, Jess Park, Betsy Konop, and especially my amazing predecessor Tina Olsen, who passionately led this project from its inception to where it stands today. As a team, we are pushing this project to new areas and breaking down boundaries inside the museum as well as both locally and globally.
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In light of the challenges of the 21st century, institutions across the globe are reassessing their strategies to be more relevant in the lives of their communities. Framed by this larger discussion, the Portland Art Museum began to rethink how we relate to our audience. We questioned the role of the public as mere consumers of information and strove to diversify the populations that we serve. In doing so, we uncovered that both the Museum and the public needed a catalyst for active participation, personal reflection, and meaningful ways to rediscover works of art in the collection. It was out of this larger, ongoing thinking that the Object Stories initiative was born.
Launched in March 2010, Object Stories invites visitors to record their own narratives about personal objects—whether a piece of clothing, a cherished record album, or a family heirloom. By capturing, honoring, and sharing participants’ stories, this project aims to demystify the Museum, making it more accessible, welcoming, and meaningful to a greater diversity of communities – while continuing to highlight the inherent relationship between people and things. Nearly one thousand people from throughout Portland—most of who had never before set foot in the Museum—have participated as storytellers in this project.
How Object Stories works
Current visitors to the Object Stories gallery encounter a recording booth, where they can leave their own story, as well as a central table with two touchscreens that enable them to browse, search, and listen to hundreds of collected stories about personal objects and works from the collection. On the surrounding walls, guests find a rotating selection of museum objects that have been the subject of recent stories in concert with portraits of community members posing with their personal objects.
The Museum has also produced a series of Object Stories that brings out personal perspectives on selected objects in the permanent collection, with recordings of the voices of museum staff, local artists, and cultural partners. This stage of the project has added a personal dimension to visitors’ experiences and their interpretation around works of art in the collection.
Change in organizational approach, a new culture of dialogue
This overarching shift in the Museum’s relationship with our audience is the culmination of a series of other changes away from “business-as-usual.” The internal process of developing and implementing Object Stories has encouraged the dissolution of long-established departmental silos, the growth of new partnerships with community organizations, and the confidence to experiment with a formative approach to programming that incorporates audience feedback.
Before the launch of Object Stories, the education departments of the Museum and Northwest Film Center partnered with Milagro Theatre and Write Around Portland to develop community-generated prototypes that led to the existing recording process and prompts. This prototyping phase brought in staff from across the Museum—as well as local design firms—to challenge our assumptions of who could and should hold authority in these decisions about content and interpretation within the museum. While more work has to be done to build upon this internal culture of dialogue and collaboration, this project has successfully led to a shared understanding of the value of representing community voices and displaying public-generated content on gallery walls.
A new platform for community collaboration
Since 2010, the Object Stories concept has essentially evolved into a comprehensive educational platform for engaging audiences and forging community collaborations. The Museum has since extended Object Stories into a multi-year partnership with area middle schools that involves in-depth teacher professional development, artist residencies, and multiple visits to the Portland Art Museum that culminates in students’ own personal “object stories.” Further success has brought the Museum into a new international partnership with the Museo Nacional de San Carlos in Mexico City, and a more locally-focused proposed Object Stories project with the Native American Youth and Family Center in Portland. These outreach efforts will also bring the storytelling process outside of the Museum through a new mobile iPad application currently in development.
Big impact with room for growth
The biggest shift and impact caused by Object Stories is the changing viewpoint of diverse audiences, who now see the Portland Art Museum as a place that invites the voices and stories of its community and welcomes the public in this act of co-creating content. As the Museum continues to integrate the Object Stories initiative into its growing educational programming and interpretive planning, we will no doubt discover new challenges, as well as exciting opportunities.
We’re super excited about where this project has been and where it is going, but I wanted to end with some open questions to invite your thoughts:
In what ways does storytelling and personal meaning-making enter the fabric of your institution?
What are some challenges to having these types of projects enter the ‘mainstream’ of museum planning around visitor experience and interpretation?
How can museums do a better job to design and support opportunities like this for visitor and community voices to enter the galleries?
And, finally, a big question that is very much on our minds: what is the next step for projects like this?
Please post your thoughts and questions below, and add to the ongoing conversation. You can also learn more about the thinking behind Object Stories by reading Nina Simon’s interview with Tina Olsen at Museum 2.0.