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Museopunks Episode 31: Are Museums “Safe Spaces for Unsafe Ideas?”

Category: Influence of Museums

Since the mid-1990s, it has been received wisdom that museums are, or should be, “safe spaces for unsafe ideas.” But is this true? Are museum safe spaces? And do they really deal in unsafe ideas? In this episode, Elaine Heumann Gurian, who is credited with first expressing this idea, helps us unpack whether it continues to make sense in museums today.

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Headshot of Elaine Heuman Gurian with short dark and silver hair wearing a pink shirt. Elaine Heumann Gurian is a consultant/advisor to museums that are beginning, building or reinventing themselves, writer and lecturer to many museum studies programs worldwide. She grew up in Queens, NY, was an art teacher in elementary school, and to her surprise, began her unplanned museum career in 1969 in a mobile crafts unit in Boston after the death of Martin Luther King. Since that time, she has served as senior staff to museums interested in visitor focus and inclusion, as a Deputy Assistant Secretary at the Smithsonian Institution, and since 1993, as the senior consultant to many national and memorial museums under construction around the world. Gurian serves as visiting faculty member to many museum graduate programs and middle management training institutes. Gurian thrives in association politics holding many elected positions. Her writings are widely published and included in many academic courses.

Show Notes

On safe spaces: Public Galleries Summit, Sydney, March 2018

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Elaine Gurian

Presenting Sponsor

Museopunks is presented by the American Alliance of Museums.

Graphic Design of the Museopunks logo is by Selena Robleto.


Twitter: @museopunks


Suse Anderson:  Good day, and welcome to Museopunks, the Podcast for the Progressive Museum. My name is Suse Anderson and I will be your host today as we explore the boundary-pushing practices in museums. In March this year, Courtney Johnston posted online the notes of a talk she’d given at the public gallery summit in Sydney, Australia. At the heart of her talk was an interrogation about the fundamental role of museums in the world. It questioned the often repeated line that museums are safe spaces for unsafe ideas.

Reading her post was deeply unsettling for me because it brought into question how I understand museums as social institutions. But it also resonated with me, given the conversations we’ve covered here on Museopunks in recent months, which often lead to a conclusion that there are many people for whom museums are not safe spaces and many ideas that are still too unsafe to be held and discussed within our institutional walls. The line, museum are safe spaces for unsafe ideas in some ways seems untrue or too simplistic in both of its parts.

So, I wanted to speak today with the woman who was credited with coining that phrase, Elaine Heumann Gurian, to try to unpack what that concept meant when it was first originated and what it means today. And if it continues to be true today. What I discovered is that there are many more complex thoughts that tie into this question than I first imagined. So, let’s get into it. This for me has been one of those conversations that leaves me, my breath was taken away when having this conversation. So, I hope you enjoy it and find it as interesting and rewarding as I did.

Elaine Heumann Gurian is a consultant and advisor to museums and visitor centers that are beginning, building or reinventing themselves. She grew up in Queens, New York, was an art teacher in elementary school. And to her surprise, began her unplanned museum career in 1969 in a mobile crafts unit in Boston after the death of Martin Luther King. Since that time, she has served as senior staff to museums interested in visitor focus and inclusion as a deputy assistant director at the Smithsonian Institution. And since 1993, as a senior consultant to many national and memorial museums under construction around the world.

Gurian serves as visiting faculty member to many museum graduate programs and Middle Management Training Institute. She thrives in association politics holding many elected positions, and her writings are widely published and included in many academic courses. Elaine, welcome to Museopunks.

Elaine Heumann Gurian: Thank you very much for inviting me.

Suse Anderson:  It is so so lovely to speak to you. I will admit that one of the academic courses that features some of your writings, some of the ones that I teach, so this is a thrill for me. So, I wanted to start with an idea, and it’s an idea that you’ve been credited with, although I gather from our correspondence in the lead up to this episode, may not be correctly credited with, which is this idea that museums should be safe spaces for unsafe ideas. This is a concept I’ve been thinking about a lot for some months and I’ve really been grappling with because it’s becoming more and more clear to me, the more I spend time looking at visitor experience in museums, that museums really don’t feel like safe spaces for many, many people.

So I was wondering if you could start by unpacking that idea and how it was credited to you if you didn’t actually make that statement. Do you know where that did originate from?

Elaine Heumann Gurian: It originated in Australia at the Australian Museums Conference. I said something like that, but not as good alliteration. I like that it’s credited to me and I get surly if it’s credited to someone else but I didn’t actually say it. But, I’ve been thinking the same as you about how to unpack that because I’m not sure I believe it anymore given the political life that we have.

Let me start by talking about the thing I’m the most concerned about and then we’ll go back and figure out how this works into that. What I’m most concerned about is how America is going to heal. And in that regard, what does inclusion mean when inclusion really has to include supporters of the side that we’re not on. I find myself thinking that we have been talking about inclusion by hand picking who we were interested in including and not who we were not interested in including. I certainly feel guilty about that.

So, safe space for unsafe ideas. Safe space means everybody is welcome. I write a lot about strangers in safe spaces being able to see each other and how I think that is the foundation of urban peace. And then it’s not credited enough, just the very act of seeing, not interacting, but seeing each other and being able to observe the humanity of others is an essential part of the really most basic part of civility and peacefulness. So I write about what that might mean in terms of a museum building.

So if we look at safe spaces, what I’m really talking about is a place where somebody feels they can enter, and when they leave, they will be physically intact. I mean, in the most basic way that their decision to walk over the threshold will not in any way threaten them physically.

Suse Anderson:  Yeah. One of the papers that you wrote or speeches that you’ve given was around that idea of threshold fear and I found that a really influential paper for me.  It’s one of the ones that I share with my students time and time again because you talk about the physical and programmatic barriers that make it difficult for the uninitiated to experience the museum. I think at the heart, that’s the start of this conversation, is what are the barriers that museums erect whether deliberately or not that make it difficult for visitors to come into a museum but also to then feel comfortable in that space. Would you agree that that’s sort of where we’re starting at?

Elaine Heumann Gurian: Yeah, but I’d start even further back, which is to now suggest that museums have an obligation in the public sphere and that what museums have done, and I think intentionally is to think their front door is the entrance to a private space. And legally, that may be actually true. And the legality of it offers museums much legal protection in terms of acting out. People who are picketing inside may not be allowed to picket inside and have to picket outside for example. Or people who are leafleting inside might be legally expelled to be outside.

So, I have found the legal definition of it being a private space where it was at The Holocaust Museum useful, especially when one wants to talk about action that is violent, harmful to the safety of others.

But metaphorically, public space is very different than the lobby of a private space. And the very act of entering into a private space requires a certain kind of self-confidence. I like to say that I trained my grandchildren to enter the Ritz Carlton to use the bathroom by looking like we belong there. I mean, it’s a bravado act because I know where the public toilet, I know where the toilet is but it’s not public.

Suse: Yes. Getting into this then, does that mean, I mean, I still think of museums as public spaces. Am I thinking about museums wrong just conceptually? Are museums not actually public spaces?

Elaine Heumann Gurian: Well, conceptually, you and I agree. I think of museums not only as public spaces but I think they have an obligation to be public spaces and that their conscious effort to be part of the public space is a necessary ingredient for public safety. But, I think museums generally, when you, using your word unpacked, think of their front door as the beginning of private space of intentional use space of entering space, and not as part of the public square.

Suse Anderson:  Well then, does that change how we, as far as we writ large, how we conceive of then the role of museums fundamentally? If we are thinking about then the museum as maybe conceived of by the public as a public space but actually acting as a private entity, does that fundamentally start to shift how we then need to think about what museums are and do and the purpose they serve?

Elaine Heumann Gurian: Absolutely. That’s where I am right now. Absolutely. I think museums intentionally or unintentionally have believed that their offerings are valuable in the public sphere but that you have to pass some requirements to enter their space. I disagree with that. And at the same time, I’m deeply almost obsessively focused on what is civility in the public realm. I’m not interested in the old-fashioned definition of anarchy where all behaviors are acceptable.

I’m quite unhappy with members of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party who are now harassing the opposition while they eat dinner. I don’t think that’s useful in the public realm. I’m unclear about what is, how do we train civility, especially when I don’t mean the transfer of etiquette of the upper class to the lower class and when I made some lateral transfer of community acceptance of behavior that starts off being specific to one culture or another.

And that is very complicated and we don’t have any system of that. But you can see some of the changing, the easiest place to look at that is how much, how the library has gone from, we all have to be quiet in all spaces all the time to we now have community spaces, and if you want to be quiet, we have a special quiet room. That’s the kind of change in a community asset that I’m very interested in.

Suse Anderson:  Yeah. When we were first emailing to set up this episode, you mentioned that you often write that you’ve wanted to build a museum that your mother would go to because as a German Jewish immigrant, during the time of the Holocaust, she found all institutions to be dangerous. And it seems to me with this erosion of trust in institutions and ultimately the erosion of the public sphere and public spaces where people do feel comfortable necessarily to be having I think quite difficult conversations, museums have retained a greater share of public trust than a lot of other institutions.

But, I know that you have been thinking about what these, the multiple layers of activity that go into creating this idea of civility for strangers, and that’s also about being welcoming and about creating inclusion in museums and in public institutions. You’ve just mentioned the library becoming a place for sort of community voice and community spaces first and then quiet reading second. What are the other types of activities that you then see in museums that would help make that civility for strangers more open, more appropriate, more acceptable?

Elaine Heumann Gurian: I turn out to be much more conservative than I expected about subject matter choice. I’m working now, fascinatingly, for me, on the Museum of the Euromaidan. It’s the museum of the revolution in Kiev, Ukraine that changed the country from Russian leaning to Western-leaning. That revolution ended five years ago and on the partisans of that revolution, the actual partisans or are under the help of the current government building the museum of the Euromaidan.

And so, I said to them just two weeks ago, you have two choices about your exhibition. You can write an exhibition, produce an exhibition in which there are good guys and bad guys, and you were the victors, and you can all celebrate about how you overcame, it’s a David and Goliath story and you guys all will be happy. But it won’t heal the country because the bad guys are alive and are citizens of your country. So what’s your plan?

The director surprising me because this is a brand new revolution said to me, we cannot do that. We must include the other people. We must include the notion that freedom includes people then we don’t agree with. Then we will have to find, they’re called Berkut. We will have to find members of the opposition who are armed and use bullets that we can talk to and present in the museum.

That’s very, very unusual. Museums of memorial tend to set up this duality that they are moral stories of good guys and bad guys, which leads to a country not healing. And reconciliation usually takes decades. So I’m really interested in how we in our exhibition choice are already mindful of what is reconciliation going to look like. Because this current administration at some point unless it really does destroy our democracy has to end, and we really do have to heal this country back into some form where diversity was thought of as a progressive next. I don’t see any other way of doing that than including the voices in some civil manner right from the beginning.

Suse Anderson:  Yeah. In some of your recent talks, you’ve been speaking about museums embracing complexity and including multiple outcomes in exhibitions as a museum norm. I think you’re just giving an example of some of the ways that that can start to work in practice, which is explicitly not seeing stories as good and bad, but actually, maybe more just embracing the humanity at stake in all of us and acknowledging that we all have all of these features within ourselves.

It sounds incredibly difficult in terms of using that as a storytelling feature. Museums still only have limited space and limited resources. How do we embrace complexity at a practical level?

Elaine Heumann Gurian: You’re asking all the hard questions. I usually ask the hard questions and don’t always have any answers. I have a partial answer to the complexity issue. And it goes as follows. If you think of our objects as data and you think of the information or direction that we want to tell a story about our object as only one of the data points, and everybody easily agrees to that. You can do multiple exhibitions about any object and all of them can be accurate. Then I think we should enter our exhibition by producing the same exhibition we always produced, and then having layers and layers of alternative technique, most of it invisible, that allows people to bypass the story if they want and use the object as data for a construction of their own.

And that’s most easily seen when you go to a museum in which they are enthusiasts, car museums. The enthusiasts never use the story because the story is written for the novice and the enthusiast is really interested in some light bulb or key joint or something that they know much more about than almost anyone. And so, they use the raw data for their own purposes. What they don’t get is to tell us about what they have found. We haven’t included them as the experts that they are. So they happily go in and do what they want to look at and leave. It’s not hard anymore for them to be included in some database which is not only visible when you want to see it.

So, I think we have all the techniques. What we don’t have is a willingness to think that the public is smart enough to do with our objects as they will. We still retain this stern teacher lead quality. This is this and we will tell you what you should know about.

I don’t want to stop that particularly, but I certainly want to soften the edges. This is a this for those who wanted to go down that path, but here are 14 other simple ways you can reuse it by recombining it mostly technologically in ways that are useful for you.

Suse Anderson:  Yeah, I think that’s really interesting. It’s one of the things I’ve been grappling with myself as I think about the evolution of museum storytelling, as I think about museum technology, which is the space I came in and participatory culture in museums at the same time, as we’re living in the sort of post-truth environment where things can easily be dismissed as being true or not true or used or not used.

And I’m really trying to grapple with or make sense of how we have shared frameworks for understanding but also come to a space where we acknowledge and include the multitudes of perspectives that are there, the multitudes of truth that we have that surround our objects. I think trying to figure out how we embrace both of those realities is a really interesting challenge at the moment that I don’t have any answers to but I’m really curious how people thinking about and grappling with these ideas.

Elaine Heumann Gurian: Well, one of the things in a more civil society that we’re going to have to deal with, Pat Moynihan famously said, “You’re entitled to your own opinion, but you’re not entitled to your own facts.” If you translate that to say that the object is a fact but that everything about it is an opinion, then that’s fascinating. We can start to say that to the public, that this is a creation without, clearly a creation. This is a real thing. But what it means and what it coheres to and where it gets connected has really multiple trails and I think the public might be interested in that if we started to teach them the ways to do that. It’s a little like Google. I mean, everybody now knows how to use Google. And they start with an idea and then wander about. I just think museums can figure this out.

Suse Anderson:  Yeah, I really like that idea. So I just want to go back to something you mentioned right at the start of the show. You were talking about inclusion and that maybe museums have been a little bit too blinkered in the way that they have been defining or thinking about what inclusion means. Could you unpack that a little bit further for us?

Elaine Heumann Gurian: Yeah. And thank you for asking because now you and I are about to unpack in a journey that isn’t totally clear to me. It’s very clear that there is huge overlap in the humanity of all American citizens or in humanity altogether. But, it means that the rhetoric of this overlap has to be more prominent than the rhetoric of the non-overlap part of the story. And that suggests to me that both sides have to acknowledge that there’s partial truth.

I mean, I use the abortion issue all the time at least for myself. Having an abortion I think is for some the best possible choice of terrible choices. It isn’t a good choice. It’s never a good choice, and it does terrible things to a woman’s body and to a woman’s psyche. It is a very difficult choice to be made. If we started to say that given all the bad choices of a personal scene, this is the one I choose. That’s an different rhetoric than women should be free to make choice, full stop, without discussing that that’s a painful complicated and very difficult decision for a woman. What would happen if the terms of that then started to be where we agreed.

What we don’t agree with is the ultimate decision making among bad choices. That’s not the way it’s framed. And would we see each other’s humanity better if we started from the part where we agreed rather than the point where we disagreed?

Suse Anderson:  Right. So it’s sort of looking for the points of commonality first and then ways of exploring divergence and using that as a way of sort of trying to create a framework against polarization ultimately.

Elaine Heumann Gurian: Yes. I’m currently thinking that the museum exhibition as a format can be one of the places, we’re back to unsafe ideas which is the part we didn’t unpack. And that the exhibition itself can start at the commonalities and work outward rather than at the extremes and work inward or never work inward.

I’m watching Ukraine trying to struggle with their role in Babi Yar. Babi Yar was a place where the Germans killed 24,000 Jews in a 48 hour period by firing squad. It’s walking distance from downtown Kiev. It’s, I don’t know, 70 years, 80, 90 years later, the struggle really is that everybody had to know about it. The notion of collaboration and fear and bystanderness, is so difficult for a nation that they haven’t been able to figure out what to do with it. This didn’t happen only by Germans using firing squad though. In fact, only Germans pulled the triggers.

Even though I’m a Jew of that era, I have enormous sympathy for the pressures of a subjugated people in what must have been a terrible set of decisions. I hope I would have made a different decision. But because nobody can figure out how to come to grips with the humanity of this unspeakable crime, 90 years later, there still is no marker that says here 24,000 Jews were killed.

Suse Anderson:  One of the things I’ve been thinking about a lot personally this year and over the last couple of years is how to stay open and vulnerable and not be closed off to different perspectives or the people who hold different perspectives but also to continue forward and to find ways to, I guess to seek knowledge and to seek understanding, but also, doing so is often hurtful. And I think what you’re talking about is that process in a larger context, in an institutionalized context of being open and being vulnerable to these things that can actually be quite painful but also that are very personal without wanting to damage or hurt the other people who are also in a similar situation. And that difficulty, I don’t know whether it is something that institutions can enable.

From your experience, you’ve worked with so many memorial sites. What are the ones that have really helped sort of embrace these moments of trauma and helped promote that healing?

Elaine Heumann Gurian: Well, the one that always stands out which I haven’t worked in is Nelson Mandela’s ability to come forward and try to put a healing government together. And the fact that he didn’t do it 100%, one of the important elements, I’ve just worked with 17-year-olds at Interlochen, is to accept that we can’t have perfection and that 95% of our effort being good should give us satisfaction. One of the real anti-civility things is our training of exquisite criticism which I think is really, really destructive. We really do need to look at effort and how much people get right. So Nelson Mandela got a whole lot right even in the midst of a whole lot wrong.

There’s a museum I’ve just seen about the trauma in Medellín, Columbia that is really quite amazing about the human condition. So, I think it is possible, but let me suggest as I did before, I’m not talking about anarchy. And so I’m now comforted with the notion that each of us have to perfect the edge of our own personal life called this far and no further. That there is a no saying we need to do, and the no saying has real consequences.

I mean, that’s the issue of saying no, that’s the issue for bystanders. But this far and no further is what they mean about our moral core. And it’s completely personal and I cannot presume to have anybody else’s moral core but I long ago decided this far and no further is an internalized clock guideline in which you in your workplace and in your citizenry say, I’m sorry, I’m not doing that.

What’s been the most disappointing about the American political scene is we don’t have enough of that going on.

Suse Anderson:  One of the major structural influences in museums is obviously their funding structure and their boards. How then this idea of no and no further, how do we simultaneously recognize the power of funders and sort of the core funders, there’s a relatively small number of core funders in a lot of institutional spaces and the donor class, but also maintain healthy independence from them. And this is often much more museum leaders, how do they have that sense of no and no further in those decision makings?

Elaine Heumann Gurian: It’s the exact right question to ask, the exact right follow-on question. And the simplest answer is also the most difficult answer, and that is you have to be willing to give up your job. This far and no further varies by everybody and, one hopes you also at the same time are perfecting diversionary tactics that allow funders who are putting pressure on you to violate your own internal core. You have figured out some other methodology to keep them happy that still is within your wheelhouse. But ultimately, you have to be willing to lose your job. You cannot protect your job and the livelihood and all costs and have, and be able to say no. I don’t know anything else to do.

On the other hand, I also want to say that this collusion in which we are as obligated to the super rich, and they in return feel, some of them, only some of them feel quite entitled to push you past your moral core is a structural problem. And we haven’t been willing to take that on. In most of the nations in the world, the museum sector is not private. When they listen to what goes on in American they are surprised.

Having said that, the government sector controlling museums cans a set of its own problems that are completely similar. So it isn’t totally a better system at all because personal privilege comes with power and it puts you to do similar things. It is this organization structure in which people by virtue of their personal power or their personal wealth are willing to subvert an organization. And at that point, it is all up to individuals who make decisions. And whether they can figure out an alternate route, I try very hard to help them so we don’t have to get to this, what I guess in Congress would be called the nuclear option. You have to personally be willing to have that in your mind as you set about trying any diversionary action that you can think of.

Suse Anderson:  Yeah. It’s funny, one of my classes that I teach, which is a history and theory class, a museum history and theory class, we were talking just this week about where power exists in the museum and the fact that power can actually exist in all places because there are different ways of having power relationships. But, that’s not to say that you have all the power all the time or just there are ways that you can use your power. But sometimes, that requires sacrifice as you say. Sometimes it is ultimately the choice of, if I don’t agree with this thing, then I actually need to leave and that may or may not be possible for you if you have other employment options, family backup, those kinds of things.

And so that sense of what power looks like, and where it exists is a really complex thing that of course, then shapes how people are able to influence and interact with museums.

Elaine Heumann Gurian: It is, but if you look at the Holocaust analog, which is the Righteous Among the Christians, that’s a whole group of people that are voted in every year by Yad Vashem who risked saving people. They made a decision in which their life was at stake. And there’s been a lot of research about this altruistic demand of humans as well. So, there is a kind of yin and yang in the human condition in which people make decisions regardless of the backup they have. They make it at different places. It isn’t a decision that they make casually or early. And therefore, this far and no further is a moveable feast. But, there is ultimately a decision if you’ve tried everything else where you say, I can’t live that way.

Suse Anderson:  Elaine, you came to museums in 1969, which was as it says in the bios, after the death of Martin Luther King, and I think really in the wake of another year that significantly reshaped American society. To what extent do you think your career in museums and your perspectives have been shaped by that time that you entered the sector?

Elaine Heumann Gurian: A lot. But the thing that shaped my entire career is the Holocaust and the fact that I was an American born child but I was seven when the war was over and I had immigrant parents who were obsessed with saving their relatives.

That said, I wasn’t a political activist until that time. I didn’t know the tools. So, the Martin Luther King assassination was at the same time as the Vietnam protests. I entered in the Vietnam protest side about that time. What I learned about that time when entering was what the tools were and I entered on the political activist side. I started working for Kevin White who was the mayor of Austin because he wanted to keep his city safe a year after the riots. And then he gave us the Institute of Contemporary Art. So it had been in receivership and closed. So that all of us who went to the Museum of Contemporary Art, which is now a quite famous Contemporary Art Museum, were activists in an unheated building.

So I started way out in left field. I wasn’t trained in museums and this all started in that sector. And then I went to Boston Children’s Museum and worked for Michael Spock, the son of Ben Spock, one of the most famous activists of the time. So I didn’t enter into a significant centrist museum until I became the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Museums in the Smithsonian, which came as a shock to me and I think to them.

So I entered way at the top of the centrist museum from a 20-year career on the left wing already.

Suse Anderson:  How different was your thinking then at that point from what you were seeing I guess in the mainstream of museums? And have you seen shifts in the sector since that time?

Elaine Heumann Gurian: The answer is very complicated. The people on the inclusion side of the museum world are there by virtue of their political commitment, and the stream of the left way of the museum world is as old as the stream of the right traditional museum. So, Barnum, has a museum at the same time Museums of Kings and Queens are starting. And the Newark Museum, John Cotton Dana is happening at the same time as other big places.

So this impulse is always there just like the impulse of changing the education sector is always there. And at the same time, the museum world where the objects are related to power and acquisitiveness and control are always there. So this struggle is an ongoing one. It’s always been there.

That said, there is a kind of cross current of contagion. So people adopt technique from one sector to another. And the question is always, is that progressive technique from a philosophic point of view or is it window dressing to look progressive? And you can only tell that by watching other, many more subtle things to know which is which.

Suse Anderson:  When we started, you mentioned that you now feel this new urgency around civility and the museum’s role in promoting it. Moving forward, what do you see as being the most essential aspect of, the fundamental role of museums, but also the tools for helping museums create or address the civil society.

Elaine Heumann Gurian: I wish I knew. For me who grew up during the Holocaust but safe in America, it is unthinkable that American democracy is in the state that it is. It is unthinkable that I didn’t see it coming, that my fellow citizens, maybe a half of my fellow citizens are as angry about things that I’m glad about and that we are so polar opposites. I find it flummoxing besides being alarmed. I think the museum sector has something important to play in this. And it is because of what you said Suse which is that it’s one of the institutions that’s trusted.

Now you have to unpack trusted because it’s trusted but not attended, which is interesting. So it’s trusted by people who also trust having a church they don’t go to. It is a foundation stone for society but not one they find effective.

So I think the question is, how can museums effectively not just continue their own business but effectively enter into the healing process of strangers who actually don’t know each other. I mean, I don’t know a single person who voted unlike me. As the pundits like to point out now, that’s alarming. How come I don’t know any of them? And so rather than feeling satisfied that I know only the good guys, I am deeply interested in how it is that I could know the opposition in terms that I would find civil and humanizing. If museums are not thinking about this every single day, I don’t know what they should be thinking about.

America is in danger of coming apart and America looked like a place that couldn’t possibly come apart. I didn’t even have it in my calculus. We knew how to respectfully even though heatedly disagree. We knew how to protest, though sometimes that got violated. But mostly, we believed in the bedrock of American democracy. I think there is lots of evidence that the bedrock is not holding. So museums have to figure out their role, and I think their role is subtle filled with silt, filled with modeling. It’s filled with entering into areas of healing. I wish I thought it would be really effective but I think it will be only partly effective. Nevertheless, I think we have to try and figure out how to have this country hold together.

Suse Anderson:  Yeah. Elaine, in some ways, this is the moment for us to finish this conversation, but at the same time, I don’t want to finish this conversation either because I think we are at this point, much like you, where these are the essential conversations that we need to be having. If people do want to keep talking with you about this if they want to find out more about what you’re thinking, if they just want to have a conversation that brings up nuance and questions rather than simple answers, how can they find you or get in contact with you?

Elaine Heumann Gurian: Oh, I love talking to people. My grandchildren think I know everybody in the world because I talk to total strangers.

Suse Anderson:  My husband thinks I know every Australian in the world but that might just be because he thinks Australia is a very small place and because mostly we do know each other.

Elaine Heumann Gurian: My website has all my writings and they are all available. All my PowerPoints are in SlideShare, and they’re all available, and my email is And anybody who wishes to write to me is more than free to do that. In the world where you live in your head, having more friends who also want to live in their heads is a rare treat, so I look forward to talking to anybody about any idea.

Suse Anderson:  Elaine, it has been such a pleasure, and for me, I’ve been following your work for so many years. To have you on Museopunks is a thrill and I’m so grateful that you have spent the time with us.

Elaine Heumann Gurian: Thank you so much for inviting me. I had a very good time myself.

Suse Anderson:  Elaine, thank you so, so much for joining me on Museopunks this month. It has been so useful to get a sense of your perspectives given that you’ve been at the heart of progressive practice in museums for almost 50 years.

Museopunks is presented every month by the American Alliance of Museums. You can connect with me on Twitter@Museopunks or check out the extended show notes at And of course, you can subscribe anytime at iTunes or Stitcher.


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