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.
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.
Reposted from the Skirball Cultural Center’s Building a Better World blog, a place on their website dedicated to sharing some of the ways Skirball educators partner with families, schoolchildren, teachers, and community organizations to take concrete action to promote a more just society.
Written by Anna Schwarz, Skirball Cultural Center
The Skirball’s in-school residency program is one of the rare opportunities we have to work closely with students, exploring issues that are important in their lives and how art can be a tool for civic and social action. Over the course of eight to ten weeks, one class of students and their teacher collaborate with skilled teaching artists and a Skirball educator (in this case, me!) to build identity and community through collaborative and creative practices. As we tailor every residency to the exhibition content presented at the Skirball in a given year, the teaching artists and the art medium also change yearly. Recent residency projects have ranged from dance pieces exploring gender disparity, to radio stories about incarceration, to noir-style films about contemporary high school issues. Through these various projects, educators and students creatively explore how art can become a platform for student voices and storytelling.
In our most recent residency earlier this year, we wanted to focus on the Skirball’s mission, particularly the imperative to “help build a more just society.” We collaborated with poet and arts educator Kahlil Almustafa, writer and performer Julia Grob, and one class of tenth grade LAUSD students from the Community Health Advocates School (CHAS) at Augustus Hawkins High School. Maria Gaspar, a social studies teacher at CHAS, invited us into her classroom where we met twice a week. During the one-hour workshops, students practiced using poetry as a vehicle for self-expression and activism.
The residency began with setting intentions. Together, we decided to create an anthology of poems to document students’ lives and their hopes and dreams for the future. We also planned for students to share a selection of these poems in a culminating performance at the Skirball in front of their peers from all over LA. In preparation, students listened to voices of contemporary poets—young and experienced—including Audre Lorde, Elizabeth Acevedo, and finalists of the Brave New Voices festival created by Youth Speaks. The teaching artists, Kahlil and Julia, also performed live in the classroom, which made the entire experience even more special and personal. With all this inspiration, students asked questions and began creating their own original poetry.
Similar to other creative projects, our original intentions evolved as the students explored how they could use spoken word as a tool for building self-confidence and imagination. A pivotal moment in this evolution was the students’ visit to the Skirball for a powerful performance of the play Riot/Rebellion, presented by the Watts Village Theater Company. Through a theatrical interpretation of first-person interviews with residents and community members, Riot/Rebellion introduced students to the history of the 1965 Watts uprising. The residency class felt a deep connection to the themes of the play—especially having recently protested the US presidential election and inauguration. Moved by Riot/Rebellion and the discussion with the actors and creators following the show, the students decided to change the plan for the residency. Instead of each person creating his or her own poems, the students decided to work together to develop a play that incorporated elements of poetry and focused on the value of protest. With six weeks to go, students began their work on a script for their very first original play, Walkout!, and they transformed into writers, editors, actors—and leaders.
On March 22, 2017, I sat in the audience filled with excitement and emotion as CHAS students proudly presented their work-in-progress on stage at the Skirball. Over 200 of their peers from other LA-area high schools filled the seats. Like Riot/Rebellion, Walkout! incorporated first-hand stories of the students’ experiences. But this play was truly unique—the personal poems throughout the performance were a reflection of the trust and support this group of young people had built with one another. Their dedication to the project and personal connection to the material translated on stage into a beautiful community of people celebrating the opportunity to speak their truth and build a more just society. It was a true joy to be a part of such a strong and meaningful process!
Reposted from Anabel Roque Rodriguez’s blog. Anabel is a curator, writer, and historian who focuses on political art, the artist as activist, art as labor, feminism, photography and the art market. ArtMuseumTeaching is thrilled to share her thoughts about the issue of museums and neutrality.
Written by Anabel Roque Rodriguez
The online dictionary Merriam-Webster defines neutrality as “the quality or state of not supporting either side in an argument, fight, war, etc. : the quality or state of being neutral”. The question is whether institutions who deal with primary sources, historical and contemporary narratives and a culture that decides which discourses get public attention should engage in neutrality? My opinion is that Museums are not neutral.
We live in a time where people mourn their dead, fear crawls into daily life and one headline leads to another. A certain narrative seems predominant these days trying to make us believe that we are divided by more than we have in common – depriving us of our humanity. There is no question whether museums can be part of these dialogues. They can, in fact, they have to and their museum policy resembles the questions of our time. The core of every institution is its people: the arts professionals employed there, artists and their own narrations their bringing, and, of course, the public. How could we not embrace the dialogue when people come together? And aren’t museums exactly a space for encounter, for getting acquainted with familiar problems that we engage with, or with unfamiliar things that spark our curiosity and of course with narrations we find problematic, and where silence is no longer an option.
I find myself often in passionate conversations about, whether museums are (still) relevant and/ or that museums should be neutral. Let me state loud and clear, that museums have never been neutral. An important part of a museum is to state facts. There shouldn’t be a confusion about whether museums need to speak up against any form of misinformation, lack to state the sources, fight any form of hate in its community, protect the values that embrace the integrity of minorities and discuss which narratives need to be enforced.
And still, I do find myself in arguments that if museums use public money they should not have any political opinion; that museums are temples of knowledge and need to keep their neutrality as they are above the everyday; that art in general cannot change anything…; What these people don’t acknowledge is the fact that museums have evolved from a temple of muses and knowledge that preserved the purity of the genius of a few (usually straight white men) to huge and central figures in the cultural and economic life of a city. There is no doubt that museums enrich the cultural economy of cities and become leading tourist attractions. As soon as there is money involved interests come into conflict (Sponsorship does matter!).
The range of visibility of big museums and museum brands like the Guggenheim, Tate or Louvre is different than the one of more regional or local museums. Nevertheless, museums cannot act outside the circumstances of the time they are in. If we want them to freely act as pillars of our cultural dialogues we need to carefully talk about their sensitivity to political decisions, censorship and the financial economy.
I sometimes do get the impression that the people who argue so passionately that museums need to keep their neutral role are afraid to endanger the purity of the art temple and that art might suddenly be complicated and relevant, and actually be open to engage with the whole public and not just with a few who are able to decipher the art code. And there is indeed the danger that if museums do take a stand, they might get instrumentalized by politics, be more sensitive to suffer financial cut backs and they risk not being “liked” by everybody anymore (has there ever been an illusion that we are?). A clear language might not be common in a world in which we talk in PR statements and a so called thought leader constructed a concept that we actually refer to as “alternative facts”. But if museums, who deal with history and the contemporary, choose neutrality they choose silence and as history has shown us in many examples: Silence means complicity with the demons of their times.
IF WE WANT TO ENGAGE CRITICALLY WITH HISTORY AND WITH OUR PRESENT TIMES WE NEED TO ENGAGE WITH THESE QUESTIONS:
If our definition on the neutrality of museums is based on (hetero)normative standards, shouldn’t museums engage with what and who states the “norm”?
There should be no doubt that commemorative culture is highly political. Which narrative gets valued in our historical thinking? Who gets publicly commemorated and space or monuments to enforce the narrative?
How can museums engage with their communities without turning into dispassionate agents?
How can museums take a stand and still try to be sensitive to the future discussions without limiting themselves to the possible outcome? Museums can’t dictate what people are going to think or how they’re going to respond and react.
How much freedom of expression are institutions willing to give to all of their employees?
How can a code of ethics concerning the limits of museums neutrality look like? An ICOM Code of Ethics for Museums does exist but it does not contain concrete parts on museum neutrality and resulting conflicts. Keywords such as diversity, equality and community engagement are never free of political implications.
What you’ve just read is my opinion and I hope that more people will join this conversation. I’d love to hear from you. Have a look at the hashtag #MuseumsAreNotNeutral and make yourself heard.
This post is part of a series focused on the myth of museum neutrality. My friend and colleague, LaTanya Autry, and I decided to collaborate to create a t-shirt along with a campaign to spark conversations about the role of museums, while raising funds to support the work of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
We hope you can order a t-shirt, wear it proudly, and talk about the potential of museums to do good work, advocate for human rights, and take a stand against hate. Museums can be agents of positive social change in our communities, and it’s up to us to make this happen together.
The profits from each t-shirt purchased go directly to support the critical work of the Southern Poverty Law Center in combating hate, injustice, and discrimination through education, legal services, advocacy, and anti-bias resources. You can also donate directly to the Southern Poverty Law Center through this link to their Donate page.
Museums have the potential to be relevant, socially-engaged spaces in our communities, acting as agents of positive change. 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. Let’s come together and spread this message.
My friend and colleague, LaTanya Autry, and I decided to collaborate to create this t-shirt along with a campaign to spark conversations about the role of museums. For the first run of this campaign, more than 500 people purchased t-shirts and we worked together to raise $5,669.79 total for the Southern Poverty Law Center! So amazing! We just recently launched our second version of this campaign (including some new colors), and we’re donating 100% of the profits to support Unidos Por Puerto Rico, United for Puerto Rico, an initiative providing assistance to those in Puerto Rico affected by the passage of Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria.
We hope you can order a t-shirt, wear it proudly, share your pics with our hashtag #MuseumsAreNotNeutral, and talk about the potential of museums to do good work, advocate for human rights, and take a stand against hate. Museums can be agents of positive social change in our communities, and it’s up to us to make this happen together.
Here is a list of blog posts and articles that discuss the issues of museum neutrality (last updated January 2018). Stay tuned for more, and be sure to follow the hashtag #MuseumsAreNotNeutral on social media to get connected to the community.