These days, when museums make it into popular conversation it’s a cause for celebration in the community. As we face increasing competition for leisure time and new challenges in audience engagement due to emerging technologies and millennial burnout, among other factors, it’s significant to find museums breaking through the noise. In 2018, though, we were on a roll, with two big cultural moments that had audiences buzzing and took the internet by storm. Visitorship to the Louvre (and Instagram photos of those visits) spiked in the wake of Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s “Apes**t” video set in the museum, and after a high-profile scene confronting colonial collections in Black Panther, we saw current and prospective visitors begin to question some museum practices. These works which have made it into the mainstream aren’t just raising awareness, they are increasing visitorship and making bold statements—statements that are perfectly suited for open dialogue in museums.
As a museum studies scholar and communications professional who’s worked at some of the nation’s most-visited survey museums in New York City as well as community-oriented museums in Austin, Texas, I invite museum professionals to reconsider how they use popular culture and media to help visitors navigate complex, historically fraught issues such as repatriation, cultural appropriation, and under-representation. Popular culture can facilitate difficult conversations and help the discussion flow openly both ways, between visitor and museum, to gain valuable insights and inform audience-centered strategies that increase inclusivity and maintain relevance. With today’s volatile political climate and the proliferation of “fake news” and social media bots, I believe people are searching for authenticity and safe spaces to discuss controversial topics. As distrust becomes pervasive, it’s crucial for museums to lay their political histories on the table and to uphold their promise to serve as community forums. Whether discussions take place in person or online, or even online during a museum visit, museum educators and administrators should leave space for visitors to share their observations and opinions. Staff should then create a record of these observations and opinions, and implement key takeaways in future programming, communications, and even exhibition design. For further insight, they should follow media reactions to popular culture events like Black Panther and “Apes**t” that galvanize discussion of social issues.Skip over related stories to continue reading article
Both of these moments in popular culture were striking in the way they sparked debates over museum practices and contemporary social issues in mainstream media, particularly when it came to the topic of racial justice. In the 2018 film Black Panther, one of the lead characters carries out a heist in a stark white museum gallery filled with African art and artifacts. This lead character, a young black man in casual attire, has a conversation with a curator, a middle-aged white woman wearing a tailored suit and name badge. He inquires about the provenance of a specific object and the curator responds confidently in a British accent, listing facts such as dates, locations, and tribe names in a self-assured tone. When the man refutes some of the facts surrounding one object, mentioning that it was taken by British soldiers from another location than what she identifies, the curator is unsettled. The man continues to ask, “How do you think your ancestors got these? You think they paid a fair price? Or did they take it like they took everything else?” The man then proceeds with the heist, stealing objects that, in his perspective, were already stolen. This one short scene brings to the forefront issues of ethical acquisition, repatriation, diversity, and the relationship between curators and museum visitors.
Museums can use a scene like this to start a conversation about these subjects, using examples from their own collections. These discussions could then be used to help the museum adjust its own policies and visitor interaction strategies to be audience-responsive. Renowned museum expert Dr. John H. Falk found, through his interviews with museum visitors, that people often visit museums to fulfill identity-related needs—people are seeking out museums as leisure experiences that affirm their values and reflect their taste. Creating forums for discussion that explore visitors’ interests and values is increasingly important.
In The Carters’ “Apes**t” video, powerful black protagonists traverse the Louvre. Beyoncé and Jay-Z strike power poses in front of works like the Mona Lisa — perhaps the greatest icon of Western art — the Winged Victory of Samothrace, and an Egyptian sphinx, all in monumental halls with gilded ceilings, empty and echoing. At the end of the video, screen time is devoted to a painting of a black woman, Marie-Guillemine Benoist’s Portrait of a Negress (1980), which is one of if not the only prominently featured works by a female artist.
In the six-minute music video, powerful black celebrities stand in front of prominently displayed works featuring white subjects, predominantly created by white male artists, in a traditionally white space. This juxtaposition is emphasized by the emptiness of the hallways, which is striking for anyone who has visited The Louvre amidst throngs of tourists.
Museum educators can use a video like this to explore complex questions with visitors, such as why, in the largest museum in the world, are there not more representations of black people as heroes? Why aren’t there more women artists featured in the collection? Why are certain works elevated through prominent placement in the museum, while others are not?
One way to build this into museum engagement strategies is to incorporate popular media in programming; for instance, showing clips from Black Panther and “Apes**t” as part of a symposium on black representation in museums, or in a dedicated space in the galleries for an exhibition on repatriation. (You could take this one step further by incorporating reactions from journalists and a livestream of social media comments from visitors.) Black Panther and Beyoncé may be draws for both new and returning visitors who feel more comfortable with these works than the works in the museum. Pop culture references can serve as hooks for complex and layered conversations, and they can exemplify how museums are represented in the public imagination today. And these conversations don’t have to take place in the physical space. Museums can build on conversations that are already happening all the time on social media, meeting their visitors where they are and engaging them in ways they prefer to be engaged. Museums can battle long-held perceptions of elitism by showcasing “commercial” art and “high” art side by side, while fostering deep and meaningful discussion in support of their educational missions.
Museums have some of the most flexibility for experimentation among educational institutions. They can bridge difficult subjects, try new things, and, because they have ample opportunity for direct feedback from their audiences and plenty of data, they can actively adjust their methods and strategies when they are not effective. It all comes down to talking to visitors, in person or online, to understand audience perceptions and desires. Why not talk to visitors about the things they are talking to their friends about, and the ways those subjects connect to what’s going on in the museum? Why not engage in conversations on Reddit or Twitter, and encourage visitor feedback and dialogue by posting a unique hashtag, which serves as a call-to-action, in the galleries?
Since the dawn of museum history; politics, power dynamics, wealth, war, and questionable provenance have been part of the story. But from their earliest history to today, the definitions of a museum have largely stayed the same, highlighting that they are educational, public-serving institutions. Museums can simultaneously address their complicated histories and carry out their core missions by using media such as popular film, music videos, and social media commentary to engage and grow their audiences.
About the author:
Stacey Ingram Kaleh holds an MA in Museum Studies from New York University and a BS in Advertising from The University of Texas at Austin. An expert in re-branding and advocate for accessibility, she has over a decade of experience in museum and non-profit communications. Kaleh currently serves as Chief Communications Officer at The University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture. She previously worked at the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin, Texas, where she penned the tagline “Curiosity Welcome” and led the museum’s Brand Champion Team. Kaleh co-chaired Austin Museum Day from 2014-2016, working with 44 Austin-area museums to quadruple sponsorship funding, earn media placements, and increase visitorship from 30,000 to approximately 40,000 for the city’s free museum day. She contributed to the AAM 2016 session, “75 Ideas in 75 Minutes: Fresh Ideas for Audience Engagement,” and served on the keynote panel at the 2016 Story of Texas Workshop, “Know Thyself…and Thy Neighbor,” hosted by the Bullock Texas State History Museum and Texas Historical Commission.