Tag Archives: relevance

Towards a More Community-Centered Museum, Part 3: Defining & Valuing Community

Written by Mike Murawski

Obviously, there is no single definition for the word ‘community.’  And it does not benefit this conversation to check with Webster’s dictionary, since the traditional definition of community is vague and outdated.  In his influential book Community: The Structure of Belonging (2008), Peter Block offers an exploration of community building and the ways that healthy, restorative communities emerge and sustain themselves.  Defining community as the experience of belonging, Block writes, “We are in a community each time we find a place where we belong.”  This core sense of belonging has two meanings.  It is about having a sense of relatedness and being a part of something, and it is about having a sense of ownership and acting as a creator or co-owner of that community.

First and foremost, then, community is about people.  At its core is a set of human relationships, not just a place, organization, idea, or internet platform. Second, it is important to recognize that people participate and identify with multiple communities at the same time.  We might belong to a church, feel affinity to people in our neighborhood, be connected with those at our school, and bond with others who share an aspect of our personal identity (age, sexuality, ethnicity, language, etc.)—all on the same day.  We all belong to many communities, some that we define for ourselves and some that are defined for us.  Our participation in certain communities might be deep, long-term, and really meaningful to us, while our involvement in other communities might be fairly thin and insignificant.

It’s also important to note that the social relationships that form communities are fluid, constantly shifting given time and changing circumstances.  While it seems obvious that formal institutions (schools, churches, museums, and non-profits) play an important role in forming communities, we also need to recognize the powerful role of informal institutions (the neighborhood barbershop, a local grocery co-op, a community choir group, or a gardening club).  Through each of these communities, we might come together to feel various degrees of shared belonging, trust, mutual interests, and safety.

On top of these ways to define community, I want to layer on the transformative belief in a ‘beloved community’ that comes from the teachings of Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as more recent writings by Grace Lee Boggs and bell hooks. It is the idea of community as an agent of change, engaged in the struggle for justice and the well-being of the whole.  In her book Killing Rage: Ending Racism (1996), hooks writes:

“Beloved community is formed not by the eradication of difference but by its affirmation, by each of us claiming the identities and cultural legacies that shape who we are and how we live in the world.”

This affirmative vision of community is based, in part, upon finding common ground through social justice and the possibility of radical change as well as the transformative element of shared responsibility.  Community is not merely a passive gathering of people around shared interests or shared geography, but rather the form through which these shared understandings take on life as collective action.

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artist Karina Puente with activists, community organizers, and warriors of justice Donna Hayes and Irene Kalonji at the Upstanders Festival, Portland Art Museum, May 2017.

This more active notion of community, or building community, also connects deeply to the concept of ‘bridging’ popularized by Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000).  In this groundbreaking book that has been part of the conversations in museums for many years, Putnam examines how we might begin to strengthen a sense of connection through social networks and building social capital. While one form of social capital is created through “bonding” among homogenous, exclusive, inward-facing groups, another more powerful form of social capital is created through “bridging” diverse, heterogeneous, inclusive, and outward-looking groups through activities of sharing, exchange, and consensus building.

The Better Together report, published by the Saguaro Seminar in 2000, takes a look at the role of the arts and museums in successfully building social capital in the United States. Elizabeth Crooke discusses this report in her fantastic book entitled Museums and Community (2007), in which she describes in more detail he various concepts of social capital. The Saguaro report argues that arts and culture organizations can nurture connectedness and bridging by “strengthening friendships, helping communities to understand and celebrate their heritage, and providing safe ways to discuss and solve difficult social problems.”  Overall, the report recommended key principles to guide the arts, including to encourage initiatives that “form bridges across race, income, gender, religion, and generations” as well as including arts and culture in community planning and organizing.

The concepts of beloved community and the social capital of bridging both celebrate difference, and work toward bringing people together to form and strengthen new relationships. Overlap these defining characteristics of community with the ideas of a human-centered museum, and we find deep commonalities of human connection, social relationships, and a commitment to change.  For me, these overarching ideas form the basis for any productive discussion of community and how we then work to specifically define a local community and build an institution’s connection within that community.

As Elizabeth Crooke so perfectly writes:

“To be of value, museums need to find significance within these communities—without those connections, the museum and its collections will be of little importance. It is people who bring the value and consequence to objects and collections; as a result, if a museum cannot forge associations with people, it will have no meaning.” (131)

Valuing Community

When museums begin to develop relationships with certain communities, they must understand the power dynamics involved.  Most museums hold a great deal of institutional power and authority, so many relationships or partnerships with community groups begin in a situation of imbalance and inequity.  In her introduction to the edited volume Museums and their Communities (2007), museum scholar Sheila Watson recognizes that museums are understood “to represent those who have privileges in society, i.e., the educated, the relatively wealthy, those who are in control through either their status … or through direct political power.”  This power extends to a museum’s architecture, collections and collecting practices, exhibitions, scholarship, and interpretation.

It is also important to recognize the tension in most museums between traditional academic scholarship and community input.  Consulting with community knowledge holders can often be viewed as an erosion of scholarship and curatorial confidence, and working with community-based artists can be seen as lowering accepted standards of ‘quality.’  On top of all of this baggage, the Western colonial concept of museums may not necessarily be relevant or valued in many communities who have been excluded or oppressed by this system.

For community relationships to grow and thrive, museums need to step back their role as authorities and see community members as experts on their own needs and local assets.  Identifying community assets and valuing resident participation works to empower residents and legitimize these community partnerships.  Stacey Marie Garcia, Director of Community Engagement at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, has both researched and enacted community and civic engagement practices, methods, and theories in museums.  In a post for Museum 2.0, she writes:

“it’s not solely about how museums can serve communities but rather what are the communities’ resources, knowledge and interests that can inform museum practice? Furthermore, how can museums and communities work together to share strengths in the community?”

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The Laundromat Project’s Kelly Street Housewarming Party. Photo by Osjua A. Newton, Copyright © 2015

At the core of our work with specific communities and local neighborhoods is the practice of identifying and embracing the strengths, creative skills, stories, languages, cultures, voices, and experiences that come from our communities.  In the overall research on community development, this is referred to as an “asset-based” approach or “capacity-focused” development.  This thinking runs counter to the mindset of a “needs-based” approach that focuses too much on problems and deficiencies in a community or neighborhood and, thus, how institutions can ‘serve their needs.’  “This phrase drives me nuts,” writes Nina Simon in her most recent book The Art of Relevance (2016). “It smacks of paternalism. As if it weren’t enough to be experts on our subject matter. Now we’re the experts on what people ‘need’ too?”  Rather than telling communities what they need and how they should do things differently, museums can instead center the gifts and creative capacities of communities as we work toward building relationships based in trust and mutual respect.

According to foundational work in the field of asset-based community development (check out “What is asset-based community development?”), this approach should focus on identifying community assets and strengths, and be both community-driven and relationship-driven.  Rather than asking ‘what are the needs of your community?,’ we can approach these conversations from a asset-based and community-driven approach.  Key questions might instead be: What do you value most about our community?  When was a time you felt our community was at its best?  What is the essence of our community that makes it unique and strong?

Finally, thinking about community development work through an asset-based approach tends to build relationships among community members.  As Graeme Stuart, community development specialist and activist, writes:

“The real value in asset mapping is bringing people together so they can discover each other’s strengths and resources, and to think about how they can build on what is already in the community. One way we can do this is by fostering the relationships, or the place, where assets can be productive and powerful together.”

Museums and cultural organizations hold the potential to be these places where community assets can be powerful together.  We just need to take bold steps to value the skills, interests, culture, and heritage of our communities and neighborhoods and begin to de-center the traditional power structures of museum institutions.

And as uncomfortable and messy as this might be for so many museums, we have got to start somewhere and make this change happen.

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ABOUT THE SERIES: Through this series of posts, I am exploring a range of ideas, challenges, and strategies for building community-centered practices in museums and advocating for deeper connections between institutions and community.    What do we mean by ‘community’?  How can we value community?  What are some strategies for change that we can enact now in our institutions?

I’m open to all types of critiques and questions, as long as they are aimed at moving this collective work forward.  My ideas, thoughts, and questions have emerged from decades of meaningful conversations with others, so I don’t claim ownership of these ideas — I simply hope they can spark new conversations and allow us all to add to our learning and growth as we work to transform museums.

Other Posts in This Series:

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About the Author

MIKE MURAWSKI: Founding author and editor of ArtMuseumTeaching.com, museum educator, and currently the Director of Education & Public Programs for the Portland Art Museum. Mike earned his MA and PhD in Education from American University in Washington, DC, focusing his research on educational theory and interdisciplinary learning in the arts. Prior to his position at the Portland Art Museum, he served as Director of School Services at the Saint Louis Art Museum as well as coordinator of education and public programs at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum at Washington University.  He is involved in the Museums as Sites of Social Action (MASS Action) initiative, contributing author to the MASS Action toolkit, and co-created the #MuseumsAreNotNeutral tshirt campaign with LaTanya Autry to erase the myth of museum neutrality. As a cultural activist and museum professional, he is passionate about how we can come to see museums as agents of change in their communities as well as sites for transformative learning and social action. He has led workshops and presented at conferences and institutions nationally and internationally, including a keynote at the 2016 MuseumNext conference. Mike’s postings on this site are his own and don’t represent the Portland Art Museum’s positions, strategies, or opinions.

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Header Photo: Queens Museum’s New New Yorkers Program student council at the Immigrant Movement International community gathering space.  Photo from https://queensmuseum.org/new-new-yorkers. 

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Nothing About Us Without Us: Culture Lab Manifesto

Written by Andrea Kim Neighbors

The first time I experienced a Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center (APAC) Culture Lab, a pop-up museum experience, it was as a visitor repeating the word “finally.” Crosslines: A Culture Lab on Intersectionality took over the Smithsonian’s Arts & Industries Building during Memorial Day weekend in 2016, and was APAC’s first Culture Lab. It was a truly immersive experience with emotional weight—over 40 artists from all over the country created original works of art and interactive spaces where visitors of all ages and backgrounds entered to learn about, challenge, and be challenged by the Lab’s theme of intersectionality. The atmosphere was festive with a constant murmur of excitement as deep conversation filled the air of an historic building erected as the first United States National Museum. Since Crosslines, APAC has co-created Culture Labs in New York City (CTRL+ALT: A Culture Lab on Imagined Futures) and most recently in Honolulu (‘Ae Kai: A Culture Lab on Convergence). Culture Labs are built with communities, a co-created and collaborative experiment that has since impacted the way we think about and approach the idea of what a museum should be.

I am grateful to be a part of APAC as their Education Specialist. Since joining the team earlier this year, I find the one question I get asked by my fellow museum educators is, “What does museum education look like at a Culture Lab?” My answers can be found in APAC’s Culture Lab Manifesto, which was published this July in an all-Asian American issue of Poetry Magazine (see full text below, along with links to Culture Lab’s Manifesto page).

As a museum educator, I think back to my impressions of Crosslines, and how surprising  it was to walk into a museum space feeling like I belong, like my voice would be heard and that I would experience genuine empathy. How often can you walk up to an artist at a museum and jump right into conversations about intersectionality, what our futures may hold, and how our stories may converge into paths of better understanding? What I love most about being a museum educator is what is learned and shared from visitors of all ages and backgrounds. Creative dreaming and building with communities is something we don’t often allow ourselves the time and space to do in our professional realm. This manifesto was created out of a team effort steeped in reflection and proactive energies—it was time to share our vision and belief in how museums could be re-built with communities.

As an education program builds at APAC and future Culture Labs, I welcome conversation, idea sharing, and creative dreaming. I hope you will take a look at our manifesto and reach out if you would like to discuss re-building museum spaces with communities.

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“Hijabs & Hoodies,” portraiture installation, 2016, by Tracy Keza with Studio Revolt. Photograph by Les Talusan.

Culture Lab Manifesto

BY SMITHSONIAN ASIAN PACIFIC AMERICAN CENTER

We at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center believe the soul of a museum lies not in its brick-and-mortar walls but in what happens inside those walls — the experiential friction between guests and hosts, history and future. We believe that curation can be a form of community organizing; that art can be collaborative, participatory, and socially responsible; that those who have historically been pushed to the margins hold the stories that will center our future.

With these beliefs, we introduce the Culture Lab into the fold of museum practice. Culture Labs are fleeting, site-specific happenings that recognize art and culture as vehicles that can bring artists, scholars, curators, and the public together in creative and ambitious ways.

The images in this slideshow are from the first two Culture Labs: CrossLines: A Culture Lab on Intersectionality (May 2016, Washington, DC) and CTRL+ALT: A Culture Lab on Imagined Futures (November 2016, New York City). What you see are alternatives to traditional museum exhibitions — or perhaps their next evolution. What follows 
is a declaration of principles for you to consider as you envision the museum experiences of today and tomorrow.

We at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center believe that museums engaging communities should be built upon:

  • A CULTURE OF MEMORY. Every place embodies genealogies we must honor. Amplifying hidden histories builds empathy. Intervening in public space enriches our collective memory.
  • A CULTURE OF REPRESENTATION. Prioritize local artists, participants, and organizers. Nothing about communities without those communities.
  • A CULTURE OF AMBITION & EVOLUTION. Scale up. Open yourself to growth through conversation. Push both your ideas and practices.
  • A CULTURE OF IMAGINATION. Place value on daydreaming. Not everything is a logistic. Find the amazing in the margins.
  • A CULTURE OF PRESENCE. Live-time interaction — nothing 
replaces human contact. Make all spaces maker spaces.
  • A CULTURE OF EQUITY. Pay artists. Pay artists fairly. Dismantle hierarchies. Everyone shares in the work.
  • A CULTURE OF COMMUNITY. Create lasting collectives. Come to museums to be challenged, to change, to fall in love.
  • A CULTURE OF INTERSECTIONALITY. Step outside the silos that constrain our narratives. Allow yourself to think, feel, and remember in the same complex ways that we live.
  • A CULTURE OF RELEVANCE. Choose to engage in what matters right now.
  • A CULTURE OF BELONGING. Forge brave space. Extend welcome and safety to all peoples and communities. Make room for the marginalized, especially by questioning what marginalizes them.
  • A CULTURE OF BEAUTY. Who gets to decide what counts as beautiful? Question aesthetic classifications and priorities.
  • A CULTURE OF INSPIRATION. Open the process. Dream together. Make together.
  • A CULTURE OF FUN. Play is innovation. Play is care. Play is life.
  • A CULTURE OF ACTION. Stay woke. We have a social contract with one another to protect the vulnerable and ensure human rights for everyone.

—Adriel Luis, Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis, Nafisa Isa, Kālewa Correa, Jeanny Kim, Hana Maruyama, Clara Kim, Nathan Kawanishi, Emmanuel Mones, Desun Oka, Carlo Tuason, Lisa Sasaki, Andrea Kim Neighbors, Deloris Perry, and Emily Alvey.

Originally Published, Poetry Foundation: July 5th, 2017

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Header image: The Red Chador: Threshold, durational performance, 2016, by Anida Yoeu Ali. Photograph by Les Talusan.

It’s Okay to Turn Our Back on the Art

Written by Holly Gillette as part of the Gallery Teaching Lab series

As an art museum educator, it is imperative to always connect back to the art in our teaching. Or is it?

I follow a dialogical approach when I teach in museum galleries with adult visitors. I always invite participants to look slowly, to savor a long look at one work of art, a luxury we don’t often have in our busy lives. As the conversation among the group grows and might veer off in one direction or another, I try to redirect the conversation back to the art. We are in a museum with a physical work of art, something tangible that we could touch (theoretically, of course!), why would we not keep the conversation about the artwork in front of us? It is an aspect of object-based teaching that has been important to me as a museum educator, but recently I wondered: Is it okay to turn our back on the art to continue the group-led conversation elsewhere?

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Photo by Robert Wedemeyer | Courtesy of Skirball Cultural Center

As part of the Gallery Teaching Lab developed by Theresa Sotto, assistant director of academic programs at the Hammer Museum, I had the opportunity to experiment with colleagues in the Skirball Cultural Center’s galleries in February 2017. I’ve been a participant of the program since its inception, and always looked forward to the vast range of experiences my colleagues brought to the Lab.

For my experiment, I wanted to explore how information plays into interpretation and how we, as educators, need to be mindful of what we bring into the conversation. I am also interested in ways we may discuss current events and hot button issues in respectful and considerate ways when they connect to objects in our galleries. Lichtenstein’s “Gun in America” series, part of The Skirball Cultural Center’s exhibition Pop for the People: Roy Lichtenstein in L.A., seemed a perfect fit to experiment with both of these concepts.

The Skirball Cultural Center juxtaposed two TIME Magazine covers, each published about three weeks apart. The TIME cover on the right portrayed an energetic politician, Robert “Bobby” Kennedy, issued on May 24, 1968, the year that he campaigned for the Democratic nomination for the presidency. The TIME cover on the left was printed on June 21, 1968, two weeks after he was assassinated.

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Photo by Robert Wedemeyer | Courtesy of Skirball Cultural Center

Our focus for this discussion was the June 21st cover, an illustration TIME magazine commissioned Lichtenstein to create shortly after Bobby Kennedy’s death. The cover reads “The Gun in America” and featured an article titled “Nation: The Gun Under Fire.” After some digging, I was able to get my hands on the article which is both a reaction to Kennedy’s assassination as well as a response to the gun violence that plagued the 1960s. Bobby’s brother, John F. Kennedy, was assassinated in 1963, Malcolm X in 1965, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in April 1968, just a few months before Bobby’s death. America then, as now, was grappling with similar issues regarding gun control, which I believed to be an important aspect of my experiment. I was especially interested in how the text of the article affected the interpretation of the image on the magazine cover, not only in 1968, but today.

I set up my experiment into three parts that included a free write, small group discussion, and large group discussion. To give you an idea of what I was planning, here’s an abridged version of my teaching plan:

  • Introduction: Before entering the galleries, advise group that this is a safe space and we must respect everyone. Participation is optional, if it gets too much, it’s okay to step away.
  • Free Write – 5 minutes: Take a look at the artworks, get up close, take a few minutes to free write or draw. We will spend 5 minutes silently looking.
  • Discussion – 10 minutes: Group discussion of the artwork. What bubbled up for you? Would anyone like to share?
  • Pair Share – 20 minutes: Divide groups into pairs. Distribute an excerpt from the article to each group. Invite groups to move to another area of the gallery where they can get together to read the excerpt and discuss. Some questions to think about while discussing: How does this piece make you feel? Do you agree or disagree? Why? This was written in 1968, but, are there parallels today?
  • Discussion – 20 minutes: Bring the groups back together. Groups share their conversations, if they desire to do so.  Briefly summarize your excerpt, what thoughts bubbled up for you? What debates did you have in your group, if any?
  • Conclusion – 5 minutes: Thank you to everyone for being vulnerable today.

 Let’s face it, above was my teaching plan. When we entered the gallery, I soon realized that there was particularly loud jazz music playing in the exhibit. Apparently Lichtenstein loved jazz and the music is the soundtrack of Kamasi Washington’s break out jazz album, The Epic. A rookie mistake, because I didn’t have the opportunity to visit the exhibition before I was teaching in it! The music was welcome during silent looking but when we started discussing, it became difficult to hear even in our small group of ten participants. Our initial discussion drew from the physicality of the objects, seeing Lichtenstein’s hand and process. It then led to people sharing their feelings, one participant commented on how she was desensitized by the image of a gun. Another commented that they had recently been in the vicinity of an act of gun violence, and that their feelings now are different than if they had seen this image prior to the incident.

As the discussion grew beyond the formal qualities of the work itself, I used that moment to segue to the second part of the experiment. I divided the group into pairs and gave each pair an excerpt from the 1968 TIME magazine article. Pairs were encouraged to venture into other parts of the gallery or even outside on the courtyard to sit and discuss anything that developed for them when thinking about the artwork and reading the excerpt.

After 20 minutes, I wanted to bring everyone back into the gallery in front of the artworks, but instead, I made the decision to gather everyone outside the galleries where we could gather without the distraction of the music. We sat in a circle, I asked each group to share if they wanted to. Much of the excerpts from the 1968 article were arguments about gun control. Discussion from the group dug deep into this difficult and complex issue. Many participants discussed how they couldn’t fathom someone needing to own a gun, some shared stories about how family members own guns and either agree or disagree with them. Some stories were about growing up in rural communities where hunting was the norm. The person, who mentioned at the beginning of the talk that they were recently near an act of gun violence, felt safe enough to share her story. Parallels were made from 1968 to today, and it was argued that not much has changed.

What I had intended to be a 20 minute group-share turned into a 50 minute discussion. Instead of bringing it back to the work of art, I lost myself in the conversation. Instead of acting as facilitator, I became a participant. When I realized we had gone well beyond our hour together, cutting into our debrief time for the GTLab, I tried to reel the group back in and get feedback on the activity. To my surprise, the group just wanted to continue discussing the topic.

I was so humbled by my colleagues and the conversation we had that day. As we all walked back to our meeting room Rachel Stark, Assistant Director of Education at the Skirball Cultural Center, turned to me and thanked me for allowing us to “turn our back” on the art to have the real nitty gritty conversation. It was at that moment I realized that what I learned from this experiment wasn’t what I initially expected. Yes, I wanted to explore ways of using objects in our collection as entry points to discuss current events and complex issues, but I realized something more important. When it means continuing the conversation and focusing on the needs of the people present, it is okay to turn our back on the art and continue the conversation where the group needs to go, even if that means we aren’t focusing on the artwork anymore.

We all need an outlet in this political climate; if a work of art can jump-start important conversation, amazing! Let the conversation go where it needs to go.

What are your thoughts? I’d love to continue the conversation. Please comment here, or email me at hgillette@lacma.org.

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About the Author

gillette_photoHOLLY GILLETTE is an art museum educator with an interest in gallery teaching and community building. She is currently an Education Coordinator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) where she oversees the school and community partnership program Art Programs with the Community: LACMA On-Site. Prior to working at LACMA, she began her career in Museum Education at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, CA, focusing on school, early childhood, and family audiences. Holly holds a MS.Ed. in leadership in museum education from the Bank Street College Graduate School of Education and a B.A. in art history and studio art from University of California, Davis. Holly’s postings are her own and don’t necessarily represent LACMA’s positions, strategies, or opinions.

 

From the Radio to the Museum: Storytelling, Listening, and Radical Empathy

Written by Beth Maloney

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.

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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.

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What’s the museum education connection?

Hearing from speakers at this live event, I was reminded immediately of some of the previous posts on artmuseumteaching.com about conversation and dialogue-based programming and institutional empathy in museums. Dialogue-based programming is not new to museums. Whether we are engaging in gallery and object-based discussion using techniques like VTS and facilitated dialogue or hosting thematically focused programming like Science Museum of Minnesota’s Talking Circles, Missouri History Museum’s Mother to Mother program  or Lower East Side Tenement Museum Kitchen Conversations, dialogue is central to our work. With this in mind, three points struck me immediately in Out of the Blocks:

  1. The deeply specific and site-based nature of the work
  2. The collaboration between documentarian and sound artist
  3. 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.

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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.

Toward an Even More Participatory Culture in Art Museums

“The value of museums begins and ends with the relationship with our visitors. It’s a contract that is renewed each and every time they engage with us, and if we don’t live up to it, we will be usurped.” — John Falk, speech to AAM (2010)

Encountering Space, Center for Creative Connections at the Dallas Museum of Art. Photo by Maria Mortati
Encountering Space, Center for Creative Connections at the Dallas Museum of Art. Photo by Maria Mortati

Working in museums can be a messy, messy game, but I always love the conversations that crop up when you get a handful of museum educators together to talk ‘shop.’  A couple weeks ago at the National Art Education Association 2013 annual conference in Fort Worth, there was certainly a lot of that happening. I was fortunate enough to be invited to present — or rather have a public in-process conversation — about participatory culture in art museums with an incredible group of colleagues: Preston Bautista (Deputy Director for Public Programs & Audience Engagement, Indianapolis Museum of Art), Judy Koke (Director of Education & Interpretive Programs, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art), and Susan Diachisin (Director of the Center for Creative Connections, Dallas Museum of Art).  By far, the best part of preparing our presentation was the series of winding, organic conversations that led to Fort Worth.

Not only were we all wildly passionate about visitor engagement and participatory practice, but our own working environments were all changing rapidly — from my own move from St. Louis to the Portland Art Museum this past fall, to leadership changes and various grants & innovation projects.  All in all, we were fairly hyper-motivated to talk about these issues with each other and, ultimately, to explore concepts of participation and exchange in our institutional cultures.

How does an institution’s hierarchy, leadership, and organizational structure actually enable (or disable) participatory practice? How could museum educators at various levels become more involved in fostering an institutional culture focused on visitor experience and engagement?  Could these values find ways of ‘trickling up’ from participatory programs and smaller-scale education projects or exhibitions?

“If … museums must move away from assumed public value and begin to measure their impact, and if … museums must achieve impact for the community instead of impact for the museum, then the impetus is on museum education to rise to the challenge that lies before us and reposition the museum in the eyes of the public.” — Tina Nolan, JME (2010)

As we entered our NAEA session entitled “Toward an Even More Participatory Culture in Art Museums,” we had decided on a set of assumptions that were key to making this a valuable and productive conversation:

  • conversation at our sessiomn (yes, we exploded the traditional conference furniture layout)
    conversation at our session (yes, we exploded the traditional conference furniture layout)

    There is a shift happening.  Art museums across the continent are taking big steps to change the ‘business as usual’ model, creating structures to put the public’s expectations, needs, and experiences at the center of interpretive planning and exhibition development. We can see this in institutions such as the Detroit Institute of Arts (see great article by their Exec Dir of Learning & Interpretation), Art Gallery of Ontario, Denver Art Museum, Indianapolis Museum of Art, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, among many others. In the specific realm of ‘participation’ and public engagement, it is always important to note the Irvine Foundation’s support for institutions such as the Oakland Museum, as well as museum “Innovation Stories” featured via EmcArts & ArtsFwd.  If you still need convincing that change is afoot, watch this video compiled by the Innovatrium at their January 2013 ‘think tank’ of museum leaders.

  • We’re all in this together. Instead of anyone pretending to be an ‘expert’ about these changes in organizational culture, we wanted to be conscious of the fact that we are all co-learning with each other.  It doesn’t matter the size of one’s museum or how involved your senior leadership is in this shifting landscape — we’re all working toward the greater public value and relevance of museums in our communities and beyond. And this needs to be an open, inclusive conversation if it is to be meaningful one.
  • You can’t talk about participatory practice without becoming participatory.  I always feel like every lecture on “visitor engagement” and “participatory practice” is, in part, quite disingenuous if it does not attempt to actually ENGAGE.  Even if an attempt to activate a lecture hall full of 200 spectators fails, I always feel that we should try — walk the walk, right?!  So I was able to convince our group to do a crowdsourcing activity to engage those attending our session, and pull out their ideas in a participatory way.

“For a museum to truly engage its users, it must cease acting as a controlling gatekeeper to its collections and expertise. Rather, the museum must work with its users and communities to unlock the stories its collections hold, responding to the choices its users make. As such, it must give up its traditional authoritarian voice so that users are free to question, debate, collaborate, and speculate — seeking out those issues that most concern them — and are given the support and inspiration required to do so.”  — Graham Black, Transforming Museums in the Twenty-First Century (2012)

After our initial discussion and framing of these issues, we jumped right into the crowdsourcing exercise to activate everyone’s thinking and to have the group generate ideas. To prevent this conversation from quickly deteriorating into a litany of complaints, barriers, and reasons why we might not be able to enact change at our institutions, we granted everyone in the room freedom from all of these restraints … with a magic wand.  Therefore, without concern about budget cuts, personality conflicts, and perceived curatorial barriers, we invited each participant to take two or three minutes, envision some ways to engender a more participatory culture at their institutions, and then write down a “what if” statement on a small slip of paper.  We collected more than 50 “what if” statements, crowdsourced them with the group, and then spent the final chunk of time opening up a conversation around these ideas.  Here are the 4 statements that, at this moment and with this group, bubbled to the surface:

  1. What if everyone in the museum understood everyone else’s job?

  2. What if there was a real plan for interpretive team development of exhibitions and permanent collections? What if curators and educators didn’t feel like they were ceding territory when they worked together?

  3. What if educators/interpreters and curators worked collaboratively on creating in-gallery participatory experiences?

  4. What if I could include funds for “things I may think of after the budget process” [an “innovation” fund] when I’m writing my department budget?

sampling of the 50+ "what if" statements that participants brainstrormed for crowdsourcing
sampling of the 50+ “what if” statements that participants brainstrormed for crowdsourcing

Rather than recount the conversation or provide my own opinions, thoughts, and perspectives here, I wanted to take this opportunity to open the conversation … to OpenThink the “what if” statements we collected during our NAEA session.  So below is a link to all of the “what if” statements that we were able to collect, in no particular order. Feel free to peruse, and add Comments to the GoogleDoc if you choose.

>>Click here to see ALL of the “What If” statements<<

I invite you to share these with colleagues, send this to others at your museums (yes, curators, too!), and let’s create a conversation in the GoogleDoc or below in the Comment area.  Do you have a “What If” statement that you would like to add?  Are these concerns about exhibition planning, community involvement, and staff development similar at your institution, or different? How can we engender more participatory practice/culture in our work? in our institutions?