Whenever I remember, I participate in weekly chats on twitter under the hashtag #museumedchat. It’s a time when people — mostly museum educators — can discuss a number of salient topics. These topics usually involve museum education, such as storytelling and different age groups, but can also sometimes include larger themes like accessibility and diversity/inclusion. Being primarily left-leaning, many participants also use these chats as ways to improve their activist efforts within a museum context, such as anti-racism.
However, it is a huge jump to discuss social justice in museums on twitter, to implementing ideas in the museum itself. One week, I simply asked: especially as junior staff, how can I actually implement ideas that may provoke doubt, controversy, or backlash? One of the most common responses I got was support from coworkers and upper management.
So it didn’t surprise me that Ken Yellis, in the reverse, describes the committee process and related internal politics as a significant reason for why provocative exhibits don’t happen more often. Yellis lists a number of reasons why museum staff is often ill-equipped to implement and deal with potentially controversial ideas:
1) Museum workers, especially at taxpayer-funded institutions, may worry about offending constituents, and thus losing their funding.
2) Museum workers might prepare for, or try to provoke, a different reaction than the one visitors end up having in a given exhibition.
3) Museum workers might simply shy away from implementing anything that would require defending or explaining, whether out of laziness or fear.
4) Museum workers may try to actually implement an unconventional idea, but this idea gets lost within a maze of committees (especially board committees) and eventually fizzles out.
These reasons, and others, result in museums failing to take their place within the national conversation most relevant to the museum’s mission. By not joining this conversation, museums risk allowing visitors to go on misunderstanding key parts of national history, which often ends up supporting forms of systemic oppression. Instead, by challenging visitors and pushing them into their comfort zone, museums can illuminate nuanced and complicated parts of the past, help develop visitors’ critical thinking skills and opinions, and challenge hegemonies within the museum’s space.
So then, how can museums — both individual staff members and whole institutions — take risks and embrace controversial topics? For one option, Yellis suggests that museums prepare themselves to defend their choices against confrontations from visitors. However, this would require knowing how visitors may react to a given exhibit, which can be difficult to predict. Thus, museums should not force visitors into a specific viewpoint; instead, let objects speak for themselves, as they will ultimately overpower any direction given in their labels. This might be helped along with focus groups and other outside perspectives, to act as example visitors.
Another option, which is simultaneously both more dangerous and more rewarding, is to simply take risks without much regard for their consequences. One particularly notable example for why this option works is Fred Wilson’s Mining the Museum. Obviously this wasn’t a spontaneous exhibit; plenty of planning and considerations went into it. But the immediate reaction was harsh, with many staff members resigning afterwards due to public backlash. Worried staff may have ended up not following through with the exhibition. And yet it still happened, and it remains one of the most influential and monumental exhibits ever.
So, what does this mean for me, and other social justice-minded Emerging Museum Professionals?
First, that the “us against the world” feeling is common — that activism and boundary-pushing seem difficult because they are.
But… that can’t be an excuse. Shying away from activism and controversy allows misunderstandings and generalizations to remain unchallenged, not to mention white supremacy and other hegemonies that have been upheld and maintained by museums in the past. Museum workers — regardless of rank — must take those risks to affect real change. This might be mitigated through strategies like anticipating visitor reactions, pro/cons lists, and similar analyses to prevent to coworkers and board members, as a way to circumnavigate the committee barriers that Yellis outlines.
At the end of his article, “The Architecture of Racial Segregation,” Robert Weyeneth wonders about the dangers of interpreting segregated spaces. How might these spaces be misconstrued? Would they support racist viewpoints? But then he described one woman’s experience at seeing separate entrances to a movie theater in North Carolina, at how the shock of seeing that space reminded her of humanity’s capacity of hatred. Moments like those should be our goal.
Robert Weyeneth, “The Architecture of Racial Segregation: The Challenges of Preserving the Problematical Past,” The Public Historian 27 (Fall 2005): 11-44
Ken Yellis, “Examining the Social Responsibility of Museums in a Changing World,” Artes Magazine (November 13, 2011), http://www.artesmagazine.com/?p=7046