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.

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