This article originally appeared on guggenheim.org/blogs, and is used with permission.
Written by Rachel S. Ropeik
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.
© 2018 The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation
Header Image: Rachel Ropeik listens to visitors as part of the “Call to Action” at the Guggenheim. Photo: Jon Rubin © Jon Rubin
About the Author
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.