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On the Power of Words

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog
 I’m still catching up with sessions I was unable to attend at the AAM conference in May. (Recordings are available here, and attendees were emailed a code that can be used for free downloads.) One session that received a lot of buzz was devoted to the power of words. (Most recently, it was mentioned in this post by Christina Newton on the VAM blog.) It was moderated by Joe E. Heimlich, co-director of COSI’s Center for Research and Evaluation, and senior researcher, Lifelong Learning Group (also professor Emeritus at The Ohio State University). In today’s post Joe shares some lessons he learned from the “hallway discussions” that followed the session.
I was fortunate to participate in a lively panel discussion at the AAM annual meeting last month, one that involved the audience and led to a lot of energy and individual insights. The topic?  Language and the challenges we have in museums with language. In “What Do We Really Mean? The Power of Museum Jargon,” we explored lots of words used in the struggle to gain clarity in language that communicates across disciplines, types of museums, expertise, and experiences. 

After the session I was approached by Seph Rodney, who was attending the meeting on an AAM fellowship. It was a typical hallway conversation with both of us on our way to somewhere else, but we each felt we could give a minute. However, that minute was not spent in communicating clearly–it turned into two conversations with each of us thinking we had made our points, when in fact we parted having heard two completely different things.


Seph was also covering the meeting for the blogazine HyperAllergic (which I was not aware of at the time of our conversation). He wrote a blog post after the meeting in which he took issue with how the word “intersectionality” was addressed in the session as well as in our hallway discussion. Some general, righteous anger ensued on social media. 

I find it ironic that a conversation about a session on the importance of language resulted in such an unfortunate misunderstanding about language. The incident resulting from this miscommunication has come and gone and is of no issue. But I would like to share two important lessons I learned from this painful incident, lessons that we actually discussed in the session:


1.     Words borrowed from a discipline or practice where they are deeply meaningful often turn into meaningless words in other contexts. 

2.     When we think we are hearing what we want to hear, we stop paying attention to whether we are hearing what was meant. 

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Toward the first:  when I was asked about the meaning of “Intersectionality,” I responded in terms of its meaning in the context of the general work of museums. I am familiar with the term as used in gender, queer, feminist, and minority studies where it originated, and the powerful, highly relevant meaning it has there: an oversimplification of intersectionality is that an individual’s overlapping biological, social, and cultural identities (race, gender, sexual identity, class, ability, age, beliefs, heritage, etc.) intersect with the complex systems of related oppression, discrimination, and power issues. I thought I implied my belief that the word had no meaning when separated from that context in which no other word or phrase is adequate. For me, the misuse of the term lay in transporting it to a broader context where its meaning is simplified and where already existing, accurate labels (such as transdisciplinary or cross-cultural/cross world-view) exist for how the word is being used. In my head, I assumed the interpretation of my verbal shorthand would be “and therefore, the word is diminished by using it in these contexts, and its value is weakened through co-optation into these settings.”


Clearly I was wrong.


Which leads  to the application of the second lesson—I believe that Seph and I each  heard what we wanted to hear in our exchange. And neither of us provided a self-critical filter to challenge our assumptions. After all, it was a quick hallway conversation, and both of us were headed to the next thing on our agendas.


In our work we often cooperate, collaborate or partner with an array of individuals from different disciplines, experiences, and world-views. Language is a powerful tool for facilitating or hindering this work. In my hallway conversation, I failed to contextualize a word I was criticizing—and thereby opened the opportunity for Seph to interpret my criticism to be about the word as he understood it. In the session, we talked about the need to honor the use of words within professions where they have specific and technical meaning, even while challenging the broadening of those words into museum vernacular. And we talked about how often words cross practices or disciplines with very different, specific meanings in each practice or discipline and we tend to hear words through the way we individually use them.


It hurts to exit a session that revealed valuable insights like that only to immediately fall prey to the same, historical problems. Our world pushes us to work hard and fast; to think quickly and make decisions as we go. But the humanness of communication lies not in the expedited, precise language of any one perspective, but in opening up to discover the richness of experiences when they converge, and the delights and surprises of “shared language” when we learn it isn’t really shared.


Ultimately, the lesson I learned is that we may think hallway conversations are the most meaningful experiences we have at conferences—but perhaps they are not meaningful in the same way to all involved. I now see that in those quick conversations it is important to ask myself, “What am I hearing and how am I framing what I’m hearing into what I want to hear?” So next time you see me, stop and talk, and challenge me and let me challenge you to be purposively clear and share the moment, not what we think the moment was.




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1 Comment

  1. (I will address this comment to the poster Joe Heimlich)

    Dear Joe,

    I appreciate your thoughtful consideration of our conversation at the AAM, but I take issue with it in several regards. One, there’s a dog-whistle-level alert in your post that I think is conventional to public discourse in the US and I think ultimately unhelpful to getting groups that are at odds to come together. I say groups are at odds—something you don’t admit to—because as you mention, angry missives were relayed in the wake of publishing my post on the AAM conference. This alert is mentioned by you only parenthetically, when you say you were not aware that I wrote for Hyperallergic while we were conversing. True, I think I told you that I was a writer for them at the end of our conversation, but had I initially identified myself as such, why should that make a difference in what you conveyed? The only answer I can imagine is that you would have made your comments to me more politic and essentially less honest.

    You now say that we had a misunderstanding, two distinct conversations, but this seems like a rationalization to me. You said what you said about intersectionality—that it was a stupid-ass term—from your gut in answer to a straightforward question regarding why people laughed on two occasions when someone mentioned the term in your session. I think that’s where honest, open, crucial dialogue can occur: when the participants bargain in good faith setting out our understandings and ideas, instead of being evasive or equivocating. Unfortunately, any such honesty is seen in the hypercompetitive arena of public discourse as some kind “win” for one side, because admitting ugly opinions is seen as making oneself vulnerable. This is how we came to silly notions such as “hot take” soundbites. I’m not interested in embarrassing anyone. I’m interested in finding out whether the museum field really is prepared to accept the institution becoming more representative of the general public. What I heard sitting in on your session for a little time suggests to me that some institutions and their staffs are not.

    I think what you initially said succinctly explains why people laughed. As I initially surmised, their response exists somewhere on the continuum of incomprehension-derision-outright contempt. It is not a loss to drag uncomfortable positions out into the open where they can be dealt with. If people have responded to you only with judgment and condemnation, I am truly sorry that this happened.

    I find this post clarifying your now more nuanced position regarding the term, and my response to what you initially said about it, slightly troubling because you say things like “fall prey to the same historical problems” and “framing what I’m hearing into what I want to hear”. The use of these particular phrases suggests that you were victimized by my using our (very brief) conversation to paint a rupture in the field of museum work. And it suggests that I wasn’t really listening to you. I was and still am, listening critically. The truth is you don’t know what I wanted to hear. You might think I wanted something controversial so that I could write a saucier article. To be clear, what I wanted is precisely an answer to the question I posed to you that day at the conference: “why are people laughing at that term?” This doesn’t necessarily mean that those professionals in that room are hostile to notions of race and gender equality within museums staffs and boards. But if they are, the work that needs to be done really starts in these conversations, where you say what you really think and not shrink from the difficult conversations that ensue. I appreciate you answering here, and I write this in the spirit that we can push through difficulty to clarity.

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