There’s a sentence that’s been haunting me lately: “museums are places where people go to think and feel about what it means to be human”(1). It’s a beautiful concept that encompasses the good and the ugly of what museums have been, what they are, and what they could be. It expresses the potential for museums to assert definitions of humanity that are liberatory, healing, and affirmative while leaving room for the essential question “but for who?”
What is our role and responsibility to help people think and feel about what it means to be human in this moment? What does it even mean to be human in this moment? What does it mean to be essential or vulnerable? What does it mean to survive? Who will? I keep thinking about what our actions – as neighbors, colleagues, and culture workers – communicate about what we think it means to be human right now. As to be expected, the impacts of the virus are not being felt equally. Essential workers are still largely low wage workers; access to health care is still restricted and costly; educators are still trying to meet students’ needs with too few resources; the elderly are still disposable; it’s still expensive to be poor. The systems that prop up what “normal” looks like are still pushing folks to the margins.
As the few museum staff left try to creatively adapt to serve the needs of their community, they ultimately express what they think those needs are and what they believe is the museum’s unique position to fill them. What people will be comforted by, what will help them navigate their day, what will help them make sense of their emotions or the news will depend drastically on how the pandemic is affecting their material reality. Content designed for people who are bored is probably not going to resonate (at least not in the same way) with people still riding the bus every day to work or whose loved ones lie in a hospital bed they cannot visit.
Yes, people are looking for history that affirms a sense of self, distractions, or art as a therapeutic process. People are also looking for more mundane balms – to hear someone express a similar feeling, to speak aloud, to know their child is occupied for thirty minutes. People are also in crisis.
Ruminating on life in the pandemic has been a continuous exercise in getting absorbed in and extracting myself from my own isolation, emotions, hardship, and drama. I’ve been generally disappointed with museum leaders (individuals and institutions) who are unable to pull themselves out of their own internal turmoil, who seem unable to instinctually care for others in a time of crisis. You know, the ones who assume their priorities are the top priority, that whatever choices they make will be justified as long as they can save the institution, that if people know just how long and hard these decisions were they will understand them and feel okay. It can feel like asking the world for what in reality is so little – for those who hold the power to consider our experience and let it impact their choices. To take time to listen, or communicate frequently even if incompletely. To put others’ needs before their own or the needs of the institution. As I try to articulate and find examples of the leadership I am looking for within myself, my institution, and my community this is what I’m getting stuck on. Whose humanity is being affirmed through our choices and in the ways we reach out?
EMILY TURNER: Seattle-based museum educator and creative historian who strives to infuse joy and creativity into the museum experience and encourages visitors of all ages to think critically about objects and their stories. Through writing and comix, Emily explores issues of representation and labor in art and history museums. An officer for the Museum Educators of Puget Sound, she is active in her community as a mentor and an advocate for emerging museum professionals.
By Emily Wiskera, Laura Evans, Stephen Legari, Andrew Palamara
In an essay reflecting on how his past trauma influenced his experience during the COVID-19 pandemic, writer Geoffrey Mak said, “Our lives are not going back to normal, as one way of being has been abruptly and unilaterally aborted, without our consent. Instead, we’re left with the grief for tens of thousands of lives lost, trillions of dollars evaporated, and a future of promise that was wiped out for an entire generation.”
Mak speaks to something profound – a collective trauma – that many people are struggling to comprehend, the magnitude of which is still beyond our ability to envision or understand because it is ongoing. In our field, we’re grappling with acknowledging that loss alongside a desire to do what we can to ensure a better future. In light of this, four of us gathered over Zoom to talk about what we are calling trauma-aware art museum education. We wanted to figure out how we, as educators, can be more prepared to encounter trauma when the public returns to museums and how we can cultivate safe experiences for visitors to process the effects of these unprecedented times. We are sharing the transcript of the first convening of our trauma-aware art museum education (T-AAME) group.
Laura: Could everyone go around and introduce themselves and then we can jump into the topic of trauma-aware art museum education? Andrew, could you start us off?
Andrew: I’m Andrew Palamara, the Associate Director of Docent Learning at the Cincinnati Art Museum (CAM). I manage the training, evaluation, and recruitment of docents at the CAM.
Emily: I’m Emily Wiskera, Manager of Access Programs at the Dallas Museum of Art. I oversee educational programming for visitors with disabilities.
Stephen: I’m Stephen Legari, Program Officer for Art Therapy at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA). I facilitate museum-based art therapy groups, supervise interns, manage our community art studio, and collaborate on research.
Laura: And, I’m Laura Evans. I’m a professor at the University of North Texas and I run the Art Museum Education Certificate program. I am so happy we could all be together right now, thinking about this important topic. Maybe, before we jump in, we can talk about the terminology. “Trauma” is a pretty heavy term. How are we defining trauma in relation to COVID-19? Can we explain why we are using the words trauma-aware? What does that mean?
Stephen: Trauma is both a heavy term and a prevalent one. Our discussion around what it means to become trauma-aware as museum staff, particularly educators, is to both acknowledge with sincerity and respect that trauma is everywhere. But trauma is also highly subjectively experienced and expressed. Museums, by their nature, are environments where people’s collective and individual narratives are elicited and we cannot ignore, in good conscience, that this includes stories that are traumatic.
Laura: And, a result of this pandemic will inevitably include trauma: major traumas and micro-traumas. As you said, Stephen, we cannot, in good conscience, ignore these experiences of trauma when we return to our museums.
Emily: But, I think we should also keep in mind that not everyone will experience this pandemic as traumatic. For some, school and business closures may have removed them from otherwise toxic or trauma-inducing environments. Others may be experiencing multiple layers of trauma, as we are seeing with the tragic rise in domestic violence and child abuse cases. Experiencing trauma is an almost universal part of the human experience. But as in all situations, context and resources play a role. We should also be aware that in-depth processing of trauma likely won’t be immediate. We begin to work through trauma and start the process of healing when we feel emotionally safe to do so.
Laura: And, we can play a role in creating those safe spaces. But, before we talk about what that might look like, Andrew and Emily, do you want to tell us how and why you started thinking about trauma-aware art museum education and why you think it is important that we explore this right now?
Andrew: In January 2020, the Learning & Interpretation team at the CAM went through a half-day training on trauma-informed practice with Amy Sullivan, a local counselor with a private practice called Rooted Compassion. It revolved around understanding our own personal trauma before we begin to understand it in others. Once the pandemic hit the U.S., something clicked with me: this might be the most urgent time to formalize a trauma-aware approach to what we do at the museum. This is going to take a psychic toll on our personal lives and how we think about going to public spaces going forward. I reached out to Emily to see what she thought about it.
Emily: When Andrew reached out to me, I had been considering how the COVID-19 pandemic was affecting our communities and how the unique assets of the museum could be best used in response. Andrew’s thoughts about the public experiencing the pandemic as trauma connected with research that I had just stumbled upon. This early study out of China revealed a significant increase in acute Post-Traumatic Stress Symptoms related to the pandemic. It seemed only natural to me that if the public was experiencing a change, that museums needed to adapt their strategies to be relevant and responsive to the experience of the public.
Laura: When Andrew and Emily came to me with this idea, I thought the perfect person to give some perspective was Stephen because of his training and his unique role as an arts therapist at the MMFA. Stephen, how does the MMFA already consider trauma in its programs and in its interactions with visitors?
Stephen: We have a community oriented practice in our education department that goes back more than 20 years. The model of project development was founded on co-creation with community and clinical partners. In this way, becoming informed about the needs of groups who may have been impacted by trauma grew organically. These could be folks living with mental-health problems, people with complex migration histories, people negatively impacted by their experiences as patients and the list goes on. Each collaboration taught us something new. Fast-forward to 2017 and we felt equipped to have a full-time program dedicated to actual therapeutic work.
Laura: Have any of us already had a trauma-aware experience at a museum or know of someone that has? Maybe one that you witnessed? If so, what was that like for you or for them?
Andrew: One of my colleagues, Sara Birkofer, led a discussion with a local art therapist of an exhibition by photographer Sohrab Hura called The Levee, and we explored the intersection of emotion and mental health through Sohrab’s photographs. We started with a quick mindfulness exercise, then talked about how the brain processes trauma. She guided us as we walked through the exhibition, which featured several dozen photographs of Sohrab’s travels through the American South as one artwork. That prompted us to think about how we gravitate toward images that reflect our mental state. It was really profound to hear how other people processed their life experiences through another person’s art, and I was floored by how quickly we established an environment of trust and openness with each other. Coincidentally, right before I attended the program, I had learned that one of my docents had passed away, and this conversation really helped me process that news in a meaningful way.
Emily: For me, a trauma-aware museum experience starts when the lived experience of the visitor takes priority over art history. Educators may drop in bits of historical information, but their primary goal is to encourage participants to build personally meaningful pathways to connect to art, and in turn, themselves. I witnessed this in action as an intern when my former colleague, Danielle Schulz, was guiding a discussion around a Roman sarcophagus. Danielle encouraged group conversation simply by having participants start by describing what they noticed. The conversation developed naturally, leading the group to discuss who would be entombed in a sarcophagus that depicted a battle scene. When Danielle asked, “What emotions does this object evoke for you?,” one participant shared that it reminded her of her daughter who passed away as an infant. The participant expressed that with the death of her daughter, she was mourning all of her daughter’s unrealized potential. She connected this feeling with the grown soldiers on the sarcophagus, wondering if the scene was a reflection of who the entombed person was, or what they might have been.
Laura: I have had communal experiences that are similar to what you two have just described but I’ve also had solitary experiences in art museums that have allowed me to process trauma. I was severely anorexic in high school and, after getting help, went through recovery for many years after. When I was doing my PhD, I focused on Lauren Greenfield’s exhibition, THIN, which is about women in treatment for their eating disorders. I first saw the exhibition at the Smith College Museum of Art and I walked through the show crying. Even though I wasn’t there with anyone, I saw lots of other girls and women crying, holding hands, patting one another on the back, and it made me feel connected to them in some way. I remember catching eyes with a guard and she gave me a sympathetic, understanding smile that made me feel like it was okay to continue processing in that space. I read through the visitor comment book and it was full of narratives of women who were similarly moved by the art. Even though I thought I had recovered by that point, that experience helped me heal in a way I didn’t know I needed.
Hearing about and talking through these stories was helpful to me in thinking about experiences we’ve already witnessed or participated in that we might consider to be trauma-aware. I know this is a seedling of an idea still, but what do we all think some of the characteristics are of what we are calling “trauma-aware art museum education” from the museum educator’s perspective? What could it look like? Sound like? Feel like?
Andrew: In my review of trauma-informed resources that I’ve come across, two key qualities have emerged: empowerment and connection. In museum education, these are givens. We’ve already embraced teaching practices that empower visitors to have a voice in their interpretation of art and their experience in a museum. With that, we put a great deal of emphasis on social connection, whether it’s active (a dialogue with visitors about art) or passive (watching a performance). But I think there’s a new urgency to these characteristics in a post COVID-19 world. More than ever, we need to make space in our programming to empower the public, as though they are not just recipients of our content, but active participants that find personal meaning in museums and the art inside of it. That goes hand in hand with our need to be socially connected to each other. I think we have tacitly acknowledged that by visiting museums and caring about culture; in other words, we go to museums because we want to feel connected to something bigger than ourselves. I think we saw this in the examples we just shared at the CAM, the DMA, and at Smith. Now, I think art museum educators have to make that social connection more direct and active, and we’ll have to be compassionate and creative in how we carry that out in practice.
Having said that, it’s not all about empowerment and connection. We have to consider qualities like building safety and trust with our visitors, resilience, patience, awareness of others in relation to ourselves, and reciprocity among many, many others. Emily, you’ve thought a lot about how the science behind trauma relates to what we do in museum education. Where have you seen connections between trauma and these ideas of empowerment and connection?
Emily: There are a few key attributes of trauma that inform the trauma-aware approach to museum education. First, is that trauma is not stored in the brain in the same way as other memories. Instead of being stored as narratives in our minds, traumatic events are imprinted on the amygdala through the emotional impact and sensory information experienced during the time of trauma- fragments of sound, smell, sights, taste or touch. A trauma-aware approach focuses on creating new emotional and sensory experiences that contradict the experience of trauma, replacing them with sensations rooted in safety, empowerment, and connection.
A second important note is that trauma is pre-verbal. Reliving traumatic events often shuts down the speech center of the brain, making it difficult to express the trauma in words. This information has great ramifications to our practice as museum educators. In our programs we have traditionally explored ideas through discussion. If we want to provide visitors with productive ways to express their experience, we need to open our practice to include more visceral, emotional, or sensory-based modes of engagement and response, rather than purely verbal ones. The good news is that a trauma-aware approach to museum education is in line with Universal Design principles of multi-modal engagement and is beneficial for all, not just those who have experienced trauma.
Stephen: It is to ask the question, how can art and art education/the art educator help facilitate experiences of containment, reassurance and safety? Trauma makes a better lens than a label. If we use trauma as a lens to appreciate both the intense difficulties some of our visitors faced and also the brilliance of the resilience to deal with those difficulties, then we can better adapt to them and encounter them with some kind of genuine presence. Seeing people as traumatized is simply pathologizing them and risks contributing to that trauma.
Laura: “A better lens than a label.” That is a good frame. What could trauma-aware art museum education look like from the visitor’s perspective? Sound like? Feel like?
Stephen: I am encouraged by what Ross Laird calls safe-enough museum experiences. If we accept that a great deal of museum content and exchange can be provocative for the visitor, then we have a framework of how to receive and manage those experiences. From the visitor’s perspective, I would encounter staff that are warm and genuine in their welcome. I would feel included even if it’s hard for me, as a visitor, to return that same measure of friendliness. I would be given some fair warning that museum content and activities can be challenging and that I might feel things. I might also be given some information about the limitation of the experience, i.e. that this is not therapy. And finally, I would encounter some flexibility in the pacing of the experience and in the attitudes of the staff who themselves can model calmness even if things get a little emotional.
Laura: Why do we think museums and art museum educators, in particular, are good places and people to do this kind of work?
Emily: The unique assets of the museum make it the perfect place for healing to begin. Since trauma affects the speech center of the brain, our public will likely be seeking out non-verbal modes to explore and express their lived experience. Visual art, a non-verbal mode of communication, is a natural fit. Another unique aspect of the museum is its ability to be a location for social interaction. Museums have moved beyond simply acting as stewards of objects or mausoleums of the past. Our value, as institutions and educators, lies in our ability to bring people together. Using art as a tool to make individual connections and share ideas, the museum provides an environment where we can be vulnerable and build social bonds. Socialization is our most fundamental survival strategy, but it is exactly this which breaks down in most forms of mental suffering and it is what we have lost during these months of pandemic isolation.
Laura: Yes, what makes museums so unique – our objects – also makes them ideal spaces for healing connections. We can all relate to objects; we all have a relationship with objects in our lives; we have all had a profound connection to an object. And, moving around, walking through, wheeling through a museum, coming close to look at a detail in a painting, moving around a sculpture; the physical movement that is required of touring a museum and looking at art can be helpful to process things too. Elliott, Lissa and Lilit do a beautiful job of emphasizing the importance of movement in museum education in their new book.
Andrew: I see this as an extension of the DEAI work that educators in the field have prioritized in recent years. Through scholars like Paulo Friere and bell hooks and resources like the MASS Action project and Museums Are Not Neutral movement started on this site, museum educators have acknowledged the injustices and inequalities that have plagued our society and our cultural institutions. Our work requires more empathy and action on our part to ensure that museums are truly for all of our communities. Today, we still see these inequalities as communities of color are disproportionatelyaffected by the spread and treatment of COVID-19. Just like the Museums Respond to Ferguson movement in 2015, I think this is another moment in time when we can put our social obligations to the public in clearer view.
Laura: For all of us, it’s important to make a distinction between art museum education and art therapy. This trauma-aware approach can be therapeutic but isn’t intended to be therapy, right? In Museum Objects, Health and Healing, Cowan, Laird, and McKeown write about how museum staff can, “Facilitate the therapeutic — but don’t do therapy.” This is a really important distinction that I want to take some pains to highlight. Stephen, can you elucidate some of the differences between art museum education and art therapy in museums? Like, what do you want art museum educators to know about why and how their work is different than your work, for example?
Stephen: My colleague who runs our well-being program and I have had to really tease out what’s the difference between a program that’s well-being focused and a program that is therapeutic, that is a therapy program. As an arts therapist, what I want to help people with the problems that are present for them and use the museum and its resources as a tool to achieve some therapeutic goals. Sometimes that means being really present with the problem and staying with the participants as those layers are being revealed. In art therapy we are taking more risks and letting people know that discomfort and dealing with stuckness will be part of their journey. Whereas what my colleague aims to do is help people arrive and build positive experiences that are strengths-based, resilience-based, and pleasure-based. She and her collaborators meet people in the here and now and offer new experiences that help people leave feeling refreshed by their encounters with art and art-making. I can only imagine what a valuable resource that will be post-COVID; to feel refreshed by art and the people facilitating it.
Andrew: That brings up a question that I’ve had. Do you feel like there’s anything that museums have traditionally done in their educational programs that is not trauma-aware and we could dissuade each other from doing?
Stephen: I would say that any activity that prioritizes the information or the teaching, or even the outcome, over the participant experience is not trauma-aware. The sharing of participant’s material without their consent is not trauma-aware. And perhaps the presumption that our museums are for everybody is not trauma-aware. These are colonial institutions that have historically excluded an awful lot of voices and there is a need to be actively working on that history in the present in real-time.
Laura: I know you have The Art Hive at the MMFA. Can you tell us more about it and why an open studio like the Hive could be important in the wake of COVID-19? Why might this be a good thing for museum educators to implement post-pandemic?
Stephen: An Art Hive, or an open studio, I feel is a really positive, low-cost response to a diversity of needs. We know that giving visitors the opportunity to externalise their experience at the museum in some way is helpful and participatory. There are a range of responses that people have and need from art, some people need really structured experiences because it helps them feel re-contained and some people feel really encroached upon by the limitations of a structured experience. An open studio can accommodate both and really emphasize the autonomy of the visitor to make what they need to or seek the support they need to work through a creative response.
Laura: I love the idea of museums embracing the open studio concept in the wake of the pandemic, where people can use their hands to make what they feel moved to make and where they are tacitly or explicitly socializing with others in the museum. Like you said, Stephen, it is low cost and low risk but, potentially, high reward. Maybe now is a good time to wrap-up and pick this up again at another time?
Stephen: This is such a valuable conversation to be having across museums and across disciplines. I feel there is something tangible that will come of this in terms of our own education towards becoming trauma-aware and hopefully be of use to others.
Laura: I couldn’t agree more. It has been a true pleasure to connect during this time of disconnection and about such important work too. Let’s keep this conversation going. It feels like we are at the precipice of something that we should keep exploring. I hope there are others out there who are interested in thinking about this, talking about this, with us and that they will get in touch. Should we meet back in a few weeks to develop some more practical suggestions for how art museum educators can develop and facilitate trauma-aware programs?
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About the Authors
LAURA EVANS is an Associate Professor of Art Education and Art History and the Coordinator of the Art Museum Education Certificate at the University of North Texas in Denton, Texas. Evans received her Ph.D. 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 and English at Denison University, Granville, Ohio. Evans has worked in museums from Australia to Washington DC to New Zealand. During non-COVID-19 summers, Evans lectures about art crime on cruise ships that sail the high seas. Laura’s email address is Laura.Evans@unt.edu
STEPHEN LEGARI is a registered art therapist and couple and family therapist. He holds a Master’s degree in art-therapy from Concordia University Concordia and another M.A. in couple and family therapy from McGill University McGill, where he won the award for clinical excellence. He has worked with a range of populations in numerous clinical, educational and community contexts. In May 2017, he became head of art therapy programs at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. He is currently the world’s only art therapist working full-time in a museum. Legari is a member of the MMFA’s Art and Health Committee. Stephen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
ANDREW PALAMARA is the Associate Director for Docent Learning at the Cincinnati Art Museum (CAM). In this role, Andrew oversees the training, recruitment, and evaluation of the CAM docents. Prior to joining the CAM, he worked in education at the Dallas Museum of Art and MASS MoCA. He holds a BFA in Graphic Design and Illustration from Belmont University and a MA in Art Education from the University of North Texas. When he’s not at the museum, Andrew is most likely playing music or coaching his high school soccer team. Singing telegrams can be sent to Andrew at email@example.com
EMILY WISKERA has worked in museum education since 2011, with a specialized focus on accessibility and working with diverse populations. As Manager of Access Programs at the Dallas Museum of Art, Wiskera oversees initiatives for visitors with disabilities, including programs related to dementia, Parkinson’s disease, autism, developmental or cognitive disabilities, and vision impairment.She is passionate about creating equitable experiences for all visitors. In her free time, Emily enjoys well-meaning mischief. Emily only receives carrier pigeons at EWiskera@dma.org
Featured Image: Family activities at the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Montréal. Photo by Caroline Hayeur
In Spain, COVID-19 has caused and is causing sudden and overwhelming social change. Spain is one of the countries in the world that is suffering most from the effects of the pandemic at the moment. Effects that translate into new social and personal challenges, involving many factors including misinformation, manipulation, fear and catastrophism. This situation shakes the foundations of a way of living, of coexisting, of perceiving, of doing, of desiring, of dreaming.
This change has happened practically from one day to the next, when the Spanish Government declared a state of alarm. The change meant the closure of many public and private equipment, including all educational centres and museums. We work at the Museo Universidad de Navarra, located in the north of Spain. It is a recently created university museum of contemporary art (2015). With structures and procedures still being established and, therefore, also with the power of flexibility towards new scenarios. The museum’s closure has been very sudden, with the exhibition “Universes” by the artist David Jiménez just opened in March. It has taken place at the same time that the University has stopped its face-to-face activity, so that university students and other visitors from other segments of the population cannot physically visit the museum or carry out their various cultural and educational programmes.
And how does a university museum of contemporary art adapt to a situation that prevents the public from seeing its exhibitions and carrying out the rest of its cultural programme?
We try to raise 5 criteria that can help answer this question :
1. It must be faced with a positive mind, which sees this situation as a generator of personal and social change that provides a new space of opportunity.
2. Learn to work with uncertainty; with a continuous and changing uncertainty that the situation itself generates. Uncertainty that affects everything from the biology of the virus and the evolution of the disease to the political and regulatory measures that are taken and the social perceptions and new forms of behaviour that are being generated in real time. These new forms of behaviour will probably include a new emotional and affective state in terms of the relational aspect between people. And in this new generation of new forms of behaviour, the museum cannot be alien. It cannot miss this train, in a challenge that we do not know where it is going, but in which the museum has to be assembled, to travel together with society, to accompany it in the different situations and contexts that are being generated.
3. Space for creativity. The uncertainty generated provides in turn a great ally, usually forgotten: creativity. Creativity can be a lifeboat when the waters are turbulent and the known capsizes. The undefined space is built with enabling bricks that are linked to the creative cement. New products are thus generated, at this time digital, that respond with contemporary art to the needs of the users.
4. To focus on the value Care. This value is not usually the focus of most education programmes, and is not usually one of the main values considered in a transversal way in the programmes of museums. However, this word is currently one of the most mentioned in the media and has become one of the key words generated by COVID-19 and which people are taking into account the most. Personal, family and social care is now a trend topic. Perhaps this value has surpassed the value of respect, which is the one most often used in social work. The respect value has fallen short in this situation. If we understand the value respect as the consideration for others, the value care implies respect, but it is more than that value. It also implies concern, protection, solidarity and love.
We could simplify by considering that care = respect + love. In this situation generated by COVID-19, it is clear the numerous evidence of care that is being generated in society. Neighbours who previously did not speak to each other are now wondering how they are doing, how they are handling the situation, if they have any sick relatives, if they need anything. Anonymous people who help other anonymous people. It’s not a minor change. COVID-19 is possibly making society better, more humane. Or maybe it already was, but there were no opportunities to make it so obvious. In order to adapt to this situation, museums should integrate this value into the relational possibilities offered by their various programmes.
5. ‘Stay at home’. This is the communicative message that the Spanish Government is promoting during this period of confinement. This message has forced the Museo Universidad de Navarra to change its communication, dissemination and educational strategy. This new situation is a challenge for the University of Navarra Museum. It means devoting all its efforts to off-site activities. If the visitor does not come to the museum, the museum will look for the visitor. It means taking the museum to the people’s homes. That is why it has created the ‘MUNENCASA’, with the intention of providing artistic, cultural and educational support to the various people and groups that are currently confined.
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This impediment to living physically in the museum has made it possible to develop a parallel, virtual museum, which offers users programmes, activities and tools such as virtual visits to the exhibitions, multimedia videos, digital gamification, a blog with recent history and current affairs, and classes for university students and the rest of the population. It also pays continuous attention to the different social networks, publishing not only news. The world of social networks has increased its volume of traffic these days and we must redouble our communication efforts. In record time, digital materials are generated that adapt existing analogue resources. Programmatic resources are generated, both exhibition and educational, which help people through art and culture.
This is what we have to do at this time: to approach each home and accompany, help, and care for our users as much as possible.
Society expects nothing less from us.
Header Image: José Ortiz Echagüe, “Tenura”
About the Author
FERNANDO ECHARRI IRIBARREN holds a degree in Biological Sciences (University of Navarra, 1989) and a PhD in Museum Education (University of Navarra, 2007). He is an associate professor of the University of Navarra (Pamplona, Spain) and teaches in the following areas: “Art Education”, “University Master’s Degree in Higher-Education Teaching” and “University Master’s Degree in Curatorial Studies”. Since 2014, he has been Head of the Education Department at the University of Navarra Museum. His interests include meaningful learning and significant learning experiences.
Right now, I realize that we are all affected by the current coronavirus pandemic in wide-ranging yet different ways. From the realities of severe economic downturn and the daily experience of physical distancing to concerns about our own health and the well-being of our families, friends, and loved ones, this is a challenging time for us all — our entire global family. Moments like this change us. And I believe that it is part of our collective human responsibility to reflect on moments like this, to write about our experiences, and to share our stories with each other. Stories that allow us to be vulnerable, open, honest, and more human.
At times in my own life when I feel the most challenged, I reach for the writings of Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron. In her transformative book When Things Fall Apart, Chodron explores the human response to moments of intense despair and loss. I grabbed my copy of this book off the shelf last week, and began flipping through the pages, reading bits from each section. One sentence stood out to me more than all the others: “This very moment is the perfect teacher.”
Open Call for Writings and Reflections
So here is my invitation and open call. I would love to gather together a series of posts over the next weeks and months from anyone willing to share their own reflections during this time of crisis, this very moment. There are few if any guidelines here, and I’m open to any type of personal writing as well as creative responses that open up new ways for us to share our stories.
Here are some questions that are interesting me, but more importantly I want to know what interests you about what you are seeing, hearing, and feeling during this time.
How have you been affected by the current crisis?
How are you and others taking care of yourselves and each other through these difficult times?
What does strong, compassionate leadership look like for you right now?
How can museums continue the vital, necessary work of dismantling systems of oppression during and after this crisis?
As we move further into this crisis, how can museum leaders (and those who remain working for these institutions) place human care and relationships above all else?
In what ways can museums and cultural organizations serve as places of healing and connection for our communities?
What is something that has gone unspoken or unsaid since the beginning of this pandemic and its impact on museums and cultural institutions?
How to Submit
If you are interested in submitting or have something to submit for publishing online as part of this series, please just send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I only have one requirement for these posts — each submission must have at least one image or photograph (that we can reproduce here on this blog); and I’m happy to help find an image if you don’t have one.
Share this Open Call to anyone in your community who might be interested.
I am continuously grateful for everyone who has come together to support each other during this pandemic. I hope this series of posts, writings, and stories can be a way for us to be listening to each other and find human connection, loving-kindness, and compassion amidst the darkness of these difficult times.
Through a recent series of posts, I’ve been exploring the idea of a human-centered museum, why this is a meaningful way to think about the work of museums, and what changes we can make to bring people to the center of these institutions. Embracing a human-centered mindset in museums asks us to advance empathy, human potential, and collective well-being as integral elements to our institution’s values and culture. It is about putting people, not just visitors or customers, at the center of our organizational thinking. These people include visitors as well as staff, volunteers, members, donors, and community partners as well as neighbors and residents of our localities and regions. All of these individuals are part of a museum’s interconnected human ecosystem. I’ve written about how we can rethink internal hierarchies and work toward building a culture of empathy, and now I want to turn to the importance of cultivating personal agency in museums.
As museum professionals and workers, we too often ‘clock in’ to our jobs and check our own personal passions, values, and identities at the door. The personal communities of our lives float away as we embrace the existing institutional culture and branded identities of our museums.
In her 2015 book Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges, Harvard professor and social psychologist Amy Cuddy discusses her research into personal power in the workplace. “Some organizations,” she finds, “socialize new employees by focusing on the groups’ identity and needs, failing to acknowledge those of the individuals. Workers may even be discouraged from expressing their true identities” (p. 54). In many cases, these organizational or group cultures are grounded in legacies of oppression and white, male, patriarchal, colonial values, and they frequently conflict with our personal identities. Yet, for museums to become truly human-centered and inclusive, we must work toward valuing and celebrating the unique identities, experiences, values, skills, and passions that individuals bring to the institution.
So what does it look like when we bring our whole selves into our work? This core question was asked by Amber Johnson, Founder of Justice Fleet, in her powerful opening keynote at the 2017 MuseumNext conference in Portland:
How do we bring our whole selves into our work spaces and what does that look like? What does it mean to say ‘This is all of me and I’m going to put all my junk on the table’?
Through her work with Justice Fleet, Johnson is on a mission to start a dialogue about radical inclusion and radical forgiveness, going into neighborhoods to engage their communities in discussions about implicit and explicit bias, social identity, and communicating across difference.
Her 2017 MuseumNext talk entitled ”Revolution Requires Forgiveness” focused in on the importance of bringing our social identities with us to our professional work, and what it means to allow those identities to truly impact our work. For Johnson, radical inclusion is a deeply personal act that “requires bringing the whole self to the table, [and] the dirty, nasty questions that nobody wants to answer, ‘Who am I? What matters to me?’” Beyond this level of deep personal reflection, radical inclusion at the institutional level requires a lot of people within an organization bringing their whole selves to the table. Both radical inclusion and radical forgiveness, as Johnson aptly frames them, are vital to museums becoming more human-centered and ensuring that museums are places that understand, support, and value what every individual brings to this work.
So this begs the question: how can we begin to engage in bringing our whole selves to our work on a daily basis? What are some initial strategies you can adopt right now?
Strategies for Change
In his book Museums and the Paradox of Change (2013), scholar and museum activist Robert Janes strongly advocates for museum organizations to connect with the knowledge, experience, and values of individual museum employees and to cultivate personal agency at all levels and departments of an institution. Janes defines personal agency as “the capacity of individual museum workers (not only leaders and managers) to take action in the world.” He outlines some clear, doable strategies for museum leaders and workers at all levels, and I wanted to simply share several of them here:
Ask yourself, your colleagues, your supervisor, and your leaders “why” you are doing what you are doing? This questioning will help to move the museum beyond the “what” and the “how.”
If there is an intractable issue or situation that is adversely affecting your work, speak out. Advise your manager of the difficulty and ways to address it. Have the courage of your convictions to remedy the situation.
Decision-making should be decentralized throughout the museum to the “lowest level” in the organization where the work can be done well. In short, staff should have as much responsibility as possible for decisions which affect their work.
Any person in the museum, irrespective of level or rank, must be free to go directly to any person in the museum for information or assistance needed to perform his or her job.
When appropriate, share aspects of your non-work life, whether it be involvement in an environmental NGO or work as an artist. These seemingly unrelated skills, knowledge, and experience are essential as a museum broadens its awareness and engages in the interests, issues, and aspirations of its community.
Bringing our whole selves into our museum work is vital to developing human-centered museums, and so is cultivating museums as spaces where we can actually do this. Managers and leaders need to break down the rigid expectations of conforming to a corporate culture or institutional branding, and create environments where employees and colleagues can safely bring their personal and social identities into their professional work. This is tied up with breaking down hierarchies within museums as well as building a culture of empathy. As we make decisions in the museum workplace, we should be asking ourselves: what are we prioritizing over the skills, knowledge, experiences, and perspectives of our co-workers and colleagues? When might we be valuing ‘the museum’ over the people who work within it?
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In her widely-watched 2010 TED talk entitled “The Power of Vulnerability,” researcher and author Brené Brown talks about connection as a fundamental human experience. “Connection is why we’re here,” she says. “It’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives.” During a time when we are surrounded by an increasingly fragmented society of ‘us versus them,’ museums have the potential to be powerful catalysts for empathy, human connection, and personal empowerment. We just need to truly embrace, value, and celebrate the people that make up museums–staff at all levels, volunteers, visitors, neighbors, community partners, members, donors, and the broader public. These people, more than anything else, give museums their meaning and purpose to become agents of positive change.
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 cultivate personal agency in your organization? How do you breing your whole self in your practice? What challenges do you face in this work? 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!
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.
As common sense and straightforward as it sounds to think about museums as people- and human-centered institutions—a concept you’ve heard me write about quite a bit—this idea has faced a legacy of rather fierce opposition grounded in outdated traditions and histories. How many museums have mission statements that prioritize the colonizing actions of “collecting” and “preserving” objects, rather than fore-fronting the people-centered work of building community, growing empathy and understanding, celebrating human creativity, and cultivating engaged citizenship? How often do museum leaders and boards make decisions that value objects and collections over staff, volunteers, and museum visitors? What if museum leaders and professionals considered human relationships and human impact, first and foremost, when making decisions about exhibitions, interpretation, programs, facilities, policies, and practices? Embracing a human-centered mindset in museums asks us to do just that, advancing empathy, human potential, and collective well-being as integral elements to our institution’s values and culture. And this is not just putting visitors at the center of our thinking, but all of the people that make up a museum’s community—visitors, staff, volunteers, members, donors, and community partners as well as neighbors and residents of our localities and regions. All of these individuals are part of a museum’s interconnected human ecosystem.
Embracing a mindset of openness, participation, and social connectivity allows museums the chance to extend the boundaries of what is possible, and serve as sites for profound human connection in the 21st century. In their 2011 book Humanize: How People-Centric Organizations Succeed in a Social World, Jamie Notter and Maddie Grant discuss their ideas for developing a more human organization in a world affected by social media and the Internet.
“We need organizations that are more human. We need to re-create our organizations so that the power and energy of being human in our work life can be leveraged. This has the power not only to transform our individual experiences in the work world, but also to access untapped potential in our organizations” (p. 4).
Jasper Visser writes about museums and these aspects of a social business, quoting the Social Business Forum in defining a social business as “an organization that has put in place the strategies, technologies, and processes to systematically engage all the individuals in its ecosystem (employees, customers, partners, suppliers) to maximize the co-created value.” The model of a social business, therefore, focuses on building relationships and connections among its entire community, or ecosystem of people. For museums, this goes beyond just being visitor-centered and means thinking about staff and volunteers as well as neighbors and the broader public. As Visser states:
“museums and most other cultural institutions are inherently social organizations to begin with. They have always thrived on intimate relations with all individuals involved in the joint creation of value.”
Insert cliche image of people working together (couldn’t resist, sorry)…
This concept of a social museum relies on each and every stakeholder working together toward change, value, and impact (which is why using the stock image above actually makes sense to use in representing museums). The key elements of a social organization—embracing networks of people, considering social relationships inside and outside the organization, and enhancing collaboration in a way that crosses traditional boundaries—are all core to developing a human-centered mindset in museums.
Strategies for Change
So how can those of us working in museums begin to make this shift happen toward a more human-centered mindset? In order to become social organizations that achieve positive impact in their communities, museums need to be rethinking their internal organization structures. Most museums rely on deeply ingrained, top-down structures that rely on territorial thinking, defined protocols, and traditional reporting structures based on academic degrees, power, silos, division, and oppression. In these traditional hierarchies, communication flows from the top to the bottom which means that “innovation stagnates, engagement suffers, and collaboration is virtually non-existent” (Jacob Morgan, “The 5 Types of Organizational Structures: Part 1, The Hierarchy,” Forbes, July 6, 2015).
Furthermore, as stated in the nationwide report Ready to Lead: Next Generation of Leaders Speak Out (2008), organizations that maintain traditional hierarchies “risk perpetuating power structures that alienate emerging leadership talent in their organizations” (p. 25). The sluggish bureaucracy of this embedded management structure prevents a museum from being responsive to its staff and its broader community. In other words, traditional top-down museums are just not very human-centered. They tend to be leader-centered or focused on a few powerful individuals at the top. So how can this be changed? What steps can museum professionals take to think about and enact alternative structures?
To be more people-centered, museum leaders and staff can work toward more participatory, democratic, and flatter models for organizational structure. In their recent book Creating the Visitor-Centered Museum(2017), Peter Samis and Mimi Michaelson discuss this transformation taking place in museums taking a more visitor-centered approach: “new ways of working ultimately shift traditional structures and may end up equalizing roles or flattening hierarchies” (p. 6). Efforts to decentralize decision-making and promote broader collaboration lead to museums that are more innovative, more responsive to change, and more likely to have a shared central purpose across its staff, volunteers, visitors, and community stakeholders—its human ecosystem. When we rethink and replace the outdated hierarchies, there is clearly a greater potential for a broader base of individuals to feel personal ownership over the meaningful work of museums in their communities.
In 2011, the Oakland Museum of California (OCMA) made major changes to their structure that resulted in a new cross-disciplinary and cross-functional model focused on visitor experience and community engagement. Referred to within OCMA as “the flower,” this new organizational structure has attempted to rid the museum of some of the barriers formed by outdated ways of operating. In 2016, their updated organizational chart had “visitor experience & public participation” at its very center, and only text references to the CEO and executive team floating around the outside. What started as a “rake” of institutional silos, according to Executive Director Lori Fogarty, became a “flower” of cross-functional teams emphasizing transparency, input, and communication. The more decentralized flower structure has positioned this civic-minded institution to better serve and engage its community. Here is Fogarty speaking at an ArtsFwd event in 2014:
But What Can I Do?
Aside from reinventing your entire museum’s organizational structure (which is awesome, but quite challenging and rare), there are smaller action steps that anyone can take within their own institution.
One way to make these types of changes happen is to work toward flattening communication and expanding participation in decision-making. Seek ideas and input from staff and colleagues on a regular basis, and you don’t have to be a manager to do this. For example, instead of using meetings to passively report out information about upcoming projects or policies, use these times to also discuss critical issues and gather input. Even a large staff meeting can be a platform for two-way communication. In addition, empower staff at all levels to participate in setting goals for their departments and for the museum. This can happen at any level of an organization, and sometimes making changes at the smaller ‘grass roots’ level of an organization can eventually lead to significant changes at the top. And involving more staff input in goal setting may take a greater investment in time across an organization, it will lead to broader feelings of ownership once those goals are being implemented and achieved on the floor with visitors. Involving staff at all levels of an organization in goal-setting and decision-making can also work toward cultivating leadership at all levels. Human-centered museums are institutions that recognize leaders across all levels and departments, not just at the top.
Finally, one important strategy for embracing a human-centered mindset in museums involves replacing outdated “org charts” with new ways of visualizing connections. Everyone reading this is probably familiar with the org charts that have each position in a box, and lines connect everyone based on management and reporting. Who manages who? Who evaluates who? Who has power over who? These charts fan out from the Director or CEO box at the top, ending at the bottom with lots of little boxes filled with part-time staff, security guards, volunteer docents, etc. Not only are these charts confusing (and oftentimes quite ugly), but they emphasize oppressive power relationships and do not accurately represent the way a museum works and how staff interact with each other.
Your museum or organization might have something that looks a bit like this:
We need to replace these old org charts with new maps that emphasize human connection and collaboration. And you don’t need to be the human resources director or CEO to give this a try. Take a piece of paper, draw a circle to represent yourself, and then begin adding in other staff, volunteers, or partners based on your working relationships with them. Who do you collaborate with on a regular basis? What working group meetings or committee meetings do you attend? What are some of the social connections you have within your organization (yes, these count, too)? Soon, you begin creating an organic map of your organization based on human relationships and connection. Maybe something a bit more like this:
Not only is this a great way to visualize and map your existing connections with others, but you can also use this as a way to identify individuals or departments in your organization that you are currently not connected with. What are some ways you might begin to develop new connections to those people? What impact might building new connections have on your work, their work, and the museum’s work in the broader community?
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 toward rethinking hierarchies and outdated structures in your organization? 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 additional 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 as well as embracing a culture of empathy.
In September 2017, I was honored to be a part of the Smith Leadership Symposium in San Diego, an annual program of the Balboa Park Cultural Partnership. Not only was this my second year being involved in this program, but I was also fortunate to be among a powerful group of presenters that included Shamell Bell (community organizer and choreographer), Milenko Matanovic (artist and community builder), and Monica Montgomery (founding director of the Museum of Impact). Throughout our conversations leading up to the symposium and that day, we shared ideas about the value of community dialogue and the role of community care in our personal and professional work.
My talk entitled “Changing the Things I Cannot Accept” was inspired, in part, by the writings of scholar and activist Angela Davis. Davis’s powerful work had been on my mind after being encouraged by a colleague to read the recently published collection of her writings and interviews entitled Freedom is a Constant Struggle. I am so grateful that this and other works by Davis made it to my ‘must read’ list, as she brings forward the urgency of feminism, intersectionality, and global solidarity to the struggles against injustice and oppression in our country.
In a speech to a gathering of Ferguson protesters in St. Louis in 2015, she stated: “Any critical engagement with racism requires us to understand the tyranny of the universal. For most of our history the very category ‘human’ has not embraced Black people and people of color. Its abstractness has been colored white and gendered male.” It is within this tyranny of the universal, the neutral, the apolitical, the fair and balanced, and the objective that my frustrations lie when it comes to the role of museums in our society and in our communities. Which brings me right back to the often-quoted words of Angela Davis:
“I’m no longer accepting the things I cannot change…. I’m changing the things I cannot accept.”
These words have resonated with me for quite some time. Not because this has become an internet meme since the election, but instead because I hear these words repeated by activists that I greatly admire and respect in my own community and beyond. And on that day of the Smith Symposium in San Diego, two of the other keynote presenters also included this exact quote from Davis in their slides.
So what are the things we can no longer accept when it comes to museum practice?
Well, for me, it is certainly not enough to lay out a laundry list of ‘things I cannot accept’ and continue to make the assumption that these are also ‘things that I cannot change.’ I think I was stuck in that long, deep rut earlier in my museum career. I still hear many museum professionals talk about “the way things are” in museums and our inability to change things from where we are located in our organization (and in these power structures, more importantly). Many of the entrenched behaviors, policies, and practices in museums are based in a whole set of false stories we tell ourselves — self-sabotaging and oppressive narratives that hold us back, maintain the status quo, and create a fearful and hesitant attitude towards change.
I came across this specific idea of recognizing our false stories in a self-help book by Jen Sincero called You Are A Badass(ok, so not everything I read is as intellectual and hard-hitting as Angela Davis). In it, Sincero writes:
“Because we’re so set in our ways and committed to our stories about who we are and what our reality looks like, we only scratch the surface of all that’s available to us every single moment.”
I’ve used Sincero’s framework in a few workshops I’ve led with museum professionals this year, working to identify the potential false stories that create barriers to change in our professional work, and then creating new powerful stories of change to replace them. In a couple instances, we made our new powerful stories of change public by writing them outside museums using sidewalk chalk (I’ll never forget how it looked to have these messages written all across the main entrance plaza to the Museum of Art & History in Santa Cruz — thanks Nina!). We have too often upheld a systemic ‘big bad no’ that has dramatically limited the potential of museums to be agents of positive social change.
Rather than simply re-hashing the same concerns and complaints over and over again, it is far more vital and urgent to take action and change these things we cannot accept. It is on us to replace these false stories with new powerful stories that envision a bold future for museums. Below is my raw attempt at creating a new set of stories that I am working to tell myself — a set of stories that can lead to action and change in the work that we do as museum professionals as well as citizens, civic leaders, and members of our communities.
This modest manifesto – first shared with the community of museum changemakers that came together for the Smith Symposium in September — brings the forces driving change in my own work out in a public, transparent, and vulnerable place. No doubt this list is incomplete, imperfect, abbreviated, and oversimplified, yet I invite readers to add on to this list, flesh it out, and help us all move forward to change the things we can no longer accept:
1. I cannot accept that museums are neutral. Museums have the potential to be relevant, socially-engaged spaces in our communities. Yet, too often, they strive to remain “above” the political and social issues that affect our lives — embracing a myth of neutrality. Well, MUSEUMS ARE NOT NEUTRAL, plain and simple. In a 2015 article entitled “The End of Neutrality: A Modest Manifesto,” scholar Robert Janes writes, “neutrality is not a foundational principle of museum practice, but rather a result of the museum’s privileged position in society.” He continues, “complacency, the absence of continuous learning, and the weight of tradition are persistent factors in the inability or unwillingness to rethink the meaning of neutrality and its implications for the role and responsibilities of museums in contemporary society.” It’s time to erase the tyranny of neutrality and move past this entrenched, limiting idea of museums.
2. I cannot accept that museums are entirely object-centered and their primary purpose is to serve and preserve their collections. Museums are human-centered institutions, in the broadest and most inclusive sense. This means more than just being visitor-centered or audience-centered. It’s a mindset that recognizes the human potential and impact of our work, externally as well as internally. It’s a mindset that has the power to inform our decisions as museum professionals (around exhibitions, programs, partnerships, budgets, security, collections management, etc.) in a way that places a spirit of human connection at the core of our thinking, rather than just the objects.
3. I cannot accept that museums function as separate from their communities. We often use language that externalizes those outside of our walls, setting up a false ‘us’ versus ‘them’ dichotomy. Museums can, instead, think of themselves as part of their communities. All museum staff, volunteers, members, donors, trustees, and partners are members of the community, and we only need to strive to be more inclusive and reflective of the broader local community.
4. I cannot accept the thought that involving community members and their knowledge in a museum’s core practices will lower the quality of content and decrease overall trust in a museum’s authority. I’ve heard this too many times. Instead, let’s repeat and amplify the words that changemaker Josh Boykin projected on the wall behind him during his entire lightning talk this summer at MuseumCamp: “Let Your Community In.” Our communities know more than we do, and we need to recognize and embrace the knowledge, creativity, and lived experiences of these communities. It’s no longer enough for museums to strive to be an essential part of their communities; we need to be working to ensure that our communities become an essential part of our museums. Quoting the transformative words of the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center’s Culture Lab Manifesto, “those who have historically been pushed to the margins hold the stories that will center our future.”
5. I cannot accept that museums do not consistently and persistently recognize the indigenous peoples on whose ancestral lands our institutions now stand. It’s time – now, today — to regularly and consistently honor the indigenous peoples of our place as well as the genealogies and hidden histories embodied in these spaces. It’s time to work toward decolonizing our institutions, and partnering with indigenous communities (artists, leaders, educators, activists) as we rethink the roles and responsibilities of museums.
6. I cannot accept that issues such as immigration, refugees, police violence, transgender rights, water, and climate change are too political for museums. Museums are inextricably linked to these complex issues that are relevant to us today, and they permeate everything we do (whether we choose to acknowledge it or not). I believe we can boldly come together around a respect for each other and the environment, rather than continue to allow these issues to divide us.
7. I cannot accept that museums still use ‘keeping their donor base happy’ as an excuse to not be socially relevant and forward thinking. This fear of losing donors and patrons is far too pervasive. No way. I’m not buying it. If museums have a clear, bold, community-based vision for inclusion and social change, donors will support this work. We need to have more trust in those individuals and foundations that support our institutions, and begin working with new funding sources specifically seeking organizations dedicated to inclusion, social change, and building stronger communities. Some supporters may leave, but new ones will join in. Like the old proverb says, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” Get that tree planted today! — And I wanted add to this a powerful, brutally-honest sentence from Brene Brown’s latest book Braving the Wilderness: “When the culture of any organization mandates that it is more important to protect the reputation of a system and those in power than it is to protect the basic human dignity of the individuals who serve that system or who are served by that system, you can be certain that the shame is systemic, the money is driving ethics, and the accountability is all but dead.”
8. I cannot accept that many museums are hesitant or afraid to proclaim that Black Lives Matter and black life matters, or work with activists in the Movement for Black Lives and other intersectional movements standing up for human rights. Museums need to unapologetically recognize and engage the brave, transformative work of the Movement for Black Lives and their vision to “move towards a world in which the full humanity and dignity of all people is recognized” (Vision for Black Lives), as well as other important movements fighting for these same basic principles of human rights. We should look toward the leadership and vision of the Ford Foundation, a global organization leading efforts to support social justice and human welfare. In their statement “Why black lives matter to philanthropy,” they bravely proclaimed, “now is the time to stand by and amplify movements rooted in love, compassion, and dignity for all people.”
9. I cannot accept that, for museums, being socially responsible is just a liberal trend. Museums have the potential to serve as agents of social change, bringing people together, contributing to local communities, and changing people’s lives. It is time for our institutions to respond to the challenges of our times by making a bigger difference. This is not a trend that involves museums starting a few new programs or pulling together an exhibition that is socially-engaged – this is a movement to re-envision the purpose of museums as collaborative, participatory, and socially responsible spaces in a way that will affect all of the work that museums do.
10. I cannot accept that we, as museum professionals and as citizens, do not fully recognize and celebrate the work we do to be inclusive, relevant, and responsive to the issues affecting the lives of our communities, our neighborhoods, our audiences, and our staff & volunteers. We must fiercely and consistently recognize the work we’re already doing to make positive change in our society and for our planet, and build communities of changemakers within and across institutions. This is some of the most meaningful, relevant work happening in museums right now, so let’s work to make these stories the central stories of our museums. People across our institutions—not just educators but directors, curators, marketing staff, board members, donors, etc.—need to be publicly and visibly proud of the programs, exhibitions, projects, and strategic & structural changes that actively embrace equity, unheard stories, dialogue about provocative questions, and the diverse and rich lived experiences of those living in our communities. More comprehensive support for this work can lead to an expanded focus on social impact and community partnership in a museum’s strategic goals and mission, in its exhibition and program planning process, in its staffing and hiring decisions, and in its overall allocation of resources.
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In his introduction to Freedom Is a Constant Struggle, journalist and activist Frank Barat brings light to an unexpected key aspect of activism and change: trying. “Trying to change the world…,” he writes, “That is victory in itself.”
“Everyone and everything tells you that ‘outside’ you will not succeed, that it is too late, that we live in an epoch where a revolution cannot happen anymore. Radical changes are a thing of the past. You can be an outsider, but not outside the system, and you can have political beliefs, even radical ones, but they need to stay within the bounds of the permissible, inside that bubble that has been drawn for you by the elites.”
Time to break outside that bubble, and be an active part of creating a new, radical future for museums.
Written by Sarah Watkins, Canadian Museum for Human Rights
Reposted with permission from the Canadian Museum for Human Rights blog, the institution’s online presence for stories about the museum and its exhibitions, programs, education programs, and other news. Check it out, and learn more about the exciting work happening at the CMHR. Original post by Sarah Watkins, September 3, 2016.
I have always believed that museums are powerful places. Visiting a well-done exhibit can help us to grow by opening our minds and hearts to ideas that we may never have even considered. For me, the travelling exhibition Sight Unseen: International Photography by Blind Artistsis a perfect example of this.
On display at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights until September 18th, Sight Unseen showcased the photography of acclaimed international artists, all of whom have varying levels of vision loss. I was fortunate enough to work with some of these artists to create a lecture series called Shooting Blind, which explored the idea of taking photos without the use of sight. Now that I can reflect on this experience, I have come to realize that this exhibition and these artists have helped me to discover a new perspective on photography and ability.
What is really interesting about Sight Unseen is that the art seems familiar but foreign at the same time. In today’s world, everyone takes photos – at home with family, out with friends, on our cellphones and tablets and with our digital cameras. The act of taking photographs has become commonplace, and for this reason we can all connect with this exhibition. The artists in this show, however, aren’t just taking photos or documenting a moment in time; they are communicating a message. They think very deeply and consciously about what they are going to photograph.
I used to take thousands of photos with my digital camera in an attempt to capture the exact thing that I was seeing with my eyes. Now, because of this exhibition, I have a different perspective. I take fewer photos, but I think more deeply about each one. I look beyond what is in front of me and consider why I am taking the photo. Am I trying to capture an image of the bridge, or the way that the evening light creates patterns out of shadows that reflect the shape of their source? Is it the fog on the water that is most interesting, or the stillness that it communicates the minute before I jump in the lake for a morning swim?
After visiting Sight Unseen, I see the photographs in a new way. When I look at the photo created by Evgen Bavčar that shows an outstretched hand touching the face of a stone statue, I no longer see just the objects. Rather, I see the careful exploration and discovery of something unknown. I can’t help but think of the artist, exploring the world in ways that I could never imagine, through the sense of touch. Similarly, I used to think of the amazing light paintings created by Pete Eckert as abstract art. His photographs created in a completely dark room with flashlights and other light sources seemed random. Now, the swirling colours and rays of light make me think of energy. Each model is represented differently, the colours and patterns as unique as the person they are highlighting. To me, this sense of energy was something previously imperceptible until Pete showed it to me through his work.
This change in perspective has me questioning what it means to be “able” to do something. If photography isn’t about sight, then maybe dancing isn’t always about what we do with our legs, and speaking isn’t always about sounds coming out of our mouths. This is the lesson that I have learned from Sight Unseen. There is more about us that is the same than different, so no matter what our differences are, we all deserve to have our humanity, dignity and rights respected in the same way.
*Sarah Watkins is a Interpretive Program Developer for the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.
Header Image: Gerardo Nigenda, Entre lo invisible y lo tangible, llegando a la homeostasis emocional (Reaching Emotional Equilibrium Between the Invisible and the Tangible).
“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)