Editor’s Note: I was recently interviews by Alexia Jacques Casanova in advance of this October’s Communicating the Arts (CTA) conference in Montreal, Canada. Hosted by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, this year’s conference brings leaders in museums, education, and the arts together to discuss key issues around well-being, empathy, and community involvement. I am grateful for the opportunity to be a part of these conversations at CTA this fall.
The interview below was first published via LinkedIn on August 12, 2019.
Written by Alexia Jacques Casanova
In the past few years, we have seen a few museums initiating a shift from operating and presenting themselves as collection-centered institutions to human-centered organizations. This transition is a daunting task that requires developing and implementing new strategies and work practices at all levels of the institution. I had the opportunity to ask Mike Murawski — Director of Learning and Community Partnerships at the Portland Art Museum— a few questions about how art institutions can move towards more community-centered practices. Here are a few thoughts he shared with me.
Using words wisely
A little less than a year ago, Mike Murawski’s department at the Portland Art Museum changed its name from “Department of Education and Public Programs” to “Learning and Community Partnerships” with the aim to “more accurately reflect [their] core goals and values.” Through this intentional switch in vocabulary from “Education” to “Learning” the Portland Art Museum seeks to cultivate “a more open, inclusive, and active process that everyone and anyone can be involved in.”
For those of you who have attended Communicating the Arts conferences before, you probably know that the use of the word “community” has been a hot topic among attendees in the past few years. What do we mean, among arts professionals, when we say “community”? Is it just another word for “minorities” or “locals”?
At the Portland Art Museum, teams strive to be intentional about the words they choose. As part of that process, they have explored and questioned the different ways in which they use the term “community”. “When we are thinking about community, we’re prioritizing individuals and groups who have largely been excluded from participating in and shaping our institution over the last 125 years,” explains Murawski.
He and his team are also dedicated to breaking the barriers between “museum” and “community”, challenging the (false) idea that “a museum’s ‘community’ exists outside the walls of the institution.” Murawski argues that the us/them separation is an outdated mindset that art institutions need to overcome if they wish to focus on community-centered work.
Becoming better listeners
“When we try to be a better listener on an individual level,” says Murawski “it’s important to learn how to pause our own internal voice.” Murawski rightly points out that lending an attentive ear to others requires letting go of our assumptions, our fears, “and the stories we’re telling ourselves.”
According to him, the same is true for museums and institutions. He argues that too often, museum professionals don’t listen to communities “because they have told themselves the false story that community knowledge is not valuable” and that letting communities participate in the creation or curation of content in museums could somehow lessen its overall quality. “We have to erase that false story,” says Murawski. Echoing Dr Margi Ash Brown’s suggestion that arts professional should stop considering themselves as “experts” but rather, as “facilitator” or “collaborator”, Murawski believes that cultivating empathy and deep listening with our communities is an opportunity to change our institutions in radical and positive ways.
Taking a stand and speaking up
A couple years ago, Mike Murawski and La Tanya Autry were exchanging on Twitter about their shared frustrations regarding the false claims of neutrality within museums institutions. “We had joked that it would make a great t-shirt, and then we decided to go ahead and make it happen.” The “Museums Are Not Neutral” tee-shirt campaign was born. Murawski cites the work of many other fellow museum workers as inspiration for this movement, particularly those dedicated to dismantling racism and oppression in cultural institutions. He cites the #MuseumsRespondToFerguson movement, led by Adrianne Russell and Aleia Brown following the murder of Michael Brown by police in 2014 as “a pivotal call to action for museums [which] sparked a necessary debate about the role of museums in activism and social justice.”
The tee-shirt sales have allowed Murawski and Autry to raise over $15,000 for social justice charities and non-profits organizations including the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Community Foundation of Greater Flint. “Museums can be powerful agents of social change in our communities, and it’s up to us to make this happen together,” says Murawski.
Mike Murawski will be speaking about “the power of listening and building community-centered practices at the museum” during the upcoming Communicating the Arts conference, October 8-10 in Montreal.
Over the past year, our news cycles and social media exchanges have often seemed to be platforms for increasingly one-way communication. People of all political affiliations are using what tools they have to share their ideas as fully formed faits accomplis. Should anyone try to question or discuss those ideas, the tone of the discourse often devolves even further, with the result that little–if any–empathy or understanding is reached.
This was the state of affairs last spring and summer, when Lenka Clayton and Jon Rubin’s . . . circle through New York project sent six different items and ideas rotating through six different locations around Manhattan, the Bronx, and Queens. In July, the Guggenheim hosted “A Call to Action against Social Injustice,” a thoughtful appeal composed by St. Philip’s Church in Harlem. An interdepartmental team of curators and educators came together to brainstorm ideas for how to take action in response, and after some discussion, we decided to focus in on this section: “Always be just as ready to listen as you are emboldened to speak out for or against others.”
As the Manager of Public Engagement at the Guggenheim, I train and manage a number of educators who regularly talk with our visitors. I encourage the educators to be participants in two-way conversations, not experts delivering one-way content. To respond to the call to action, we embraced that idea and decided to make our visitors the experts, with museum staff as their attentive listeners.
We crafted a question to ask our visitors that’s been on the minds of many museum workers: What roles can cultural institutions play in times of social and political change?
Then we put out an invitation to any interested Guggenheim staff, especially those who don’t usually interact directly with visitors. Who wanted to head out into our galleries to pose this question to visitors and record what they said in response? Nineteen staff members from six different departments (Education, Curatorial, Marketing, Security, Library & Archives, and Development) volunteered. Since many of these staffers were nervous about opening themselves up to these conversations—after all, we were asking people to discuss a sensitive topic with strangers where the answers might be directly opposed to their own thoughts and feelings—we hired Keonna Hendrick, a cultural strategist and educator, to provide some professional (and personal) development sessions.
All of the participants were required to attend one of Keonna’s training sessions, where she focused on techniques for listening, even when we might not agree. We also encouraged our staff to truly embody that role of listener, to encourage and record visitors’ thoughts without judgment and without engaging in debate, giving our visitors the metaphorical microphone.
With these tools and guidelines under their belts, the staff volunteers went out into the galleries for a total of about forty hours of listening to our visitors. Over that period, we learned that out of nearly two hundred responding visitors, significant percentages of them see museums as places for dialogue, for learning, for sanctuary, and for direct social engagement. Sometimes these desires are at odds with each other. To me, that is the value of hearing what our visitors have to say. They are not a monolithic group, and they look to museums to play different roles in their lives. Here are a few of the things they told us:
“A cultural institution becomes a venue for creative minds to showcase the social and political change of every era.”
“Culture can’t be divorced from politics and cultural institutions must reflect this! Especially now, reflect back and uplift the voices of the vulnerable—communities of color, women, immigrants, LGBTQI, etc.”
“Dare [to] criticize and challenge left-wing orthodoxy.”
I like to think that in addition to getting direct contact with our visitors’ points of view, our staff gained another benefit from their participation in . . . circle through New York. When it came time to gather feedback from them on how it felt to take part in this listening action, many of them shared an appreciation for the direct visitor insights, but just as many referenced the listening itself as their most powerful or significant takeaway. One staffer noted, “The biggest takeaway for me from this experience was the act of listening . . . We need more communication that is free from judgment and mutually respectful.” Another remarked, “The training workshop was really helpful for me and I am finding it applicable in work and life.”
At a time when so much of our public discourse is aggressive or aggrieved, hurting or hurtful, with little in between, I’m holding onto the lessons from our month of listening. I have outlined our process here, hoping that other museums might be able to adapt this approach to learn from their own visitors and foster real-time, face-to-face conversation.
Here’s to meaningful listening, in 2018 and beyond.
RACHEL ROPEIK: Manager of Public Engagement at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Previously, she served as a museum educator at the Brooklyn Museum and the Museum of Modern Art; a Smarthistory contributor; and cultural docent for Context Travel. She holds a B.A. from Wellesley College, M.A. from the Courtauld Institute of Art, and her current professional interests are in the places where accessibility, technology, and multi-modal learning intersect with art museums. She can also perform a passable jazz dance routine and tell you a dissertation’s worth about 19th century European menswear.
I am not usually in the habit of writing about projects that are in-progress or incomplete. However, in the wake of the current upheaval our country is experiencing, I feel compelled to share a powerful and cathartic moment I had recently in relation to our two-year Student/Community Curatorial Education Project that we are only just beginning.
First, a bit more about the project. Here at the Samek Art Museum, a Bucknell University-affiliated museum in rural central Pennsylvania, we’ve been working for the past six months on an exhibition that is curated by Bucknell students with input from the local community with generous financial support from the Maurer Family Foundation. By “students,” I am referring to our Museum Guides in particular, paid work-study employees who serve as part gallery attendant, part roving docent. Our goal is to provide a platform for our constituents to have a say in our exhibition planning while also bridging the very real town/gown divide that exists here, often referred to colloquially as the “Bucknell bubble.” As the Public Programs and Outreach Manager for the Museum, I’m responsible for the aspects of this project related to community outreach and exhibition interpretation, while our Director shapes the curatorial elements of the project.
The first phase of the project involved organizing a meeting with our Museum Guides and a small group of community members to try to suss out issues that were most important to our local community. We were aided immensely in recruiting the community members by the Buffalo Valley Recreation Authority, an organization that is deeply embedded in the region. Prior to the meeting, our Museum Guides developed interview questions for the community members intended to elicit narratives and encourage empathy–a process directly inspired by design thinking, which has been written about on this site before. Our goal was to move through the first three steps of the design thinking process, from empathy, to definition, to ideation. Community members would interview each other using the questions developed by the Guides, then we’d come back as a group to brainstorm and refine the process to start developing big ideas about important community issues.
Following the first meeting, the Guides would prototype and test exhibition ideas at a later date with further input from the community.
And then the election happened.
Suddenly, the interview questions that the Guides developed weeks before the election, such as “are there any current events happening right now that you think are most impactful to the region?” or “What would you change about the local community and why?” took on a completely new meaning and sense of urgency.
Not knowing what to expect, we went into the first community meeting bravely, ready to have tough conversations if need be. At the beginning, our discussion focused on how we are even defining what constitutes this community. At first glance, our location in the central Susquehanna valley region often looks fairly uniform—quaint, Victorian-era towns surrounded by rolling hills and farmlands. However, as the community members pointed out, the region is anything but homogenous, with each town informed by a sense of identity often tied to the industry that led to its settlement. For instance, Lewisburg, the home of Bucknell, is shaped most by the influence of the University; the town of Williamsport began as a lumber town; and Mifflinburg’s past and present is informed by its former role as a “buggy town.” Beyond these divisions, towns often have different boroughs or townships, each with their unique sense of identity as well, as many of the community members reminded us.
As the conversation shifted towards the election, stories of discrimination emerged. One community member who has lived in the region her whole life brought up racist bullying that she witnessed in grade school in Mifflinburg. Another community member brought up one of many examples of unintentional racism that she witnesses frequently in living here. I was dismayed to hear our Director, who identifies as queer, mention that, while he has faced discrimination in big cities, he experienced an act of discrimination here that took a more “physical” form. A common theme seemed to be that the community—already divided—would become more so as a result of the election.
I should mention at this point that our group of community members could hardly be called diverse. All were white women in their thirties or forties, and though I have no idea how they voted, all were quick to condemn the violence and racism that President-elect Trump courted openly during his campaign. While this lack of diversity is something we will work to correct in future community meetings, it is telling that our small group most likely ran counter to a lot of what has been said recently about the impact of rural communities in this election.
A way forward
One narrative to emerge from the election is that liberal coastal elites failed to listen to the impoverished rural heartland (though certainly this has shown repeatedly to be a false narrative, as many of Trump’s supports come from middle to upper-middle class suburbs). We have the opportunity to run counter to this false narrative as a fairly liberal, certainly elite, and often-coastal (at least in its student demographic, if not in its location) institution that was already in the process of letting its rural constituents in on our conversation before the election. Conversely, this community also has the opportunity to have a voice and stand out against this narrative as well in helping us shape this exhibition.
Though I am focusing mostly on negative aspects of the local community that have surfaced in response to the election, I must stress that many of the comments that came out of our discussion were positive about the benefits of living in rural, small-town PA. A particularly insightful response came from a community member who mentioned that, in a small town where everyone knows everybody else, it is easy to spontaneously, organically, and quickly organize. I can only hope that our finished exhibition can serve as a catalyst for this type of fluid community organization.
In a post-meeting journal response, Museum Guide Jillian Crooks, responded:
“The attendants confirmed my belief that people who are the most involved in community projects and activities are more interested in new projects and events. The women in attendance all seemed heavily interested in making Lewisburg better and more inclusive. This wasn’t surprising, but it was heartwarming.”
Some final thoughts
One of the larger questions that has come out of this election for Bucknell faculty is whether it is important to suspend academic neutrality when faced with a political perspective that is:
Objectively wrong, or
Violates other norms of greater importance, such as respecting the dignity and rights of others.
While I agree with the AAM’s stance on the importance of continuing to foster bipartisan support for our institutions, I think it is also critical to try to disentangle those aspects of partisanship that go against the caveats mentioned above. As educators, we have a responsibility to present and encourage evidence-based interpretations of our exhibitions and collections, and to foster inclusivity and diversity in our spaces and in our conversations with visitors.
Though I am pleased to share our Student/Community Curatorial Education Project as a case study, I welcome discussions (via Comments below, as well as on social media) on how to go about accomplishing the incredibly difficult task of disentangling partisanship from our ethical responsibilities as museum educators.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
GREG STUART is the Public Programs and Outreach Manager at the Samek Art Museum, Bucknell University where he is responsible for the Museum’s educational programs, public programs, events, and marketing. Prior to joining Bucknell, he worked as a museum educator at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Portland Art Museum in Oregon, the Portland Museum of Contemporary Craft, and Loyola University’s Museum of Art in Chicago. He has taught art history classes at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Portland State University, and Concordia University Portland. He holds an MA in Modern and Contemporary Art History, Theory, and Criticism from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a BA in Art History and English from Loyola University Chicago.
Reposted and revised from MuseumNext, a global conference on the future of museums which has acted as a platform for showcasing best practice today to shine a light on the museum of tomorrow. Check out more details about the upcoming conference in New York by visiting their new website.
MuseumNext is very much a collaboration which brings together museum professionals to share what they feel is important and exciting, that is true of the presentations and workshops which our community propose through our call for papers and through the other activities which form our conference fringe.
Mike Murawski, Director of Education & Public Programs at Portland Art Museum, challenged us to build a Museum Social Action Project into the program and offered along with Monica Montgomery to make the project happen.
MuseumNext asked Mike to tell us more about this exciting project:
How did the Museum Social Action Project come about?
At a time when museum professionals are increasingly thinking about the social impact of museums as well as the role these institutions play within our local communities, it seemed urgent to get outside the ‘bubble’ of the conference and more directly engage with organizations responding to local realities.
I was invited to present at the MuseumNext conference in New York on the topic of enacting change in museums and converting talk into action, so it felt necessary to get outside the conference venue and ‘walk the walk.’ Not having a strong familiarity with the local communities across New York, I immediately reached out to Monica Montgomery (MuseumHue, Museum of Impact) to explore this idea of a Museum Social Action Project.
Monica and I brainstormed about some possible ideas, and she connected us with the team at The Laundromat Project, an amazing organization that works to bring socially engaged arts programming to laundromats and other everyday community spaces.
Why should a museum conference try and facilitate something like this?
As museum professionals, it is vital that we enact a mindset of giving back and supporting grassroots organizations like The Laundromat Project that strengthen our communities. Each and every professional conference should be focusing more on how it can be connected and relevant to the place of its convening, and not just think about locations as conference hotels and convention centers.
Conference sessions, panels, and topics can certainly be more grounded in the realities and issues of the conference’s city and neighborhoods, but I think it’s important to get outside the walls of the conference, explore direct ways to see our ideas in action, and be a responsible part of building stronger communities (beyond the spotlight of the conference).
What is The Laundromat Project?
Launched in 2006, The Laundromat Projectbrings socially relevant and socially engaged arts programming to laundromats and other everyday community spaces in order to reach as many of our neighbors as possible. The LP’s artists and staff work to amplify the creativity that already exists within communities by using arts and culture to build community networks, solve problems, and enhance the sense of ownership in the places where we live, work, and grow. The LP is particularly committed to long-term and sustained investment in communities of color as well as those living on modest incomes.
Their Kelly Street Initiative was launched in 2016 in partnership with Workforce Housing Group, Kelly Street Garden, and Banana Kelly Community Improvement Association, transforming a 2 bedroom-apartment on Kelly Street in Longwood, South Bronx, into a thriving creative community hub, with artist studios, arts programming, and community partnerships that allow The LP to engage the larger Kelly Street community. We are honored to be collaborating with Hatuey Ramos-Fermín, The LP’s Director of Programs & Community Engagement, to build this Museum Social Action Project together for MuseumNext.
What’s the project that you’re doing?
Participants attending this Museum Social Action Project will meet staff and artists at The Laundromat Project, learn about their various projects and programs, and tour the Kelly Street Initiative location as well as learn more about that neighborhood. LP staff and artists will then lead a short workshop and discussion on how organizations can learn more about a neighborhood’s capacities, creativity, and skills through community asset mapping.
Participants will also discuss ways to build a sustained investment in community partnerships, rather than one-sided outreach efforts or one-time program offerings. As a vital part of this project, we also ask that participants find a way to give back to The Laundromat Project and help them create more joyful spaces of creativity and community. Participants can do this by bringing an art supply Gift Card from Dick Blick or by donating directly to the Laundromat Project online (which I strongly encourage people to do, even if you are not involved in this project or the MuseumNext conference).
What do you think the delegates will get out of it?
The aim is for delegates attending the Museum Social Action Project to be able to gain a more concrete understanding of community-based practices, of how cultural organizations can serve as sites of social action and relevance, of how museums and arts non-profits can bring people together a work to build stronger, more resilient communities. They will gain skills from The LP staff and from each other around community asset mapping, and really listening to local community voices.
What impact can the project have?
For me, personally, there are a few big “what if’s” at the heart of this type of Museum Social Action Project. I know that museums and cultural organizations across the world are striving to be an essential part of their communities; but what if our communities could become an essential part of our institutions? What if we could effectively re-center this movement for change around our local communities and the power, knowledge, creativity, and capacities that they can bring to our institutions? What if conferences and professional gatherings spent more time doing and less time talking?
I don’t think we’ll achieve this all at our half-day Museum Social Action Project this November in New York, but I hope others are inspired to do similar types of projects and experiences, getting outside the walls of our conferences and harnessing the power of museum professionals to learn from and give back to our communities.
The Museum Social Action Project is one of the fringe activities for MuseumNext New York City. The conference takes place 14 – 16 November 2016 at the BMCC Tribeca Performing Arts Center. Find out more about the conference here.
What can museums learn from approaches, models, and practices in other fields? How are we continuing to frame and define empathy and relevance in museum programming? Are we doing the research, making the connections, and learning from what else is out there?
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I love good storytelling on the radio – whether listening to NPR as a child in the back seat of my Dad’s car, pulling over to a parking lot to catch the end of StoryCorps, or indulging in a podcast while I fold laundry. I love a good story; it’s partly why I love history. Last month, I attended a live event about Out of the Blocks, a documentary series on my local NPR station. The pieces began to fall together for me and I started considering this radio program in relation to dialogue-based museum programming.
Out of the Blocks is a program from WYPR 88.1 FM in Baltimore, Maryland. Based on the simple concept of sharing the stories of people living on one block in Baltimore, radio producer Aaron Henkin and music producer Wendel Patrick create a series of episodes that present captivating narratives of real life. After interviewing everyone on one city block, they edit together interviews into one hour of radio that is lovely to listen to – opening perspective, building empathy and understanding. The show and podcast are well worth checking out; it’s truly amazing to hear interviewees share stories and see how editing, soundscape and production buoy those narratives.
However, it was the live event that really got me thinking. On stage, in real time, Baltimoreans whom Henkin and Patrick interviewed spoke about the project. Interviewees shared their first impressions of Henkin and Patrick, talked about being interviewed and, most movingly, what it was like to hear their own stories and voices in the final program on the radio. In front of a sold out auditorium of listeners and fans, many of them shared that it was both frightening and empowering to experience what eventually aired.
In his opening remarks, Henkin described the show as an experiment in radical empathy – the idea that everyone has a story that is worth telling and that the process of having people intently listen to that story feels good – it makes you feel like you matter. Producing this show is intensive and involves selecting a block to focus on, meeting and building relationships with everyone on that block, conducting hour long interviews with each person, editing all of those interviews into one episode and building the musical backdrop that amplifies and supports those stories. In the end, Henkin shared that he imagined each block as a mosaic of experiences and stories and, indeed, the city of Baltimore as a larger mosaic of those city blocks.
The deeply specific and site-based nature of the work
The collaboration between documentarian and sound artist
The relationships built through the process – between the producers, interviewees, neighbors and a broader community of listeners
In late September, I visited two major history museums in town with a friend– the Baltimore Museum of Industry and the Maryland Historical Society. In the galleries, there are glimpses of the “Baltimore mosaic” Henkin described, visible in the form of a personal object with a particularly evocative story behind it, a student curated show featuring photographs of the process of historical inquiry and research, or an exhibit designed as an immersive environment – transporting one through theatrical techniques to a different time and place. Yet, there weren’t nearly enough of those provocative and arresting personal stories that tether historical events to the experiences of real people.
When we teach in history museums and exhibitions, we sometimes get caught up in the intoxication of historical documents, artifacts, objects and buildings to the detriment of the emotional, personal, story-driven voice of those who experienced a place or event. Sometimes this may be because it’s hard to find voices, particularly of those not present in the historical record. And there is a sense of the need for “neutrality.” But even if we can’t necessarily “interview” people who are long gone, we as a field benefit from a continuous reminder about the power of visceral, real stories from real people – especially in the face of larger interpretive narratives that address the history of organizations, nations and institutions. There is power in specificity, and scaled, personal and connective stories.
Ideas I am walking away with
Here are some reminders and lessons I’m taking away from Out of the Blocks:
Relationship building. It takes a long time to create an episode of Out of the Blocks (about 8 weeks). The commitment to interview everyone on one block, each person for an hour, takes time. And there is also time spent hanging out and getting to know the people on that block. This may be part of why interviewees feel comfortable sharing their stories.
The power of storytelling and the importance of transparency. The power of storytelling isn’t new. But at the Out of the Blocks live event I was reminded of how powerful it is to know the “backstory.” Hearing directly from both producers and interviewees added depth, nuance and made clear that the project was meaningful to everyone: the producers and the interviewees.
The notion of sharing and listening as radical empathy. There is power to both sharing stories and having them heard. As staff at institutions and cultural organizations, we need to remember both pieces – dialogue is both talking and listening.
What if we applied the same intensive techniques Henkin and Patrick use to interpreting our historic buildings, sites and spaces? What if in the same ways they interviewed everyone living on one city block during one moment in time, we “interviewed” everyone who lived in one place through time –the people who occupied the space before a building was built, the people who built the building, the people who worked in the building, renovated, occupied and used a space in different ways through time, and the people who are there now, in the neighborhood. In this way, we might get closer to addressing the mythology of the “period of interpretation” as Frank Vagnone writes in his blog and the Anarchist’s Guide of Historic House Museums, co-authored with Deborah Ryan.
At one point in during the live event, Henkin shared that he and Patrick have been asked about the agenda for this series. What did they want to get out of this? What were they hoping for? Their response has been that there is no agenda but that if there were one, it would be to just show up and listen. What would it look like if museums just showed up and listened? What kinds of exhibitions, programs, partnerships and relationships might materialize? What can we in museums learn about programming and story from this kind of work? What examples of similar approaches in museums, libraries, at historic sites have you seen? Let’s amplify them.
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About the Author
BETH MALONEY works as an independent consultant, bringing educational expertise to museums and cultural organizations in the form of curriculum and program development, interpretation, visitor experience planning and professional training. In addition to partnering with a wide range of museums and historic sites, she teaches undergraduate courses that explore museum work and learning through the Program in Museums and Society at Johns Hopkins University. Former Board member and Past President of the Museum Education Roundtable, Beth serves as a peer reviewer for the Journal of Museum Education. For more information and to be in touch, please visit www.bethmaloney.com.
Header Image: Photo by Wendel Patrick. Aaron Henkin conducting an interview for “OUT OF THE BLOCKS,” 2012, photo courtesy the artists.
Photos included in this post are by Wendel Patrick, used courtesy of the artist.
What is the social and emotional responsibility of museums, especially as many public institutions strive to be a vital part of their local communities?
How can our collections and exhibitions help visitors critically and thoughtfully engage with present-day realities?
How do museums decide which political or social issues to engage with, and which ones to be silent about?
If these issues don’t directly relate to something in our galleries, can museums still be a site for people to gather and grapple with these difficult topics?
And finally—perhaps the biggest and most provocative question—can museums be neutral in all of this? What is the value, if any, of remaining silent?
These questions—and many more—are being asked this summer at the museum I work for, the Portland Art Museum, which recently opened two exhibitions that relate directly to the politically charged realities of our time: an immersive multimedia project by artist Josh Kline entitled Freedom, and a focus exhibition of the work of Portland artist Arvie Smith. As we personally responded to the news cycles of the summer, we wondered how our visitors might bring their feelings of anger, fear, grief, pain, hope, love, and healing to their experience with these exhibitions and our collection. Should we do anything different, or just allow the art to spark that connection on its own with the people who happen to visit?
After a few rapidly planned cross-departmental meetings combined with some unplanned hallway conversations, the general consensus was to do something. One of our attempted strategies, among others, was to develop a guide to support productive conversation and dialogue in the galleries. After all, the idea of ‘conversation’ has been such a core value for gallery teaching at our institution for many years, as well as for my own personal teaching practice (see “Reflecting on the Learning Power of Conversation in Museums”).
I am writing this post to share the prototype of our Have Conversations Here Guide, and talk briefly about the various resources that I pulled together to develop the text of this guide. While I know that this guide is far from perfect, I am such a fan of an ‘open source’ mindset and just simply getting it out there. I welcome productive feedback, other useful resources, and both success and failure stories for when others have experimented with strategies like this.
But before discussing the Guide in more detail, it only makes sense to provide a bit more information about the Kline and Smith exhibitions that essentially sparked this extended thinking about productive dialogue here at our museum.
Art Provokes Conversations
Taking up an entire floor of the museum’s modern and contemporary wing, Josh Kline’s exhibition Freedom explores issues of social justice activism, policing, surveillance technologies, and corporate/government power. The work includes video monitors; a recreation of Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan (a space taken over by Occupy Wall Street in 2011); life-size sculptures of police officers in tactical gear with Teletubby heads; videos embedded in the torsos of the police figures that include Black Lives Matter activists and retired police officers; and an installation of replicated donuts bearing police crests, handcuffs, asphalt, and broken auto glass. Inspired by his own participation in the Occupy movement, Kline asks visitors to confront the recent past and its repercussions, while contemplating our roles as citizens in this pivotal moment when the uses of technology, notions of privacy, and the social order are rapidly shifting.
In a different part of the museum, the brightly-colored paintings of Arvie Smith draw subject matter directly from his own African American roots and lived experience. A key work in the exhibition is Smith’s Strange Fruit (1992), depicting the lynching of a young black man by two robed KKK members, and borrowing its title from the Abel Meeropol song made famous by Billie Holiday. Additional works such as Hands Up Don’t Shoot (2015) include stereotyped caricatures of African Americans like Aunt Jemima and direct references to police violence and the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014.
Both Smith and Kline clearly see their work as intended to spark conversation and dialogue around these challenging issues, inviting visitors to not only grapple with the imagery and subject matter of their work but also with the connected realities of the world we are experiencing every day. In an interview with Portland Monthly Magazine, Kline talks about the relationship of activism and art, and the role he sees his art playing:
“Art doesn’t directly change the world. It provokes conversations and gives people space to think about their world in ways that aren’t usually possible through mass media, but it doesn’t have the power to topple corrupt governments or feed the hungry. Art operates via the ripple effect and through indirect influence. As an artist, I feel fortunate to have a public platform right now and I want to use it to speak out about issues that I feel are important—while at the same time making work that reflects the human experience in the present.”
Along these same lines, Smith discusses the importance of dialogue in an interview with the museum:
“I think everybody comes to these strong emotional situations from their own frame of reference, and I’m going to see things one way, someone else is going to see it another way—doesn’t mean I’m right; doesn’t mean their right or wrong. We have a difference of opinion. And, somewhere, through dialogue, hopefully, we can come together & make this a better world to live in.”
Developing a Conversation Guide
As part of our multifaceted conversations about how to support our visitors in having meaningful, respectful dialogue here at the museum (and after their visit), I spent time researching and developing a Conversation Guide that we could share. I scoured all of my existing resources on teaching, critical pedagogy, community activism, and museum learning, and printed out dozens of training manuals and facilitation guides that related directly to having conversations about difficult topics. My desk was completely covered.
After drafting up an extensive multi-page guide that included far too much text and too many prompts, I edited it all down until it fit on one single page. I sent this off to a few amazing colleagues at other museums, handed it to fellow staff at my museum, shared it with a few key community members, met with our director, and brought together all their feedback to create the final prototype: Have Conversations Here. We uploaded it to our website on the Visit page and emailed it to all staff and docents. I also began handing it out at programs and events developed through specific community outreach efforts related to these exhibitions, including the PDX Social Justice Community Art Project and a panel discussion “Race in America After Ferguson” with Rev. Traci Blackmon from Christ the King United Church of Christ in Florissant, Missouri.
As you’ll quickly notice, the key sources of inspiration and content for this guide included Hillel International’s Ask Big Questions, the Public Conversations Project, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance Project, the curriculum resources of Teaching for Change, and PBS’ Talking with Kids guides, especially their guide for Talking with Kids about the News. If you are not familiar with any of these project and resources, I highly recommend you check them out and share them with your staff or colleagues. I have been a huge fan of Ask Big Questions for years, and I found the field manuals from the Public Conversations Project to be incredibly detailed and useful (for creating this guide, as well as for my own professional practice).
I am pasting the full text of this Have Conversations Here guide below in this blog post, so anyone can use any portion of this without needing to surgically remove it from a PDF. I hope that some of you find this useful, and perhaps might use some of this content in your own museums (if you do, let me know, and please continue to cite the sources for this guide).
I couldn’t end this post without including the following quote from curator Michael Brenson (which sadly didn’t make it into the guide); a quote that has resonated with me for years and best represents what I value about the powerful kinds of conversations we can facilitate in museums.
“In the best conversations, no one is used; ownership is shared. Everyone leaves with a sense that the ideas exchanged belong to each person present. Everyone also leaves respecting those who were part of the exchange, whether or not there was agreement. For me, conversation does make connections, it helps make connection possible.”
You are welcome to talk and have conversations here at the museum. We encourage you to use the galleries throughout the museum as spaces for dialogue, while always remaining respectful of all visitors. Explore together, look closely, and find a place within the museum to sit and talk about what you see and experience.
Dialogue is a powerful mode of conversation that genuinely seeks mutual understanding. It can occur between friends, co-workers, family members, and even among strangers. And it can certainly occur between people who do not share the same experiences, perspectives, or ideas. Learning to listen carefully and disagree respectfully are essential skills in today’s world.
Share your views.
Listen with care.
“Talking in museums is one of the things that makes them matter, and the way in which we talk in museums is one of the things that define for us what they are.” – Adam Gopnik, writer
EXPLORE THE GALLERIES
Consider visiting artworks on view that more directly explore some of the politically- and socially-charged issues we see in the news today, including policing, racial violence, stereotypes, and social justice activism.
Take some time to experience these artworks, think about your responses, and have a conversation with someone else in which you share your perspective and listen to theirs. Consider these questions:
How have events related to these issues affected you personally?
What life experiences of your own might connect with the work by these artists?
How are these artists challenging you?
If you’ve used this guide to spark any conversations with others—whether during or after your visit to the museum—think about any insights you’ve gained and how you might extend this experience.
Have you noticed anything new about yourself and how you view the world?
How might these conversations help you better understand someone else’s perspective?
How might you create more opportunities for reflection and dialogue?
TALKING & LISTENING STRATEGIES FOR FAMILIES
Talking about issues of social justice and violence with kids can be challenging. Children are curious and constantly ask questions about the world around them. In one breath, they might ask about a range of topics — from the weather to something they heard on the news. Whether at home, in the car, or here at the museum, it can be difficult to know how respond when difficult questions come up.
To help support these types of conversations here at the museum for all ages, we wanted to offer a few flexible suggestions. These strategies might help your family talk together about some of the socially- or politically-charged artworks you might encounter during your visit to the museum.
Start by finding out what your child knows.
When a difficult issue comes up, ask an open-ended question like “What have you heard about it?” This encourages your child to let you know what they are thinking.
Ask a follow up question.
Depending on your child’s comments, ask another question to get them thinking, such as “Why do you think that happened?” or “What do you think people should do to help?”
Give children the information they need to know in a way that makes sense to them. At times, a few sentences are enough.
Listen and acknowledge.
If a child sees or hears something that might worry and upset them, recognize their feelings and comfort them. This acknowledges your child’s feelings, helps them feel secure, and encourages them to tell you more.
(Adapted from “Talking with Kids about the News,” a resource for parents available online at pbs.org/parents/talkingwithkids/news)
This guide draws from the following projects and resources to develop these strategies to promote active, productive dialogue and reflection. Learn more by visiting the websites listed here:
Featured Header Image: Artist Demian DinéYazhi’ leading a conversation in the galleries of the Portland Art Museum’s Center for Contemporary Native Art with participants in the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) program. Photo by Cody Maxwell.
Written by David Bowles, Assistant Museum Educator for School Programs, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Cross-posted with Museum Questions, a blog authored by Rebecca Herz that is dedicated to questions about museums and thoughts on creating a reflective practice.
This blog post is about listening and reflection. As a museum educator, my job is to listen. On a good tour, I learn about as much about art from visitors as they learn from me. I also learn something about their lives. But often it seems like these moments evaporate. So for the past two years, I have been posting some of the most indelible teachable moments from my gallery experiences on Facebook.
I limit myself to one moment per tour. I try to stick to the facts, and not interpret the child’s ideas in my own words. I describe the context succinctly, and stick to a few sentences at most. I imagine reflecting on the teaching experience with someone who has never heard of the field of museum education – so no jargon allowed. When it makes sense, I include a visual of the artwork that sparked the teachable moment.
The moments I capture tend to be funny, which is why they make good Facebook posts. But they also highlight important moments of discovery, and often mark pivot points in gallery conversations. I try to focus on what Piaget might have called moments of disequilibrium – those wonderful, maddening moments when you discover for yourself that what you thought was simple, is not.
Here are three such experiences, some thoughts on what I’ve learned about school tours and student visitors along the way, and tips for anyone interested in giving this a try.
1. Fear of the Unknown
“A 7th grade student on a tour in the Ancient Egypt galleries this morning pointed out that he would rather be chased by mummies than velociraptors.”
I think the young man’s logic was that mummies chasing him through the Museum were likely to shuffle along slowly, while raptors are nimble pack hunters (as anyone who saw the kitchen scene from the original Jurassic Park can attest). He makes a valid point. This comment sparked a stimulating conversation among the class about fear of the unknown. We sat in the dimly lit gallery surrounded by sarcophagi and other tomb equipment unearthed along the Nile, and other classmates chimed in with their honest reactions to the unfamiliarity of the experience. After several other students also expressed fear, one young lady allowed that she “sort of liked being scared.” I asked her if it felt “safe scary” and she nodded. The young man whose comment started the conversation smiled at her and nodded as well.
These students feel slightly scared by the unknown Egyptian galleries filled with mummies and other ancient artifacts. But they are attracted to the unknown. The unknown in a museum setting, like the unknown in movies, is “safe scary.” For them, what is interesting about this space at the Met is not the connections they can make to their school curriculum, or the comparison between the ancient and the contemporary, but the opportunity to exist temporarily and safely in a space outside of the safety and routine of the everyday.
2. Time Travel
“6th grade student, after discussing a sculpture of the historical Buddha: “So, is the Buddha like the Doctor? Doctor Who I mean.” Mind expanded.”
If you’ve never watched Doctor Who, close this browser and go watch some. The Doctor is an extravagant, brilliant, and charismatic alien who explores the universe trying to help the helpless, ease suffering, and generally leave things better than he found them. His ship, the TARDIS, can travel anywhere in space or time. Since he seems to like Great Britain, he comes to Earth a lot. Coincidentally, the show is produced by the BBC, so the Doctor is invariably British, as are his plucky human companions. The Doctor is a troubled hero, whose views on the universe are often transcendent as well as maddening.
On some level, the young lady who asked me if the Buddha was anything like the Doctor understood that the story of the Buddha, like the story of Doctor Who, is about creating an impossible narrative of characters who can save the world. On another hand, she may have been reaching for a way to connect historical information about the Buddha (i.e. he really existed, he was a prince, he traveled throughout India and Nepal, etc.) with the more incredible aspects of his story (i.e. his description of concepts like samsara and nirvana, his awakening or enlightenment, etc.) She seemed interested in the Buddha not as a representative of another culture but as a superhero, an embodiment of the type of figure that could save the world. In short, I think she saw a role model.
3. Love and Marriage
“2nd grade student this morning after hearing that Theseus ditches Ariadne after they escape from the Minotaur: “Well, maybe he was too young for marriage. I mean, you shouldn’t marry someone you just met. You should like, get to know each other first. But it was still mean of him.”
Like the Greek myths that inspired it, this discussion offered an interesting analysis of human behavior. After telling these students the myth of Theseus and Ariadne, I asked students what they thought of the story’s ending. The first flurry of responses focused on abandonment and notions of fairness; everyone agreed that Theseus made a bad choice. Well, nearly everyone. I pushed for dissent, and asked if anyone had another point of view. This young lady had been sitting silently for a while, and when she did speak it was with energy.
On some level she was trying to make Theseus’ decision to abandon Ariadne acceptable. On a deeper level, I wonder if this student, like the young lady who compared the Buddha to the Doctor, was thinking about role models. As you can see in the comments left by my Facebook friends, Disney’s ‘Frozen’ explores these ideas very effectively as well. Whether or not this student had seen the movie (and I suspect she had), it was a powerful reminder to me about making room for respectful dissent when interpreting works of art. Students really absorb the lessons that they learn from movies, so it makes good sense to keep tabs on what those lessons are – and what ambiguities they might offer.
So what patterns have I noticed about kids’ interests at the Met?
Many of these conversations involve discovering new frontiers, and the thrill and fear that accompany real, authentic exploration. As long as the fear of the new doesn’t overwhelm the group, it can be very productive if acknowledged. There’s a lot to be said about the transformative power of discomfort; just ask an oyster.
Humans are social animals; we look to others for tips on how to behave. Many students are searching for role models, and some have found them in fictional characters. These young people are looking for ways to connect these characters and their worlds to the real world around them, and they will do so at the first opportunity.
Museum educators often talk about contemporary connections: strategies or concepts that help visitors understand something unfamiliar by tying it to something personally familiar from today. When students initiate their own contemporary connections, they often do so in unpredictable ways that can be surprising, humorous, or subversive. There is something to be said for letting students make their own connections instead of doing it for them. Kids will bring pop culture with them into the museum regardless, so ignoring its power means missing opportunities for authentic discussion.
Keeping up-to-date on popular trends among young learners can really help make genuine connections that make complex ideas accessible. It can also highlight key misunderstandings about objects or the stories objects tell. For example, the idea that you should get to know your future partner well before committing is a very particular approach to marriage, presumably not one endorsed in most ancient societies.
Some Takeaways for Museum Educators
1. Listen. Really Listen.
Focus on what students are really saying when they respond to your questions, not just what you think they mean. This is hard. Use the words they use to define academic terms and abstract concepts. If a student’s comment strikes you as snarky or disruptive, lean in to it. Find out more. Let them know you’re interested in their thinking. Give them space to explain. If they don’t want to explain to you, consider asking them to turn and talk with some of their peers. Listen to what you hear, and think about how it connects to your own ideas about the content or lesson.
2. Let students drive the conversation.
My boss sometimes talks about how effective museum educators need to be a ‘Guide on the Side’ rather than a ‘Sage on the Stage,’ and this is vital to effective gallery teaching. Use a light touch to keep the conversation moving. Stay goal-oriented, but don’t get so attached to your goals that you lose sight of the importance of the process of discovery for your participants.
3. Ask for divergent thinking
Seek out dissenting ideas so that you are encouraging participants to think both deeply and individually. Some works of art open themselves up to a wide range of possible interpretations without ever committing to just one – examples might include many modern and contemporary art objects. Other works of art, like a Gupta period Buddhist sculpture or ancient Roman sarcophagi, have very specific meanings that their makers intended; there are incorrect understandings of some works of art, and that is important for us to acknowledge. Those misunderstandings are often great starting points for real inquiry if you can help students ground their misunderstandings in the visual elements of the artwork! Either way, seeking out divergent thinking empowers students to discover and craft the complexity of interpretation for themselves.
4. Reflective Practice needs others
I think the capacity to reflect in action (while doing something) and on action (after having done it) is an important part of professional practice. Both are hard to do, and both benefit greatly when other people can be sounding boards. I find these status updates help me slow down and think about the choices I’ve made. Better yet, doing so gives me immediate informal feedback.
Give it a try!
About the Author
DAVID BOWLES: Assistant Museum Educator for School Programs, Metropolitan Museum of Art. David oversees the strategic planning, staff and volunteer training, program implementation, and evaluation of all aspects of guided K-12 school tours at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In collaboration with colleagues, he also develops resources for educators, in particular for educators who are bringing students to the Museum on guided or self-guided visits. David also teaches across a range of audience areas, including K-12 educator programs and adult gallery talks. Before this, he worked at the Rubin Museum of Art as Manager of School Programs. He earned his M.S.Ed from Bank Street College and a B.A. with Honours from McGill University. David’s postings on this site are his own and don’t necessarily represent the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s positions, strategies, or opinions.