Thursday, January 13, 2011

Postcards as a Call to Action: A Powerful, Political Participatory Experience at the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum

The best participatory projects are useful. Rather than just doing an activity, visitors should be able to contribute in a way that provides a valuable outcome for the institution and the wider museum audience. Finding legitimate ways for visitors to be of use is easier said than done. This week, I saw a great example at the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum that blew me away with its power and simplicity.

The Jane Addams Hull-House Museum is a small historic house dedicated to the story of Chicago’s progressive activists in the early 1900s. The participatory activity in question is part of the new Unfinished Business gallery, a room in which the museum engages with a contemporary issue related to the passion and work of Jane Addams and the historic Hull-House activist residents.

The current Unfinished Business exhibition focuses on the prison industrial complex. It has three main parts: graphic novel-style wall graphics about the history of Hull-House activism related to incarceration and youth imprisonment, an activity station focused on juvenile justice reform, and a second activity station focused on prisoners in solitary confinement at Tamms Supermax Prison. It is this station that grabbed my attention.

The station is a collaboration between the Museum and Tamms Year Ten, an advocacy group that supports prisoners and seeks to expose the injustice with which many are held in solitary confinement. A simple label explains that when Tamms opened in 1998, prisoners were only supposed to be held in solitary confinement there for one year. Ten years later, one-third of the prisoners were still there. Tamms Year Ten runs a number of projects that invite people to write to prisoners, send photographs of the outside world, and advocate for them. The Museum activity label begins:
The Tamms Poetry Committee came together after asking prisoners what people on the outside can do to alleviate the stress of prolonged solitary confinement.

"Send poems!" was one of the answers.
Museum visitors are invited to write poems on postcards and send them to Tamms prisoners. There is a set of books of poetry that visitors can copy from (recommended by the Museum's poet-in-residence), or they can write their own. Tamms Year Ten provides lists of prisoner names and addresses, and the Museum prints up address stickers that visitors can affix to their postcards. The Museum screens and mails the postcards to the prisoners. Unfinished Business curator Teresa Silva told me that only a handful of postcards have had to be removed for negative or off-topic comments. The majority are beautiful, thoughtfully-rendered postcards. I choked up just looking through a stack. The messages were lovely, but the real power came in the simple address stickers that connected the cards to real prisoners in solitary confinement.

Yes, this activity is political. But it is political in a way that fits right in with the Museum’s mission and history. The Hull-House activists were concerned with creating a compassionate criminal justice system, and that work is by no means “finished” business in this country. Just as visitors to the Monterey Bay Aquarium clamor to take real action to protect the oceans, visitors to the Jane Addams Hull-House respond positively to this opportunity to engage in a bit of progressive, compassionate activism.

From a design perspective, this activity is scaffolded for success. The political nature of the activity is overt, so participating visitors know what they’re getting into. The postcards say right on them “I am sending this poem in solidarity with you.” Furthermore, selecting and copying out a poem from a book is something that most anyone can do. People can decorate their poems as much or as little as they like, and those who choose to take a more creative route and write their own poems or letters are invited to do so. Like the best participatory projects, this postcard activity is constrained but not limiting. The Museum gives people the tools to engage confidently without prescribing the output.

And most powerfully, that output is something useful, something that matters not just to the museum or to other visitors, but to the world. Kudos to the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum for such an inspiring call to action.

Note: for more photos and explanation of this activity, please consult this blog post by curatorial assistant Teresa Silva.
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