Tag Archives: social activism

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this conversation to check with Webster’s dictionary, since the traditional definition of community is vague and outdated.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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Towards a More Community-Centered Museum, Part 1: Let Your Community In

Written by Mike Murawski

Last summer (2017) I made my first-ever visit to the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History (MAH)—a long overdue pilgrimage to this institution led by author and change agent Nina Simon.  She had invited me to be a ‘camp counselor’ for their summer MuseumCamp, and I could not turn down a chance to visit the MAH, see what makes it tick, and be a part of this community of changemakers that gather each summer for the MuseumCamp experience.  Not only have I known Nina for several years and been a dedicated reader of her Museum 2.0 blog and her books on museums, but the MAH had just officially opened Abbott Square, an adjacent public plaza that the museum converted to a bustling community gathering place and food market. For me, the Santa Cruz museum is fundamentally one of the exemplars in turning an institution toward a focus on its local community.  Since arriving in 2011, Nina has worked with her team to tirelessly transform the MAH into a thriving museum and community center for Santa Cruz.

I was fortunate to visit during their exhibition Lost Childhoods, an issue-driven exhibition that the MAH staff created with their community.  Showcasing the stories, struggles, and triumphs of youth who are aging out of foster care, this powerful exhibition was co-created with the Foster Youth Museum and a group of over one hundred local foster youth, artists, and youth advocates.  This community was at the core of the exhibition, and there was even a large wall text that boldly declared “We made this with our community.” Through years of getting to know its local community and becoming intertwined in its people, the MAH team has embodied a shift from being a museum ‘for’ its community to being a museum ‘of’ and ‘by’ its community.  And most recently they launched the global OF/BY/FOR ALL movement to bring these community-centered practices to institutions everywhere (watch the MuseumNext 2018 keynote presentation by Nina).

Amidst all the workshops, small group discussions, beach trips, and conversations with over a hundred passionate changemakers last summer during my first MuseumCamp experience, one moment still resonates with me more than any other—perhaps because of how simple and straightforward it was.  Portland-based writer, game critic, and creative entrepreneur Josh Boykin stepped up to the microphone during a series of fast-paced lightning talks.  Josh works outside of museums yet cares a great deal about building community; and while he lives and works in Portland, Oregon, our paths had not yet crossed.  His lightning talk was personal and inspiring, yet there’s one simple thing about his talk that has stuck in my mind.  Projected on the screen behind him during the entire duration of his talk were four words, large and bold: “Let Your Community In.”

Photo from Dalila Huerta, Instagram dlhuerta1848

Since that moment, Josh’s message has become one of my mantras when it comes to museum practice.  How do museums let community in?  Is community always separate and outside of museums, in need of being ‘let in’?  What does ‘community’ even mean?  Like many museum professionals, I have grappled with these questions my entire career, yet the complexities and challenges of engaging communities has come into focus in recent years as my own institution has created opportunities to advance this work.

It’s so important for museums to be a local place intertwined and inseparable from local realities and issues.  We are located in our communities, but we’re also a part of those communities.  How do we, as museum professionals, define our place, our town, our city, our neighborhood, our community?  How do we identify ways to break down the barriers between museums and their communities as well as build relevance through local community partnerships?  How do we learn about the people of our places (past and present), learn about what connects us and what brings people together into a community?

Right now, at this moment, some of the more challenging questions for me are: why open up museums to the challenges and potential failures of community-centered work?  Why invest the time, staff, energy, and resources it takes to do this work really well?  Why take on such risks?  Wouldn’t it be easier to just keep with business as usual?

When faced with these questions, I often find myself going to museum scholar Stephen Weil’s befitting statement: “The museum that does not prove an outcome to its community is as socially irresponsible as a business that fails to show a profit. It wastes society’s resources.” (Weil 2003, p. 43, as cited in Watson, ed. Museums and Their Communities, 1).  As museums and other institutions take steps to embrace community engagement, it is important to understand why this shift is occurring toward working with communities and local residents.  The meaning of community requires more thoughtfulness and deliberation than we typically give it. Going forward, museum professionals and leaders must embrace this complexity as they strive to understand and create social change.  It is not enough for museums to become an essential part of our communities—our communities also need to become an essential part of our museums.  Are we ready to let our community in, as Josh Boykin proclaimed, and allow neighbors, local residents, community members, and those who may have traditionally been excluded from our institutions to shape practices, programs, and policies?

Echoing the words of bell hooks, what would it mean for museums “to be in community, to work in community, and to be changed by community”?

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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.

The Dangers of Superficial Activism

Reposted from the blog of MASS Action (Museums as Sites of Social Action), an important cross-institutional initiative leading to actionable practices for greater equity and inclusion in our institutions. Be sure to visit the MASS Action website and check out their Toolkit under “Resources.”

Contributed by Kayleigh Bryant-Greenwell

Those that know me, especially those dedicated to the antiracist movement in museums, will likely find this post surprising and uncharacteristic of my practice. As a staunch supporter of social justice and changemaking in museums, it is very “off-brand” for me to affirm the limits of museum activism. Truthfully, I do believe museums can make a difference and more importantly that it is our duty to try. I am, nonetheless, writing this post on the boundaries of museum activism.

I was recently on an email chain conversation about the human rights crimes being committed at the border. A group of museum changemakers, we were discussing the damnable silence of museums on the issue. A group member wanted to end the silence with a social media post both condemning the atrocity and claiming a call to action for museums at large.

While I wholeheartedly support the effort to end museum silence—in silence we are complicit—this proposed effort gives me pause. We’re talking about the horrifically cruel and inhumane separation of children from their families upon entering the U.S. It is sickening and it is wrong.

But what is the call to action for museums?

The call to action as seen in Saturday, June 30th’s March was: reunite families and never separate them or any others ever again. The March served to demonstrate an angered public; but by the time it happened, the Trump administration had already enacted an executive order to cease forced separations, at least temporarily, because that’s not the endgame. The oppressive regime in power is actively rolling back human rights towards the goal of increased power and control. Their endgame is closed borders. So within museums, what is ours?

I point to the limitation of ineffective activism in museums in this specific situation, not to diminish the spirit of activism in museums. In fact, I want to see activism greatly expanded within our field. But I want true activism. Activism that is centered in action.

Unfortunately, I feel that most museum activism lies on The Scale of Effective Activism, somewhere between Superficial and Performative activism (see chart below).

Performative activism is highly visible, highly praised, but empty of strategy and impact. It is marches, rallies, viral hashtags, and grand displays of social cohesion around an issue. These efforts do not have a measurable impact of change. As the great activist organizer Saul Alinsky noted in his seminal Rules for Radicals, “Communication on a general basis without being fractured into the specifics of experience becomes rhetoric and it carries a very limited meaning.”

Even worse, Superficial activism—coopting the “brand” of activism without context or steps towards enacting internal or external change within the museum—serves to raise the visibility or popularity of the museum without any effort towards the cause. Alinsky dedicates an entire chapter in Radicals, “The Education of an Organizer,” on warning against the proliferation of organizing in name alone. He cautions, “They were radicals, and they were good at their job: they organized vast sectors of middle-class America in support of their programs. But they are gone, now, and any resemblance between them and the present professional labor organizer is only in title.”  To paraphrase Alinsky, tactics must always follow the communicated idea of change.

While it is important to be outraged and vocal, and there will always be a place for some Performed activism, we must consider the impact of these activist efforts. How do these efforts affect the opposition?

Do these efforts move the needle?

In our angered, empowered masses we have yet to effectively communicate to those who continually diminish the humanity of others. We are speaking in completely different languages. Without a radical action plan, our shows of force are dismissed as unimportant and ineffective.

In progressive Marches we speak in a language of “rightness, fairness, justice” while our opposition, in executive orders, policy change, and official mandates, speaks in a language of realized power unthreatened by words. And yet, we applaud every pithy protest sign we painstakingly create, as if we’ve achieved change, whereas we’ve frankly only communicated unrest, which is only enacted the first step towards change. The difference between working towards change and change is a lived experience: a constitutionally-protected marriage, a chance at a new life in a new land, the freedom to control your own body.

We cannot live in an illusion that museums can fix the world. Superficial and Performative activism can only provide an illusion of change. As illustrated in the Scale of Effective activism below, Superficial activism serves to provide the look of progress alone. Performative activism provides a sense of the magnitude of resistance, but doesn’t inherently provide changemaking action.

We must recognize these distinct versions of activism to truly understand the logistics of changemaking.

Museums can, and as MASS Action points out in the toolkit, museums should, sit somewhere between Performative and Authentic activism on this scale, and some may even achieve fully-realized change in Authentic activism. But in order to do so, we must recognize the progressive museum’s place within this trajectory.

Change is strategic. Justice is strategic.

When we eagerly take up activism in visible but actionless ways, we diminish the cause. When we jump to labeling ourselves “woke” without centering our practice in Social Justice and Critical Theory, we dilute our knowledge base. Mistakenly, we convince ourselves that we’ve done enough, when we’ve only done something.

Justice isn’t about “doing something,” it’s about doing the right thing. We are empathetic professionals. When we see the atrocities at the border we are inflamed and eager to start “doing something.” And of course museums can do any number of somethings (see examples below) in this border chaos and the resistance at large. Alinsky wrote, “The organizer knows that the real action is in the reaction of the opposition.” Authentic activism considers the endgame: protecting, expanding, or officializing human rights, not simply raising voice against the infringement of rights.

Effective Authentic activism demands us towards strategic, focused and goal-oriented action. We need our efforts to be tactical in order to be effective. Our future selves and loved ones don’t need our superficial activist distractions. They need real change.

If our goal is true justice we can’t continue to distract with all the unimpactful “somethings” we do. The cause isn’t over when we’ve accomplished something.

Yes, be courageous and radical and outraged. Be vocal and visible about it. But keep action at the center.

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About the Author

KAYLEIGH BRYANT-GREENWELL is a Washington, D.C. cultural programmer and strategist with over 10 years of GLAM experience devoted to exploring ways to engage with marginalized audiences through art, museum, and social justice practice. As a DEAI facilitator, she is a contributor to national initiatives towards increasing equity and inclusion in museums including: MASS Action, The Empathetic Museum, and the inaugural National Summit for Teaching Slavery. She moderated the keynote conversation on education and equity for the American Alliance of Museums 2018 Annual Conference in Phoenix, AZ, with Suse Anderson, Donovan Livingston, and Frank Waln. As an education specialist with the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of African American History and Culture, she curates participatory public programs focusing on social justice issues, which empower museum audiences to share their own ideas and strategies towards equity. In 2015 she launched the inaugural year of the National Museum of Women in the Arts’ Women, Arts, and Social Change initiative, bringing in over 600 new audience members to the museum’s advocacy programming. Her writing is featured with Americans for the Arts, the American Alliance of Museums, and the National Art Education Association’s Viewfinder: a journal of art museum practice.

Is There Another Way? – Reflection on Museums, Neutrality and Activism

Reposted from the blog of the Coalition of Museums for Climate Justice, which works to mobilize and support Canadian museum workers and their organizations in building public awareness, mitigation and resilience in the face of climate change.  To join the Coalition, please visit their Facebook Page or contact them directly.

Written by Douglas Worts

Last year, there was a flurry of activity within professional museum circles revolving around the assertion that ‘Museums are not Neutral’.  This initiative has been motivated by the desire that museums should move out of the margins of societal relevancy and take their place as central forums for addressing the issues that define the culture of our era. Whereas the tradition of museums has been to avoid controversial topics like the plague, there is a burgeoning sense that museums can be vital contexts for addressing controversial issues.

When museum education leader[s] Mike Murawski [and LaTanya Autry] created and publicized a T-shirt with the logo “Museums are not Neutral” emblazoned on the front, [they] opted to use a provocation to generate both reflection and dialogue.

Since then, there have been many conversations about the role of museums as activists. I have encountered numerous online museum discussion groups that have engaged with Murawski [and Autry]’s public statement. At times I could feel a tendency within these discussion groups to simply adopt the position. At other times I have witnessed a deeper analysis emerge. The following is my attempt to add value to this conversation.

We seem to exist in an era that has embraced slogans

It seems to me that the field of marketing is taking over the world. With its roots firmly in business – enticing people to act in ways that they may not have otherwise done (i.e. to purchase products and deliver profits to businesses) – the reach of marketing has spread in a rather malignant way. Recent shock waves have erupted from the widespread use of electronic data mining to manipulate people towards scary destinations. Forensic technology analysts are drawing convincing lines between the manipulative activities of a range of right-wing enterprises and large swaths of populations in numerous countries. These enterprises used nefarious means to cull data from social media, providing pathways to getting at voters in so-called democratic electoral activities, and manipulate the electorate towards their self-centred ends. They also have developed ways of using fake news and polarization tactics in a bid to sway political processes. Out of this, some very peculiar voting patterns have emerged — in the USA, the UK and even in Canada.

It feels like democracy has all but died – because it is being directed not by an honest commitment to dialogue, respect, equality and responsibility, but rather by partisan, manipulative and devious activities. If it weren’t for the groundswell in grass-roots, public resistance to some of these shocking trends, I suspect that democracy might be officially on its way out. Several years ago, close to home, in Toronto, we were subjected to the ideological rantings of Rob Ford who could rarely muster much more than his favourite slogan of ‘we’re going to stop the gravy train’. Hmmm. As a result of the Ford mayoralty fiasco, the Trump presidency and Brexit, I am very leery of slogans – and that includes the “Museums are not Neutral” slogan.

Slogans can be powerful things. Like mottos, slogans have a long-standing place in the world. At their best, they can communicate an idea, value or a vision succinctly and memorably. The real problem with slogans occurs when they are being used to pre-empt thoughtful, respectful, considerate reflection and dialogue.

“Make America Great Again” is a good example of a twisted, retrograde, manipulative attempt to stoke the fires of popular discontent with a suggestion that the solution to the USA’s complex problems lie in revisiting some version of a romanticized idea of the past. It is like a snake oil salesman selling a simplistic dream to people who have real problems, but ones that won’t be fixed with snake oil.

Even when one considers the traditional ‘successes’ of slogans at driving growth within businesses and economic markets – humanity is slowly realizing that economic growth is not only not a solution to our current problems, but is itself a malignant direction. Since humanity has tied economic growth to consumption, and consumption is tied to carbon, and carbon is bound to climate change – nothing good is going to come out of this direction. Slogans are unhelpful, even dangerous, when they boil down actions into simple adopting of a new position, when what is required is a full appreciation of the complexities of a problem and a plan to address the issues.

“Museums are not Neutral” is a a puzzling slogan to me because it is not clear just where this line of thinking is going. I would be the first to agree that museums are not neutral. As an audience researcher in a large art museums for many years, I know only too well how the simple act of walking into a museum – especially an art museum – creates a sense of intimidation for many people.  The quiet sense/ expectation of authority, institutional integrity and trust that is projected by museums often squelches potentially creative and thoughtful engagement with visitors.

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Photo by MontyLov on Unsplash

Beyond this, I am very familiar with how museums have historically claimed a necessity to be ‘neutral’ in relationship to topical issues – such as racism, climate change, growth-based economies and much more.  Museums have been grappling with the ‘problem of controversial topics’ for decades! In my experience, this ridiculous claim about needing to be neutral (i.e. avoiding any controversy) was based on the systemic insecurity and fear of museum managers/boards that really had little idea of what the cultural ‘to what end?’ of museums might involve – if museums were to be involved in the living culture. Since they assumed that museums’ roles involved collecting and exhibiting, they didn’t want to put those activities in jeopardy by becoming embroiled in some messy, controversial topic.

But this institutional ‘neutrality’ was not harmless avoidance.

By avoiding the issues of the day, museums were at times responsible for a museum systems-level perpetuation of a host of cultural ills, such as social inequality.

For example the use of museum mission statements and collection policies enabled many art museums to keep the visual culture of Indigenous communities out of collections and exhibits for decades. One rationale for this policy was rooted in the argument that historical visual cultural objects linked to Indigenous communities were “not art… they were ethnology, and belonged in ethnological museums.  The siloed, and often self-centred world of academic disciplines had a hand to play in this type of situation. Thankfully, most museums today are trying to correct those past wrongs.

Being activist can be a difficult and uncomfortable place to stay for very long

goemp-posting
Posted on Group of Ontario Emerging Museum Professionals Facebook Page https://www.facebook.com/groups/306357482771679/

As for the Jillian Steinhauer article, I have a lot of sympathy for her ‘call to action’. Museums need to be venturing into the middle of the issues that are defining our living culture. I have considered myself an activist in all kinds of ways, over most of my life. It can be a difficult and uncomfortable place to stay for very long. However, venturing into the middle of vital issues – be it decreasing social/economic equity, increasing environmental degradation, increases in the high-jacking of political processes, increasing guns and violence, etc. – should not mean simply taking and holding a position. In many ways, if there is one cultural pattern that needs to be broken here, it is that of everyone having to decide what slogan to stand under.

In our pluralist, urban, globalized, economically driven world, there is a need to open up the conversations and find ways to truly create societies based on peace, empathy, creativity, relationships and some viable form of balance within the natural systems of our planet.

Steinhauer speaks about artists taking up activist positions. Artists do react to the world in powerful and provocative ways – hopefully that stimulate others to reflect deeply on issues, take a hard look at where they stand personally on such issues, foster respectful and empathetic dialogue between people who hold various views and ultimately lead to responsible, engaged actions.

I see the role of artists as very different from the role of museums

The complex, fast-paced changing world that we live in needs systems to help facilitate how citizens engage as fully as possible with cultural dynamics.

By bringing people together in ways that build bridges within and across human communities, museums have the ability to strive towards supporting our living culture in making room for deep personal reflections, public dialogue and human action.

Of course artworks, history, science, storytelling, shared spaces, and more can help provide the catalyst for these processes. But we need to be clear that our goal is not simply to push out a perspective into the world through the work of our institutions, through our various discipline-based lenses.

We need our cultural organizations to be nimble, engaged, in-tune, skilled, humble facilitators of the kind of meaning-making that is required of in our era.

This likely means that museums can and should stretch far beyond the walls of traditional museums/collections.  Similarly, they should operate far outside the confines of the leisure-time economy.

More than anything else, from my perspective, museums desperately need to develop cultural feedback loops that are rooted in living communities to help guide their activities towards meaningful cultural impacts. These ‘impact measures’ and feedback loops – essential how museums assess their ‘success’ at being relevant – will need to be stratified, so that they shed light on impacts on individuals, groups, communities, organizations, cities, economic and social systems and more. New skills will be needed. But museums have the ability to venture into the middle of vital cultural issues of our time.

I don’t think it works if they see themselves as ‘activists’, because, if museums and their staffs take sides, they will have a very limited ability to be effective facilitators within the culture.

My gut feeling is that we need fewer slogans and more honest dialogue.

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About the Author

dougpicDOUGLAS WORTS is a culture & sustainability specialist with WorldViews Consulting, in Toronto, Canada. Douglas approaches culture broadly, as ‘how we live our lives’, seeing museums as potential facilitators in forging an emerging ‘culture of sustainability’. His professional work combines a 35+-year career in museums with over two decades exploring how culture shapes and directs the prospects for global human sustainability.

It’s Time to Listen: This Guggenheim Project Showed the Importance of Lending an Ear

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?

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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.

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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

RachelRopeikRACHEL 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.

How do museums help people hold on to inspiration – and act?

Reposted from the blog of the Coalition of Museums for Climate Justice, which works to mobilize and support Canadian museum workers and their organizations in building public awareness, mitigation and resilience in the face of climate change.  To join the Coalition, please visit their Facebook Page or contact them directly.

Written by Henry McGhie

Hello, I’m looking for your views please.

The Science Centre World Summit will be in Tokyo in November. At the meeting, a Tokyo Protocol will be discussed and ratified, which reaffirms the potential and commitment of global museums and museum networks to support the UN sustainable development agenda, to transform our world by 2030, for the benefit of people, and nature, everywhere.

This programme is based on 17 sustainable development goals; these are just brilliant for museums to connect with, whether locally, globally, or locally and globally. More information can be found here.

If you click on the icons you get more information, and detailed targets. So, for museums with natural heritage collections, for example, some obvious links would be:

  • 4.7 – By 2030, ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development
  • 11.4 – Strengthen efforts to protect and safeguard the world’s cultural and natural heritage
  • 12.8 – By 2030, ensure that people everywhere have the relevant information and awareness for sustainable development and lifestyles in harmony with nature
  • 13.3 – Improve education, awareness-raising and human and institutional capacity on climate change mitigation, adaptation, impact reduction and early warning

Any museum could find something to connect with among the 135-odd targets, and indeed it could be very fruitful to connect different types of museums and networks together to create new opportunities for people to explore sustainable futures.

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Manchester Museum. Photo Courtesy Henry McGhie

The full Protocol can be found here

I’m interested to hear people’s initial responses to this. Is this the kind of thing you and your museums are interested in supporting/connecting with? Beyond time and money, what support would you need to do so?

I’m doing a couple of talks at the summit and it would be great to hear that at least some people are on board with this, or that this is something that they would be interested in progressing, or what concerns would need to be addressed. No names or organisations would be mentioned in the presentations, and just a very short reply will be fine.

My personal feeling, beyond being very, very supportive of the initiative, is that:

it’s important to recognise that most people don’t think scientifically (yes, it’s true) – and that while the evidence and information may be derived from science, transferring that into action will not be achieved by more and more facts, depressing information, or telling people what they should do. We need to connect the science with what people care about themselves, what motivates them and inspires them.

This isn’t about diluting the science, but deploying it effectively to help people always move forwards.

If inspiration is the feeling that moves us to action, our job is to help people feel (and hold onto) that feeling, and enable them to act on it beyond our four walls.

Thanks,
Henry

Some aspects of the Tokyo Protocol:

  • Investigate how to engage even more effectively with local communities and increasingly diverse audiences, and keep the focus on gender differences in engagement.
  • Continue taking actions that have a positive global impact and that will make people everywhere more aware of the opportunities that science and technology hold for the sustainable advancement of humankind.
  • Draw the attention of decision makers and the media to the essential role of public engagement with science and technology by setting up high-profile global activities.
  • Endeavour to leverage the position of science centres as “trusted” places to introduce the public to new technological solutions and sustainable technologies, and to broaden the potential use of these solutions.
  • Take the lead in developing the best methods for engaging learners and optimizing their education in both formal and informal settings using appropriate technologies in widely varying contexts.
  • Engage the public more directly with research, using this engagement to help empower people, broaden attitudes and ensure that the work of universities and research institutions is relevant to society and to wider social concerns on a global scale.
  • Work together in a creative celebration of the International Science Centre Year 2019, encouraging people throughout the world to take part in shared experiences relating to science and technology and society.

About the Author

HENRY MCGHIE  is Head of Collections and Curator of Zoology at Manchester Museum, part of the University of Manchester. He wants to find ways for museums to effectively support people to engage with the natural environment, and to create opportunities to discuss and shape the future we want for ourselves and others.

“Museum Are Not Neutral” by Anabel Roque Rodriguez

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.

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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.

Read more by visiting Anabel’s blog, which includes lots of fantastic links and resources focused on this issue.

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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.

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Order your MUSEUMS ARE NOT NEUTRAL t-shirt here!  And help us spread the word.

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.

Stay tuned for more!

Museums Marching

Written by Jessica Ruhle

On Saturday, I marched.

I attended my local march in Raleigh, North Carolina, with loved ones. While I marched for personal reasons, it was equally important for me professionally. As a museum educator, the number of colleagues who marched left me joyful and inspired. The Raleigh crowd of over 20,000 people included coworkers from my museum, staff from other institutions, educators, artists, and gallery owners. Part of the power of the march was sharing it with so many people with whom I work in a variety of contexts.

Thanks to social media, that communal experience stretched far beyond my network in North Carolina. As photographs and videos spread, I shared the day with art professionals across the country and the world. As colleagues marched in Portland, New York, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and Washington, D.C., their images reminded me of how fortunate I am to work with many who feel the same concerns, ask the same questions, and are making the same demands. Within my museum, my local arts community, and my broader profession, there is a shared commitment to public conversations about how our society has operated in the past, how it functions now and what changes are necessary for greater equality and justice in the future.

Of course, a single march is not enough to create change. We cannot simply applaud ourselves and carry on as we have in the past. Gloria Steinem reminded us:

“The future depends entirely on what each of us does every day. A movement is only people moving.”

How, then, will I create movement? What concrete actions can I take to support the causes for which I marched? How can I promote equal rights for women, LGBTQ communities, and people of all races and religions? How can I protect the public discourse around art and science? How can I speak out for appropriate funding of schools, access to clean water for all, and the protection of our environment? Many of my answers are things that I will do as an individual – phone calls to government officials, financial support of non-profit organizations, relationship building within my community, and my own lifelong learning about these issues.

Another answer to the question of what I can do is, simply, my job. It is impossible to ignore that my largest platform is my museum and the programs we produce. As museum staff, we have the honor of encouraging community conversations around the art we exhibit. With that role, how can museum educators translate the energy of the Women’s March into our professional practice?

Much has been made of the creativity of the marchers’ signs. There were funny signs, angry signs, and emotional signs, but they were all direct and clear in their message. I think museums can look to some of the signs for direction.

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Instagram @jordangraceowens
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Instagram @thesoulsofshoes

Be Inclusive

Museums are frequently criticized (appropriately) for their extreme whiteness. Don’t let this be true of any aspect of the museum experience that you influence. Whether you play a role in hiring staff, identifying teaching artists, inviting guest speakers and performers for public programs, or selecting artworks for tours, you have a responsibility to be inclusive. Prioritize racial diversity in your programs and staff to reflect your community more fully and to foster meaningful conversations that represent a variety of viewpoints and experiences.

Examining whom you include shouldn’t start and stop with racial diversity. Ask if you are representing a wide range of lifestyles, perspectives, and beliefs. Include those who challenge your own ways of thinking. Like the march, the museum is a shared space. As a shared space, museums must create meaningful engagement of the many, not the few.

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Instagram @kelsbrink

Spread Truth

Gallery conversations are often open ended. This is important in order to validate multiple interpretations and empower visitors. It is equally important that museum conversations embrace the facts. A recent visitor to my museum commented, “Being a slave wasn’t so bad in North Carolina.” One opinion, stated as fact, can make another visitor feel disregarded, or even unsafe. As museums engage in difficult social discussions, museum educators and gallery teachers will increasingly need to provide historical and current information that may challenge previously held assumptions and beliefs.

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Instagram @rboles

Engage Broadly

Art museum programs should spotlight a full range of disciplines. Invite scientists, social activists, medical experts, legal professionals, historians, musicians, poets, and more to participate in public programs. Art connects to all aspects of life. Therefore, discussions about art should engage more than artists and curators. Creating change will require conversations across all disciplines. Museums facilitate those conversations best when they ignore programmatic norms and build surprising partnerships.

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Instagram @anyalogan
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Instagram @kidximil

Expect Challenges

While so many of us turned out to march, our eagerness for change does not mean the work will be easy. This is not work that can be done in 140 characters. Actively respecting and engaging others is the serious work and it can be uncomfortable. Hard and uncomfortable are often part of anything that is important and necessary. Accept that mistakes happen. When they do, acknowledge them and use any missteps as opportunities to learn, to teach, and to improve.

Most importantly, remember the day we stood together. Remember how many share your goals of equality and justice. Remember that you are not doing this work alone. Remember that even when we are not marching, we are in solidarity.

Share your story from Saturday, January 21st.

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About the Author

jessica-ruhle-tedx-1JESSICA RUHLE is Manager of Public Programs at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. Jessica founded and directs the Nasher Museum’s Reflections Program for visitors with dementia and their care partners. She has worked at the Nasher Museum since 2010. Previously, Jessica worked at the North Carolina Museum of History, the North Carolina Museum of Art, and Marbles Kids Museum. Before arriving in North Carolina, she worked at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Jessica has an MAT in Museum Education from The George Washington University, as well as a BA in Art History from Davidson College. Jessica’s postings on this site are her own and do not necessarily represent the Nasher Museum of Art’s positions, strategies, or opinions.

‘This is the time when museums go to work’: MuseumNext Keynote Address

Written by Mike Murawski

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of being invited to give the keynote address to begin Day 2 of the MuseumNext conference in New York City. My talk expanded on some of my thinking around the vital importance of empathy, change, and social action in museums, and focused on 5 actions we can take as museum professionals.  I’m pasting the video, SlideShare, and extended notes from my talk below.  I hope this sparks more conversations within and among museums about the role our institutions play in our communities and in relation to issues of social justice, equity, and inclusion.  Please feel free to email me at murawski27@gmail.com with any questions, and add Comments or questions below for a more public exchange around these ideas.  I welcome all perspectives, ideas, and voices in this dialogue about museums.  And special thanks to Jim Richardson and the team at MuseumNext for putting together a powerful conference in New York!

Link to SlideShare PowerPoint slides.

Link to Vimeo video.

NOTE: These views are my own and don’t necessarily represent the Portland Art Museum’s positions, strategies, or opinions.

Keynote Address: “Urgency of Empathy and Social Action in Museums”

November 15, 2016, Tribeca Center for Performing Arts, New York, NY

[I began this address by playing an excerpt from Janelle Monae’s “Hell You Talmbout,” which I encourage you to listen to by playing the video below. And crank up the volume or pop on some headphones.]

This visceral performance was recorded by Janelle Monae and the Wondaland Arts Society collective.  It is a striking protest piece that responds to instances of police violence against minorities in this country, and honors the lives of those lost in a way that boldly confronts indifference.

Janelle Monae said, “Silence is our enemy, and sound is our weapon.”  In an interview about her recording “Hell You Talmbout,” she said something that really struck me and made me want to bring this in to begin our day here at MuseumNext: “It’s important that we see each other as human beings. We need to take care of each other.”  Her piece stands as a form of art that can connect us all as humans through empathy as well as action.

I want to spend some time talking this morning about the urgency of empathy, social impact, and social action in museums today, focusing on 5 actions—that’s right, I said actions … not ideas, concepts, or principles.  5 actions that we can all get involved in to help museums reach their full potential as meaningful, relevant, human-centered institutions in our communities.

But before I begin, I would like to recognize and honor the indigenous peoples on whose ancestral lands this theatre now stands here in Manhattan, on which our museums stand, and on which we live and work every day.

ACTION 1: Be More Local

It’s so important for museums to be a ‘local’ place intertwined and inseparable from the local realities and issues.  We are located in our communities, but we’re also a part of those communities.  This idea of community is important to address – we use that word a lot and don’t often think about it. What is community, and what is audience?  What do we mean by these words?  For me, so much of this idea of “community” is grounded in geography.  How do we define our place, our town, our city, our neighborhood; and how do we learn about the people in this place, what connects us, and what brings us together into a community

So what can we do to help museums be more local?

First, I think there is a false binary and divide we have created between ‘museum’ and ‘community’ that is troubling.  It’s so ingrained in the way so many of us talk about our work, myself included.  We might be feeding this gap, this divide, by simply not addressing it.  What if “the museum” included the people in our local community (including our staff and volunteers)?  What if, instead of just museums seeing themselves as part of their communities, our communities actually saw themselves as part of our museums?  We fight so hard for outreach, but sometimes we just need inreach—a way for us to open our ears and our hearts and let others get involved in new and different ways.

This may sound radical, but I believe it’s also a fact: our community knows more than we do. There is so much expertise and knowledge outside of our institutions that we tend to reject and ignore, but it’s greater than what we hold on to within our institutions.  We have got to start breaking down those walls, listen more, and rethink the way we value some knowledge and stories over others.  Identify and value the assets of our community — their stories, experiences, creative energies, and knowledges.

One powerful example of this local work is The Laundromat Project.  The Laundromat Project brings 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, and enhance the sense of ownership in the places where we live, work, and grow. Their Kelly Street Initiative was launched in 2015 in the South Bronx, in partnership with Workforce Housing Group, Kelly Street Garden, and Banana Kelly Community Improvement Association, transforming a 2 bedroom-apartment into a thriving creative community hub.  I’m looking forward to heading there with a group of conference participants for MuseumNext’s first ever Museum Social Action Project.

ACTION 2: Recognize and Support the Movement for Black Lives

I believe there is a need for us museums to publicly recognize and engage the brave and transformative work of the Movement for Black Lives. The Movement has forged a new national conversation about the legacy of racism, state violence, and state neglect of communities of color in the United States—a conversation grounded in those communities’ own experiences. As stated in their Vision for Black Lives policy statement, the Movement’s vision is to:

“move towards a world in which the full humanity and dignity of all people is recognized.”

I know this is something  museums can stand behind unapologetically.  We need to engage with and learn from the Movement, help support and expand this community of social justice activists without dictating or distorting the work underway. Supporting this work is not putting museums and its employees in a bubble, but rather it powerfully unifies us in support of basic human rights that have been wrongly politicized since the first colonists stepped ashore some 500 years ago.

Some examples of brave, courageous museums that are putting themselves out there to support this work are:

Science Museum of Minnesota: Back in July 2016, they posted a sign at entrance to RACE: Are We So Different? exhibition after tragic killing of Philando Castille in July, joining their community in mourning.  Unfortunately that sign was eventually removed, but I want to acknowledge that courage of those people who sat in a room to make the decision to put that sign up so we can have this conversations about whether museums can do this or not.

New Museum in New York: Black Women Artists for Black Lives Matter, which began back in July 2016 when a group of more than 100 black women artists began meeting at New Museum.  The group took over the Museum for an event in September that included performances, workshops, videos, and a procession. Reflecting on that September event, artist Ariel Jackson recalls: “some of us wanted a space to laugh and celebrate our blackness in the face of trauma. Others wanted a space to scream, cry, and holler. We ultimately agreed that we wanted to express our humanity — both joy and grief”

Smithsonian National Museum for African American History and Culture: Among many other ways that this new Smithsonian Museum is collecting, exhibiting, and recognizing the Movement for Black Lives in historic ways, I wanted to draw attention to their acquisition of the Mirror Casket Project into their collection. The Mirror Casket is a sculpture, performance, and call to action for justice in the aftermath of the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO. Created by a team of seven community artists and organizers, the mirrored casket responds to a Ferguson resident’s call for “a work of art that evokes more empathy into this circumstance,” with an aim to evoke reflection. This work will be included in future exhibitions at the NMAAHC.

Portland Art Museum: At the Portland Art Museum, we have recently been partnering with members of Don’t Shoot Portland, one of the main Black Lives Matter groups working for change across the Portland community.  On August 9, 2016, the anniversary of Michael Brown’s killing, we were the site for a gathering and community social justice art project organized by Don’t Shoot Portland that involved music and dance performances, speakers, and free admission to the Museum and exhibitions.  This was planned, in part, as a result of conversations with our community in conjunction with the opening of two exhibitions which focused on issues of racial violence, police brutality, and social justice activism.  Many of us at the Portland Art Museum wanted to be listening to our community and engaged with our community, so we reached out and had these powerful things happening at the museum. It was a space of creation, a space of community and coming together.

I can’t mention these events without mentioning Teressa Raiford, who is one of the most powerful activists in Portland and probably in many of our communities, who’s putting a lot of this together and who has for the past six days been on the streets in Portland with peaceful protestors standing up for basic human rights. Teressa continues to be an inspiring, driving force behind the ways that the Portland Art Museum is beginning to listen to its community and engage in a new dialogue around race and social justice.

Following up the event in the Portland Art Museum on August 9th, we had a panel discussion entitled “Race in America After Ferguson” where Reverend Tracy Blackman from Florissant, Missouri (one of the pastors that’s been involved in the Ferguson Commission with President Obama and also the Federal Government’s faith-based initiatives work) came and spoke with artist Arvie Smith, Teressa Raiford, and Mykia Hernandez, a young activist in Portland.  With two or three days’ notice we had an incredible crowd from the community come, including docents and staff from the museum who came out to this conversation. It was really important, internally and externally, for the museum to be having these conversations and be seen as a space for these conversations.

In the words of leaders at the Ford Foundation who publicly supported the Movement for Black Lives earlier this summer–and a quote that I think is as timely now as it was back in July:

“now is the time to stand by and amplify movements rooted in love, compassion, and dignity for all people.”

ACTION 3: Flip the Script

What does it look like to “flip the script” in museums, to work toward de-centering the traditional power structures of our institution?  How can we actually shift away from the old, traditional narratives that got us where we are today, right now, right here?   How can our work as museum professionals shift power?

Letting go of these traditional historic notions of museum authority and power relationships is essential but it’s also very challenging, and I’m going to break the rules of conferences and do something that you’re not supposed to do. I’m going to read a text panel from a museum exhibition, and this is not a text panel that is a typical voice of authority, it is not what I call the ‘voice of god’ text panel for a museum. This text panel was the intro panel to our new Center for Contemporary Native Art during our second exhibition in that space, written by indigenous artists Demian DinéYazhi’ and Kali Spitzer and unedited or unimpeded by curatorial voice or museum voice. I think it says something powerful. So, when visitors waked into the gallery during Demian and Kali’s exhibition, they were immediately confronted by this wall text panel:

“By entering this space you have an ethical responsibility to acknowledge that all Indigenous thought, creativity, fantasy, activism, & existence is grounded in continual acts of Survivance. You have agreed to forfeit your misconceptions of Indigenous identity & respect the sacredness of Indigenous traditional practices. You are not stepping into the past or staring into a picture plane void of Indigenous inhabitants. You are not glorifying Western historical inaccuracies or romanticizing the cowboys & Indians narrative. By entering this space you agree to never again place your hand over your mouth in a mock “war cry” or teach your children to be ignorant of the Indigenous peoples whose land you have claimed as your own. From this moment onward you promise to learn the history of the Indigenous ancestral lands that were stolen/continue to be stolen through colonization & genocide. By entering this space you have agreed to become a lifelong agent against humanitarian & environmental injustice.”

It is such a powerful statement. So, flipping the script can mean changing who gets to write these narratives. The Center for Contemporary Native Art at the Portland Art Museum is one of these spaces where we have experimented with decentering traditional museum authority.

The Center for Contemporary Native Art is a space that we have developed dedicated to displaying the work by contemporary indigenous artists at the museum. It’s supported by an IMLS grant currently and it really gets the museum to step out of the way and let Native people tell their stories.  Through exhibitions in this Center, we’ve been really privileging native voice, native language, indigenous knowledge, and indigenous perspectives. It has been one of the most powerful things I’ve been able to work on in my work in museums and I have to give a shout out to Deana Dartt who was recently our curator of Native American Art at the Portland Art Museum and whose powerful vision made this possible.

Another example of ‘flipping the script’ is the long-running initiative at the Portland Art Museum called Object Stories, and these images are just some of the examples of the people whose voices have been brought to the center of our museum during this project: from people living with Alzheimer’s and their caregivers, to recent refugees to Portland, and we currently have on view in that gallery a project that highlights the voices of deaf artists and highlights their work in the gallery.

In her article from earlier this year entitled, “We Need a Decolonized, Not a ‘Diverse,’ Education,” scholar Zoe Samudzi writes:

“Until marginalized communities are the storytellers of their experiences, history will be rendered partially complete, but wholly-privilege the knowledges and perspectives of the colonizers.”

These marginalised voices and stories, often rendered completely invisible, need to be brought to the center.

One final example – this is just something I thought was amazing project that I just read about this past week or so – at the Detroit Institute of Art, they’re working on an exhibit for summer 2017 to highlight and reflect on the 50-year anniversary of the summer of 1967 rebellion. It’s a year-long collaborative project to uncover home movies and perspectives from people living in Detroit in 1967, and the project aims to reflect on one of the most painful times in the history of Detroit and spur thoughts on how that region can continue moving forward. What an incredible way of bringing community voices and stories into such a significant museum project, and privileging those stories and knowledge in the museum.

ACTION 4: Have a Personal Vision for Change

Have a personal vision for change, and work to create a personal vision. I think this is something that’s important.

I hope you’ve had your coffee, because I’m going to have you do something for me before we wrap up here. Put your notebooks and devices down just for a second, take a deep breath, and clear your mind. Now I want you to try and think about: what matters most to you right now? Try to boil it down to a word or a phrase. Now, I want you to shout that out. [audience loudly shouts out words at the same time]

Thank you, and not only is that energy that we need to make change happen in museums, but it also illustrates this need for our own personal vision and purpose to help guide this work. What do you care about? What is your high dream? What is the change you’d like to see? Have a personal vision. Write it down. It doesn’t have to be some sort of perfectly crafted, wordsmithed mission statement. Think about what matters to you, write it down, add it to your desktop background, tape it to your wall, share it on social media, wear it on a tee-shirt. Connect with your core values on a daily basis. Stand behind these values. Share them. Don’t be ashamed of them. After all, if we don’t know where we’re going, how in the hell are we ever going to get there?

I’m most recently inspired by De Andrea Nichols, an activist, educator and artist in St Louis.  She said in a commencement speech she gave earlier this year at Washington University in St. Louis: “Do what makes you come alive!” Nichols’s “Sticky Note to Self” project is also worth checking out through Tumblr and Instagram.. It is so inspiring to see her inspiration, to see the things that she’s thinking about, done so creatively. She just writes these sticky notes to herself, which is something I’ve been doing more and more.  When you’ve got a moment of inspiration, write it down, stick it somewhere, keep it, reflect back on it on a daily basis so we can keep pushing ahead on this work.

Bring your passion with you to work. I think this is important that we stop the unnecessary separation between our work and ourselves and this type of passion. We need to create environments and museums where we, as museum workers, can be our whole selves, can bring our passion.  One of the things that I’ve been motivated by in my own practice has been this inspiring quote from James Baldwin, which I added to my email signature as a daily, public reminder:

“not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

ACTION 5: Build Communities of Action and Change

I firmly believe museums are people-centred institutions (something I have written about in more detail). Museums are us. If we don’t bring in other people too, our work cannot grow. We need to identify change agents within our institutions. Invite people to meet with you over coffee. Think about the barriers to your work, and consider how those barriers are they people-based.  What people are involved with those barriers? OK, now go have coffee with those people and listen.  Listen to what those people are talking about in terms of why those barriers might exist. It is also important to positively recognise when others take steps in the right direction towards this work.  We need to build supportive, positive, connected communities of change within and among our organizations.

And I think it’s time that, no matter where you are in your organizations (new employee or seasoned veteran); it’s time for us to stop thinking of ourselves as followers and thinking of ourselves as leaders within our institutions. You can grow a community of change in your organisation and it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been there. Remember, museum are made of us people, and our museums are only as empathetic, connected, and engaged as the people who work for them.

An important aspect of building these communities of action is also recognising the new collective platforms and movements that exist now online. If you are on social media, #MuseumWorkersSpeak and #MuseumsRespondToFerguson are hashtags that are bringing people together to talk about these issues. Also #MuseWomen, #a11y, and the blogs Incluseum, Brown Girls’ Museum blog, Visitors of Color Tumblr site, Queering the Museum Project, Museum of Impact, Museum Hue. And so many more projects that are bringing people together to create these communities of change and communities of action across the field of museums, arts, and culture.

The last slide I want to show is the team of education staff at the Portland Art Museum. We took this photo here last Wednesday morning, which I regretted scheduling that photo the morning after the election here, but we immediately gravitated to this empowering work “Power Up” by artist Corita Kent, who’s been feeding a lot of our souls in Portland with this exhibition on view of her work. I include this photo only to give recognition, honor, and support to this amazing group of educators and to the power that they bring to all of this work at the Portland Art Museum, to our vision for doing good, meaningful, more local work and in building communities of change across our institution. It is not ‘me’; it is a ‘we’ situation, and there is so much power in the people on this team and so many who are not even this photograph.

As we bring on more people to rise to this challenge with us, we can convert ‘aspiring to change’ into ‘real change’. The time has come to move beyond symbolically standing up for social justice. This may often mean breaking the rules but it never involves silence. We need to permanently put to rest the idea that a museum should be a neutral place and that its employees should be dispassionate.

CONCLUSION

Let me wrap up with something a bit more personal. One week ago this morning, I was proud to go turn in my ballot alongside my wife, inspired by her power, energy, and resilience.  Just hours later, that night, I found myself in tears, holding my confused 7-year-old son in my arms as I put him to bed.  I know I am not alone when I say I felt numb and almost paralyzed.

I want to close by connecting with the words of writer Toni Morrison, who many of us read during recent days and weeks.  12 years ago, she recounted her own election-induced feelings of depression, paralysis, being unable to write, when an artist friend interrupted her and said, “No, no, no.  This is precisely the time when artists go to work.  That’s our job!”  

So I channel the power of Ms. Morrison at this difficult moment, because This is precisely the time when museums go to work.  That’s our job!

Thank you.

About the Author

IMG_3329MIKE 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. Mike has been invited to lead workshops, lectures, panels, and training sessions at various institutions, including the Aspen Art MuseumCrocker Art Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, National Gallery of Art, Nelson Atkins Museum of Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art, and Phoenix Art Museum, among others.  He is passionate about how we can come to see museums as agents of change in their communities as well as creative sites for transformative learning and social action. Mike’s postings on this site are his own and don’t represent the Portland Art Museum’s positions, strategies, or opinions.

Getting Outside the Bubble: Museum Social Action Project at MuseumNext

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.

Since 2009, we’ve had everything from brainstorming wild ideas with Nina Simon, to a symposium on heritage and retail to playing with the latest sensor technology, but for our conference in New York City we have a very exciting addition to the program.

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 Project brings 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).

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

 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.

Featured header image: The Laundromat Project Kelly Street Housewarming, Photo by Osjua A. Newton, copyright © 2015.

Museums & #BlackLivesMatter

Written by Aleia Brown  and Adrianne Russell

Reposted from project CODE WORDS, an experiment in online publishing and discourse around issues of technology and theory in museums. Read more great essays by leading thinkers in the field by visiting the project on Medium. [republished with permission of the authors]

In the early nineteenth century, a small population of free people of color speckled the United States. Some of them did not disrupt the status quo, but revolutionaries like Denmark Vesey of Charleston, South Carolina called for the nation to burn.

A founding member of Emmanuel AME Church, Vesey primarily recruited church members for the insurrection. His plan leaked to slave owners before he could make Charleston a site of liberation. The Mayor organized a militia to catch all co-conspirators. Vigilante justice reigned over the city too, but it did not stop for good. On June 17, 2015 self-proclaimed white supremacist Dylan Roof reignited that spirit of vigilante justice and murdered nine Emmanuel AME Church parishioners with the intent to start a race war nearly a century after Vesey planned his uprising.

Black people have long struggled for their freedom and civil rights in America. Denmark Vesey is an example of this. Therefore, uprisings across the nation after repeated incidents of white police officers shooting unarmed black citizens is not just an inciting 2015 headline. It falls along the continuum of black people protesting against state sanctioned violence and over policing in their communities. So why do museums continually hesitate in responding to Ferguson and Baltimore and Staten Island and Cleveland and Charleston and…?

“Mike Brown Silent Protest White House” by Elvert Barnes, CC BY 2.0
“Mike Brown Silent Protest White House” by Elvert Barnes, CC BY 2.0

Are Museums Really Ready to Respond to Ferguson?

In Bridget McKenzie’s Code:Words piece, “Toward the Sociocratic Museum”, McKenzie proposes a new model of museum to counter the existing plutocratic and bureaucratic archetypes that have arisen from plunder and oppression or are discomfitingly in bed with problematic corporate entities, respectively. In theory, the sociocratic museum would forego being participatory and engaging on its surface for “governance that is non-hierarchical, consent-based and rooted in its communities.” Recently, museums have championed inclusion and engagement. But the digital landscape and communities of color have pushed back, creating spaces that discuss their lived experience and critiquing how other people view it.

McKenzie’s piece cited #museumsrespondtoFerguson, a Twitter chat we co-host the third Wednesday of each month 1PMCST/2PMEST, as an example of how people-driven movements in the digital realm can inspire change in museums. In 2014, tens of thousands of Americans took to the streets protesting the killings of unarmed black citizens by police in Staten Island, Beavercreek, Ferguson, Cleveland, Baltimore (and unfortunately many more in subsequent months). These actions were inspired, organized, shared (and ultimately spied on) via a host of digital platforms, most notably Twitter, which has the highest percentage of black adult users according to recent research. It’s the digital equivalent of an old-school office water cooler. It’s where news breaks, information is shared, and racist tomfoolery is dragged to the carpet.

Claiming Their Space Digitally

#BlackLivesMatter, and other movements, rallied marginalized people and amplified their unified voices. They claimed virtual space instead of waiting for it to be doled out to them. Traditional gatekeepers were rendered moot. Schools, arts organizations, libraries, and other entities responded with public statements denouncing police brutality, presented related programs, or offered their venues as community gathering spaces.

The Joint Statement from Museum Bloggers & Colleagues on Ferguson and Related Events, from which #museumsrespondtoFerguson generated, was an industry call-to-arms, primarily asking museums in the United States to similarly reflect upon their internal oppressive practices and actively demonstrate their roles as change agents fully embedded in our nation’s social, educational, and cultural infrastructure. The forward to “Museums, Equality, and Social Justice” (Sandell and Nightingale, ed.) makes this responsibility explicit:

“No matter what a museum’s legal structure, whether publicly funded, or authorised by society to function as a charity, it is expected to contribute to the common good. If its basic values do not include solidarity with the excluded, then the museum is reinforcing that exclusion”

“A Black Lives Matter protest of police brutality in the rotunda of the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota” by Nicholas Upton, CC BY-SA 2.0
“A Black Lives Matter protest of police brutality in the rotunda of the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota” by Nicholas Upton, CC BY-SA 2.0

Museums pride themselves on embodying the common good, on honoring its social compacts, and being physically and virtually relevant. Precious resources are devoted to “engagement”, a term so buzzy and overused that it often elicits groans and eye-rolls from museum employees tasked with bringing the nebulous concept to life.

These colleagues regularly communicate via tags such as #musesocial, #musetech, and #museEd to crowdsource solutions and exchange practices, so convening in digital spaces isn’t new. However, using those spaces to openly examine anti-blackness in museums certainly is.

Twitter: The Tool for Activists Online

Social activism is inherently risky but protest in the physical world can take place with a certain degree of professional protection. You can demonstrate outside of work hours or anonymously donate to causes of your choice. But participating in a Twitter chat explicitly dedicated to confronting your current or potential employers’ systemic oppression under your personal account, which might even include your image (and almost overwhelmingly some variation of a “these ideas are mine alone” disclaimer), is practically an act of rebellion in an industry with a long history of conformity, exclusion, and aversion to transparency.

The aforementioned Joint Statement was born digitally and continues to live online, making it more accessible than a paper document. Conversations responding to overarching themes like race, police brutality and community relations dominate the online landscape now. The monthly Twitter chat is a limb of the statement, keeping the conversation alive. Twitter has been the most appropriate online social media platform seeing that it is the most immediate and democratic.

Facebook, the most popular social media platform, originally started exclusively for Harvard students. Eventually, it expanded to a service for all Ivy League schools along with Stanford University. It was not until 2006 that anyone of appropriate age could join the site. Contrarily, Twitter has always allowed anyone with a valid email address to join the site. Anyone can build a sizeable audience without educational, economic or social weight.

While one of the high points of Twitter is that it very democratic, that aspect also hurts our ability to account for everyone engaged in the conversation. Twitter allows participants to see the full conversation. It also gives them the choice to be an onlooker without forcing them to participate. Because of this, we know there is a group of people who read the Tweets but do not contribute to the conversation. This is frustrating because it does not allow us to capture a complete sample of the comments surrounding certain themes.

To capture the Tweets that are present in the chat, we use Storify. While Storify provides a great summary of the chat, it does not retain tweets if a user deletes them. We are still researching the best tools for tracking tweets on a limited (i.e. no) budget. So far, NodeXL (visual) and TAGS (archiving) are possible contenders due to free, open source templates, although the TAGS archive reflects some bias in its often incomplete results.

Twitter is also useful in the sense that it’s immediate. It’s a space for discourse and thinking aloud in public. And it has a record for social change. Among many other times, Egyptians most notably used Twitter in 2011 to organize actions in hopes of overthrowing President Hosni Mubarak. Its record for serving as a platform for social change made it the top choice for housing #museumsrespondtoFerguson.

>>View #Museumsrespondtoferguson on Storify<<

This particular Storify, which focused on museums and oppression illustrates how Twitter introduced new perspectives and sources outside the mainstream to some of our chat participants. Margaret Middleton noted, #BlackLivesMatter has completely transformed the way I see the world.” Through these chats, Twitter continues to demonstrate to us that we can spread information that disrupts traditional narratives quickly and effectively.

The Stutter-Step Between Hashtag to Action

“Eric Garner Protest 4th December 2014, Manhattan, NYC” by The All-Nite Images, CC BY-SA 2.0
“Eric Garner Protest 4th December 2014, Manhattan, NYC” by The All-Nite Images, CC BY-SA 2.0

For all the good Twitter is, it still presents some challenges. How do we move out of an online safe space, to a space of action? We did not even provide a Storify for our fifth chat which asked participants to share anti-blackness work they have engaged since being a part of #museumsrespondtoFerguson. There were barely any tweets to archive. Instead of seeing action, that particular chat pulled back a veneer and exposed fear and tepid hopes. After several chats, it seemed like participants were still unsure about how to respond to Ferguson. We have pushed for museums and museum professionals to first examine the ways they perpetuate or dismantle oppression. Before museums can truly engage communities, they have to do the internal work. To be sure, this work is not easy, and it is far more complex than providing a tidy and succinct list of ten steps to engage with the black community.

Some comments, like one that relegated #museumsrespondtoFerguson to being “about museum staff talking amongst themselves — not a bad thing, but seems tangential in some way to community engagement,” are discouraging. Museums can’t engage communities of color before acknowledging and working through their role in marginalizing black and brown people. Furthermore, museum professionals cannot continue to cite early museologists like John Cotton Dana without providing the context that Newark struggled with desegregating its public spaces.

While John Cotton Dana wrote about engaging all people and making collections accessible and relevant, black people were not necessarily included in this plan. Dana demonstrated progressive ideas about gender, but never explicitly advocated for race equity. This is the type of deconstruction that needs to take place before museums attempt to engage a community that they have historically turned away. Learning about the likes of Mabel Wilson, in addition to Dana, makes for a more thoughtful and relevant approach to engaging black communities. #museumsrespondtoFerguson seeks to expose participants to different voices and thought processes that museums continue to ignore.

The chat generates thoughtful commentary, and has also inspired #MuseumWorkersSpeak, a conversation about labor and equity in the field. However, participants express some hesitancy, and even fearfulness, in putting these conversations to action. This was especially evident in our fifth chat where participants could barely answer the questions because they had not actually put in work to evaluate or comment on. We have not found the best solution for moving the conversation to action. Jumping back to the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, participants in their online advocacy never hesitated to take action. Action was intuitive. They believed in change and were willing to work for it.

Maybe, in this country racial change is not intuitive. And while Twitter can foster productive conversations, it has not fostered enough tangible actions in the museum community. The Charleston Massacre unfortunately connects us to the nineteenth century motto of vigilante justice against black people. Museums can no longer view contemporary iterations of racialized violence as traumatic headlines too difficult to work through in their spaces. As organizations with renewed commitment to community engagement, #museumsrespondtoFerguson needs to manifest in gallery spaces, programming and outreach.

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Header Image: “Eric Garner Protests,” Photo by Paul Silva, Flickr.com,  CC BY 2.0