How Can Museums Empower Communities? TACA Perforum

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog

Last month I had the honor of speaking on a panel organized by The Arts Community Alliance (TACA) in Dallas, hosted by the Nasher Sculpture Center. Every year TACA brings together speakers for Perforum: a Conversation to Advance Arts and Culture. This year’s Perforum examined how arts organizations can meet community needs. In today’s post I’m sharing a (lightly edited) transcript of the remarks I made. The embedded video at the bottom of the post is queued to start on my bit, but I encourage you to listen from the beginning as moderator Zannie Voss interviews Carlos Contreras, Director of Marketing and Innovation, City of Albuquerque; Jon Hinojosa, Artistic & Executive Director, SAY Sí San Antonio; Ken Tabachnik, Executive Director, Merce Cunningham Trust in NYC. They shared fascinating and compelling stories of their work with their communities, and it is well viewing.
–Elizabeth Merritt, VP Strategic Foresight and Founding Director, Center for the Future of Museums, American Alliance of Museums

As a futurist, what I’m doing is looking at what’s going on the world the trends that are shaping society and technology, the political trends, what’s happening out in the world and the ecological and economic trends, and I’m trying to see how that influences the opportunities for museums to do more good in their communities. So, for example, later this week I’ll be in Miami, and if you are a museum in Miami you might look at two trends: one, you might look at the increase in wealth inequality, and two, you might look at rising tides due to climate change and you might notice that Miami is facing a future in which they are worried about what’s being called “climate gentrification”. So you have property developers looking at formerly affordable diverse socio-economic neighborhoods and saying, “You know in twenty or thirty years that might be the new coastline, that’s going to be the hot coastal property maybe we should buy that up.” And it’s forcing people out of communities that their parents and grandparents had lived in for generations.

If you’re a museum in Mississippi you might look at the fact that the rate of obesity for children in the state is somewhere around 40%, with all of the implications that has in the long term for diabetes and heart disease and cancer. And you might say “What could we be doing to help children in Mississippi have access to affordable food and healthy food and not be residing in a food desert, or to know more about how they want to take care of themselves and be able to prepare food or activity? How can we help get them moving and do fun things and have positive body image so they’re not feeling shamed about this?”

Those are all of the ways in which I try and help museums look at the world around them and think of how they might respond. But it can be challenging. I’ll say as a museum person having worked in and with museums my whole adult life, I have decided after much reflection that museums are like belly buttons. I say this because there are two basic kinds—you have your “innies” and your “outies.”

“Innies” are museums that usually are started by people who are deeply passionate about some kind of stuff. So you have your transportation museums, you have the train guys—it’s usually guys—running these museums saying “These are the best things ever!” Or you have somebody who has a collection of paperweights and (I’m not making this up) they start a museum about paperweights. Sometimes it’s an art collector who has a beautiful collection of art, but the common theme here is a passion about that stuff that you’re sharing with the world. Which is great. It’s wonderful to share passion, but it’s starting from the inside, it’s saying “Look at this wonderful thing—how can I share it with the world?”

Whereas the “outies” tend to be formed by people who said “You know that’s something we need to help with, let’s go, solve that through [creating] a museum.” I think this is a great strategy. As an example, in the 1970s there was a big wave of founding children’s museums, a lot of them by people in the Junior League, who said there’s a need for early childhood development and good out of school experiences, and socialization, and enrichment, children’s museums are a good way to do that. [For this reason] you had a lot of children’s’ museums start around then.

Now, there are also museum “innies” that can change to “outies,” without radical plastic surgery. It’s a good thing too, because if you look at data from the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, you’ll see that over the past few decades involvement in traditional forms of art– museums or symphony orchestras or opera–that has been a slow and steady decline. If you look at the arts writ large, there’s been robust participation in more informal forms of art, salsa dancing, poetry slams, making rather than just watching, because a lot of people are taking up craft and arts themselves. Which is great, but it doesn’t reassure the museums who have their attendance going down. We just got the the last round of the survey of Public Participation in the Arts and for the first time since they started doing it, which was, I think in 2002, we’re seeing an uptick. I think it’s because more museums, many of which started as “innies,” are becoming “outies” through applying a number of strategies, and I’m going tell you a little bit about four of those strategies today.

One strategy is sharing authority, one is responding in real time to the events of the world around us, one is realizing that museums are inherently not neutral, and the fourth is the beginning to tackle the difficult work of decolonizing our practice as museums.

Look at sharing authority. This is a trend that’s driven in part by an underlying technology, the fact that we now have lots of ways to communicate very personally and immediately with people who come to museums, it’s not just they come in, they hear a lecture, they read a wall label. They have a phone in their pocket you can be talking to them over twitter, you can be listening to what they are saying on social media, you can invite them to contribute their opinions. For example back in 2008, you had the Brooklyn Museum of Art creating what I believe was the first crowdsourced photography exhibit, called Click. They put a call out and said, “What are the photos you like of your neighborhood, of this community?” And then people voted on their favorites and they did an exhibit.

You had in 2013, the Chicago History Museum saying to the community, “Hey we’re your museum. We’re about the history of Chicago what do you think the next big exhibit we do should be about?” They held a crowdsourced competition for topics, and then people voted on their favorite, and they now have the next major exhibit which opened in 2015, permanent exhibit, called “Chicago Authored” about the authors who originated in Chicago. Which, I have to say, is not the exhibit I would have thought the public chose, so that was kinda cool. Also in a very real but even deeper sense it’s reflecting a movement and approach that started in the 1990s, in the disability rights community which is sometimes called, “Nothing About Us Without Us.” It’s a shift not only to two way communication but sharing of authority, saying we’re not just talking about you—If you’re part of the story, you should be telling the story as well. That’s a process that is playing out in a lot of meaningful ways especially with some new museums that are beginning to tell the stories of previously unvoiced populations.

For example in the UK you have the Museum of Homelessness. I’m looking forward on this trip to learning more about the Dallas Museum of Street Culture. We’re starting to say it’s not just that you’re going to be an observer and say “Hey I see those people over there let’s talk about them,” it’s going to them and saying “How can we use our platform and resources to help you be in charge, to be the people telling the story reflecting what you think is important?”

The second thing that has been shaped and enabled by changes in culture and technology is the speed of the news cycle. It’s traditional in museums that a major exhibit can take 10 years to plan and put up. That’s great and it can be beautiful and very nuanced and deep. But if you’re on a ten-year cycle, you’re not really speaking to people about what happened in their neighborhood last year or yesterday. In 2014, when Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson, Missouri, the Missouri History Museum opened up to the city for a community forum to start processing the aftermath of that terrible event. In 2016, when Keith Lamont Scott was shot and killed by a police officer in Charlotte, NC, that was on Tuesday, September 20th, by Thursday night the Levine Museum of the New South had opened itself for a community forum talking about the shooting. And they took an exhibit they’d already been working on that was going to take them 3 years to put up, it was called, “K(no)w Justice, K(no)w Peace,” snd they had it up in 3 months because they knew the community needed that as a place to talk about and process these terrible events. Being willing to go and jump into a messy and hard conversation and say, “We may not get it right, we don’t have the wisdom of reflection over time to say this is what happened.” But to say, “We know we can help now with what is happening,” was a very profound shift.

I think that a necessary adjunct to that has been the realization that museums are in fact not neutral in their positions. This is something that really gives museums anxiety attacks. When they’re faced with the ability to tackle a topic some people may say, “Well can we do that or is that taking a position?” It’s kind of freeing to realize that the neutrality was an illusion to begin with. Every choice that went into making that museum, the things that you collected the place that you sited it, the people who were on the board of trustees, the people that you hired, the language that you used in the wall labels, those weren’t neutral, they merely were so deeply embedded in the worldview of who those people were that they didn’t see it as being a point of view. Being able to back up and realize that, I think frees museums to say “No, let’s make conscious choices, let’s be aware of what position we’re taking” and sometimes that requires being brave.

The Eastern State Penitentiary historic site outside of Philadelphia, is a prison museum, and for a lot of its existence it was the sort of place you’d go and you’d have the little frisson of “Oh this is the cell where Al Capone was imprisoned!” You know, that’s cool, and it’s history, but at some point they sat down and said, “Wow, what this site really reflects is the phenomenon of mass incarceration in the U.S.” Which is a huge problem in our society—It’s something that started after the civil war as a way of oppression that would replace slavery, it’s something that has shaped and wounded our communities. It has torn apart families, its damaging our economy, its undermining our ability to be a civil society. Let’s take that on, let’s really say, “If you’re going to come to a penitentiary, think about those issues that are reflected in what it was built to do, who it housed, and what’s still going on in the active criminal justice system.” So they built an exhibit where when you walked in you’re confronted by this huge red sign that says “Have you ever committed a crime?” And to get into the exhibit you have to either pass to the right or the left of the sign and thereby answer yes or no. I haven’t actually seen that exhibit but I think I’d have to sit there and think about it a while! And then they get more and more nuanced so it’s not a question just of have you committed a crime but how were you treated or not treated depending on who you were because justice is applied differentially in our society. There’s an example of a museum confronting, taking exactly who they were, and digging in and saying “Okay, neutrality’s an illusion let’s make a conscience choice about what we want to do with the position we’re taking.”

And then what I’m beginning to see museums being willing to take on is the very difficult practice of decolonizing their own practices. Any institution is a product of its history and the people who started it and the culture that gave rise to it, and museums are no exception. For that reason museums often have deeply embedded in their DNA the violence and injustice that are part of the history of the societies that formed them. It’s very difficult to surface that and confront it and figure out how to deconstruct it. Part of it is simply acknowledging that it’s there. Part of it is going back to this issue of sharing authority, so you have museums like the Abbe Museum in Maine saying to the indigenous leaders of their community, “You know this is your museum too, this is your history, come in and be part of the people saying what’s going to be done, how it’s going to be interpreted and teaching us how to talk about this.” Sometimes it’s going back and reflecting on how those histories are embedded in what you have. The Art Gallery of Ontario went back and they looked at the descriptive labels on their paintings, the titles on the paintings, and saying “Yes it’s true that the artist may have named this work “Indian Church,” but right there that’s erasing the history of the individual tribe and people whose culture is reflected in that building, so let’s try and be a little more nuanced and accurate and sensitive to how we talk about these things because words have power. How we tell the story to people is going to influence how they feel about what we’re showing them.”

Then you also have museums going back and saying “These are complicated histories of race and power as well.” For example the Worcester Art Museum went and looked at their American art galleries with all of these beautiful portraits of men and women in their fine clothes, carefully posed, and they said “You know, there’s so much unspoken that’s reflected in those portraits.The society and the economic system that gave those people the wealth to be able to dress like that and commission a portrait. The people who are not shown in most of the portraits who did the work behind the scenes.” So they went through a process of adding wall labels, they didn’t take away the original ones, they said “Let us tell you a little bit about the history of these people,” and many of them were slave-owners or made their wealth in industries that benefitted from slave labor. It’s surfacing those hidden histories and adding the facts to give people a more well-rounded view of the world because those portraits are a very narrow window and unless you help them look through the window into the world reflected behind it then they only see the surface.

I think all of these trends are more generally part of museums beginning to see themselves as universal basic assets that service their communities. They are looking inward and they are saying “Let’s deconstruct who we are. We have space, we have authority, we have influence, we have knowledge, we have reach. How can we put this in the service of the community and say, you tell us how can you use these assets in a way that serve your needs and bring yourselves up by being able to build your knowledge and your authority and your credentials and your economic power based on the assets we’ve collected.”

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