Tag Archives: social change

Museum as space of opportunity, creativity & care: A perspective from Spain

Written by Fernando Echarri

In Spain, COVID-19 has caused and is causing sudden and overwhelming social change. Spain is one of the countries in the world that is suffering most from the effects of the pandemic at the moment. Effects that translate into new social and personal challenges, involving many factors including misinformation, manipulation, fear and catastrophism. This situation shakes the foundations of a way of living, of coexisting, of perceiving, of doing, of desiring, of dreaming.

This change has happened practically from one day to the next, when the Spanish Government declared a state of alarm. The change meant the closure of many public and private equipment, including all educational centres and museums. We work at the Museo Universidad de Navarra, located in the north of Spain. It is a recently created university museum of contemporary art (2015). With structures and procedures still being established and, therefore, also with the power of flexibility towards new scenarios. The museum’s closure has been very sudden, with the exhibition “Universes” by the artist David Jiménez just opened in March. It has taken place at the same time that the University has stopped its face-to-face activity, so that university students and other visitors from other segments of the population cannot physically visit the museum or carry out their various cultural and educational programmes.

And how does a university museum of contemporary art adapt to a situation that prevents the public from seeing its exhibitions and carrying out the rest of its cultural programme?

We try to raise 5 criteria that can help answer this question :

1.  It must be faced with a positive mind, which sees this situation as a generator of personal and social change that provides a new space of opportunity.

2.  Learn to work with uncertainty; with a continuous and changing uncertainty that the situation itself generates. Uncertainty that affects everything from the biology of the virus and the evolution of the disease to the political and regulatory measures that are taken and the social perceptions and new forms of behaviour that are being generated in real time. These new forms of behaviour will probably include a new emotional and affective state in terms of the relational aspect between people. And in this new generation of new forms of behaviour, the museum cannot be alien. It cannot miss this train, in a challenge that we do not know where it is going, but in which the museum has to be assembled, to travel together with society, to accompany it in the different situations and contexts that are being generated.

3.  Space for creativity. The uncertainty generated provides in turn a great ally, usually forgotten: creativity. Creativity can be a lifeboat when the waters are turbulent and the known capsizes. The undefined space is built with enabling bricks that are linked to the creative cement. New products are thus generated, at this time digital, that respond with contemporary art to the needs of the users.

4.  To focus on the value Care. This value is not usually the focus of most education programmes, and is not usually one of the main values considered in a transversal way in the programmes of museums. However, this word is currently one of the most mentioned in the media and has become one of the key words generated by COVID-19 and which people are taking into account the most. Personal, family and social care is now a trend topic. Perhaps this value has surpassed the value of respect, which is the one most often used in social work. The respect value has fallen short in this situation. If we understand the value respect as the consideration for others, the value care implies respect, but it is more than that value. It also implies concern, protection, solidarity and love.

We could simplify by considering that care = respect + love. In this situation generated by COVID-19, it is clear the numerous evidence of care that is being generated in society. Neighbours who previously did not speak to each other are now wondering how they are doing, how they are handling the situation, if they have any sick relatives, if they need anything. Anonymous people who help other anonymous people. It’s not a minor change. COVID-19 is possibly making society better, more humane. Or maybe it already was, but there were no opportunities to make it so obvious. In order to adapt to this situation, museums should integrate this value into the relational possibilities offered by their various programmes.

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5.  ‘Stay at home’. This is the communicative message that the Spanish Government is promoting during this period of confinement. This message has forced the Museo Universidad de Navarra to change its communication, dissemination and educational strategy. This new situation is a challenge for the University of Navarra Museum. It means devoting all its efforts to off-site activities. If the visitor does not come to the museum, the museum will look for the visitor. It means taking the museum to the people’s homes. That is why it has created the ‘MUNENCASA’, with the intention of providing artistic, cultural and educational support to the various people and groups that are currently confined.

*     *     *

This impediment to living physically in the museum has made it possible to develop a parallel, virtual museum, which offers users programmes, activities and tools such as virtual visits to the exhibitions, multimedia videos, digital gamification, a blog with recent history and current affairs, and classes for university students and the rest of the population. It also pays continuous attention to the different social networks, publishing not only news. The world of social networks has increased its volume of traffic these days and we must redouble our communication efforts. In record time, digital materials are generated that adapt existing analogue resources. Programmatic resources are generated, both exhibition and educational, which help people through art and culture.

This is what we have to do at this time: to approach each home and accompany, help, and care for our users as much as possible.

Society expects nothing less from us.


Header Image: José Ortiz Echagüe, “Tenura”


About the Author

FERNANDO ECHARRI IRIBARREN holds a degree in Biological Sciences (University of Navarra, 1989) and a PhD in Museum Education (University of Navarra, 2007). He is an associate professor of the University of Navarra (Pamplona, Spain) and teaches in the following areas: “Art Education”, “University Master’s Degree in Higher-Education Teaching” and “University Master’s Degree in Curatorial Studies”. Since 2014, he has been Head of the Education Department at the University of Navarra Museum. His interests include meaningful learning and significant learning experiences.

How Can I Contribute? Four Steps I’m Taking to Figure it Out

Reposted with permission from Nina Simon on Medium. Visit her page there to read more.

Written by Nina Simon

I have the profound privilege to experience COVID-19 as a source of stress, not crisis. My family is healthy and able to shelter in place. My organization is well-funded enough to support our staff and continue our work. Like most folks, I feel waves of panic and fear. But my primary emotion is gratitude.

There are many, many people who don’t have my privileges right now. I’m talking daily to people who are losing income and housing and security and health. All this suffering makes me wonder: how can I contribute? What is the best way I can show up for others right now?

I started answering this question with the basics: staying home and practicing physical distancing. Reaching out to loved ones who are struggling. Donating to people and communities in crisis. Ensuring my colleagues have secure jobs and expanded benefits to support their well-being.

That all feels good. But I feel called to do more. And more is presenting itself to me — more opportunities to give, to volunteer, to be of service. So now I have a different problem: how to figure out what to do.

Don’t Let Production be the Enemy of Good

I’m not alone with this problem. In my industry — the nonprofit cultural sector — I see many organizations scrambling to engage right now.

In some cases, rapid response is phenomenal and highly relevant. I’m thrilled that art museums are donating personal protective equipment to healthcare workers. I’m amazed by historic sites that are offering their facilities up for hospital beds and food distribution centers. I’m grateful arts councils are setting up emergency funds for artists. I’m glad nature centers and parks are staying open as places of connection and healing.

These forms of rapid response are timely and meaningful. But I had to hunt for the above examples. Meanwhile, without my asking, my inbox is overflowing with a deluge of virtual museum tours, live-streamed opera performances, and digital educational resources. And it makes me wonder: is this the most meaningful way cultural organizations can contribute — or is it just the fastest way?

I’m not opposed to these offerings. I can see the hope and pleasure small snippets of art, music, history, and nature provide. But why are we doing it? Are we doing it based on some kind of expressed community need? Are we doing it with an eye towards serving communities that are struggling most? Or are we doing it to assure ourselves that we are “doing something,” to assure our donors we still exist— and that our jobs are worth keeping (which is in itself important!)?

You could argue that these organizations are contributing what they do best. But we’re a creative sector, and I think we could get more creative. In the race to deliver, I worry we may distract ourselves from the potential to envision and deliver true community value.

At first, I too felt pressure to produce and perform. I felt guilty that I wasn’t doing enough, that I wasn’t using my platform to be of great service right away. But then I realized — I don’t know how to do that yet. There was a real possibility I might burn myself out producing something mediocre instead of figuring out what might be most useful.

So I gave myself permission to slow down. I thought about my organization — OF/BY/FOR ALL — and how we coach cultural organizations to learn from communities and increase their relevance and public value.

Here are the steps I’m taking to find a better answer to the question of how I can contribute.

If you’re like me, holding privilege and wondering how you can be of service (whether as an individual or on behalf of your organization), I offer this process to you.

1. SELECT A COMMUNITY OF FOCUS.

You can’t help everyone. So ask yourself: what community especially matters to you right now? Who do you care about who might be particularly vulnerable or at risk? Maybe it’s elderly people in your neighborhood. Maybe it’s immigrants without a safety net. Maybe it’s nurses. I believe in targeted, community-centric approaches — and that starts with identifying specific communities to support.

2. LISTEN TO THAT COMMUNITY.

If you take a blind guess as to what a particular community might care most about, there’s a good chance you’ll guess wrong. But there’s an easy alternative: listen to them. Find ways to hear and learn directly from individuals and community organizations. You can search for information online. You can follow community leaders and activists on social media. Try to learn as much as possible by observation and listening (as opposed to asking people to give you their time) so you don’t add to burdens that struggling folks are already facing.

3. MAP YOUR SKILLS AND ASSETS.

At the same time as you learn what matters most to the communities you care most about, try to learn more about yourself. What can you uniquely offer? What existing assets and skills do you have that might be relevant? If you’re exploring this as an individual, you might have assets like your time, your bilingualism, or your ability to cook. As an organization, you might have assets like a building, a digital following, or the ear of the mayor.

For me, the most important part of this step is creative dot-connecting. How can you use your creativity to make unexpected connections between what is desired and what you have? These connections don’t have to be huge to be meaningful. For example, my sister (who lives alone) was feeling socially isolated. She mentioned on the phone that she was going to see if she could foster a furry companion. When that didn’t work out, we gave her our dog for a few weeks.

I probably never would have put my dog on a list of assets I have that can help right now. But he is, and he does.

4. CHECK YOUR ASSUMPTIONS.

Once you have an idea that matches your assets to your perceived community interests, take a pause. Check in with community representatives before hitting go. You might think something’s a great idea, but value is in the eye of the community.

I didn’t drive up to my sister’s house and drop a 70-pound dog on her porch without asking. I heard her expressed interest. I thought I had a matching asset. And then I checked in to confirm if that was the case. I want to give communities the same respect and forethought I give my sister.

WHAT THIS LOOKS LIKE IN PRACTICE

I’m going through this process at different speeds with different communities. Here’s how I’m approaching it with two communities that matter to me right now: homeless people in my county and cultural organizations around the world.

Move Fast When There’s an Obvious Best Way to Contribute

When it comes to homeless people in Santa Cruz County, I’m moving quickly. I’m learning what matters most via communication from organizations I trust. I’m hearing what matters most is funding to fuel critical services during the crisis. I have a corresponding asset to offer — my own cash. So I’m increasing donations to homeless-serving organizations I trust. I’m also encouraging and supporting my husband in more direct service to homeless people (which is part of his daily work). I don’t have to get too creative here to make a difference.

Move Slow When the Path is Not Obvious and Creativity Could Lead to Better Results

When it comes to cultural practitioners around the world, I’m moving slowly. I think I have more potential to contribute something unique here, and I’m not sure what it is. So right now, I’m doing a mix of steps 2 and 3. I’m learning about what matters to this community, and I’m mapping my own skills and assets.

I’m learning what matters most by listening to cultural practitioners in my own professional network — in OF/BY/FOR ALL programs, emails, calls, and tweets. I’m focusing my listening on voices of black, indigenous, disabled, and people of color. I’ve made some small donations (like to the Arts Leaders of Color Emergency Fund). But mostly, for now, I’m listening.

To map my assets, I’m trying to stay curious and creative about what I might uniquely offer. There are others who are better positioned than me to provide cash to cultural organizations— and I’m thrilled several foundations are stepping up to do so. I believe there’s another way for me to support this community. I’ve got some assets at my disposal: a big online network, a history of leading change at an organization in crisis, an amazing team committed to equipping teams for transformation, and time to commit. I’ve got some skills to offer, like writing, dreaming, coaching, tool creation, and framework creation.

I don’t yet know how I can be most useful to cultural organizations. So I’m listening and mapping, mapping and listening. As I listen, I’m jotting down themes and trends. I’m starting to connect the dots with my assets and skills. I’m starting to dream about ways I might be able to uniquely contribute.

I think it will take me 3–4 weeks to come up with viable, concrete ideas grounded in what I’m hearing from the community. At that point, I’ll move into step four, and talk with colleagues and peers to check my assumptions and select a path forward. I believe I’ll come up with an answer that uses my skills in the best possible way to generate the most possible value.

This process is grounded in a fundamental realization (and acceptance) that I don’t have the skills and assets that are most needed right now. I’m not a health care provider, or a farmer, or a social worker. If I worked in health care or social service, right now I’d value expediency and rapid response. But I don’t. So I’m banking on a different skill: creativity.

Don’t burn yourself out before you can do the most good. Give yourself permission to get clear on which communities are most important to you right now. Listen deeply to what matters to them. Think creatively about how you can deploy your skills and assets to support their ability to thrive.

I hope we can use this time to create value in ways that nudge the world to greater interconnectivity, resilience, creativity, and care. If it takes a few weeks to figure out how you might be of best service, that’s ok. Take the time — and then take the action. The world will be better for it.

Featured Image caption: My sister and my dog sharing a moment.

About the Author

Nina Simon: Spacemaker/CEO of OF/BY/FOR ALL. Best-selling author of The Participatory Museum (2010) and The Art of Relevance (2016). http://www.ninaksimon.com

Writing in a Time of Crisis: Open Call for Submissions

Right now, I realize that we are all affected by the current coronavirus pandemic in wide-ranging yet different ways. From the realities of severe economic downturn and the daily experience of physical distancing to concerns about our own health and the well-being of our families, friends, and loved ones, this is a challenging time for us all — our entire global family.  Moments like this change us. And I believe that it is part of our collective human responsibility to reflect on moments like this, to write about our experiences, and to share our stories with each other.  Stories that allow us to be vulnerable, open, honest, and more human.

At times in my own life when I feel the most challenged, I reach for the writings of Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron.  In her transformative book When Things Fall Apart, Chodron explores the human response to moments of intense despair and loss. I grabbed my copy of this book off the shelf last week, and began flipping through the pages, reading bits from each section.  One sentence stood out to me more than all the others: “This very moment is the perfect teacher.”

Open Call for Writings and Reflections

So here is my invitation and open call.  I would love to gather together a series of posts over the next weeks and months from anyone willing to share their own reflections during this time of crisis, this very moment. There are few if any guidelines here, and I’m open to any type of personal writing as well as creative responses that open up new ways for us to share our stories.

Here are some questions that are interesting me, but more importantly I want to know what interests you about what you are seeing, hearing, and feeling during this time.

How have you been affected by the current crisis?

How are you and others taking care of yourselves and each other through these difficult times?

What does strong, compassionate leadership look like for you right now?

How can museums continue the vital, necessary work of dismantling systems of oppression during and after this crisis?

As we move further into this crisis, how can museum leaders (and those who remain working for these institutions) place human care and relationships above all else?

In what ways can museums and cultural organizations serve as places of healing and connection for our communities?

What is something that has gone unspoken or unsaid since the beginning of this pandemic and its impact on museums and cultural institutions?

How to Submit

If you are interested in submitting or have something to submit for publishing online as part of this series, please just send me an email at murawski27@gmail.com.  I only have one requirement for these posts — each submission must have at least one image or photograph (that we can reproduce here on this blog); and I’m happy to help find an image if you don’t have one.

Share this Open Call to anyone in your community who might be interested.

I am continuously grateful for everyone who has come together to support each other during this pandemic. I hope this series of posts, writings, and stories can be a way for us to be listening to each other and find human connection, loving-kindness, and compassion amidst the darkness of these difficult times.

-Mike Murawski


Header photo: “Writing” by akrabat, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Interview: Building a Community-Centered Museum

Editor’s Note: I was recently interviews by Alexia Jacques Casanova in advance of this October’s Communicating the Arts (CTA) conference in Montreal, Canada.  Hosted by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, this year’s conference brings leaders in museums, education, and the arts together to discuss key issues around well-being, empathy, and community involvement.  I am grateful for the opportunity to be a part of these conversations at CTA this fall.

The interview below was first published via LinkedIn on August 12, 2019.

Written by Alexia Jacques Casanova

In the past few years, we have seen a few museums initiating a shift from operating and presenting themselves as collection-centered institutions to human-centered organizations. This transition is a daunting task that requires developing and implementing new strategies and work practices at all levels of the institution. I had the opportunity to ask Mike Murawski — Director of Learning and Community Partnerships at the Portland Art Museum— a few questions about how art institutions can move towards more community-centered practices. Here are a few thoughts he shared with me.

Using words wisely

A little less than a year ago, Mike Murawski’s department at the Portland Art Museum changed its name from “Department of Education and Public Programs” to “Learning and Community Partnerships” with the aim to “more accurately reflect [their] core goals and values.” Through this intentional switch in vocabulary from “Education” to “Learning” the Portland Art Museum seeks to cultivate “a more open, inclusive, and active process that everyone and anyone can be involved in.”

For those of you who have attended Communicating the Arts conferences before, you probably know that the use of the word “community” has been a hot topic among attendees in the past few years. What do we mean, among arts professionals, when we say “community”? Is it just another word for “minorities” or “locals”?

At the Portland Art Museum, teams strive to be intentional about the words they choose. As part of that process, they have explored and questioned the different ways in which they use the term “community”. “When we are thinking about community, we’re prioritizing individuals and groups who have largely been excluded from participating in and shaping our institution over the last 125 years,” explains Murawski.

He and his team are also dedicated to breaking the barriers between “museum” and “community”, challenging the (false) idea that “a museum’s ‘community’ exists outside the walls of the institution.” Murawski argues that the us/them separation is an outdated mindset that art institutions need to overcome if they wish to focus on community-centered work.

Becoming better listeners

“When we try to be a better listener on an individual level,” says Murawski “it’s important to learn how to pause our own internal voice.” Murawski rightly points out that lending an attentive ear to others requires letting go of our assumptions, our fears, “and the stories we’re telling ourselves.”

According to him, the same is true for museums and institutions. He argues that too often, museum professionals don’t listen to communities “because they have told themselves the false story that community knowledge is not valuable” and that letting communities participate in the creation or curation of content in museums could somehow lessen its overall quality. “We have to erase that false story,” says Murawski. Echoing Dr Margi Ash Brown’s suggestion that arts professional should stop considering themselves as “experts” but rather, as “facilitator” or “collaborator”, Murawski believes that cultivating empathy and deep listening with our communities is an opportunity to change our institutions in radical and positive ways.

Taking a stand and speaking up

A couple years ago, Mike Murawski and La Tanya Autry were exchanging on Twitter about their shared frustrations regarding the false claims of neutrality within museums institutions. “We had joked that it would make a great t-shirt, and then we decided to go ahead and make it happen.” The “Museums Are Not Neutral” tee-shirt campaign was born. Murawski cites the work of many other fellow museum workers as inspiration for this movement, particularly those dedicated to dismantling racism and oppression in cultural institutions. He cites the #MuseumsRespondToFerguson movement, led by Adrianne Russell and Aleia Brown following the murder of Michael Brown by police in 2014 as “a pivotal call to action for museums [which] sparked a necessary debate about the role of museums in activism and social justice.”

The tee-shirt sales have allowed Murawski and Autry to raise over $15,000 for social justice charities and non-profits organizations including the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Community Foundation of Greater Flint. “Museums can be powerful agents of social change in our communities, and it’s up to us to make this happen together,” says Murawski.

Mike Murawski will be speaking about “the power of listening and building community-centered practices at the museum” during the upcoming Communicating the Arts conference, October 8-10 in Montreal.

Interrupting White Dominant Culture in Museums

Author’s Note: This post is a fluid and organic piece of writing, and I want to be transparent about that. As people ask questions or call out issues with language, lack of clarity, and other problems, I am working to make changes and keep shaping this piece. I’m open to discussing any of these changes, as well.  I also want to acknowledge that this piece may be largely intended for a white audience, although I don’t think it’s limited in that way.  

Written by Mike Murawski

As I sit down to write this post, I find myself reflecting on the sometimes frustratingly slow, pain-laden, and capricious path of change for museums, and my own role as an agent of change and accomplice in this work of making change happen.  I’ve got a towering pile of books on the shelf in front of me on museum change, activism, and inclusive practices along with a formidable pile of diversity statements and strategic plans that talk about equity and community. Conference after conference and convening after convening bring to the center themes of equity, inclusion, relevance, community, and audience. There are rapidly growing networks of activists and changemakers, with expanding movements connecting through social actions, events, book clubs, reading lists, online syllabi, and social media hashtags.  Yet given all this, why do some of the pivotal changes happening in museums right now feel tenuous and temporary? Why does deep and meaningful change feel a bit out of reach?

In a recent piece by poet, activist, and community organizer Jamara Wakefield that powerfully envisions a decolonized future for museums, she writes:

Museums could be one of our greatest allies in liberation struggles. They have the physical space, the means, and the public confidence to partake in a large scale social movement against colonial powers. Yet they reject this opportunity over and over again. They prefer to remain silent and hide in a world that desperately needs decolonizing.”

One of the things holding us museums back from this level of transformative change is our continued unwillingness to challenge the entrenched institutional structures that advance and maintain inequity. The pervasive hold of white supremacy is arguably one of the single greatest threats to the deep, transformational change that is needed within museums today.  It is a threat to racial equity; it is a threat to environmental and economic justice; it is a threat to the well-being of communities of color; it is a threat to human dignity; and it is a threat to those who are struggling to see these universal values of equity, justice, and dignity define our new institutional realities.  And it is a threat that is largely-unacknowledged by white museum professionals and leaders across the field.

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I realize that pressing this idea of examining white supremacy and white dominant culture within our museum institutions may bring forward some resistance, defensiveness, tension, and complexity.  During the past two years of spreading the #MuseumsAreNotNeutral campaign and message with co-creator La Tanya Autry, we have encountered resistance (sometimes staunch, sometimes more subtle) from some museum leaders and thinkers (all white) who are unable or unwilling to see, define, and critically reflect on white dominant culture in their institutions.  After all, for me, that campaign is so much about the simple yet powerful recognition that what museums take for granted as ‘neutral,’ ‘objective,’ ‘normal,’ ‘professional,’ and ‘high quality’ is all part of a system of white supremacy that perpetuates oppression, racism, injustice, and colonialism.

In an interview this past week, incoming Secretary of the Smithsonian Lonnie Bunch was asked about what #MuseumsAreNotNeutral means to him.  He replied:

“It’s crucially important for museums to open the veil, of how they do the work they do so that even they understand the complicit biases they carry. They understand the cultural baggage that shapes what we do.”

I frequently reference the words of scholar and activist Angela Davis who, while speaking to a gathering of Ferguson protesters in 2015, stated:

“Any critical engagement with racism requires us to understand the tyranny of the universal. For most of our history the very category ‘human’ has not embraced Black people and people of color. Its abstractness has been colored white and gendered male.”

White supremacy thrives within this tyranny of the universal, the neutral, the apolitical, the fair and balanced, and the objective. Acknowledging that ‘museums are not neutral’ is a meaningful and urgent step toward gaining awareness of the powerful role that white supremacy and white dominant culture play within our institutions.  It is a crucial step toward recognizing one’s own role in questioning it, interrupting it, and being a part of taking transformative action to replace it.

How can we define white dominant culture and white supremacy?

As part of this discussion, I want to bring in a couple definitions of white dominant culture and white supremacy that can be helpful for those who are new to these ideas.  If you hear these terms and limit their definitions to the acts of militant white nationalists and hate groups marching with torches, then I suggest you pause here and do some homework.  Take some time to connect with the wider discourse around this topic. It is important that we get past these reductive associations, and begin to develop more complex and shared understandings. Robin DiAngelo, author of White Fragility (2018), firmly states the importance of using language such as white dominance and white supremacy in these conversations.  She writes:

“White supremacy describes the culture we live in, a culture that positions white people and all that is associated with them (whiteness) as ideal. White supremacy is more than the idea that whites are superior to people of color; it is the deeper premise that supports this idea—the definition of whites as the norm or standard for human, and people of color as a deviation from that norm.” (33)

A useful and widely-recognized definition of white dominant culture comes from the work of Tema Okun and Kenneth Jones on dismantling racism:

“The explicit to subtle ways that the norms, preferences, and fears of white European descended people overwhelmingly shape how we organize our work and institutions, see ourselves and others, interact with one another and with time, and make decisions.”

From their collection of writings entitled How We Fight White Supremacy (2019), Akiba Solomon and Kenrya Rankin write:

“White supremacy defines our current reality. It is not merely a belief that to be White is to be better. It is a political, cultural, and economic system premised on the subjugation of people who are not White…. White supremacy is the voice in our collective heads that says it makes civilized sense that one group of people gets to annihilate, enslave, incarcerate, brainwash, torture, sterilize, breed, and terrorize other people.” (vii)

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Through their work on racism, Okun and Jones have also offered up a list of characteristics of white culture that can help us see where white dominant culture is showing up in our work and in our lives on a regular basis.  These include perfectionism, a sense of urgency, defensiveness, either/or thinking, a focus on quantity and valuing measurable goals, discomfort with emotion, a sense of paternalism in decision making, and fear of conflict, just to name a few.  

For some of you reading this, these characteristics may be strikingly familiar and precisely describe your workplace culture.  Have you taken a moment to step back and question some of these norms? How have you been involved in promoting and advancing this culture?  I can say that I have spent much of my career in management roles without actively questioning and interrupting these characteristics, playing my own role in maintaining these structures of inequity without being conscious of the impact.  My goal here is not to make this about blame or guilt (that happens far too often), but rather to invite white folks to recognize where this is showing up so we can work as part of a collective effort to interrupt and decenter it.

Aspects of white supremacy are showing up every moment of every day in the museum workplace (and in the galleries).  It dictates how people hold meetings together, who is invited to those meetings, who participates, and whose ideas are valued. It informs how students of color are treated during a field trip, and how a museum responds when instances of racism hit the media.  It controls how our front of house staff interact with visitors, who works in positions that interact with visitors, the types of training they receive, and who makes decisions about these trainings. It dictates how museum leaders and managers make decisions, who gets to have input into those decisions, and who is impacted by those decisions.  It is a controlling force in how we define ‘community,’ how we work with community partners, what we value about those partnerships, and how we resource those partnerships. It dictates the words that get written on museum labels, and who gets to write, edit, and approve those words. And each and every one of these moments (and thousands more) threatens to chip away at the humanity of our colleagues of color, visitors of color, and all those who are not defined within these norms of ‘whiteness.’  

Real harm is being done throughout every nook and cranny of our institutions, and we need to collectively recognize this before we can take actions to interrupt white dominance.  As Gita Gulati-Partee and Maggie Potapchuk state in their 2014 article on “Paying Attention to White Culture and Privilege”:

“not doing this examination means that any equity conversations and work will continue to take place in a larger container that is shaped by the very dynamics that the group aims to change.” (27)

Why am I  writing about this?

I want to be clear here. I understand that I am a product of white dominant culture and a participant in white dominant culture, not just as a white, heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied male in a position of power within a museum, but as a human being living and acting in our society. White supremacy is insidious, pervasive, and systemic.  It is the air we breathe.  It shapes our language, our relationships, our actions, our decisions, and our emotions. It is showing up in my words as I write this, even as I critique it. And while I have made choices to gain awareness of this domineering and harmful culture, it still floods all aspects of my being in this world.

I have chosen to make my messy and mistake-filled learning process more public, not to create harm but rather to recognize these challenges wherever, whenever, and however possible.  Throughout my museum career, I have leaned towards questioning the status quo and the “ways things are supposed to be” without necessarily having ‘the answer.’ I enjoy the more fluid exchange of ideas, questions, and experiences that we, as a broader collective of changemakers, can bring to these issues.  I find that it is important to open up larger and larger conversations about burning issues so that we can grow together as a community of change and work toward building a positive, thriving future for museums.

I raise these questions about white supremacy as part of a rapidly expanding group of museum workers, leaders, and advocates for change who see the language of diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility spread like wildfire on the surface of museums without necessarily seeing the deep institutional transformations that are needed within museums.  I also raise these questions as someone working within a museum that is changing and experiencing the pain and messiness of grappling with these deeper issues. My own learning has been happening over the course of many years in conversation and allyship with colleagues, mentors, friends, co-workers, and the many teachers in my life. I also recognize the long history of museum workers, activists, educators, community leaders, and radical transformers who have fought against white supremacy, and those who I see as powerful leaders and mentors in current efforts to dismantle racism and change museums (including La Tanya Autry, Monica Montgomery, Teressa Raiford, Keonna Hendrick, Porchia Moore, Radiah Harper, Nicole Ivy, Omar Eaton-Martinez, Chris Taylor, Janeen Bryant, nikhil trivedi, Jackie Peterson, Melanie Adams, Joanne Rizzi-Jones, Dina Bailey, PJ Gubatina Policarpio, Stephanie Cunningham, Aleia Brown, Adrianne Russell, Kayleigh Bryant Greenwell, Chieko Phillips, Elisabeth Callihan, Laura Raicovich, Aletheia Wittman, Alyssa Greenberg, Margaret Middleton, Toni Wynn, those working on MASS Action, the Museums and Race team, and many many others).  I am aware of, and grateful for, the deep thinking and action that has already been done around this issue, and that continues to be done today. 

Taking action to interrupt white supremacy

The work of interrupting and decentering white supremacy can seem overwhelmingly daunting when we’re faced with what seems like the insurmountable task of systemic change.  Furthermore, there is no easy fix, mandatory training, or simple pre-packaged strategy that can wash away these oppressive structures and legacies. As Solomon and Rankin aptly state, “if we had a magic button we could press to end this nightmare, we would have leaned on that bitch long ago” (x).

One important place to start, especially for white people, is to simply recognize and name when white culture is showing up in the workplace — and accept the discomfort that comes with identifying these moments without resorting to defensiveness (see “white fragility”).  In a widely-shared blog post on challenging white dominant culture in nonprofits, Lupe Poblano, Project Director at CompassPoint, writes, “White leaders … need to locate their own cultural whiteness and become aware of how their internalized superiority shows up and how it negatively impacts POC inside their own organization.”  He continues, “You, leaders within the white dominant leadership structure, need to be willing to change you first.”

Gulati-Partee and Potapchuk stress that “putting white culture and privilege on the table is critical to include in racial equity work—and it is fraught with challenges due to the complex manifestations of structural racism.”  For those doing the more transformational work in museums, I know that you feel these challenges each and every day. For most white people, myself included, the larger structures of white supremacy are elusive and invisible until we gain the awareness to see them.  And when we do see them more clearly, it feels like a punch in the gut. As Hannah Heller writes in her 2018 article “Working Towards White Allyship in Museums”:

“those moments that feel uncomfortable or anxious are exactly the moments to lean in to as an ally. That feeling is your Whiteness being tested and questioned. Start paying attention to the moments that make you pause….”

Recognizing these characteristics of white dominant culture is a pretty big step for many of us, yet it doesn’t end there.  Transformative change begins to happen in our institutional cultures when we examine, interrupt, decenter, and replace these harmful and oppressive organizing structures and habits of mind.  Okun and Jones offer an entire set of “antidotes” or alternatives that we can pivot to, moving away from the established norms of white workplace culture. The Museums as Sites of Social Action (MASS Action) toolkit also provides an extremely useful discussion of dominant culture, organizational culture, and inclusion in Chapter 3 and many other sections of the toolkit.

BlackSpaceManifestoI also highly recommend that folks check out the BlackSpace Manifesto, created by a collective of Black artists, architects, designers, urbanists, and changemakers working to amplify Black agency.  Their Manifesto provides a powerful set of practices that turn us away from white supremacy and center new modes of thinking and working based in equity, justice, love, and trust. I recently shared the Manifesto with a few white colleagues at my own institution, and we met to discuss our own roles in pivoting toward these practices. While it was just one conversation, it’s a small step toward doing things differently.

Download BlackSpaceManifesto (PDF)

After taking time to reflect with colleagues about how we might change workplace culture, I began working on a quick resource (below) that could be front and center on our desks and in our minds. At our museum, we have an existing set of Agreements in place that support our broader equity work, including things like “stay engaged,” “listen to understand,” and “be willing to do things differently.”  For about the past year, many staff have inserted the Agreements into their staff ID badge holders as a daily reminder to show up differently in our work.

Along these lines, I am interested in any way we can bring a more regular, daily awareness to white dominant culture and the ways we can collectively work to interrupt and decenter it. Please feel free to download, share, or print the Interrupt White Dominant Culture guide below, and use it to spark conversation and change within your organization or workplace.  Or simply use it yourself as a personal reminder to shift your focus and energy away from white supremacy.  It’s just an imperfect start to getting these conversations to happen more frequently in museums.  And the language and characteristics used in this guide come from the sources I have cited in this post along with much of the research and writing on white dominant culture.

InterruptWhiteDominantCulture

Download InterruptWhiteDominantCulture (PDF)

[TEXT OF INTERRUPT WHITE DOMINANT CULTURE GUIDE]

INTERRUPT WHITE DOMINANT CULTURE

  • Let’s work COLLECTIVELY to identify these and other elements of white dominant culture, and work toward dismantling racism in our organizations in in our lives.
  • Move from a focus on professional and transactional relationships toward relationships based on trust, care, and shared commitments.
  • Move from protecting power to sharing power.
  • Move from a culture of over-working to a culture of self-care and community care.
  • Move from a competition and struggle for limited resources to a mindset of collaboration and working to share resources.
  • Move away from prioritizing only degrees, work experience, and job titles toward a way of recognizing and centering lived experience
  • Move from a place of those with power making decisions for others toward a place where we work to include those affected by decisions in the decision-making process.

Speak Up. Take Action.

(recognizing the thinking and writings of Tema Okun, Kenneth Jones, Maggie Potapchuk, BlackSpace Manifesto, Radiah Harper, Hannah Heller, and Kai Monet)

Questioning the ways we make change happen

For me, the spark for writing this piece and creating the guide above came when I was invited to speak at the MuseumNext conference in London (June 2019).  The conference’s central theme was “Making Change Happen,” a topic I am extremely passionate about. I spent some time reflecting on the barriers we, as museum professionals and changemakers, face within institutions to make change happen, and how quickly (or slowly) we enact change.  For my presentation, I facilitated a bit of a workshop that created some space for conference attendees to think about the larger issues of dominant culture and white supremacy in their own personal work and within our institutions. 

I ended with a “Questions & Listening” session, rather than a typical “Question and Answer” thing — which is a strategy I’ve experimented with in the past.  This simply allows people to ask questions, gives those questions some space to be heard in a deeper way by everyone, and does not pretend that I (as the “presenter”) am in some kind of ‘expert’ position to give the answers.  It allows everyone in the room to reflect on the questions, and potentially have their own conversations about their responses.  It honors the knowledge in the room, not just in the “expert presenter.”  While this is always a bit awkward, since we’ve been trained to want to hear the answers from the single person on stage, I feel it is a worthwhile strategy to disrupt the white dominant culture that shows up in conferences. 

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I have also embraced a flood of questions racing through my mind before and after my presentation about change:  In our own impatience to see urgent and meaningful change take place, are we unintentionally setting up an antagonism between immediate action and deeper reflection?  Are we creating an either/or choice between making change happen now and taking time for conversation, listening, and collective understanding?  Do we place more value in the bigger, bolder public-facing actions and downplay the more intimate, personal, relationship-based evolution of change happening on a smaller scale?  How much of our mindset about change, and the pace of change, is dictated by white dominant culture?

I am open to your thoughts, insights, questions, and critiques as part of this broader conversation.  I intend to remain open-hearted in this work, recognizing that I have a lot of learning ahead of me and a lot of listening to do.  I’m committed to being a catalyst for these challenging conversations since I believe in the future of museums and I know in my heart that we collectively have the courage to change these institutions in deep, transformative ways.

“Museums could be powerful, liberatory spaces…”

I’m going to put an exclamation point on the end here by reconnecting with the incredible words of Jamara Wakefield (enormous gratitude to my friend Monica Montgomery for sharing this piece, which I have read about a dozen times in the last couple days).  In the articleMuseums could be powerful, liberatory spaces if they let go of their colonial practices,” Wakefield concludes with this:

“For my activist, artist, dreamer friends, and all who believe in another world, the one where our lives matter, our histories matter, our liberation matters: be prepared to fight in this world but never stop imagining liberation for our future selves. We owe this moment to our future selves.”

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About the Author

IMG_3517MIKE MURAWSKI: Changemaker, museum thinker, author, and nature lover living in Portland, Oregon, USA. Mike currently serves as the Director of Learning & Community Partnerships for the Portland Art Museum, and is the founding editor of ArtMuseumTeaching. He earned his MA and PhD in Education from American University in Washington, DC, focusing his research on educational theory and interdisciplinary learning. 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 in St. Louis. He is a contributor to the Museums as Sites of Social Action (MASS Action) initiative supporting equity and inclusion in museums, and served as First Wave Project Advisor for OF/BY/FOR ALL initiative based out of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History helping civic and cultural organizations grow of, by, and for their communities.  Mike is proud to be the co-founder of the #MuseumsAreNotNeutral campaign aimed at erasing the myth of museum neutrality and demanding our institutions act as agents of change. He has spoken nationally and internationally on the social responsibilities of museums and how museums can serve as agents of positive change within their own communities.  Mike has also been invited to lead participatory workshops, lectures, panels, and training sessions at various institutions, including the Aspen Art MuseumCrocker Art Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art in San DiegoLos Angeles County Museum of ArtNational Gallery of ArtNelson Atkins Museum of ArtPhiladelphia 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.

#MassActionReadingGroup Launch: CHAPTER 1

It is amazing to see that close to 200 people from around the world have signed up to participate in the #MassActionReadingGroup initiative!  Huge thanks to everyone at the Incluseum and the team at Mia for making this reading group possible.

This week, we launch the project by releasing chapter 1 and worksheet 1 of the MASS Action Toolkit. 

We will meet on Twitter on Monday, April 29, 12:00-12:30pm Eastern time for our first Tweetchat that will focus on chapter 1!

Below is a chapter summary to orient you to this week’s content.

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Getting Started: What We Need to Change and Why

Written by Adam Patterson, Aletheia Wittman, Chieko Phillips, Gamynne Guillotte, Therese Quinn, Adrianne Russell

This introductory chapter establishes the underlying philosophy behind MASS Action and investigates the question: What does it mean for museums to be “sites of social action?” It calls for the urgency and necessity of museum practitioners throughout the field to sharpen their critical literacy, and their capability to unearth systemic issues such as structural racism and other forms of oppression that are inherently embedded in the institution.

There is a movement spreading across cultural organizations nationally asserting that museums are not neutral spaces. Complex problems related to colonialism, ableism, sexism, racism, and capitalism are all embedded in the institution and manifest themselves in the everyday operations of museums from hiring practices, staffing, organizational culture, management, fundraising, collection policies, to pedagogy, interpretation, and paradigms for engagement.

If museums and their staff claim to be relevant sites for engagement for their communities, this takes on huge responsibilities to not only acknowledge and navigate difficult issues, but to work towards sincere and critical action. The work of MASS Action centers justice, it does not leave it in the margins. There is a real moral imperative to this work as museums move forward collectively to set higher standards of conduct in the field.

Questions to consider as you read:

  • What would cultural transformation look like at your institution?
  • Why should your institution engage in this work?

This week’s downloads and links:

Again, the Chapter 1 Tweetchat will be held Monday, April 29,

12:00-12:30pm Eastern time.  Catch ya then!

MASS Action Toolkit: Join the Reading Group

MASS ActionMuseum As Site for Social Action–is a collaborative project that launched in 2016, centering on the question: How do you transform museums from the inside out? Through a series of public convenings and the creation of a toolkit of resources, this project’s intention is to share the strategies and frameworks needed to align museums with more equitable and inclusive practices.

In the Incluseum post of July 2018, Elisabeth Callihan, MASS Action co-founder and project manager, introduced the MASS Action Toolkit published in 2017. In this blogpost, we collaboratively present you with a new initiative of the Incluseum and the MASS Action team at the Minneapolis Institute of Art to bring people together to read and reflect on the tooklit over the next few months.  We invite you to join in:

The #MassActionReadingGroup

The #MassActionReadingGroup will be a group of museum enthusiasts, professionals, students, and/or activists who will come together to read and discuss the MASS Action Toolkit chapter-by-chapter over the course of 16 weeks. The Toolkit is made of 8 chapters and 8 accompanying worksheets that help dig deeper into the chapters’ content. Chapters are between 6 to 40 pages, with an average length of 20 pages. …That’s about 10 pages a week, manageable, don’t you think? In addition to the downloadable chapters and worksheets, we will have access to dialogue facilitation outlines that the Art Institute of Chicago’s 2018 MASS Action Organizing Team developed for each chapter! You can use these if you are interested in hosting a reading group with colleagues.

How it will workEvery-other-Monday, we will be “assigned” a chapter and worksheet from the MASS Action Toolkit and meet via Twitter for a 30 minute Tweetchat of the previous week’s assigned chapter. The chapters and worksheets will be posted every couple weeks on The Incluseum Blog, as well as this partnering blog here at Art Museum Teaching. All you have to do is download the chapter with its accompanying worksheet and participate!

Here is the Full Schedule:

  • Monday 04/15: Introductions
    • Assignment: Chapter 1 and Worksheet 1
  • Monday 04/29: Chapter 1: What We Need to Change and Why
    • 12pm EST: #MassActionReadingGroup Tweetchat: Chapter 1 and Worksheet 1
    • Assignment: Chapter 2 and Worksheet 2
  • Monday 05/13: Chapter 2: Moving Toward Internal Transformation: Awareness, Acceptance, Action 
    • 12pm EST: #MassActionReadingGroup Tweetchat: Chapter 2 and Worksheet 2
    • Assignment: Chapter 3 and Worksheet 3
  • Monday 05/27: Chapter 3: Organization Culture and Change: Making the Case for Inclusion
    • 12pm EST: #MassActionReadingGroup Tweetchat: Chapter 3 and Worksheet 3
    • Assignment: Chapter 4 and Worksheet 4
  • Monday 06/10: Chapter 4: Inclusive Leadership: Avoid a Culture of Leadership
    • 12pm EST: #MassActionReadingGroup Tweetchat: Chapter 4 and Worksheet 4
    • Assignment: Chapter 5 and Worksheet 5
  • Monday 06/24: Chapter 5: Interpretation: Liberating the Narrative
    • 12pm EST: #MassActionReadingGroup Tweetchat: Chapter 5 and Worksheet 5
    • Assignment: Chapter 6 (no worksheet this week)
  • Monday 07/08: Chapter 6: Sharing Authority: Creating Content and Experiences
    • 12pm EST: #MassActionReadingGroup Tweetchat: Chapter 6
    • Assignment: Chapter 7 and Worksheet 7
  • Monday 07/22: Chapter 7: Collections: How We Hold the Stuff We Hold in Trust
    • 12pm EST: #MassActionReadingGroup Tweetchat: Chapter 7 and Worksheet 7
    • Assignment: Chapter 8 and Worksheet 8
  • Monday 08/05: Chapter 8: Change-Making through Pedagogy
    • 12pm EST: #MassActionReadingGroup Tweetchat: Chapter 8 and Worksheet 8

Want to Participate?

Sign up here! Join us for a Tweetchat! Signing up isn’t mandatory, but will help give us an idea of who is taking part as we explore this collaborative reading journey together.

Want to make your reading journey even more meaningful? Ask a colleague or peer to participate with you. Teaming up offers many benefits, such as increased motivation, and a sense of community!

Tune in next week as we release chapter 1!

MASS Action Mia

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. 

Towards a More Community-Centered Museum, Part 2: Is ‘Community’ a Meaningless Word?

Written by Mike Murawski

The term ‘community’ may very well be one of the most frequently used words these days when it comes to describing the shifting goals, values, programs, exhibitions, staff, audience demographics, and communication strategies of museums.  To be honest, I use the word pretty regularly myself.  For decades, museums (and most funding organizations) have been increasingly using phrases like “aiming to serve our community,” “reaching out to our communities,” and “strengthening our community” to create a sense of a museum’s broader mission and social purpose.  In describing some of its more recent funding initiatives, for example, the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) states that “museums are at the forefront of change in our communities” and they serve as “strong community anchors.”  In their  thirteen-page Strategic Plan for 2018-2022 entitled Transforming Communities (which is worth a read), the word ‘community’ or ‘communities’ is used thirty-six times.

Museums and cultural organizations are constantly being asked how effectively we’re serving our communities and how well we represent our community.  But foundations, granting organizations, civic entities, and funders do not have a consistent definition of what they even mean by community.  We can begin to read between the lines when we are asked about the ZIP codes we serve, the number of Title I schools visiting, and what programs we have for “at-risk” youth or “underserved” audiences (I really dislike those labels, BTW).  In many cases, community is defined as “people of diverse geographic, cultural, and socioeconomic backgrounds” or “families and individuals of diverse cultural and socio-economic backgrounds and needs.”  Whether we are defining these groups based on geography, interests, or experience, are we essentially talking about people who are not engaging with our institutions?

Nina Simon writes about this common misuse of the word community to refer to the general public or “everyone who doesn’t currently visit here.”  Inclusion catalyst and museum expert Porchia Moore discusses the dangers of using the word ‘community’ in a reductive way, such as when it is used to describe a large group of different people by focusing on a single attribute.  In the context of discussions about inclusion, Moore writes,Community’ becomes code for discussing black and brown visitors.”  Referring to a group as “the black community” or “the LGBTQ community” can be problematic when groups are perceived as a monolithic or singular community.  Moore advocates for museums to dig deeper into this language and how it reflects the decisions we make to develop one-off programs or exhibitions.

Museums have certainly been dedicating significant time and resources to reach this elusive and mysterious ‘community’ we so badly want to connect with and engage.  Institutions large and small now have staff positions dedicated to Community Outreach, Community Programs, or Community Partnerships, indicating this increased investment in what engaging community means for many institutions.  There also seem to be more departments or divisions within museums with “Community” added to the title—Learning and Community Programs, Family and Community Programs, Community Engagement, Access and Community Initiatives, etc.   And I must confess, I’m regularly interested in changing the title of my own department from Education and Public Programs to something that more closely reflects the work we’re doing to advance community-centered practices.

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community social justice art project at Portland Art Museum, 2016

Overall, there is a generally agreed-upon sense that reaching out to and engaging with community is a good thing for museums.  When we add this word to a staff position, department, or to our mission statements, it is done as a symbol of good intentions. Yet how do we effectively do this work and advocate for it if we don’t truly have a sense of what it means beyond connecting with “those other people” out there?

As museums vaguely define community or communities as groups that might not be engaging or connecting with the museum, there is also a troubling binary and divide we have created between ‘museum’ and ‘community.’  It’s so ingrained in the way so many of us talk about our work, myself included.  Museums are perceived as separate from communities; they are seen as buildings with collections, objects, exhibitions, and experts that are made available to communities on a limited basis.  Referring to some functions of the museum as “outreach” just reinforces this separation.  By default, museums then exist as disconnected, disengaged, and distanced from this idea of community.  And not thinking about where museum staff and volunteers fit into the idea of ‘community’ is problematic. When we use the word ‘community’ in our institutions, are we thinking about staff and those who work for the institution?  Overall, we are really feeding this gap by simply not addressing it.

So has the word ‘community’ just become a vague and almost meaningless expression?  Museum professionals use it too frequently and in ways that overlook its inherent complexities.   I fully realize that by writing this series of blog posts, I’m engaging in overuse of the term myself, but my interest here lies in unpacking the term and opening up many of the rich complexities tied up in this concept.

Rather than stop using this word or replace it with something else, I’m advocating for those working for and with museums to gain a deeper understanding of what community means.  I believe it is an extremely meaningful concept, and I am thoroughly excited to see it being used more frequently by museums and funding organizations.  We just need to explore and address the complexities involved with defining community and communities for our institutions.

Stay tuned for my next post in this series, which will lay out some of the ways we can define community in our practice.  Future posts will also address strategies for thinking more deeply about these issues and developing ways to bridge these gaps.

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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.

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.

scale+of+effective+activism

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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.