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
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 email@example.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.
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.
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)
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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
DOUGLAS 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.
Editor’s Note: As we strive to work more closely with our local communities, be a more inclusive institution, and connect meaningfully to the issues that affect the lives of those living in our city, I wanted to share a recent interview with Manuel Padilla. Manuel is the Executive Director of Portland Meet Portland, a local non-profit dedicated to welcoming immigrants and refugees to the Portland area, enriching community by creating mutually beneficial mentoring opportunities that promote cross-cultural learning, enhance work skills, and build trust. The Portland Art Museum is proud to partner with Portland Meet Portland on programs, events, and a community gallery related to our current special exhibition Common Ground: Photographs by Fazal Sheikh. This partnership is part of our broader efforts to focus on building community, and the following interview is part of efforts to recognize this work and tell these stories as core to our museum’s purpose and mission.
This partnership and relationship with Portland Meet Portland led to the co-creation of a series of public programs, community events and workshops, an in-gallery resource for reflection and action, and a community-centered gallery space within the exhibition (see 2 photos of the gallery below). I have enormous gratitude for Manuel, everyone with Portland Meet Portland, and all of the community members and organizations that have come together to make this happen. I also want to recognize everyone on the Education team here at the Portland Art Museum for their dedication when it comes to making our museum matter, and the curator of this exhibition for being open to community involvement and for valuing the knowledge, voices, and experiences of community members whose knowledge, voices, and experiences are largely devalued by the institutions of museums. None of this would be possible without a growing community of change within and beyond the walls of our museum, and I have so much gratitude for being a part of this work and for being a learner in this process. -Mike Murawski
The following interview was posted on the Portland Art Museum’s blog on February 27, 2018, and is republished here with permission.
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An interview with Portland Meet Portland’s Manuel Padilla
How is Portland Meet Portland involved in the Common Ground exhibition?
Portland Meet Portland is working with the Portland Art Museum’s Department of Education and Public Programs as, what could be called a “community partner in residence.” We are co-creating the educational and interpretive programming in connection with the exhibition. This involves a broad range of things like designing and facilitating dialogues with museum participants, producing podcasts, working with the museum and refugees to provide content for the interpretive space, training docents, and helping create informational resource guides for visitors and docents alike. It has, and continues to be, a very inspiring and meaningful partnership for us.
How has the experience of working with an art museum been similar or different than other projects and partners that PMP works with?
Working with the Portland Art Museum is a unique and special experience for us. We have worked with the museum before on an Object Stories exhibition, and this is a deepening of that partnership. Words I would use to describe working with the museum are: dynamic, collaborative, creative, and celebratory. Our work together has been synergistic and generative, each person strongly contributing to breathing this project into life. One of the most fundamental points I want to stress is the museum’s direct, hands on participation with refugee community members. This experience was crucial to the cross-cultural learning and growth of everyone involved and gave vital context to exactly what it takes to make sure refugees can be truly relevant in their participation in projects like these. Institutional flexibility and change are at the heart of that level of participation. Ownership and agency of refugees’ own work and needs, throughout this partnership, was always prioritized.
What do you hope that visitors learn about their own community through the Common Ground exhibition and related programs?
Primarily, I hope people visiting this exhibition, and interacting with all of the great programming, are challenged to examine their own narratives of refugees and the narratives that are manufactured for them. And I want visitors to not only learn, but to find moments where they are outside of their heads and more into their hearts. Learning information means little if it does not become instrumental, in some way, in our own lives.
I would like visitors to understand how truly segregated Portland is and how different things could be if we made a decision to remove barriers and injustices that divide us. How quickly the black and white of segregation could turn into a Kodachrome of connection. But desegregation and cross-cultural relationship building with refugee individuals and communities requires that dominant culture give something up, and that is the primacy of its interpretation of the world. And dominant culture must leave open the possibility of being transformed by that. This is no less true when thinking of dominant culture’s relationship with any historically marginalized or underrepresented community. Yet, when we do this, we find we gain so much more than we have given up.
It’s important, too, to realize that refugees are more than just the sum of their experiences fleeing violence and persecution. They are more than victims. Thinking about refugees only as victims crystallizes their identities and marginalizes them even further. We should honor those experiences of suffering AND understand they had lives before and after that. We are all more than the worst moments of our lives. Right relationship with refugees means a “walking with,” sharing in the full nature of our personhood together.
Lastly, I want people to understand that refugees have often lived longer in Portland than the person reading this sentence right now. I want to blur the lines between newcomer and local. Also, resettlement to a new country and community can be the most traumatizing event in the experience of becoming and being a refugee.
Do you think or how do you think about the power of art to serve as a platform for big/ tough conversations?
I love this question and the answer seems at once both obvious and elusive. In my work I have dealt a lot with something called Cognitive Theory of Metaphor. There is a book called Metaphors We Live By by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. The idea is that our entire cognitive structure, how we navigate and make meaning in the world, is determined by the foundational metaphors that emerge linguistically and pre-linguistically in our culture and society. The fundamental comparison of one thing to another in terms of “like” and “unlike” forms the building blocks of our worldview. If we think of art in terms of symbol, sign, and metaphor, then art IS the conversation. Aesthetic, in that sense, is not simply mood to us, but morality. What we consider beautiful or ugly takes on much more significance than simply being a matter of taste.
So, if we can challenge or change cultural aesthetic, if we can change the “art” on which society is built, then we have not only been able to navigate tough conversations, but we have, in doing so, changed the composition of the conversation itself. Art (and the people who create and consume it) are individual and collective manifestations of moments in dialogue. Photos, painting, dance, music, pottery, comics, movies, and other forms of art are part of the syntax and grammar, punctuation and silence in the language of art that we use to speak aesthetic reality into being for and with each other. Therefore, they are also the tools at our disposal to be able to speak and be different to one another. Through this we have emergent relationship, we can challenge one another and create mutual understanding and build trust.
How can people learn more and/or get involved with Portland’s refugee community?
Well I would be remiss if I did not answer with “get involved with and support the work of Portland Meet Portland!” It’s a little shameless, but true. I am proud of our organization, what we are doing, and where we are headed. But, coming to visit Common Ground is certainly a place to start as well. The museum is hoping, through the exhibition, to provide perspective on the continuum of life “as a refugee.” This might help to ground and encourage you to take a step toward being in closer relationship with refugees in your own neighborhood and the larger Portland community. From there, I would point people toward the printed and on-line resource page [PDF] on the museum website that is connected to this exhibition. That should give you what you need to start to get involved.
Anything else you want to share?
I just want to thank all of the people who were instrumental in making this project happen. All of the people in the Department of Education and Public Programs at the museum, other staff of Portland Meet Portland, and particularly the refugee community members that are sharing their time, expertise, and lives with us through this museum space.
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Learn more about some of the organizations working to support refugees and immigrants here in Portland and Oregon, and find ways to get involved.
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.
This programme is based on 17 sustainable development goals; these are just brilliant for museums to connect with, whether locally, globally, or locally and globally. More information can be found here.
If you click on the icons you get more information, and detailed targets. So, for museums with natural heritage collections, for example, some obvious links would be:
4.7 – By 2030, ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development
11.4 – Strengthen efforts to protect and safeguard the world’s cultural and natural heritage
12.8 – By 2030, ensure that people everywhere have the relevant information and awareness for sustainable development and lifestyles in harmony with nature
13.3 – Improve education, awareness-raising and human and institutional capacity on climate change mitigation, adaptation, impact reduction and early warning
Any museum could find something to connect with among the 135-odd targets, and indeed it could be very fruitful to connect different types of museums and networks together to create new opportunities for people to explore sustainable futures.
I’m interested to hear people’s initial responses to this. Is this the kind of thing you and your museums are interested in supporting/connecting with? Beyond time and money, what support would you need to do so?
I’m doing a couple of talks at the summit and it would be great to hear that at least some people are on board with this, or that this is something that they would be interested in progressing, or what concerns would need to be addressed. No names or organisations would be mentioned in the presentations, and just a very short reply will be fine.
My personal feeling, beyond being very, very supportive of the initiative, is that:
it’s important to recognise that most people don’t think scientifically (yes, it’s true) – and that while the evidence and information may be derived from science, transferring that into action will not be achieved by more and more facts, depressing information, or telling people what they should do. We need to connect the science with what people care about themselves, what motivates them and inspires them.
This isn’t about diluting the science, but deploying it effectively to help people always move forwards.
If inspiration is the feeling that moves us to action, our job is to help people feel (and hold onto) that feeling, and enable them to act on it beyond our four walls.
Investigate how to engage even more effectively with local communities and increasingly diverse audiences, and keep the focus on gender differences in engagement.
Continue taking actions that have a positive global impact and that will make people everywhere more aware of the opportunities that science and technology hold for the sustainable advancement of humankind.
Draw the attention of decision makers and the media to the essential role of public engagement with science and technology by setting up high-profile global activities.
Endeavour to leverage the position of science centres as “trusted” places to introduce the public to new technological solutions and sustainable technologies, and to broaden the potential use of these solutions.
Take the lead in developing the best methods for engaging learners and optimizing their education in both formal and informal settings using appropriate technologies in widely varying contexts.
Engage the public more directly with research, using this engagement to help empower people, broaden attitudes and ensure that the work of universities and research institutions is relevant to society and to wider social concerns on a global scale.
Work together in a creative celebration of the International Science Centre Year 2019, encouraging people throughout the world to take part in shared experiences relating to science and technology and society.
About the Author
HENRY MCGHIE is Head of Collections and Curator of Zoology at Manchester Museum, part of the University of Manchester. He wants to find ways for museums to effectively support people to engage with the natural environment, and to create opportunities to discuss and shape the future we want for ourselves and others.
In September 2017, I was honored to be a part of the Smith Leadership Symposium in San Diego, an annual program of the Balboa Park Cultural Partnership. Not only was this my second year being involved in this program, but I was also fortunate to be among a powerful group of presenters that included Shamell Bell (community organizer and choreographer), Milenko Matanovic (artist and community builder), and Monica Montgomery (founding director of the Museum of Impact). Throughout our conversations leading up to the symposium and that day, we shared ideas about the value of community dialogue and the role of community care in our personal and professional work.
My talk entitled “Changing the Things I Cannot Accept” was inspired, in part, by the writings of scholar and activist Angela Davis. Davis’s powerful work had been on my mind after being encouraged by a colleague to read the recently published collection of her writings and interviews entitled Freedom is a Constant Struggle. I am so grateful that this and other works by Davis made it to my ‘must read’ list, as she brings forward the urgency of feminism, intersectionality, and global solidarity to the struggles against injustice and oppression in our country.
In a speech to a gathering of Ferguson protesters in St. Louis in 2015, she stated: “Any critical engagement with racism requires us to understand the tyranny of the universal. For most of our history the very category ‘human’ has not embraced Black people and people of color. Its abstractness has been colored white and gendered male.” It is within this tyranny of the universal, the neutral, the apolitical, the fair and balanced, and the objective that my frustrations lie when it comes to the role of museums in our society and in our communities. Which brings me right back to the often-quoted words of Angela Davis:
“I’m no longer accepting the things I cannot change…. I’m changing the things I cannot accept.”
These words have resonated with me for quite some time. Not because this has become an internet meme since the election, but instead because I hear these words repeated by activists that I greatly admire and respect in my own community and beyond. And on that day of the Smith Symposium in San Diego, two of the other keynote presenters also included this exact quote from Davis in their slides.
So what are the things we can no longer accept when it comes to museum practice?
Well, for me, it is certainly not enough to lay out a laundry list of ‘things I cannot accept’ and continue to make the assumption that these are also ‘things that I cannot change.’ I think I was stuck in that long, deep rut earlier in my museum career. I still hear many museum professionals talk about “the way things are” in museums and our inability to change things from where we are located in our organization (and in these power structures, more importantly). Many of the entrenched behaviors, policies, and practices in museums are based in a whole set of false stories we tell ourselves — self-sabotaging and oppressive narratives that hold us back, maintain the status quo, and create a fearful and hesitant attitude towards change.
I came across this specific idea of recognizing our false stories in a self-help book by Jen Sincero called You Are A Badass(ok, so not everything I read is as intellectual and hard-hitting as Angela Davis). In it, Sincero writes:
“Because we’re so set in our ways and committed to our stories about who we are and what our reality looks like, we only scratch the surface of all that’s available to us every single moment.”
I’ve used Sincero’s framework in a few workshops I’ve led with museum professionals this year, working to identify the potential false stories that create barriers to change in our professional work, and then creating new powerful stories of change to replace them. In a couple instances, we made our new powerful stories of change public by writing them outside museums using sidewalk chalk (I’ll never forget how it looked to have these messages written all across the main entrance plaza to the Museum of Art & History in Santa Cruz — thanks Nina!). We have too often upheld a systemic ‘big bad no’ that has dramatically limited the potential of museums to be agents of positive social change.
Rather than simply re-hashing the same concerns and complaints over and over again, it is far more vital and urgent to take action and change these things we cannot accept. It is on us to replace these false stories with new powerful stories that envision a bold future for museums. Below is my raw attempt at creating a new set of stories that I am working to tell myself — a set of stories that can lead to action and change in the work that we do as museum professionals as well as citizens, civic leaders, and members of our communities.
This modest manifesto – first shared with the community of museum changemakers that came together for the Smith Symposium in September — brings the forces driving change in my own work out in a public, transparent, and vulnerable place. No doubt this list is incomplete, imperfect, abbreviated, and oversimplified, yet I invite readers to add on to this list, flesh it out, and help us all move forward to change the things we can no longer accept:
1. I cannot accept that museums are neutral. Museums have the potential to be relevant, socially-engaged spaces in our communities. Yet, too often, they strive to remain “above” the political and social issues that affect our lives — embracing a myth of neutrality. Well, MUSEUMS ARE NOT NEUTRAL, plain and simple. In a 2015 article entitled “The End of Neutrality: A Modest Manifesto,” scholar Robert Janes writes, “neutrality is not a foundational principle of museum practice, but rather a result of the museum’s privileged position in society.” He continues, “complacency, the absence of continuous learning, and the weight of tradition are persistent factors in the inability or unwillingness to rethink the meaning of neutrality and its implications for the role and responsibilities of museums in contemporary society.” It’s time to erase the tyranny of neutrality and move past this entrenched, limiting idea of museums.
2. I cannot accept that museums are entirely object-centered and their primary purpose is to serve and preserve their collections. Museums are human-centered institutions, in the broadest and most inclusive sense. This means more than just being visitor-centered or audience-centered. It’s a mindset that recognizes the human potential and impact of our work, externally as well as internally. It’s a mindset that has the power to inform our decisions as museum professionals (around exhibitions, programs, partnerships, budgets, security, collections management, etc.) in a way that places a spirit of human connection at the core of our thinking, rather than just the objects.
3. I cannot accept that museums function as separate from their communities. We often use language that externalizes those outside of our walls, setting up a false ‘us’ versus ‘them’ dichotomy. Museums can, instead, think of themselves as part of their communities. All museum staff, volunteers, members, donors, trustees, and partners are members of the community, and we only need to strive to be more inclusive and reflective of the broader local community.
4. I cannot accept the thought that involving community members and their knowledge in a museum’s core practices will lower the quality of content and decrease overall trust in a museum’s authority. I’ve heard this too many times. Instead, let’s repeat and amplify the words that changemaker Josh Boykin projected on the wall behind him during his entire lightning talk this summer at MuseumCamp: “Let Your Community In.” Our communities know more than we do, and we need to recognize and embrace the knowledge, creativity, and lived experiences of these communities. It’s no longer enough for museums to strive to be an essential part of their communities; we need to be working to ensure that our communities become an essential part of our museums. Quoting the transformative words of the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center’s Culture Lab Manifesto, “those who have historically been pushed to the margins hold the stories that will center our future.”
5. I cannot accept that museums do not consistently and persistently recognize the indigenous peoples on whose ancestral lands our institutions now stand. It’s time – now, today — to regularly and consistently honor the indigenous peoples of our place as well as the genealogies and hidden histories embodied in these spaces. It’s time to work toward decolonizing our institutions, and partnering with indigenous communities (artists, leaders, educators, activists) as we rethink the roles and responsibilities of museums.
6. I cannot accept that issues such as immigration, refugees, police violence, transgender rights, water, and climate change are too political for museums. Museums are inextricably linked to these complex issues that are relevant to us today, and they permeate everything we do (whether we choose to acknowledge it or not). I believe we can boldly come together around a respect for each other and the environment, rather than continue to allow these issues to divide us.
7. I cannot accept that museums still use ‘keeping their donor base happy’ as an excuse to not be socially relevant and forward thinking. This fear of losing donors and patrons is far too pervasive. No way. I’m not buying it. If museums have a clear, bold, community-based vision for inclusion and social change, donors will support this work. We need to have more trust in those individuals and foundations that support our institutions, and begin working with new funding sources specifically seeking organizations dedicated to inclusion, social change, and building stronger communities. Some supporters may leave, but new ones will join in. Like the old proverb says, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” Get that tree planted today! — And I wanted add to this a powerful, brutally-honest sentence from Brene Brown’s latest book Braving the Wilderness: “When the culture of any organization mandates that it is more important to protect the reputation of a system and those in power than it is to protect the basic human dignity of the individuals who serve that system or who are served by that system, you can be certain that the shame is systemic, the money is driving ethics, and the accountability is all but dead.”
8. I cannot accept that many museums are hesitant or afraid to proclaim that Black Lives Matter and black life matters, or work with activists in the Movement for Black Lives and other intersectional movements standing up for human rights. Museums need to unapologetically recognize and engage the brave, transformative work of the Movement for Black Lives and their vision to “move towards a world in which the full humanity and dignity of all people is recognized” (Vision for Black Lives), as well as other important movements fighting for these same basic principles of human rights. We should look toward the leadership and vision of the Ford Foundation, a global organization leading efforts to support social justice and human welfare. In their statement “Why black lives matter to philanthropy,” they bravely proclaimed, “now is the time to stand by and amplify movements rooted in love, compassion, and dignity for all people.”
9. I cannot accept that, for museums, being socially responsible is just a liberal trend. Museums have the potential to serve as agents of social change, bringing people together, contributing to local communities, and changing people’s lives. It is time for our institutions to respond to the challenges of our times by making a bigger difference. This is not a trend that involves museums starting a few new programs or pulling together an exhibition that is socially-engaged – this is a movement to re-envision the purpose of museums as collaborative, participatory, and socially responsible spaces in a way that will affect all of the work that museums do.
10. I cannot accept that we, as museum professionals and as citizens, do not fully recognize and celebrate the work we do to be inclusive, relevant, and responsive to the issues affecting the lives of our communities, our neighborhoods, our audiences, and our staff & volunteers. We must fiercely and consistently recognize the work we’re already doing to make positive change in our society and for our planet, and build communities of changemakers within and across institutions. This is some of the most meaningful, relevant work happening in museums right now, so let’s work to make these stories the central stories of our museums. People across our institutions—not just educators but directors, curators, marketing staff, board members, donors, etc.—need to be publicly and visibly proud of the programs, exhibitions, projects, and strategic & structural changes that actively embrace equity, unheard stories, dialogue about provocative questions, and the diverse and rich lived experiences of those living in our communities. More comprehensive support for this work can lead to an expanded focus on social impact and community partnership in a museum’s strategic goals and mission, in its exhibition and program planning process, in its staffing and hiring decisions, and in its overall allocation of resources.
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In his introduction to Freedom Is a Constant Struggle, journalist and activist Frank Barat brings light to an unexpected key aspect of activism and change: trying. “Trying to change the world…,” he writes, “That is victory in itself.”
“Everyone and everything tells you that ‘outside’ you will not succeed, that it is too late, that we live in an epoch where a revolution cannot happen anymore. Radical changes are a thing of the past. You can be an outsider, but not outside the system, and you can have political beliefs, even radical ones, but they need to stay within the bounds of the permissible, inside that bubble that has been drawn for you by the elites.”
Time to break outside that bubble, and be an active part of creating a new, radical future for museums.
Reposted from Anabel Roque Rodriguez’s blog. Anabel is a curator, writer, and historian who focuses on political art, the artist as activist, art as labor, feminism, photography and the art market. ArtMuseumTeaching is thrilled to share her thoughts about the issue of museums and neutrality.
Written by Anabel Roque Rodriguez
The online dictionary Merriam-Webster defines neutrality as “the quality or state of not supporting either side in an argument, fight, war, etc. : the quality or state of being neutral”. The question is whether institutions who deal with primary sources, historical and contemporary narratives and a culture that decides which discourses get public attention should engage in neutrality? My opinion is that Museums are not neutral.
We live in a time where people mourn their dead, fear crawls into daily life and one headline leads to another. A certain narrative seems predominant these days trying to make us believe that we are divided by more than we have in common – depriving us of our humanity. There is no question whether museums can be part of these dialogues. They can, in fact, they have to and their museum policy resembles the questions of our time. The core of every institution is its people: the arts professionals employed there, artists and their own narrations their bringing, and, of course, the public. How could we not embrace the dialogue when people come together? And aren’t museums exactly a space for encounter, for getting acquainted with familiar problems that we engage with, or with unfamiliar things that spark our curiosity and of course with narrations we find problematic, and where silence is no longer an option.
I find myself often in passionate conversations about, whether museums are (still) relevant and/ or that museums should be neutral. Let me state loud and clear, that museums have never been neutral. An important part of a museum is to state facts. There shouldn’t be a confusion about whether museums need to speak up against any form of misinformation, lack to state the sources, fight any form of hate in its community, protect the values that embrace the integrity of minorities and discuss which narratives need to be enforced.
And still, I do find myself in arguments that if museums use public money they should not have any political opinion; that museums are temples of knowledge and need to keep their neutrality as they are above the everyday; that art in general cannot change anything…; What these people don’t acknowledge is the fact that museums have evolved from a temple of muses and knowledge that preserved the purity of the genius of a few (usually straight white men) to huge and central figures in the cultural and economic life of a city. There is no doubt that museums enrich the cultural economy of cities and become leading tourist attractions. As soon as there is money involved interests come into conflict (Sponsorship does matter!).
The range of visibility of big museums and museum brands like the Guggenheim, Tate or Louvre is different than the one of more regional or local museums. Nevertheless, museums cannot act outside the circumstances of the time they are in. If we want them to freely act as pillars of our cultural dialogues we need to carefully talk about their sensitivity to political decisions, censorship and the financial economy.
I sometimes do get the impression that the people who argue so passionately that museums need to keep their neutral role are afraid to endanger the purity of the art temple and that art might suddenly be complicated and relevant, and actually be open to engage with the whole public and not just with a few who are able to decipher the art code. And there is indeed the danger that if museums do take a stand, they might get instrumentalized by politics, be more sensitive to suffer financial cut backs and they risk not being “liked” by everybody anymore (has there ever been an illusion that we are?). A clear language might not be common in a world in which we talk in PR statements and a so called thought leader constructed a concept that we actually refer to as “alternative facts”. But if museums, who deal with history and the contemporary, choose neutrality they choose silence and as history has shown us in many examples: Silence means complicity with the demons of their times.
IF WE WANT TO ENGAGE CRITICALLY WITH HISTORY AND WITH OUR PRESENT TIMES WE NEED TO ENGAGE WITH THESE QUESTIONS:
If our definition on the neutrality of museums is based on (hetero)normative standards, shouldn’t museums engage with what and who states the “norm”?
There should be no doubt that commemorative culture is highly political. Which narrative gets valued in our historical thinking? Who gets publicly commemorated and space or monuments to enforce the narrative?
How can museums engage with their communities without turning into dispassionate agents?
How can museums take a stand and still try to be sensitive to the future discussions without limiting themselves to the possible outcome? Museums can’t dictate what people are going to think or how they’re going to respond and react.
How much freedom of expression are institutions willing to give to all of their employees?
How can a code of ethics concerning the limits of museums neutrality look like? An ICOM Code of Ethics for Museums does exist but it does not contain concrete parts on museum neutrality and resulting conflicts. Keywords such as diversity, equality and community engagement are never free of political implications.
What you’ve just read is my opinion and I hope that more people will join this conversation. I’d love to hear from you. Have a look at the hashtag #MuseumsAreNotNeutral and make yourself heard.
This post is part of a series focused on the myth of museum neutrality. My friend and colleague, LaTanya Autry, and I decided to collaborate to create a t-shirt along with a campaign to spark conversations about the role of museums, while raising funds to support the work of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
We hope you can order a t-shirt, wear it proudly, and talk about the potential of museums to do good work, advocate for human rights, and take a stand against hate. Museums can be agents of positive social change in our communities, and it’s up to us to make this happen together.
The profits from each t-shirt purchased go directly to support the critical work of the Southern Poverty Law Center in combating hate, injustice, and discrimination through education, legal services, advocacy, and anti-bias resources. You can also donate directly to the Southern Poverty Law Center through this link to their Donate page.
Museums have the potential to be relevant, socially-engaged spaces in our communities, acting as agents of positive change. Yet, too often, they strive to remain “above” the political and social issues that affect our lives — embracing a myth of neutrality.
Well, MUSEUMS ARE NOT NEUTRAL, plain and simple. Let’s come together and spread this message.
Museums Are Not Neutral is a global advocacy initiative co-produced by La Tanya S. Autry and I to expose the myth of museum neutrality and demand equity-based transformation across institutions. The initiative began in August 2017 through an online t-shirt campaign and the social media hashtag #MuseumsAreNotNeutral. During its first 3 years, the initiative has sold more than three thousand shirts to people around the entire world, raised more than $20,000 for social justice organizations and relief funds supporting museum workers, and engaged more than one million people across social media platforms. This movement continues to grow, bring people together, and demand change happen now.
“Our initiative spotlights actions for change and exposes how the claim of neutrality fosters unequal power relations, and Museums Are Not Neutral became my way to inform people that I reject the status quo. It’s one of my tools for improving the museum field, and it is now a global community.” – La Tanya S. Autry, co-producer & cultural organizer
“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 these forces play within these 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.” – Mike Murawski, co-producer & change leader
Add Your Voice
Join the conversation using the hashtag #MuseumsAreNotNeutral on Twitter. Through social media advocacy, we’re bringing together a large, growing community of people throughout the world to share questions, practices & resources and to hold institutions accountable.
Wear the Message
Help spread the Museums Are Not Neutral message by purchasing your own t-shirt, sweatshirt, hoodie, coffee mug, or tote bag at our Bonfire.com Store. Join the thousands of changemakers across the globe in proudly sharing the message, sparking conversations, and growing the community.
Support Museum Workers
Profits from each product purchased from this campaign now (updated July 2020) go to support the Museum Workers Relief Fund, a mutual aid fund organized by and for museum workers and founded on the principles of dignity, justice, and humanity.
Here is a list of some resources and articles that tackle the issue of museum neutrality (last updated July 2020). Be sure to follow the hashtag #MuseumsAreNotNeutral on social media to get connected to the community.
A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of being invited to give the keynote address to begin Day 2 of the MuseumNext conference in New York City. My talk expanded on some of my thinking around the vital importance of empathy, change, and social action in museums, and focused on 5 actions we can take as museum professionals. I’m pasting the video, SlideShare, and extended notes from my talk below. I hope this sparks more conversations within and among museums about the role our institutions play in our communities and in relation to issues of social justice, equity, and inclusion. Please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions, and add Comments or questions below for a more public exchange around these ideas. I welcome all perspectives, ideas, and voices in this dialogue about museums. And special thanks to Jim Richardson and the team at MuseumNext for putting together a powerful conference in New York!
NOTE: These views are my own and don’t necessarily represent the Portland Art Museum’s positions, strategies, or opinions.
Keynote Address: “Urgency of Empathy and Social Action in Museums”
November 15, 2016, Tribeca Center for Performing Arts, New York, NY
[I began this address by playing an excerpt from Janelle Monae’s “Hell You Talmbout,” which I encourage you to listen to by playing the video below. And crank up the volume or pop on some headphones.]
This visceral performance was recorded by Janelle Monae and the Wondaland Arts Society collective. It is a striking protest piece that responds to instances of police violence against minorities in this country, and honors the lives of those lost in a way that boldly confronts indifference.
Janelle Monae said, “Silence is our enemy, and sound is our weapon.” In an interview about her recording “Hell You Talmbout,” she said something that really struck me and made me want to bring this in to begin our day here at MuseumNext: “It’s important that we see each other as human beings. We need to take care of each other.” Her piece stands as a form of art that can connect us all as humans through empathy as well as action.
I want to spend some time talking this morning about the urgency of empathy, social impact, and social action in museums today, focusing on 5 actions—that’s right, I said actions … not ideas, concepts, or principles. 5 actions that we can all get involved in to help museums reach their full potential as meaningful, relevant, human-centered institutions in our communities.
But before I begin, I would like to recognize and honor the indigenous peoples on whose ancestral lands this theatre now stands here in Manhattan, on which our museums stand, and on which we live and work every day.
ACTION 1: Be More Local
It’s so important for museums to be a ‘local’ place intertwined and inseparable from the local realities and issues. We are located in our communities, but we’re also a part of those communities. This idea of community is important to address – we use that word a lot and don’t often think about it. What is community, and what is audience? What do we mean by these words? For me, so much of this idea of “community” is grounded in geography. How do we define our place, our town, our city, our neighborhood; and how do we learn about the people in this place, what connects us, and what brings us together into a community
So what can we do to help museums be more local?
First, I think there is a false binary and divide we have created between ‘museum’ and ‘community’ that is troubling. It’s so ingrained in the way so many of us talk about our work, myself included. We might be feeding this gap, this divide, by simply not addressing it. What if “the museum” included the people in our local community (including our staff and volunteers)? What if, instead of just museums seeing themselves as part of their communities, our communities actually saw themselves as part of our museums? We fight so hard for outreach, but sometimes we just need inreach—a way for us to open our ears and our hearts and let others get involved in new and different ways.
This may sound radical, but I believe it’s also a fact: our community knows more than we do. There is so much expertise and knowledge outside of our institutions that we tend to reject and ignore, but it’s greater than what we hold on to within our institutions. We have got to start breaking down those walls, listen more, and rethink the way we value some knowledge and stories over others. Identify and value the assets of our community — their stories, experiences, creative energies, and knowledges.
One powerful example of this local work is The Laundromat Project. The Laundromat Project brings socially engaged arts programming to laundromats and other everyday community spaces in order to reach as many of our neighbors as possible. The LP’s artists and staff work to amplify the creativity that already exists within communities by using arts and culture to build community networks, and enhance the sense of ownership in the places where we live, work, and grow. Their Kelly Street Initiative was launched in 2015 in the South Bronx, in partnership with Workforce Housing Group, Kelly Street Garden, and Banana Kelly Community Improvement Association, transforming a 2 bedroom-apartment into a thriving creative community hub. I’m looking forward to heading there with a group of conference participants for MuseumNext’s first ever Museum Social Action Project.
ACTION 2: Recognize and Support the Movement for Black Lives
I believe there is a need for us museums to publicly recognize and engage the brave and transformative work of the Movement for Black Lives. The Movement has forged a new national conversation about the legacy of racism, state violence, and state neglect of communities of color in the United States—a conversation grounded in those communities’ own experiences. As stated in their Vision for Black Lives policy statement, the Movement’s vision is to:
“move towards a world in which the full humanity and dignity of all people is recognized.”
I know this is something museums can stand behind unapologetically. We need to engage with and learn from the Movement, help support and expand this community of social justice activists without dictating or distorting the work underway. Supporting this work is not putting museums and its employees in a bubble, but rather it powerfully unifies us in support of basic human rights that have been wrongly politicized since the first colonists stepped ashore some 500 years ago.
Some examples of brave, courageous museums that are putting themselves out there to support this work are:
Science Museum of Minnesota: Back in July 2016, they posted a sign at entrance to RACE: Are We So Different? exhibition after tragic killing of Philando Castille in July, joining their community in mourning. Unfortunately that sign was eventually removed, but I want to acknowledge that courage of those people who sat in a room to make the decision to put that sign up so we can have this conversations about whether museums can do this or not.
New Museum in New York: Black Women Artists for Black Lives Matter, which began back in July 2016 when a group of more than 100 black women artists began meeting at New Museum. The group took over the Museum for an event in September that included performances, workshops, videos, and a procession. Reflecting on that September event, artist Ariel Jackson recalls: “some of us wanted a space to laugh and celebrate our blackness in the face of trauma. Others wanted a space to scream, cry, and holler. We ultimately agreed that we wanted to express our humanity — both joy and grief”
Smithsonian National Museum for African American History and Culture: Among many other ways that this new Smithsonian Museum is collecting, exhibiting, and recognizing the Movement for Black Lives in historic ways, I wanted to draw attention to their acquisition of the Mirror Casket Project into their collection. The Mirror Casket is a sculpture, performance, and call to action for justice in the aftermath of the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO. Created by a team of seven community artists and organizers, the mirrored casket responds to a Ferguson resident’s call for “a work of art that evokes more empathy into this circumstance,” with an aim to evoke reflection. This work will be included in future exhibitions at the NMAAHC.
Portland Art Museum: At the Portland Art Museum, we have recently been partnering with members of Don’t Shoot Portland, one of the main Black Lives Matter groups working for change across the Portland community. On August 9, 2016, the anniversary of Michael Brown’s killing, we were the site for a gathering and community social justice art project organized by Don’t Shoot Portland that involved music and dance performances, speakers, and free admission to the Museum and exhibitions. This was planned, in part, as a result of conversations with our community in conjunction with the opening of two exhibitions which focused on issues of racial violence, police brutality, and social justice activism. Many of us at the Portland Art Museum wanted to be listening to our community and engaged with our community, so we reached out and had these powerful things happening at the museum. It was a space of creation, a space of community and coming together.
I can’t mention these events without mentioning Teressa Raiford, who is one of the most powerful activists in Portland and probably in many of our communities, who’s putting a lot of this together and who has for the past six days been on the streets in Portland with peaceful protestors standing up for basic human rights. Teressa continues to be an inspiring, driving force behind the ways that the Portland Art Museum is beginning to listen to its community and engage in a new dialogue around race and social justice.
Following up the event in the Portland Art Museum on August 9th, we had a panel discussion entitled “Race in America After Ferguson” where Reverend Tracy Blackman from Florissant, Missouri (one of the pastors that’s been involved in the Ferguson Commission with President Obama and also the Federal Government’s faith-based initiatives work) came and spoke with artist Arvie Smith, Teressa Raiford, and Mykia Hernandez, a young activist in Portland. With two or three days’ notice we had an incredible crowd from the community come, including docents and staff from the museum who came out to this conversation. It was really important, internally and externally, for the museum to be having these conversations and be seen as a space for these conversations.
“now is the time to stand by and amplify movements rooted in love, compassion, and dignity for all people.”
ACTION 3: Flip the Script
What does it look like to “flip the script” in museums, to work toward de-centering the traditional power structures of our institution? How can we actually shift away from the old, traditional narratives that got us where we are today, right now, right here? How can our work as museum professionals shift power?
Letting go of these traditional historic notions of museum authority and power relationships is essential but it’s also very challenging, and I’m going to break the rules of conferences and do something that you’re not supposed to do. I’m going to read a text panel from a museum exhibition, and this is not a text panel that is a typical voice of authority, it is not what I call the ‘voice of god’ text panel for a museum. This text panel was the intro panel to our new Center for Contemporary Native Art during our second exhibition in that space, written by indigenous artists Demian DinéYazhi’ and Kali Spitzer and unedited or unimpeded by curatorial voice or museum voice. I think it says something powerful. So, when visitors waked into the gallery during Demian and Kali’s exhibition, they were immediately confronted by this wall text panel:
“By entering this space you have an ethical responsibility to acknowledge that all Indigenous thought, creativity, fantasy, activism, & existence is grounded in continual acts of Survivance. You have agreed to forfeit your misconceptions of Indigenous identity & respect the sacredness of Indigenous traditional practices. You are not stepping into the past or staring into a picture plane void of Indigenous inhabitants. You are not glorifying Western historical inaccuracies or romanticizing the cowboys & Indians narrative. By entering this space you agree to never again place your hand over your mouth in a mock “war cry” or teach your children to be ignorant of the Indigenous peoples whose land you have claimed as your own. From this moment onward you promise to learn the history of the Indigenous ancestral lands that were stolen/continue to be stolen through colonization & genocide. By entering this space you have agreed to become a lifelong agent against humanitarian & environmental injustice.”
It is such a powerful statement. So, flipping the script can mean changing who gets to write these narratives. The Center for Contemporary Native Art at the Portland Art Museum is one of these spaces where we have experimented with decentering traditional museum authority.
The Center for Contemporary Native Art is a space that we have developed dedicated to displaying the work by contemporary indigenous artists at the museum. It’s supported by an IMLS grant currently and it really gets the museum to step out of the way and let Native people tell their stories. Through exhibitions in this Center, we’ve been really privileging native voice, native language, indigenous knowledge, and indigenous perspectives. It has been one of the most powerful things I’ve been able to work on in my work in museums and I have to give a shout out to Deana Dartt who was recently our curator of Native American Art at the Portland Art Museum and whose powerful vision made this possible.
Another example of ‘flipping the script’ is the long-running initiative at the Portland Art Museum called Object Stories, and these images are just some of the examples of the people whose voices have been brought to the center of our museum during this project: from people living with Alzheimer’s and their caregivers, to recent refugees to Portland, and we currently have on view in that gallery a project that highlights the voices of deaf artists and highlights their work in the gallery.
“Until marginalized communities are the storytellers of their experiences, history will be rendered partially complete, but wholly-privilege the knowledges and perspectives of the colonizers.”
These marginalised voices and stories, often rendered completely invisible, need to be brought to the center.
One final example – this is just something I thought was amazing project that I just read about this past week or so – at the Detroit Institute of Art, they’re working on an exhibit for summer 2017 to highlight and reflect on the 50-year anniversary of the summer of 1967 rebellion. It’s a year-long collaborative project to uncover home movies and perspectives from people living in Detroit in 1967, and the project aims to reflect on one of the most painful times in the history of Detroit and spur thoughts on how that region can continue moving forward. What an incredible way of bringing community voices and stories into such a significant museum project, and privileging those stories and knowledge in the museum.
ACTION 4: Have a Personal Vision for Change
Have a personal vision for change, and work to create a personal vision. I think this is something that’s important.
I hope you’ve had your coffee, because I’m going to have you do something for me before we wrap up here. Put your notebooks and devices down just for a second, take a deep breath, and clear your mind. Now I want you to try and think about: what matters most to you right now? Try to boil it down to a word or a phrase. Now, I want you to shout that out. [audience loudly shouts out words at the same time]
Thank you, and not only is that energy that we need to make change happen in museums, but it also illustrates this need for our own personal vision and purpose to help guide this work. What do you care about? What is your high dream? What is the change you’d like to see? Have a personal vision. Write it down. It doesn’t have to be some sort of perfectly crafted, wordsmithed mission statement. Think about what matters to you, write it down, add it to your desktop background, tape it to your wall, share it on social media, wear it on a tee-shirt. Connect with your core values on a daily basis. Stand behind these values. Share them. Don’t be ashamed of them. After all, if we don’t know where we’re going, how in the hell are we ever going to get there?
I’m most recently inspired by De Andrea Nichols, an activist, educator and artist in St Louis. She said in a commencement speech she gave earlier this year at Washington University in St. Louis: “Do what makes you come alive!” Nichols’s “Sticky Note to Self” project is also worth checking out through Tumblr and Instagram.. It is so inspiring to see her inspiration, to see the things that she’s thinking about, done so creatively. She just writes these sticky notes to herself, which is something I’ve been doing more and more. When you’ve got a moment of inspiration, write it down, stick it somewhere, keep it, reflect back on it on a daily basis so we can keep pushing ahead on this work.
Bring your passion with you to work. I think this is important that we stop the unnecessary separation between our work and ourselves and this type of passion. We need to create environments and museums where we, as museum workers, can be our whole selves, can bring our passion. One of the things that I’ve been motivated by in my own practice has been this inspiring quote from James Baldwin, which I added to my email signature as a daily, public reminder:
“not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
ACTION 5: Build Communities of Action and Change
I firmly believe museums are people-centred institutions (something I have written about in more detail). Museums are us. If we don’t bring in other people too, our work cannot grow. We need to identify change agents within our institutions. Invite people to meet with you over coffee. Think about the barriers to your work, and consider how those barriers are they people-based. What people are involved with those barriers? OK, now go have coffee with those people and listen. Listen to what those people are talking about in terms of why those barriers might exist. It is also important to positively recognise when others take steps in the right direction towards this work. We need to build supportive, positive, connected communities of change within and among our organizations.
And I think it’s time that, no matter where you are in your organizations (new employee or seasoned veteran); it’s time for us to stop thinking of ourselves as followers and thinking of ourselves as leaders within our institutions. You can grow a community of change in your organisation and it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been there. Remember, museum are made of us people, and our museums are only as empathetic, connected, and engaged as the people who work for them.
An important aspect of building these communities of action is also recognising the new collective platforms and movements that exist now online. If you are on social media, #MuseumWorkersSpeak and #MuseumsRespondToFerguson are hashtags that are bringing people together to talk about these issues. Also #MuseWomen, #a11y, and the blogs Incluseum, Brown Girls’ Museum blog, Visitors of Color Tumblr site, Queering the Museum Project, Museum of Impact, Museum Hue. And so many more projects that are bringing people together to create these communities of change and communities of action across the field of museums, arts, and culture.
The last slide I want to show is the team of education staff at the Portland Art Museum. We took this photo here last Wednesday morning, which I regretted scheduling that photo the morning after the election here, but we immediately gravitated to this empowering work “Power Up” by artist Corita Kent, who’s been feeding a lot of our souls in Portland with this exhibition on view of her work. I include this photo only to give recognition, honor, and support to this amazing group of educators and to the power that they bring to all of this work at the Portland Art Museum, to our vision for doing good, meaningful, more local work and in building communities of change across our institution. It is not ‘me’; it is a ‘we’ situation, and there is so much power in the people on this team and so many who are not even this photograph.
As we bring on more people to rise to this challenge with us, we can convert ‘aspiring to change’ into ‘real change’. The time has come to move beyond symbolically standing up for social justice. This may often mean breaking the rules but it never involves silence. We need to permanently put to rest the idea that a museum should be a neutral place and that its employees should be dispassionate.
Let me wrap up with something a bit more personal. One week ago this morning, I was proud to go turn in my ballot alongside my wife, inspired by her power, energy, and resilience. Just hours later, that night, I found myself in tears, holding my confused 7-year-old son in my arms as I put him to bed. I know I am not alone when I say I felt numb and almost paralyzed.
I want to close by connecting with the words of writer Toni Morrison, who many of us read during recent days and weeks. 12 years ago, she recounted her own election-induced feelings of depression, paralysis, being unable to write, when an artist friend interrupted her and said, “No, no, no. This is precisely the time when artists go to work. That’s our job!”
So I channel the power of Ms. Morrison at this difficult moment, because This is precisely the time when museums go to work. That’s our job!
Reposted and revised from MuseumNext, a global conference on the future of museums which has acted as a platform for showcasing best practice today to shine a light on the museum of tomorrow. Check out more details about the upcoming conference in New York by visiting their new website.
MuseumNext is very much a collaboration which brings together museum professionals to share what they feel is important and exciting, that is true of the presentations and workshops which our community propose through our call for papers and through the other activities which form our conference fringe.
Mike Murawski, Director of Education & Public Programs at Portland Art Museum, challenged us to build a Museum Social Action Project into the program and offered along with Monica Montgomery to make the project happen.
MuseumNext asked Mike to tell us more about this exciting project:
How did the Museum Social Action Project come about?
At a time when museum professionals are increasingly thinking about the social impact of museums as well as the role these institutions play within our local communities, it seemed urgent to get outside the ‘bubble’ of the conference and more directly engage with organizations responding to local realities.
I was invited to present at the MuseumNext conference in New York on the topic of enacting change in museums and converting talk into action, so it felt necessary to get outside the conference venue and ‘walk the walk.’ Not having a strong familiarity with the local communities across New York, I immediately reached out to Monica Montgomery (MuseumHue, Museum of Impact) to explore this idea of a Museum Social Action Project.
Monica and I brainstormed about some possible ideas, and she connected us with the team at The Laundromat Project, an amazing organization that works to bring socially engaged arts programming to laundromats and other everyday community spaces.
Why should a museum conference try and facilitate something like this?
As museum professionals, it is vital that we enact a mindset of giving back and supporting grassroots organizations like The Laundromat Project that strengthen our communities. Each and every professional conference should be focusing more on how it can be connected and relevant to the place of its convening, and not just think about locations as conference hotels and convention centers.
Conference sessions, panels, and topics can certainly be more grounded in the realities and issues of the conference’s city and neighborhoods, but I think it’s important to get outside the walls of the conference, explore direct ways to see our ideas in action, and be a responsible part of building stronger communities (beyond the spotlight of the conference).
What is The Laundromat Project?
Launched in 2006, The Laundromat Projectbrings socially relevant and socially engaged arts programming to laundromats and other everyday community spaces in order to reach as many of our neighbors as possible. The LP’s artists and staff work to amplify the creativity that already exists within communities by using arts and culture to build community networks, solve problems, and enhance the sense of ownership in the places where we live, work, and grow. The LP is particularly committed to long-term and sustained investment in communities of color as well as those living on modest incomes.
Their Kelly Street Initiative was launched in 2016 in partnership with Workforce Housing Group, Kelly Street Garden, and Banana Kelly Community Improvement Association, transforming a 2 bedroom-apartment on Kelly Street in Longwood, South Bronx, into a thriving creative community hub, with artist studios, arts programming, and community partnerships that allow The LP to engage the larger Kelly Street community. We are honored to be collaborating with Hatuey Ramos-Fermín, The LP’s Director of Programs & Community Engagement, to build this Museum Social Action Project together for MuseumNext.
What’s the project that you’re doing?
Participants attending this Museum Social Action Project will meet staff and artists at The Laundromat Project, learn about their various projects and programs, and tour the Kelly Street Initiative location as well as learn more about that neighborhood. LP staff and artists will then lead a short workshop and discussion on how organizations can learn more about a neighborhood’s capacities, creativity, and skills through community asset mapping.
Participants will also discuss ways to build a sustained investment in community partnerships, rather than one-sided outreach efforts or one-time program offerings. As a vital part of this project, we also ask that participants find a way to give back to The Laundromat Project and help them create more joyful spaces of creativity and community. Participants can do this by bringing an art supply Gift Card from Dick Blick or by donating directly to the Laundromat Project online (which I strongly encourage people to do, even if you are not involved in this project or the MuseumNext conference).
What do you think the delegates will get out of it?
The aim is for delegates attending the Museum Social Action Project to be able to gain a more concrete understanding of community-based practices, of how cultural organizations can serve as sites of social action and relevance, of how museums and arts non-profits can bring people together a work to build stronger, more resilient communities. They will gain skills from The LP staff and from each other around community asset mapping, and really listening to local community voices.
What impact can the project have?
For me, personally, there are a few big “what if’s” at the heart of this type of Museum Social Action Project. I know that museums and cultural organizations across the world are striving to be an essential part of their communities; but what if our communities could become an essential part of our institutions? What if we could effectively re-center this movement for change around our local communities and the power, knowledge, creativity, and capacities that they can bring to our institutions? What if conferences and professional gatherings spent more time doing and less time talking?
I don’t think we’ll achieve this all at our half-day Museum Social Action Project this November in New York, but I hope others are inspired to do similar types of projects and experiences, getting outside the walls of our conferences and harnessing the power of museum professionals to learn from and give back to our communities.
The Museum Social Action Project is one of the fringe activities for MuseumNext New York City. The conference takes place 14 – 16 November 2016 at the BMCC Tribeca Performing Arts Center. Find out more about the conference here.
“We are in more urgent need of empathy than ever before.”
This quote has been on my mind often over the past days, weeks, months, and sadly, years—as senseless acts of violence and hatred hit the headlines at a numbing pace of regularity. This past Friday was no different, as we all awoke to the horrific news from Dallas, during a week when the country was already reeling from news of the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. We’re also seeing an alarming spike in hate crimes and xenophobia in the UK after ‘Brexit’ that correspond in unsettling ways to divisive rhetoric and acrimonious tone of Republican nominee Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. All of this as we are still processing the Pulse nightclub attack in Orlando, where 49 individuals lost their lives.
I think in moments like these, it’s important for museums—and the people who work for them—to pause and reflect on the roles that we serve within our communities. Yes, museums are institutions that hold collections. But they can also serve a powerful role with our communities as active spaces for connection and coming together, for conversation and dialogue, for listening and sharing. Museums can be spaces for individual stories and community voices. They can be a space for acknowledging and reflecting on differences, and for bridging divides. They can be spaces for growth, struggle, love, and hope.
“Empathy is the art of stepping into the shoes of another person and looking at the world from their perspective. It’s about understanding the thoughts, the feelings, the ideas and experiences that make up their view of the world.”
In September 2015, Krznaric put these ideas into practice in the realm of museums with the development of the Empathy Museum, dedicated to helping visitors develop the skill of putting themselves in others’ shoes. Its first exhibit, “A Mile in My Shoes,” did quite literally that, setting up in a shoe shop where visitors are fitted with the shoes of another person, invited to walk a mile along the riverside while being immersed in an audio narrative of this stranger’s life, and then write a short story about it. With contributions ranging from a sewer worker to a sex worker, the stories covered different aspects of life, from loss and grief to hope and love.
Developing empathy has the potential to create radical social change, “a revolution of human relationships,” Krznaric states. So how can we spark this empathy revolution in museums?
Museums Are Us, Not It
I want to start by making an important foundational point about how we talk about museums. When we talk about them only as brick-and-mortar institutions or as ‘it’, it becomes easier to distance ourselves from the human-centered work we do. So it’s absolutely essential to remember that museums are made of people (yes, just like Soylent Green): from directors, board members, patrons, and curators to educators, guest services staff, registrars, conservators, security guards, volunteers, maintenance and facilities workers, members, visitors, etc. I am reminded of this by the Director of Learning at the Tate, Anna Cutler, whose memorable 2013 Tate Paper discussed institutional critique and cultural learning in museums. In it, she quotes artist Andrea Fraser:
“Every time we speak of the ‘institution’ as other than ‘us’ we disavow our role in the creation and perpetuation of its conditions.”
This is an important basis for any discussion of empathy and museums, since it defines the vision, mission, and work of a museum as the vision, mission, and work of the people who belong to that museum. So if we, myself included, say “museums must be more connected to their communities,” we’re really talking about what the people that make up the museum need to focus on – being more connected to our communities. We are inseparable from the institution, in other words. Any critique of museums is a critique of us; and any change needing to happen in museums is, therefore, a change that needs to start with us.
The Growing Role of Empathy in Museum Practice
Krznaric’s work with the Empathy Museum is but one small example of the types of civically-engaged, human-centered practices that have been instituted in an effort to expand the role that museums serve in building empathy and human connection in our communities. Staff working for museums across the globe are launching new efforts to bring people together, facilitate open dialogue, and elevate the voices and stories of marginalized groups to promote greater understanding.
For example, I continue to be amazed and inspired by the Multaqa project developed last year by Berlin’s state museums, which brings in a group of refugees from Iraq and Syria to serve as Arabic-speaking guides. The project title, Multaqa, means “meeting point” in Arabic. The tours are designed to give refugees and newcomers access to the city’s museums and facilitate the interchange of diverse cultural and historical experiences. The tours have been so popular, according to a recent report, that the organizers are looking to expand the program to include “intercultural workshops, which the Berlin public can also participate in.”
Here at the Portland Art Museum, the Object Stories initiative (which began back in 2010) has continued to embrace storytelling and community voices here in Portland. A recent exhibition that opened earlier this year featured powerful stories and personal objects from the local refugee community. The exhibition was co-created with Portland Meet Portland, a local non-profit focused on welcoming immigrants and refugees arriving in our city by creating mutually beneficial mentoring opportunities that promote cross-cultural learning, enhance work skills, and build trust.
The work of Portland Meet Portland and this Object Stories exhibition helped to highlight the important contributions that immigrants and refugees bring to their new homes here in Oregon, and also offered this area’s longer-term residents an opportunity to learn from these newcomers—their stories, resilience, and unique cultures. Visitors to the gallery (probably around 60,000 people) had the opportunity to listen to participants’ stories, leave a welcome message for these storytellers, and learn more about advocacy efforts and local non-profits working with immigrant and refugees in Portland (which ranks 11th among US cities resettling international refugees).
The Canadian Museum for Human Rights, an inspiring institution in so many ways, currently houses six different exhibits that explore the tragic story and legacy of the Indian Residential School system, one of Canada’s most pressing human rights concerns. As a national museum and hub of human rights education, the Museum has an important role to play in efforts towards reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Canada. As is stated in the 2015 summary report of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC): “Through their exhibits, education outreach, and research programs, all museums are well positioned to contribute to education for reconciliation.” The team at the Canadian Museum of Human Rights is also working to keep the conversation alive and involve the voices of its communities, especially through its “Share Your Story” project that allows anyone to record their own story about human rights or listen to the individual experiences of others.
In their book Cities, Museums, and Soft Power, Gail Dexter Lord and Ngaire Blankenship discuss the human social behaviors of bridging and bonding that museums have the distinct potential to promote and amplify, especially through public programs, education, and exhibitions. Their final essay offers a comprehensive set of strategies for how museums can be of greater value to their cities and communities:
“Museums and cities have a strong role to play together in bridging and bonding. They bring people together at similar life stages … or with identity in common … where they can share their experiences. Museums also bridge among identities, offering a public place to bring different groups together around similar interests.” (p. 222)
The International Museum of Folk Art’s Gallery of Conscience, inaugurated in 2010, serves as truly unique and visionary example of how museums are experimenting in this area. The Gallery’s goal is to be an agent of positive social change by engaging history, dialogue, and personal reflection around issues of social justice and human rights. Since the gallery’s inception, exhibitions in this space have explored how traditional artists come together in the face of change or disaster to provide comfort, counsel, prayer, and hope through their art. This focus has earned the space membership in the International Coalition of the Sites of Conscience.
Exhibitions in the Gallery of Conscience are “community-driven, co-created, collaborative, participatory, and cumulative,” according to a press release. “Visitors and community members become part of the conversation from the very beginning—helping to shape the exhibitions and contribute to the dialogue throughout the exhibition’s run.” In 2013-14, the Gallery’s exhibition “Let’s Talk About This” focused on folk artists’ responses to HIV/AIDS through artist and visitor participation, community programs, and a digital storytelling project with LGBTQ youth developed in partnership with N’MPower and Youth Media Project. The oral histories that were collected were incorporated into the exhibition through listening stations, and also became part of the dialogue-based programs related to the exhibition.
Building a Broader Culture of Advocacy
The type of museum practice I’ve highlighted is certainly not new. Many of us read about this work in museum blogs (such as Incluseum, Thinking About Museums, Visitors of Color, Queering the Museum, Brown Girls Museum Blog, etc.) and emails from the Center for the Future of Museums or Museum Hack. Many of us work on programs like these ourselves. But what concerns me is that across much of this practice, I find a lack of a broader institutional culture of support. Too many community-based projects like the ones I mention above end up being relegated to education staff, isolated from the core mission of an institution, or left entirely invisible. And this lack of supports extends beyond the walls of the museum. When journalists, scholars, and critics write about museums and exhibitions, they frequently ignore or denigrate the spaces that invite visitor engagement and community participation. There are even individuals in my own field of museum education who refer to empathy-building practices and affective learning strategies as too “touchy feely.”
We museum people need to work together to build a stronger, collective culture of support and advocacy for museum practice based in empathy, inclusion, and social impact. This is some of the most meaningful, relevant work happening in museums right now. People across our institutions—not just educators but directors, curators, marketing staff, board members, donors, etc.—need to be publicly and visibly proud of the programs, exhibitions, and projects that actively embrace individual stories, dialogue about provocative questions, and the diverse and rich lived experiences of those living in our communities. More comprehensive support for this work can lead to an expanded focus on social impact and community engagement in a museum’s strategic goals and mission, in its exhibition and program planning process, and in its allocation of resources.
So let’s all be more proud of the work we’re doing in museums to bring people together and learn more about ourselves and each other — from tiny one-off gatherings and events to much larger sustained initiatives.
Time for an Empathy Revolution in Museums
How do we start an empathy revolution in museums? How do we more fiercely recognize and support the meaningful work that museum professionals are already leading to support open dialogues around the challenging, relevant issues of our time? And how do we radically expand this work to build a stronger culture of empathy within museums — one that measures future success through our capacity to bring people together, foster conversations, and contribute to strong and resilient communities?
In 2013, the Museums Association of the UK launched its Museums Change Lives campaign, establishing a set of principles based on research, conferences sessions, online forums, open public workshops, and discussions with charities and social enterprises. I think the core principles they developed from their vision for the social impact of museums (a must read!) are worth sharing to move this discussion forward and enact change:
Every museums is different, but all can find ways of maximizing their social impact.
Everyone has the right to meaningful participation in the life and work of museums.
Audiences are creators as well as consumers of knowledge; their insights and expertise enrich and transform the museum experience for others.
Active public participation changes museums for the better.
Museums foster questioning, debate, and critical thinking.
Good museums offer excellent experiences that meet public needs.
Effective museums engage with contemporary issues.
Social justice is at the heart of the impact of museums.
Museums are not neutral spaces.
Museums are rooted in places and contribute to local distinctiveness.
These principles, as with much of their vision, are inspiring — but too often we stop there, feeling inspired but lacking action. The Museums Association report continues, “It’s time for your museum to respond to hard times by making a bigger difference. It’s time for you to play your part in helping museums change people’s lives.” The report concludes with a pretty spot-on set of 10 actions that will help your museum improve its social impact. Here is a slightly abbreviated, edited list:
Make a clear commitment to improve your museum’s social impact (ie. having strategic goals).
Reflect on your current impacts; listen to users and non-users; research local needs.
Research what other museums are doing.
Seek out and connect with suitable partners.
Work with your partners as equals.
Innovate and be willing to take risks.
Reflect on and celebrate your work. Learn from and with partners and participants.
Find ways for partners and participants to have a deep impact on your museum. Bring more voices into interpretation and devolve power.
Strive for long-term sustained change based on lasting relationships with partners and long-term engagement with participants.
Print these out, put them on your office wall, bring them to staff meetings, share these with your visitors and audiences, and have some open conversations about the “so what” of museums. Take these principles and action steps seriously. Build a broader team to advocate for the work you’re already doing at your institution; rethink existing programs; and bravely propose new projects and partnerships that better serve your community. See how a human-centered focus on empathy and social impact might change your own practice, your museum, and your community.
“The best museums are now striving to realise their full potential for society and are far more than just buildings and collections. They have two-way relationships with communities…. They are becoming increasingly outward looking, building more relationships with partners. They are welcoming more people as active participants.” (Museums Change Lives)