Tuesday, April 14, 2020

#KeepThePeopleDancing: Futures in Digital Engagement

This week, we're hearing from Adrienne Lalli Hills. I can't say when I met her, but I certainly remember knowing her. Adrienne is a rare person, true and strong and kind. I love hearing her share her ideas. She has the type of confidence and thoughtfulness that makes you listen. But, she also has an honesty where you know she is listening to you.

Here were her thoughts when I asked her to share her ideas about taking stock:
Author: Adrienne Lalli Hills (Wyandotte Nation)

While many of us might look to the 1918 pandemic as the last analog to this current crisis, the reality is that many marginalized communities have in the century since have endured systemic disease, hunger, and violence at degrees unimaginable to folks of privilege. It’s for this reason that I’ve found the Native community a particularly vital voice in this difficult period—after all, resistance and resilience are intrinsic elements of indigenous history and contemporary identity.

With many nations hit hard by the virus and events canceled, the epidemic has already levied a major economic, cultural, and spiritual impact on Indian Country. Yet within days of the first shelter-in-place orders, I received Facebook invitations to groups such as Social Distance Powwow and Quarantine Dance Specials 2020. Both pages have quickly amassed tens of thousands of followers and, curiously, few spammers and trolls. There, dancers post videos to compete for likes, artists and artisans sell their works, and in the comments, viewers offer prayers and encouragement. On this platform, vibrant and complex expression of the community has manifested in just a few weeks: as during a powwow, honors are made, competitions and specials convened, votes are tallied, and winners announced.

As Tiny Rosales, the creator of Quarantine Dance Specials 2020, remarked in an interview, “We gotta keep the people dancing…keep them dancing no matter what.”

Image used with permission from Mathew Metchewais.
While museums often spend big bucks to foster this type of organic digital engagement, my hunch is that these virtual spaces can’t be Post-ited or design-thought into being. In the same manner that our ancestors transmuted government commodities into toothsome culinary staples, contemporary Native folks have reimagined the rigid architecture of Facebook groups into a nucleation point of spiritual and cultural engagement. Perhaps an A/B tested digital engagement campaign has nothing on good medicine.
As we imagine the post-COVID-19 future of the museum sector, what lessons might we draw from indigenized virtual spaces like these? I’m still turning these questions over in my head:
  •  What if museums sought to engage in healing—of ourselves, our institutions, and our communities—in lieu of engagement?
  • How might we contribute to the resilience of our communities?
  • What does it mean for us to “Keep the People Dancing”? What economic support do we provide? How are we in cultural and spiritual solidarity with our communities?
  • What can we learn from the organic and creative interpolation of existing spaces?
  •  Museums are, for the most part, hegemonic creatures. Is it even possible for our institutions to enact culture work in a decentralized manner of these Facebook groups?
  • When do we contribute instead of leading? When is it more appropriate for institutional voices to simply stay in the comments?
  •  A strength of these Facebook groups is intergenerational engagement—parents, aunties, grandparents and elders are a vital part of indigenous life. How do we ensure that online spaces are accessible to and welcoming for users of all ages, access to the internet, or digital fluency?
  • What are the implications here for cultural engagement IRL?
It’s unlikely that museums could ever foster large-scale organic communities like Social Distancing Powwow or Quarantine Dance Specials 2020. But by attending to and honoring indigenousized spaces—whether virtual or IRL—I posit that we develop essential roadmaps toward a more engaged, resilient, and joyous future. In the comments, I invite you to pose more questions to our field or share examples of how communities are adapting to and thriving in our new reality.
PS: I’d be remiss not to recognize the other innovative ways that marginalized and diasporic communities enact culture in digital spaces. I recommend checking out this fantastic article on the subject of Black joy, resistance, and cross-platform social media discourse.

Adrienne Lalli Hills is the Associate Director of Studio School at the @okcontemporary and on the board of the Museum Education Round Table. She can be found @prarietrawler on Twitter. Through the course of her career, Adrienne Lalli Hills has championed interpretive and programmatic initiatives in art, science, and children’s museums. Presently she is the Associate Director of Studio School at Oklahoma Contemporary in Oklahoma City. Previously she led learning initiatives at leading institutions, including the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, MO. Adrienne earned her MA Curriculum & Instruction from the University of Missouri-Kansas City and has a BFA Studio Arts from the University of Tulsa. She is a citizen of the Wyandotte Nation of Oklahoma.

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