Editor’s Note: I was recently interviews by Alexia Jacques Casanova in advance of this October’s Communicating the Arts (CTA) conference in Montreal, Canada. Hosted by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, this year’s conference brings leaders in museums, education, and the arts together to discuss key issues around well-being, empathy, and community involvement. I am grateful for the opportunity to be a part of these conversations at CTA this fall.
The interview below was first published via LinkedIn on August 12, 2019.
Written by Alexia Jacques Casanova
In the past few years, we have seen a few museums initiating a shift from operating and presenting themselves as collection-centered institutions to human-centered organizations. This transition is a daunting task that requires developing and implementing new strategies and work practices at all levels of the institution. I had the opportunity to ask Mike Murawski — Director of Learning and Community Partnerships at the Portland Art Museum— a few questions about how art institutions can move towards more community-centered practices. Here are a few thoughts he shared with me.
Using words wisely
A little less than a year ago, Mike Murawski’s department at the Portland Art Museum changed its name from “Department of Education and Public Programs” to “Learning and Community Partnerships” with the aim to “more accurately reflect [their] core goals and values.” Through this intentional switch in vocabulary from “Education” to “Learning” the Portland Art Museum seeks to cultivate “a more open, inclusive, and active process that everyone and anyone can be involved in.”
For those of you who have attended Communicating the Arts conferences before, you probably know that the use of the word “community” has been a hot topic among attendees in the past few years. What do we mean, among arts professionals, when we say “community”? Is it just another word for “minorities” or “locals”?
At the Portland Art Museum, teams strive to be intentional about the words they choose. As part of that process, they have explored and questioned the different ways in which they use the term “community”. “When we are thinking about community, we’re prioritizing individuals and groups who have largely been excluded from participating in and shaping our institution over the last 125 years,” explains Murawski.
He and his team are also dedicated to breaking the barriers between “museum” and “community”, challenging the (false) idea that “a museum’s ‘community’ exists outside the walls of the institution.” Murawski argues that the us/them separation is an outdated mindset that art institutions need to overcome if they wish to focus on community-centered work.
Becoming better listeners
“When we try to be a better listener on an individual level,” says Murawski “it’s important to learn how to pause our own internal voice.” Murawski rightly points out that lending an attentive ear to others requires letting go of our assumptions, our fears, “and the stories we’re telling ourselves.”
According to him, the same is true for museums and institutions. He argues that too often, museum professionals don’t listen to communities “because they have told themselves the false story that community knowledge is not valuable” and that letting communities participate in the creation or curation of content in museums could somehow lessen its overall quality. “We have to erase that false story,” says Murawski. Echoing Dr Margi Ash Brown’s suggestion that arts professional should stop considering themselves as “experts” but rather, as “facilitator” or “collaborator”, Murawski believes that cultivating empathy and deep listening with our communities is an opportunity to change our institutions in radical and positive ways.
Taking a stand and speaking up
A couple years ago, Mike Murawski and La Tanya Autry were exchanging on Twitter about their shared frustrations regarding the false claims of neutrality within museums institutions. “We had joked that it would make a great t-shirt, and then we decided to go ahead and make it happen.” The “Museums Are Not Neutral” tee-shirt campaign was born. Murawski cites the work of many other fellow museum workers as inspiration for this movement, particularly those dedicated to dismantling racism and oppression in cultural institutions. He cites the #MuseumsRespondToFerguson movement, led by Adrianne Russell and Aleia Brown following the murder of Michael Brown by police in 2014 as “a pivotal call to action for museums [which] sparked a necessary debate about the role of museums in activism and social justice.”
The tee-shirt sales have allowed Murawski and Autry to raise over $15,000 for social justice charities and non-profits organizations including the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Community Foundation of Greater Flint. “Museums can be powerful agents of social change in our communities, and it’s up to us to make this happen together,” says Murawski.
Mike Murawski will be speaking about “the power of listening and building community-centered practices at the museum” during the upcoming Communicating the Arts conference, October 8-10 in Montreal.
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.
Earlier this month, I had the honor of leading a gallery teaching demonstration at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for a group of colleagues during the NAEA Pre-Conference for Museum Education. I had answered a call from the Museum Education Division looking for educators to showcase best practices that can be applied to using gallery teaching towards racial equity.
At MASS MoCA, we have been grappling with these questions in our current exhibition, Nick Cave: Until. An immersive, football-field-sized installation, Until was a departure in scale for Cave, who is well known for his human-sized Soundsuits. In aesthetic and in mission, however, Until is very Nick Cave: tchotchkes, sparkles, and wonder are expertly woven together in service of an urgent social mission around violence and racism.
Until is Cave’s response to the highly fraught instances of police violence towards communities of color. The title of the exhibition is a play on the phrase “innocent until proven guilty,” or, Cave suggests, “guilty until proven innocent,” drawing attention to the different ways the criminal justice system has different standards for different communities. As visitors progress throughout the installation, they are lead through an experience of awe to one of discomfort and vulnerability as the layers around violence and racism reveal themselves.
No easy task for an Education Department. But we knew that Until would provide an unparalleled opportunity to engage new and existing audiences with these questions in ways that could provoke thought, dialogue, and ultimately, action in support of racial justice.
In designing our tours of Until, we relied on our tried-and-true three-pronged pedagogical approach at MASS MoCA: guided conversations, art-making, and mindfulness. That last piece is what I brought to NAEA. In my teaching practice at MASS MoCA, I’ve seen how mindfulness practices heighten students’ observations, building metacognitive skills and increasing focus and awareness. In Until, a walking meditation through Cave’s field of spinners has helped students realize their physical, bodily responses to moving through the space — which has been critical in developing attention to the images of guns and bullets woven throughout the field of spinners as well as to the anxiety, dizziness, and even fear such a space provokes. This is counterintuitive to many visitors, whose first response is typically “oohs” and “ahhs”; that something so beautiful could be so discomfiting is part of Cave’s intention, and mindfulness helps visitors make that connection.
At the Met, however, there was no large field of spinners within which to lead a guided walking meditation. Instead, I led a discussion around John Steuart Curry’s 1939 painting, John Brown, inviting my colleagues to explore gut reactions to the figures in the painting: the (anti-)hero abolitionist, John Brown, and an unnamed slave, easy to overlook in the lower left hand side of the painting. After collecting one-word reactions to each of the figures, I led a visual analysis of the image, to encourage the group to explore what visual elements (scale, shading, expression) had contributed to their first reactions. I chose not to disclose who the figures were at the beginning, but introduced John Brown and the anonymous Black man halfway through, to see what impact the identifying information had on our collective analysis.
Finally, I led the group in a mindfulness exercise around “carrots and peas,” adapted from Mindfulness & Acceptance in Multicultural Competency: A Contextual Approach to Sociocultural Diversity in Theory & Practice (edited by Akihiko Masuda). Though intended for cognitive behavior therapists, the exercise has worked well in arts educative experiences I’ve led at MASS MoCA. As mindfulness practice goes, it’s more metacognitive than meditative, building consciousness of immediate assessments that often go unexamined or unacknowledged.
In essence, “carrots and peas” goes like this:
Tell the group that you will ask a simple question (e.g., “I’m going to the grocery store. What should I buy?”) and providing an answer (“Carrots and peas”).
Repeat the question with group providing the answer at least five times.
Then ask them to answer the question one more time with a different answer.
More often than not, participants struggle to provide an answer that was not “carrots and peas.” Sometimes visitors blurt out “carrots and—” before cutting themselves off; most often there is simply a pause as their brains struggle to rewrite the script. After only five repetitions, the pattern is in place; one participant remarked that she “forgot what else you could even buy in a grocery store.” Another example of this thought pattern is to fill in the blank: “You can’t judge a book by: ____.” How hard is it to not think “its cover”?
The goal in using this exercise is to help visitors explore the implications for real-world or arts-based situations in which our actions may be informed by unconscious stereotypes. With the group last week, we followed up this exercise with a great conversation around John Brown and the unnamed Black man in Curry’s painting. We explored how Curry draws our visual attention to Brown first, and how “carrots and peas” can help us to instead learn to look for the other figure who is quite literally marginalized on the canvas, extrapolating into real-world scenarios regarding representation and power.
While no brief museum experience can upend years of cultural socialization, “carrots and peas” can lay a foundation for building a better awareness of one’s implicit biases. Through this call-and-response exercise, participants are shown how easily our minds build simplified patterns of thought — whether innocuous, as in carrots and peas, or harmful, as in stereotypes of Blackness and criminality — and how an awareness of this tendency can lead to a disruption of behavior that is based on unquestioned habits. By acknowledging these habits of thought, participants can identify whether or not these patterns align with their core values and can begin checking implicit biases to ensure they correct behavior that is detrimental to our humanity.
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About the Author
AMANDA TOBIN is the K-12 Education Manager at MASS MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts, where she has developed school engagement programs around social justice since 2014. She holds a B.A. in Art History and East Asian Studies from Oberlin College and an M.Ed. in Arts in Education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She is also an avid farm share member and crafter, needle felting small succulent plants after having no luck keeping real ones alive. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 Lillis, J. & Levin, M. (2014). Acceptance and mindfulness for undermining prejudice. In A. Masuda (Ed.), Mindfulness and acceptance in multicultural competency (181-196). Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc. p. 188.
A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of being invited to give the keynote address to begin Day 2 of the MuseumNext conference in New York City. My talk expanded on some of my thinking around the vital importance of empathy, change, and social action in museums, and focused on 5 actions we can take as museum professionals. I’m pasting the video, SlideShare, and extended notes from my talk below. I hope this sparks more conversations within and among museums about the role our institutions play in our communities and in relation to issues of social justice, equity, and inclusion. Please feel free to email me at email@example.com with any questions, and add Comments or questions below for a more public exchange around these ideas. I welcome all perspectives, ideas, and voices in this dialogue about museums. And special thanks to Jim Richardson and the team at MuseumNext for putting together a powerful conference in New York!
NOTE: These views are my own and don’t necessarily represent the Portland Art Museum’s positions, strategies, or opinions.
Keynote Address: “Urgency of Empathy and Social Action in Museums”
November 15, 2016, Tribeca Center for Performing Arts, New York, NY
[I began this address by playing an excerpt from Janelle Monae’s “Hell You Talmbout,” which I encourage you to listen to by playing the video below. And crank up the volume or pop on some headphones.]
This visceral performance was recorded by Janelle Monae and the Wondaland Arts Society collective. It is a striking protest piece that responds to instances of police violence against minorities in this country, and honors the lives of those lost in a way that boldly confronts indifference.
Janelle Monae said, “Silence is our enemy, and sound is our weapon.” In an interview about her recording “Hell You Talmbout,” she said something that really struck me and made me want to bring this in to begin our day here at MuseumNext: “It’s important that we see each other as human beings. We need to take care of each other.” Her piece stands as a form of art that can connect us all as humans through empathy as well as action.
I want to spend some time talking this morning about the urgency of empathy, social impact, and social action in museums today, focusing on 5 actions—that’s right, I said actions … not ideas, concepts, or principles. 5 actions that we can all get involved in to help museums reach their full potential as meaningful, relevant, human-centered institutions in our communities.
But before I begin, I would like to recognize and honor the indigenous peoples on whose ancestral lands this theatre now stands here in Manhattan, on which our museums stand, and on which we live and work every day.
ACTION 1: Be More Local
It’s so important for museums to be a ‘local’ place intertwined and inseparable from the local realities and issues. We are located in our communities, but we’re also a part of those communities. This idea of community is important to address – we use that word a lot and don’t often think about it. What is community, and what is audience? What do we mean by these words? For me, so much of this idea of “community” is grounded in geography. How do we define our place, our town, our city, our neighborhood; and how do we learn about the people in this place, what connects us, and what brings us together into a community
So what can we do to help museums be more local?
First, I think there is a false binary and divide we have created between ‘museum’ and ‘community’ that is troubling. It’s so ingrained in the way so many of us talk about our work, myself included. We might be feeding this gap, this divide, by simply not addressing it. What if “the museum” included the people in our local community (including our staff and volunteers)? What if, instead of just museums seeing themselves as part of their communities, our communities actually saw themselves as part of our museums? We fight so hard for outreach, but sometimes we just need inreach—a way for us to open our ears and our hearts and let others get involved in new and different ways.
This may sound radical, but I believe it’s also a fact: our community knows more than we do. There is so much expertise and knowledge outside of our institutions that we tend to reject and ignore, but it’s greater than what we hold on to within our institutions. We have got to start breaking down those walls, listen more, and rethink the way we value some knowledge and stories over others. Identify and value the assets of our community — their stories, experiences, creative energies, and knowledges.
One powerful example of this local work is The Laundromat Project. The Laundromat Project brings socially engaged arts programming to laundromats and other everyday community spaces in order to reach as many of our neighbors as possible. The LP’s artists and staff work to amplify the creativity that already exists within communities by using arts and culture to build community networks, and enhance the sense of ownership in the places where we live, work, and grow. Their Kelly Street Initiative was launched in 2015 in the South Bronx, in partnership with Workforce Housing Group, Kelly Street Garden, and Banana Kelly Community Improvement Association, transforming a 2 bedroom-apartment into a thriving creative community hub. I’m looking forward to heading there with a group of conference participants for MuseumNext’s first ever Museum Social Action Project.
ACTION 2: Recognize and Support the Movement for Black Lives
I believe there is a need for us museums to publicly recognize and engage the brave and transformative work of the Movement for Black Lives. The Movement has forged a new national conversation about the legacy of racism, state violence, and state neglect of communities of color in the United States—a conversation grounded in those communities’ own experiences. As stated in their Vision for Black Lives policy statement, the Movement’s vision is to:
“move towards a world in which the full humanity and dignity of all people is recognized.”
I know this is something museums can stand behind unapologetically. We need to engage with and learn from the Movement, help support and expand this community of social justice activists without dictating or distorting the work underway. Supporting this work is not putting museums and its employees in a bubble, but rather it powerfully unifies us in support of basic human rights that have been wrongly politicized since the first colonists stepped ashore some 500 years ago.
Some examples of brave, courageous museums that are putting themselves out there to support this work are:
Science Museum of Minnesota: Back in July 2016, they posted a sign at entrance to RACE: Are We So Different? exhibition after tragic killing of Philando Castille in July, joining their community in mourning. Unfortunately that sign was eventually removed, but I want to acknowledge that courage of those people who sat in a room to make the decision to put that sign up so we can have this conversations about whether museums can do this or not.
New Museum in New York: Black Women Artists for Black Lives Matter, which began back in July 2016 when a group of more than 100 black women artists began meeting at New Museum. The group took over the Museum for an event in September that included performances, workshops, videos, and a procession. Reflecting on that September event, artist Ariel Jackson recalls: “some of us wanted a space to laugh and celebrate our blackness in the face of trauma. Others wanted a space to scream, cry, and holler. We ultimately agreed that we wanted to express our humanity — both joy and grief”
Smithsonian National Museum for African American History and Culture: Among many other ways that this new Smithsonian Museum is collecting, exhibiting, and recognizing the Movement for Black Lives in historic ways, I wanted to draw attention to their acquisition of the Mirror Casket Project into their collection. The Mirror Casket is a sculpture, performance, and call to action for justice in the aftermath of the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO. Created by a team of seven community artists and organizers, the mirrored casket responds to a Ferguson resident’s call for “a work of art that evokes more empathy into this circumstance,” with an aim to evoke reflection. This work will be included in future exhibitions at the NMAAHC.
Portland Art Museum: At the Portland Art Museum, we have recently been partnering with members of Don’t Shoot Portland, one of the main Black Lives Matter groups working for change across the Portland community. On August 9, 2016, the anniversary of Michael Brown’s killing, we were the site for a gathering and community social justice art project organized by Don’t Shoot Portland that involved music and dance performances, speakers, and free admission to the Museum and exhibitions. This was planned, in part, as a result of conversations with our community in conjunction with the opening of two exhibitions which focused on issues of racial violence, police brutality, and social justice activism. Many of us at the Portland Art Museum wanted to be listening to our community and engaged with our community, so we reached out and had these powerful things happening at the museum. It was a space of creation, a space of community and coming together.
I can’t mention these events without mentioning Teressa Raiford, who is one of the most powerful activists in Portland and probably in many of our communities, who’s putting a lot of this together and who has for the past six days been on the streets in Portland with peaceful protestors standing up for basic human rights. Teressa continues to be an inspiring, driving force behind the ways that the Portland Art Museum is beginning to listen to its community and engage in a new dialogue around race and social justice.
Following up the event in the Portland Art Museum on August 9th, we had a panel discussion entitled “Race in America After Ferguson” where Reverend Tracy Blackman from Florissant, Missouri (one of the pastors that’s been involved in the Ferguson Commission with President Obama and also the Federal Government’s faith-based initiatives work) came and spoke with artist Arvie Smith, Teressa Raiford, and Mykia Hernandez, a young activist in Portland. With two or three days’ notice we had an incredible crowd from the community come, including docents and staff from the museum who came out to this conversation. It was really important, internally and externally, for the museum to be having these conversations and be seen as a space for these conversations.
“now is the time to stand by and amplify movements rooted in love, compassion, and dignity for all people.”
ACTION 3: Flip the Script
What does it look like to “flip the script” in museums, to work toward de-centering the traditional power structures of our institution? How can we actually shift away from the old, traditional narratives that got us where we are today, right now, right here? How can our work as museum professionals shift power?
Letting go of these traditional historic notions of museum authority and power relationships is essential but it’s also very challenging, and I’m going to break the rules of conferences and do something that you’re not supposed to do. I’m going to read a text panel from a museum exhibition, and this is not a text panel that is a typical voice of authority, it is not what I call the ‘voice of god’ text panel for a museum. This text panel was the intro panel to our new Center for Contemporary Native Art during our second exhibition in that space, written by indigenous artists Demian DinéYazhi’ and Kali Spitzer and unedited or unimpeded by curatorial voice or museum voice. I think it says something powerful. So, when visitors waked into the gallery during Demian and Kali’s exhibition, they were immediately confronted by this wall text panel:
“By entering this space you have an ethical responsibility to acknowledge that all Indigenous thought, creativity, fantasy, activism, & existence is grounded in continual acts of Survivance. You have agreed to forfeit your misconceptions of Indigenous identity & respect the sacredness of Indigenous traditional practices. You are not stepping into the past or staring into a picture plane void of Indigenous inhabitants. You are not glorifying Western historical inaccuracies or romanticizing the cowboys & Indians narrative. By entering this space you agree to never again place your hand over your mouth in a mock “war cry” or teach your children to be ignorant of the Indigenous peoples whose land you have claimed as your own. From this moment onward you promise to learn the history of the Indigenous ancestral lands that were stolen/continue to be stolen through colonization & genocide. By entering this space you have agreed to become a lifelong agent against humanitarian & environmental injustice.”
It is such a powerful statement. So, flipping the script can mean changing who gets to write these narratives. The Center for Contemporary Native Art at the Portland Art Museum is one of these spaces where we have experimented with decentering traditional museum authority.
The Center for Contemporary Native Art is a space that we have developed dedicated to displaying the work by contemporary indigenous artists at the museum. It’s supported by an IMLS grant currently and it really gets the museum to step out of the way and let Native people tell their stories. Through exhibitions in this Center, we’ve been really privileging native voice, native language, indigenous knowledge, and indigenous perspectives. It has been one of the most powerful things I’ve been able to work on in my work in museums and I have to give a shout out to Deana Dartt who was recently our curator of Native American Art at the Portland Art Museum and whose powerful vision made this possible.
Another example of ‘flipping the script’ is the long-running initiative at the Portland Art Museum called Object Stories, and these images are just some of the examples of the people whose voices have been brought to the center of our museum during this project: from people living with Alzheimer’s and their caregivers, to recent refugees to Portland, and we currently have on view in that gallery a project that highlights the voices of deaf artists and highlights their work in the gallery.
“Until marginalized communities are the storytellers of their experiences, history will be rendered partially complete, but wholly-privilege the knowledges and perspectives of the colonizers.”
These marginalised voices and stories, often rendered completely invisible, need to be brought to the center.
One final example – this is just something I thought was amazing project that I just read about this past week or so – at the Detroit Institute of Art, they’re working on an exhibit for summer 2017 to highlight and reflect on the 50-year anniversary of the summer of 1967 rebellion. It’s a year-long collaborative project to uncover home movies and perspectives from people living in Detroit in 1967, and the project aims to reflect on one of the most painful times in the history of Detroit and spur thoughts on how that region can continue moving forward. What an incredible way of bringing community voices and stories into such a significant museum project, and privileging those stories and knowledge in the museum.
ACTION 4: Have a Personal Vision for Change
Have a personal vision for change, and work to create a personal vision. I think this is something that’s important.
I hope you’ve had your coffee, because I’m going to have you do something for me before we wrap up here. Put your notebooks and devices down just for a second, take a deep breath, and clear your mind. Now I want you to try and think about: what matters most to you right now? Try to boil it down to a word or a phrase. Now, I want you to shout that out. [audience loudly shouts out words at the same time]
Thank you, and not only is that energy that we need to make change happen in museums, but it also illustrates this need for our own personal vision and purpose to help guide this work. What do you care about? What is your high dream? What is the change you’d like to see? Have a personal vision. Write it down. It doesn’t have to be some sort of perfectly crafted, wordsmithed mission statement. Think about what matters to you, write it down, add it to your desktop background, tape it to your wall, share it on social media, wear it on a tee-shirt. Connect with your core values on a daily basis. Stand behind these values. Share them. Don’t be ashamed of them. After all, if we don’t know where we’re going, how in the hell are we ever going to get there?
I’m most recently inspired by De Andrea Nichols, an activist, educator and artist in St Louis. She said in a commencement speech she gave earlier this year at Washington University in St. Louis: “Do what makes you come alive!” Nichols’s “Sticky Note to Self” project is also worth checking out through Tumblr and Instagram.. It is so inspiring to see her inspiration, to see the things that she’s thinking about, done so creatively. She just writes these sticky notes to herself, which is something I’ve been doing more and more. When you’ve got a moment of inspiration, write it down, stick it somewhere, keep it, reflect back on it on a daily basis so we can keep pushing ahead on this work.
Bring your passion with you to work. I think this is important that we stop the unnecessary separation between our work and ourselves and this type of passion. We need to create environments and museums where we, as museum workers, can be our whole selves, can bring our passion. One of the things that I’ve been motivated by in my own practice has been this inspiring quote from James Baldwin, which I added to my email signature as a daily, public reminder:
“not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
ACTION 5: Build Communities of Action and Change
I firmly believe museums are people-centred institutions (something I have written about in more detail). Museums are us. If we don’t bring in other people too, our work cannot grow. We need to identify change agents within our institutions. Invite people to meet with you over coffee. Think about the barriers to your work, and consider how those barriers are they people-based. What people are involved with those barriers? OK, now go have coffee with those people and listen. Listen to what those people are talking about in terms of why those barriers might exist. It is also important to positively recognise when others take steps in the right direction towards this work. We need to build supportive, positive, connected communities of change within and among our organizations.
And I think it’s time that, no matter where you are in your organizations (new employee or seasoned veteran); it’s time for us to stop thinking of ourselves as followers and thinking of ourselves as leaders within our institutions. You can grow a community of change in your organisation and it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been there. Remember, museum are made of us people, and our museums are only as empathetic, connected, and engaged as the people who work for them.
An important aspect of building these communities of action is also recognising the new collective platforms and movements that exist now online. If you are on social media, #MuseumWorkersSpeak and #MuseumsRespondToFerguson are hashtags that are bringing people together to talk about these issues. Also #MuseWomen, #a11y, and the blogs Incluseum, Brown Girls’ Museum blog, Visitors of Color Tumblr site, Queering the Museum Project, Museum of Impact, Museum Hue. And so many more projects that are bringing people together to create these communities of change and communities of action across the field of museums, arts, and culture.
The last slide I want to show is the team of education staff at the Portland Art Museum. We took this photo here last Wednesday morning, which I regretted scheduling that photo the morning after the election here, but we immediately gravitated to this empowering work “Power Up” by artist Corita Kent, who’s been feeding a lot of our souls in Portland with this exhibition on view of her work. I include this photo only to give recognition, honor, and support to this amazing group of educators and to the power that they bring to all of this work at the Portland Art Museum, to our vision for doing good, meaningful, more local work and in building communities of change across our institution. It is not ‘me’; it is a ‘we’ situation, and there is so much power in the people on this team and so many who are not even this photograph.
As we bring on more people to rise to this challenge with us, we can convert ‘aspiring to change’ into ‘real change’. The time has come to move beyond symbolically standing up for social justice. This may often mean breaking the rules but it never involves silence. We need to permanently put to rest the idea that a museum should be a neutral place and that its employees should be dispassionate.
Let me wrap up with something a bit more personal. One week ago this morning, I was proud to go turn in my ballot alongside my wife, inspired by her power, energy, and resilience. Just hours later, that night, I found myself in tears, holding my confused 7-year-old son in my arms as I put him to bed. I know I am not alone when I say I felt numb and almost paralyzed.
I want to close by connecting with the words of writer Toni Morrison, who many of us read during recent days and weeks. 12 years ago, she recounted her own election-induced feelings of depression, paralysis, being unable to write, when an artist friend interrupted her and said, “No, no, no. This is precisely the time when artists go to work. That’s our job!”
So I channel the power of Ms. Morrison at this difficult moment, because This is precisely the time when museums go to work. That’s our job!
I am not usually in the habit of writing about projects that are in-progress or incomplete. However, in the wake of the current upheaval our country is experiencing, I feel compelled to share a powerful and cathartic moment I had recently in relation to our two-year Student/Community Curatorial Education Project that we are only just beginning.
First, a bit more about the project. Here at the Samek Art Museum, a Bucknell University-affiliated museum in rural central Pennsylvania, we’ve been working for the past six months on an exhibition that is curated by Bucknell students with input from the local community with generous financial support from the Maurer Family Foundation. By “students,” I am referring to our Museum Guides in particular, paid work-study employees who serve as part gallery attendant, part roving docent. Our goal is to provide a platform for our constituents to have a say in our exhibition planning while also bridging the very real town/gown divide that exists here, often referred to colloquially as the “Bucknell bubble.” As the Public Programs and Outreach Manager for the Museum, I’m responsible for the aspects of this project related to community outreach and exhibition interpretation, while our Director shapes the curatorial elements of the project.
The first phase of the project involved organizing a meeting with our Museum Guides and a small group of community members to try to suss out issues that were most important to our local community. We were aided immensely in recruiting the community members by the Buffalo Valley Recreation Authority, an organization that is deeply embedded in the region. Prior to the meeting, our Museum Guides developed interview questions for the community members intended to elicit narratives and encourage empathy–a process directly inspired by design thinking, which has been written about on this site before. Our goal was to move through the first three steps of the design thinking process, from empathy, to definition, to ideation. Community members would interview each other using the questions developed by the Guides, then we’d come back as a group to brainstorm and refine the process to start developing big ideas about important community issues.
Following the first meeting, the Guides would prototype and test exhibition ideas at a later date with further input from the community.
And then the election happened.
Suddenly, the interview questions that the Guides developed weeks before the election, such as “are there any current events happening right now that you think are most impactful to the region?” or “What would you change about the local community and why?” took on a completely new meaning and sense of urgency.
Not knowing what to expect, we went into the first community meeting bravely, ready to have tough conversations if need be. At the beginning, our discussion focused on how we are even defining what constitutes this community. At first glance, our location in the central Susquehanna valley region often looks fairly uniform—quaint, Victorian-era towns surrounded by rolling hills and farmlands. However, as the community members pointed out, the region is anything but homogenous, with each town informed by a sense of identity often tied to the industry that led to its settlement. For instance, Lewisburg, the home of Bucknell, is shaped most by the influence of the University; the town of Williamsport began as a lumber town; and Mifflinburg’s past and present is informed by its former role as a “buggy town.” Beyond these divisions, towns often have different boroughs or townships, each with their unique sense of identity as well, as many of the community members reminded us.
As the conversation shifted towards the election, stories of discrimination emerged. One community member who has lived in the region her whole life brought up racist bullying that she witnessed in grade school in Mifflinburg. Another community member brought up one of many examples of unintentional racism that she witnesses frequently in living here. I was dismayed to hear our Director, who identifies as queer, mention that, while he has faced discrimination in big cities, he experienced an act of discrimination here that took a more “physical” form. A common theme seemed to be that the community—already divided—would become more so as a result of the election.
I should mention at this point that our group of community members could hardly be called diverse. All were white women in their thirties or forties, and though I have no idea how they voted, all were quick to condemn the violence and racism that President-elect Trump courted openly during his campaign. While this lack of diversity is something we will work to correct in future community meetings, it is telling that our small group most likely ran counter to a lot of what has been said recently about the impact of rural communities in this election.
A way forward
One narrative to emerge from the election is that liberal coastal elites failed to listen to the impoverished rural heartland (though certainly this has shown repeatedly to be a false narrative, as many of Trump’s supports come from middle to upper-middle class suburbs). We have the opportunity to run counter to this false narrative as a fairly liberal, certainly elite, and often-coastal (at least in its student demographic, if not in its location) institution that was already in the process of letting its rural constituents in on our conversation before the election. Conversely, this community also has the opportunity to have a voice and stand out against this narrative as well in helping us shape this exhibition.
Though I am focusing mostly on negative aspects of the local community that have surfaced in response to the election, I must stress that many of the comments that came out of our discussion were positive about the benefits of living in rural, small-town PA. A particularly insightful response came from a community member who mentioned that, in a small town where everyone knows everybody else, it is easy to spontaneously, organically, and quickly organize. I can only hope that our finished exhibition can serve as a catalyst for this type of fluid community organization.
In a post-meeting journal response, Museum Guide Jillian Crooks, responded:
“The attendants confirmed my belief that people who are the most involved in community projects and activities are more interested in new projects and events. The women in attendance all seemed heavily interested in making Lewisburg better and more inclusive. This wasn’t surprising, but it was heartwarming.”
Some final thoughts
One of the larger questions that has come out of this election for Bucknell faculty is whether it is important to suspend academic neutrality when faced with a political perspective that is:
Objectively wrong, or
Violates other norms of greater importance, such as respecting the dignity and rights of others.
While I agree with the AAM’s stance on the importance of continuing to foster bipartisan support for our institutions, I think it is also critical to try to disentangle those aspects of partisanship that go against the caveats mentioned above. As educators, we have a responsibility to present and encourage evidence-based interpretations of our exhibitions and collections, and to foster inclusivity and diversity in our spaces and in our conversations with visitors.
Though I am pleased to share our Student/Community Curatorial Education Project as a case study, I welcome discussions (via Comments below, as well as on social media) on how to go about accomplishing the incredibly difficult task of disentangling partisanship from our ethical responsibilities as museum educators.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
GREG STUART is the Public Programs and Outreach Manager at the Samek Art Museum, Bucknell University where he is responsible for the Museum’s educational programs, public programs, events, and marketing. Prior to joining Bucknell, he worked as a museum educator at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Portland Art Museum in Oregon, the Portland Museum of Contemporary Craft, and Loyola University’s Museum of Art in Chicago. He has taught art history classes at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Portland State University, and Concordia University Portland. He holds an MA in Modern and Contemporary Art History, Theory, and Criticism from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a BA in Art History and English from Loyola University Chicago.
What can museums learn from approaches, models, and practices in other fields? How are we continuing to frame and define empathy and relevance in museum programming? Are we doing the research, making the connections, and learning from what else is out there?
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I love good storytelling on the radio – whether listening to NPR as a child in the back seat of my Dad’s car, pulling over to a parking lot to catch the end of StoryCorps, or indulging in a podcast while I fold laundry. I love a good story; it’s partly why I love history. Last month, I attended a live event about Out of the Blocks, a documentary series on my local NPR station. The pieces began to fall together for me and I started considering this radio program in relation to dialogue-based museum programming.
Out of the Blocks is a program from WYPR 88.1 FM in Baltimore, Maryland. Based on the simple concept of sharing the stories of people living on one block in Baltimore, radio producer Aaron Henkin and music producer Wendel Patrick create a series of episodes that present captivating narratives of real life. After interviewing everyone on one city block, they edit together interviews into one hour of radio that is lovely to listen to – opening perspective, building empathy and understanding. The show and podcast are well worth checking out; it’s truly amazing to hear interviewees share stories and see how editing, soundscape and production buoy those narratives.
However, it was the live event that really got me thinking. On stage, in real time, Baltimoreans whom Henkin and Patrick interviewed spoke about the project. Interviewees shared their first impressions of Henkin and Patrick, talked about being interviewed and, most movingly, what it was like to hear their own stories and voices in the final program on the radio. In front of a sold out auditorium of listeners and fans, many of them shared that it was both frightening and empowering to experience what eventually aired.
In his opening remarks, Henkin described the show as an experiment in radical empathy – the idea that everyone has a story that is worth telling and that the process of having people intently listen to that story feels good – it makes you feel like you matter. Producing this show is intensive and involves selecting a block to focus on, meeting and building relationships with everyone on that block, conducting hour long interviews with each person, editing all of those interviews into one episode and building the musical backdrop that amplifies and supports those stories. In the end, Henkin shared that he imagined each block as a mosaic of experiences and stories and, indeed, the city of Baltimore as a larger mosaic of those city blocks.
The deeply specific and site-based nature of the work
The collaboration between documentarian and sound artist
The relationships built through the process – between the producers, interviewees, neighbors and a broader community of listeners
In late September, I visited two major history museums in town with a friend– the Baltimore Museum of Industry and the Maryland Historical Society. In the galleries, there are glimpses of the “Baltimore mosaic” Henkin described, visible in the form of a personal object with a particularly evocative story behind it, a student curated show featuring photographs of the process of historical inquiry and research, or an exhibit designed as an immersive environment – transporting one through theatrical techniques to a different time and place. Yet, there weren’t nearly enough of those provocative and arresting personal stories that tether historical events to the experiences of real people.
When we teach in history museums and exhibitions, we sometimes get caught up in the intoxication of historical documents, artifacts, objects and buildings to the detriment of the emotional, personal, story-driven voice of those who experienced a place or event. Sometimes this may be because it’s hard to find voices, particularly of those not present in the historical record. And there is a sense of the need for “neutrality.” But even if we can’t necessarily “interview” people who are long gone, we as a field benefit from a continuous reminder about the power of visceral, real stories from real people – especially in the face of larger interpretive narratives that address the history of organizations, nations and institutions. There is power in specificity, and scaled, personal and connective stories.
Ideas I am walking away with
Here are some reminders and lessons I’m taking away from Out of the Blocks:
Relationship building. It takes a long time to create an episode of Out of the Blocks (about 8 weeks). The commitment to interview everyone on one block, each person for an hour, takes time. And there is also time spent hanging out and getting to know the people on that block. This may be part of why interviewees feel comfortable sharing their stories.
The power of storytelling and the importance of transparency. The power of storytelling isn’t new. But at the Out of the Blocks live event I was reminded of how powerful it is to know the “backstory.” Hearing directly from both producers and interviewees added depth, nuance and made clear that the project was meaningful to everyone: the producers and the interviewees.
The notion of sharing and listening as radical empathy. There is power to both sharing stories and having them heard. As staff at institutions and cultural organizations, we need to remember both pieces – dialogue is both talking and listening.
What if we applied the same intensive techniques Henkin and Patrick use to interpreting our historic buildings, sites and spaces? What if in the same ways they interviewed everyone living on one city block during one moment in time, we “interviewed” everyone who lived in one place through time –the people who occupied the space before a building was built, the people who built the building, the people who worked in the building, renovated, occupied and used a space in different ways through time, and the people who are there now, in the neighborhood. In this way, we might get closer to addressing the mythology of the “period of interpretation” as Frank Vagnone writes in his blog and the Anarchist’s Guide of Historic House Museums, co-authored with Deborah Ryan.
At one point in during the live event, Henkin shared that he and Patrick have been asked about the agenda for this series. What did they want to get out of this? What were they hoping for? Their response has been that there is no agenda but that if there were one, it would be to just show up and listen. What would it look like if museums just showed up and listened? What kinds of exhibitions, programs, partnerships and relationships might materialize? What can we in museums learn about programming and story from this kind of work? What examples of similar approaches in museums, libraries, at historic sites have you seen? Let’s amplify them.
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About the Author
BETH MALONEY works as an independent consultant, bringing educational expertise to museums and cultural organizations in the form of curriculum and program development, interpretation, visitor experience planning and professional training. In addition to partnering with a wide range of museums and historic sites, she teaches undergraduate courses that explore museum work and learning through the Program in Museums and Society at Johns Hopkins University. Former Board member and Past President of the Museum Education Roundtable, Beth serves as a peer reviewer for the Journal of Museum Education. For more information and to be in touch, please visit www.bethmaloney.com.
Header Image: Photo by Wendel Patrick. Aaron Henkin conducting an interview for “OUT OF THE BLOCKS,” 2012, photo courtesy the artists.
Photos included in this post are by Wendel Patrick, used courtesy of the artist.
“We are in more urgent need of empathy than ever before.”
This quote has been on my mind often over the past days, weeks, months, and sadly, years—as senseless acts of violence and hatred hit the headlines at a numbing pace of regularity. This past Friday was no different, as we all awoke to the horrific news from Dallas, during a week when the country was already reeling from news of the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. We’re also seeing an alarming spike in hate crimes and xenophobia in the UK after ‘Brexit’ that correspond in unsettling ways to divisive rhetoric and acrimonious tone of Republican nominee Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. All of this as we are still processing the Pulse nightclub attack in Orlando, where 49 individuals lost their lives.
I think in moments like these, it’s important for museums—and the people who work for them—to pause and reflect on the roles that we serve within our communities. Yes, museums are institutions that hold collections. But they can also serve a powerful role with our communities as active spaces for connection and coming together, for conversation and dialogue, for listening and sharing. Museums can be spaces for individual stories and community voices. They can be a space for acknowledging and reflecting on differences, and for bridging divides. They can be spaces for growth, struggle, love, and hope.
“Empathy is the art of stepping into the shoes of another person and looking at the world from their perspective. It’s about understanding the thoughts, the feelings, the ideas and experiences that make up their view of the world.”
In September 2015, Krznaric put these ideas into practice in the realm of museums with the development of the Empathy Museum, dedicated to helping visitors develop the skill of putting themselves in others’ shoes. Its first exhibit, “A Mile in My Shoes,” did quite literally that, setting up in a shoe shop where visitors are fitted with the shoes of another person, invited to walk a mile along the riverside while being immersed in an audio narrative of this stranger’s life, and then write a short story about it. With contributions ranging from a sewer worker to a sex worker, the stories covered different aspects of life, from loss and grief to hope and love.
Developing empathy has the potential to create radical social change, “a revolution of human relationships,” Krznaric states. So how can we spark this empathy revolution in museums?
Museums Are Us, Not It
I want to start by making an important foundational point about how we talk about museums. When we talk about them only as brick-and-mortar institutions or as ‘it’, it becomes easier to distance ourselves from the human-centered work we do. So it’s absolutely essential to remember that museums are made of people (yes, just like Soylent Green): from directors, board members, patrons, and curators to educators, guest services staff, registrars, conservators, security guards, volunteers, maintenance and facilities workers, members, visitors, etc. I am reminded of this by the Director of Learning at the Tate, Anna Cutler, whose memorable 2013 Tate Paper discussed institutional critique and cultural learning in museums. In it, she quotes artist Andrea Fraser:
“Every time we speak of the ‘institution’ as other than ‘us’ we disavow our role in the creation and perpetuation of its conditions.”
This is an important basis for any discussion of empathy and museums, since it defines the vision, mission, and work of a museum as the vision, mission, and work of the people who belong to that museum. So if we, myself included, say “museums must be more connected to their communities,” we’re really talking about what the people that make up the museum need to focus on – being more connected to our communities. We are inseparable from the institution, in other words. Any critique of museums is a critique of us; and any change needing to happen in museums is, therefore, a change that needs to start with us.
The Growing Role of Empathy in Museum Practice
Krznaric’s work with the Empathy Museum is but one small example of the types of civically-engaged, human-centered practices that have been instituted in an effort to expand the role that museums serve in building empathy and human connection in our communities. Staff working for museums across the globe are launching new efforts to bring people together, facilitate open dialogue, and elevate the voices and stories of marginalized groups to promote greater understanding.
For example, I continue to be amazed and inspired by the Multaqa project developed last year by Berlin’s state museums, which brings in a group of refugees from Iraq and Syria to serve as Arabic-speaking guides. The project title, Multaqa, means “meeting point” in Arabic. The tours are designed to give refugees and newcomers access to the city’s museums and facilitate the interchange of diverse cultural and historical experiences. The tours have been so popular, according to a recent report, that the organizers are looking to expand the program to include “intercultural workshops, which the Berlin public can also participate in.”
Here at the Portland Art Museum, the Object Stories initiative (which began back in 2010) has continued to embrace storytelling and community voices here in Portland. A recent exhibition that opened earlier this year featured powerful stories and personal objects from the local refugee community. The exhibition was co-created with Portland Meet Portland, a local non-profit focused on welcoming immigrants and refugees arriving in our city by creating mutually beneficial mentoring opportunities that promote cross-cultural learning, enhance work skills, and build trust.
The work of Portland Meet Portland and this Object Stories exhibition helped to highlight the important contributions that immigrants and refugees bring to their new homes here in Oregon, and also offered this area’s longer-term residents an opportunity to learn from these newcomers—their stories, resilience, and unique cultures. Visitors to the gallery (probably around 60,000 people) had the opportunity to listen to participants’ stories, leave a welcome message for these storytellers, and learn more about advocacy efforts and local non-profits working with immigrant and refugees in Portland (which ranks 11th among US cities resettling international refugees).
The Canadian Museum for Human Rights, an inspiring institution in so many ways, currently houses six different exhibits that explore the tragic story and legacy of the Indian Residential School system, one of Canada’s most pressing human rights concerns. As a national museum and hub of human rights education, the Museum has an important role to play in efforts towards reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Canada. As is stated in the 2015 summary report of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC): “Through their exhibits, education outreach, and research programs, all museums are well positioned to contribute to education for reconciliation.” The team at the Canadian Museum of Human Rights is also working to keep the conversation alive and involve the voices of its communities, especially through its “Share Your Story” project that allows anyone to record their own story about human rights or listen to the individual experiences of others.
In their book Cities, Museums, and Soft Power, Gail Dexter Lord and Ngaire Blankenship discuss the human social behaviors of bridging and bonding that museums have the distinct potential to promote and amplify, especially through public programs, education, and exhibitions. Their final essay offers a comprehensive set of strategies for how museums can be of greater value to their cities and communities:
“Museums and cities have a strong role to play together in bridging and bonding. They bring people together at similar life stages … or with identity in common … where they can share their experiences. Museums also bridge among identities, offering a public place to bring different groups together around similar interests.” (p. 222)
The International Museum of Folk Art’s Gallery of Conscience, inaugurated in 2010, serves as truly unique and visionary example of how museums are experimenting in this area. The Gallery’s goal is to be an agent of positive social change by engaging history, dialogue, and personal reflection around issues of social justice and human rights. Since the gallery’s inception, exhibitions in this space have explored how traditional artists come together in the face of change or disaster to provide comfort, counsel, prayer, and hope through their art. This focus has earned the space membership in the International Coalition of the Sites of Conscience.
Exhibitions in the Gallery of Conscience are “community-driven, co-created, collaborative, participatory, and cumulative,” according to a press release. “Visitors and community members become part of the conversation from the very beginning—helping to shape the exhibitions and contribute to the dialogue throughout the exhibition’s run.” In 2013-14, the Gallery’s exhibition “Let’s Talk About This” focused on folk artists’ responses to HIV/AIDS through artist and visitor participation, community programs, and a digital storytelling project with LGBTQ youth developed in partnership with N’MPower and Youth Media Project. The oral histories that were collected were incorporated into the exhibition through listening stations, and also became part of the dialogue-based programs related to the exhibition.
Building a Broader Culture of Advocacy
The type of museum practice I’ve highlighted is certainly not new. Many of us read about this work in museum blogs (such as Incluseum, Thinking About Museums, Visitors of Color, Queering the Museum, Brown Girls Museum Blog, etc.) and emails from the Center for the Future of Museums or Museum Hack. Many of us work on programs like these ourselves. But what concerns me is that across much of this practice, I find a lack of a broader institutional culture of support. Too many community-based projects like the ones I mention above end up being relegated to education staff, isolated from the core mission of an institution, or left entirely invisible. And this lack of supports extends beyond the walls of the museum. When journalists, scholars, and critics write about museums and exhibitions, they frequently ignore or denigrate the spaces that invite visitor engagement and community participation. There are even individuals in my own field of museum education who refer to empathy-building practices and affective learning strategies as too “touchy feely.”
We museum people need to work together to build a stronger, collective culture of support and advocacy for museum practice based in empathy, inclusion, and social impact. This is some of the most meaningful, relevant work happening in museums right now. 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, and projects that actively embrace individual 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 engagement in a museum’s strategic goals and mission, in its exhibition and program planning process, and in its allocation of resources.
So let’s all be more proud of the work we’re doing in museums to bring people together and learn more about ourselves and each other — from tiny one-off gatherings and events to much larger sustained initiatives.
Time for an Empathy Revolution in Museums
How do we start an empathy revolution in museums? How do we more fiercely recognize and support the meaningful work that museum professionals are already leading to support open dialogues around the challenging, relevant issues of our time? And how do we radically expand this work to build a stronger culture of empathy within museums — one that measures future success through our capacity to bring people together, foster conversations, and contribute to strong and resilient communities?
In 2013, the Museums Association of the UK launched its Museums Change Lives campaign, establishing a set of principles based on research, conferences sessions, online forums, open public workshops, and discussions with charities and social enterprises. I think the core principles they developed from their vision for the social impact of museums (a must read!) are worth sharing to move this discussion forward and enact change:
Every museums is different, but all can find ways of maximizing their social impact.
Everyone has the right to meaningful participation in the life and work of museums.
Audiences are creators as well as consumers of knowledge; their insights and expertise enrich and transform the museum experience for others.
Active public participation changes museums for the better.
Museums foster questioning, debate, and critical thinking.
Good museums offer excellent experiences that meet public needs.
Effective museums engage with contemporary issues.
Social justice is at the heart of the impact of museums.
Museums are not neutral spaces.
Museums are rooted in places and contribute to local distinctiveness.
These principles, as with much of their vision, are inspiring — but too often we stop there, feeling inspired but lacking action. The Museums Association report continues, “It’s time for your museum to respond to hard times by making a bigger difference. It’s time for you to play your part in helping museums change people’s lives.” The report concludes with a pretty spot-on set of 10 actions that will help your museum improve its social impact. Here is a slightly abbreviated, edited list:
Make a clear commitment to improve your museum’s social impact (ie. having strategic goals).
Reflect on your current impacts; listen to users and non-users; research local needs.
Research what other museums are doing.
Seek out and connect with suitable partners.
Work with your partners as equals.
Innovate and be willing to take risks.
Reflect on and celebrate your work. Learn from and with partners and participants.
Find ways for partners and participants to have a deep impact on your museum. Bring more voices into interpretation and devolve power.
Strive for long-term sustained change based on lasting relationships with partners and long-term engagement with participants.
Print these out, put them on your office wall, bring them to staff meetings, share these with your visitors and audiences, and have some open conversations about the “so what” of museums. Take these principles and action steps seriously. Build a broader team to advocate for the work you’re already doing at your institution; rethink existing programs; and bravely propose new projects and partnerships that better serve your community. See how a human-centered focus on empathy and social impact might change your own practice, your museum, and your community.
“The best museums are now striving to realise their full potential for society and are far more than just buildings and collections. They have two-way relationships with communities…. They are becoming increasingly outward looking, building more relationships with partners. They are welcoming more people as active participants.” (Museums Change Lives)