Monday, November 30, 2020

Centering Community (NOTES from my VEX talk)

 Recently I had the pleasure of speaking for the VEX conference. After so much deconstruction in the field this year, I wanted to focus on how we could collectively build something better after all this mess. 

Before thinking about our future, I’d advocate that we should frame the future as the “after” rather than back to normal. Our previous situation might have been a certain normal, but for many people this normal was precarity and uncertainty. In fact, many people’s positive normal created other people’s terrible normal. It’s pretty normal for Western museums, for example, display objects taken from Non-Western countries. Normal is not equivalent to best or most ethical, and our future can be something more, better than the past. Hence, I advocate for constructing an after better than our past. Some day, when this “after” is constructed, that will be our new normal. 

So, what is this after we’re creating? I invited attendees of VEX to help me think out what parts of our field we wanted to fix. The first thing they wanted to tackle, and I’d argue the essential challenge of our work, was the relationship between museums and communities. The November/ December 2020 Museum magazine had an interview with urbanist Richard Florida he says “Museums are our community gathering spaces where we explore our differences, learn from our past, and plan for our future.” A cursory look at Richard Florida’s CV indicates he’s never worked in a museum, and I suspect that’s where his optimism about museum’s comes from. 

Most museum workers have the experience of friends and family telling them how “cool” their museum jobs must be because they get to wander through the galleries all the time; most museum workers have had a moment when they realized they’ve gone days without just wandering through the galleries. Museum work is invisible to those not in the field, as are our norms. Florida’s read of museums, unfettered by the gatekeeping and field-chauvinism, as gathering places, therefore, is a useful measure of where we could go. The VEX participants took Florida’s possibility for museums one step farther. Their suggestion was to create a museum that centers the community by making the community part of the museum’s creation. 

Co-creation isn’t a fairy tale but it's a serious commitment to breaking our norms. It requires dismantling the hierarchy of knowledge inherent to our work, placing the community above curators. Donors would be challenged by a community-centered model, losing their most-favored voice status. It would require a commitment from funders and boards to transforming the stakes. But, this transformation could also ensure the long-term stability of the field. 

In getting to this future, I asked the VEX participants where we are now. The community has a hard time feeling they are part of museums, they noted, as one needs to learn how to be part of the museum. Accession numbers on labels, for example, are an example of something museum people expect but require learning for others. Most non-museum people read labels when they’re purchasing items online. Numbers in those contexts are sizes, ratings, and cost. They will use that frame to help them make sense of our labels. Many labels in galleries don’t include scale, assuming the reader can tell the size as they’re standing there. So, for visitors, this number might seem like either a rating or a value. They’re using what they know to make meaning, because we’ve presented them with nothing else to help them. We’re setting up a system where we want them to get our world with little to no orientation. We replicate this type of problem throughout our field. Why? Because we don’t even notice this is a problem.

The first step to an after is to look at the many ways we alienate and exclude visitors in our work. Many of these practices are about physical accessibility. We might choose to decrease seats for object space, for example. We could just as easily preference humans to objects in that instance. Previous precedents toward objects don’t need to stand. We can choose humans. We can decide. 

But, in making these choices, we need to be careful of our motivation. As the VEX participants noted, so much of museum work has up to now been exploitative of community. I’d wonder how much money comes into museums for community projects that stop once the grant money ends. Decreasing exploitative relationships with communities requires a transformation of funding and budgeting. Community engagement lines need to be not only folded into operational practice but also prioritized. In case you need a business argument for this, at some point, your traditional audiences will dry up if you don’t find new and younger ones. 

I asked the VEX community for the worst possible future. One participant, and sadly I forgot to write down their name, said, “othering our communities until we fall into obsolescence.” Many of our practices focus on “museums” rather than people, and we could be on the track for this future. This idea of loss of audiences as the traditional groups die really struck me after the VEX talk. Change happens to you or with you. Department stores were the norm in our country for about a century, and they’re likely to fade into the past or transform. When I was small, we went to SEARS for hammers, dishwashers, and just to browse. It was part of our life. Do museums have this central position in the life of most people? To me, this indicates they’re even more precarious if they don’t change. People might not really miss them. 

The ideal future for the VEX participants is one I really hope for: “A listening inclusive organization that learns and is responsive so as to become an expression of the community.” This future requires museums to be willing to be wrong and not be the authority on all things. Curatorial privilege will need to cede and donors will need to not be centered. Museums will instead need to be authentically welcoming. Because remember what is at stake--our whole field.

Also, if you're interested in thinking more about precarity, might I recommend a podcast: People Change Museums: Precarity.

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

What Now? (pt. 2)

I wrote yesterday's post on the eve of the 2020 American Election. The whole country felt coiled up, tight with anticipation. I'm not sure anticipation is really the exact word. I feel as if there might be a German word that summarized the national emotional state on November 3. It would mean a combination of fear, anticipation, exhaustion, and horror. In fact, I suspect this emotional state is the only thing that brought Americans together on that day. 

I decided to post yesterday's piece, in relation to this one. Yesterday's post was an introspective one, long on ideas and short actionable advice.  Today, let's try to focus on actions. We've had helplessness foisted on us this year, with the pandemic. The lack of agency against coronavirus is frustrating. You're susceptible to so many other people's choices, and you have no idea if you're making the right choice when you get to make one. It's exhausting. 

To add to this, we find ourselves splintering like so much broken glass. We're red/ blue; mask/ no mask; science/ no science. We're this or that. Either/or. 

Museums are seeing such deep divides as well; the old order and the new one. The divisiveness is not conducive to moving forward. Imagine walking while doing the splits. But, how are we going  to be able to move forward? Well, the first is to have some really uncomfortable conversations. 

In fact, that's why I decided to post yesterday's comments. That probably felt a little hard for some people. You might say, but I know I'm white but I'm doing my best. I'd answer, I bet you are. It's just really hard, and it's going to get harder. We're not going back to the before. There is only going forward. So how are we going forward? Assessing our problems is a good place to start. Well, first, I think we'll need to assess what was wrong with the past. 

Here are some problems I see: 

  • Academia is our boogie man. We'd defer to the fear of not seeming academic whenever someone proposed shocking changes, like bullet points in labels. I truly believe learning and scholarship are the engines of museums. Curators, I assure you that your colleagues are not reading the labels to judge your intelligence. They're not reading your labels; my mom is. And, my mom just wants to know what she's looking at. (And, frankly, we should be thrilled someone is reading our labels, because that isn't even a given...) So, we spend all this time fearing we're "dumbing it down," when we don't really interrogate why we even think explaining and bringing everyone to the same level might be really smart for our field. 
  • We made small things really big--fearing even the smallest changes. Whenever I see something interesting in a museum, like a family guide done well or an interesting sign, I assume there were 100 meetings and at least one moment of an emotional outburst. This is because in museums we make the stakes very high for small things. Think about signage. Ever wanted to try a funny or off the wall sign at your museum? For most museums, that is really controversial work. But, those kinds of things only matter in the museum field. If or if you don't put up a sign, is completely inconsequential outside the field. And, in the end, it meant we didn't deal with the biggest problem; were we actually serving as much of society as we should. 
  • There is no right answer, but we often act like there is one. The hierarchical structure of museums often means highly credentialed people have more say. Those people often make decisions based on their training. As such, a certain "right" decision is seen as a given. For example, what is "allowed" to be hung in your main exhibit hall? Why is that what's allowed? Who decided? All those answers might be true, but there is probably a whole host of other right answers you're not thinking of. 
  • We built our present, though by bad building decisions. Many of the financial woes of our field are due to the large operating incomes we have due to building projects. Those building projects were well and good when we had the rental income to buoy us up. When that went, we found ourselves as a field financially sinking. 
  • Diversity. Oh, Diversity. You might refer to yesterday's post on this one. Underlying that post, you should have noticed a woman of color who is tired. For so long, this field has made people of color do their diversity work. It's exhausting. 
  • For the love of it is killing us. Most museum professionals need a graduate degree for their job that will make them so little money that they'll not be able to pay off that degree. They do it because they love the knowledge and the field. We're like buskers who went to Julliard, well-educated and performing for pennies. 
What are some of the problems you see? 

Now here is the important part. Let's get all these problems out there, and then let's start thinking about how to actually fix them. 

Monday, November 09, 2020

What now?

When my father was born, he wasn’t a human. It was the last days of the British empire and his family lived on land they’d been on since 1500 BCE. He was not really a citizen of anything. He was a colonial subject, less than on his own land. To put it in context, my daughter just turned 11. 

If that is not your family story, think about that. I’m in between the long arm of colonialism and the future. And I’m not close to being alone, or even close to being the most marginalized. My father might not have been considered a human by the British, but he was born to a financially privileged family. He was not only high cast but privileged. His grandfather owned the first car in their city. And, it’s no accident that I became an American. Privilege celebrates privilege. I might be an immigrant’s kid, but like my great grandmother, grandmother, and mother, I went to private school and then to a career. There was no Faisal-like bootstrap pulling in my family. My successes were on the backs of many. My father showed up here on a TWA plane. My struggles as a brown woman in this country are minimal. 

Many, many peoples struggles are much greater than mine. Many American Blacks have been here long enough to be in DAR, but cannot travel freely in America. Race stacks people against each other, creating hierarchy born of bias. 

What does this have to do with museums? Here’s the thing. Everything we think about collecting, exhibiting, and sharing is predicated in white supremacy and its handmaidens, classism and masculinity as power. There is nothing our field does that is independent of this pervasive world view. It is why “Women artists” are “finally getting their due.” It is why Jackson Pollacks are worth more than Lee Krasners. It is why in the great museum upheavals of 2020 no white male director of import ended up getting toppled. It is why academia requires only academically trained artists succeed. It is why art museums have greater financial resources than other ones. 

The big next step for most museum professionals will be the hardest. If you want this field to grow with our society, you will need to reckon with the culture of white supremacy. This whole mess is not going away. There is no way to make museums better and not tackle white fragility. White people in museums can post black lives matter on social media, but if they still feel too fragile to talk about race, we’re still where we were before. You will need to think hard about why you do what you do. White or not, you will need to be pretty unsparing in your focus. You’ll need to be truthful with yourself about our failings as a field, and how our training has bound us as much as empowered us. 

When I was first starting out, I remember having to teach a Robert Colescott painting. African-American artist Colescott showed race in America in unsparing detail tinged with the kind of acerbic humor that brings discomfort to liberals and conservatives alike. As a new gallery teacher, armed with works like heterogeneity and hegemonic paradigms, I felt ready to engage visitors in the critical race theory required to appreciate Colescott’s work. Then I started to teach the painting. Well, everyone was less than happy. The patrons were stunned into silence, gagged by their propriety. I was unable to turn my theory into constructive action. I did in the end learn how to teach that object after many uncomfortable tours. But the experience stuck with me. It seems an apt metaphor for the state of museums. We have plenty of solid theoretical ideas. We have visitors who want to enjoy seeing collections. We as practitioners stand in-between this experience. We can make choices that will allow everyone to enjoy the museum experience, and by that I mean anyone and everyone. To do that, we’ll have to compromise. We might need to change our language or our approach. To get to that compromise, we’ll need to see what’s holding us back. I assure you race and class will be at the top of that list. And, then we’ll need to find an approach that helps us breakthrough. But, we won’t be able to skirt these issues. We won’t be able to whisper about them or use coded language to hide them. What happens if we ignore them? Society will have to deal with this. We’re in the pressure cooker right now. And, if museums don’t, we’ll become obsolete. 

So, are you ready?