Saturday, March 15, 2008

Whither Museums--More White Galleries or More Civic Discourse?

(Cross-posted at BlogHer)

When you think about a museum, what image comes immediately to mind? Is it of people walking solemnly, individually or in small groups, through a quiet, white-walled gallery of carefully spaced artwork or artifacts? Or do you think of a children's museum, with kids running wild through scaled-down exhibits that encourage interactivity and play? While still keeping the concept of "museum" in mind, can you even imagine a space between these two extremes--one where adults who are strangers to one another interact--or even play--with one another around serious issues?

Last Saturday, I had the opportunity to try to think such a place into being. I was fortunate to attend the "Museums and Civic Discourse" symposium at John F. Kennedy University in Berkeley. The room was packed with some West Coast and national leaders in the field--really some amazing women there (and a few men, too). The symposium sought to imagine what civic discourse in museums might look like, as well as brainstorm ways that museums can advance civic discourse beyond their walls. The day also was a celebration of the publication of the museums and civic discourse issue of the journal Museums and Social Issues.

Some of the issues the symposium raised for me:

* What do spaces of civic engagement look like, and with what kinds of institutions should we be collaborating?
* What do museum civic engagement and advocacy look like in an age of culture wars?
* How do we build conversations and discussions into civic discourse?
* How can I get more museum folks on board with social media?

I examine each of these issues in greater depth in a post at Museum Blogging. What I don't talk about enough in that post is the uneasiness that some folks in the room had with imagining the dramatic changes that might be awaiting the 21st-century museum. As an academic, I've come at the museum field from a popular science slant--I have worked in a science center's education, exhibition, and evaluation programs; written a dissertation on the history of natural history museums; organized a large exhibition of insects, reptiles, and amphibians for the California State Fair; assisted with other hands-on science programs; and taught museum history and theory to graduate students.

My experiences in museum studies--along with a Ph.D. in cultural studies, my current position exploring progressive higher ed pedagogies, teaching museum studies at JFK University in Berkeley, and my forays into the blogosphere of ideas--have radicalized me. So when someone raises the possibility of making museums a place where new or beloved ideas are not just presented, but rather debated and questioned, it makes perfect sense to me that visitors, rather than only curators and exhibit designers, should have opportunities to make their voices heard. After all, many museums like to pride themselves on being community institutions--why not let the community participate fully in the the life of the museum?

There are plenty of reasons museums would--and perhaps should--resist such changes. After all, some museums--particularly natural history museums--are havens for highly skilled and educated scientific researchers, much as art and history museums are intellectual and vocational homes for Ph.D.s in the fine arts and humanities who work as curators. These experts know their stuff, and they have put together some fabulous, beautiful, thoughtful exhibitions showcasing the latest knowledge in their fields. I believe there is still very much a place for such exhibitions.

However, we live in an age where people can learn much of this same information online, digesting it in small bites rather than trying to absorb it all in a half-day visit to a museum. One might argue that you can't replace standing in front of an ancient tapestry with viewing it on a computer--unless that computer also allows you to zoom in to a digital copy so that you can see how the tiny threads wind together. Where would you rather see this photo of a "woman aircraft worker": on a museum wall or annotated with 20 notes from your fellow netizens? Would you be more likely to discuss this photo with a stranger if you were both standing in front of it, or on Flickr in the photo's comment thread?

Perian Sully of Musematic also attended the symposium. She asks how museums can make their objects more relevant, perhaps by starting with the Flickr model and building beyond it:

I left the meeting feeling rather uncomfortable. Here I am, someone who tries to make collection information accessible online, when I’ve been complaining for years that making collections “accessible” is ultimately one small step in the greater picture. So we have pictures of our collections online. Who cares? What does that actually do for anyone, other than let the public know that we have these beautiful or historically-interesting objects? As collecting institutions, we need to figure out how to make these digital assets work for us, work for the public. Simply presenting a photograph and some tombstone information online can be useful for researchers, but how does it promote community development and interpretation? Even the static curator-driven gallery exhibition is becoming something of an old and less-effective model of education (at least in art and history museums).

Fortunately, new technology is helping us realize some of this, but I’m having a hard time coming to grips with some of it. I think it just seems too easy somehow. Nina showed some beautiful comparisons of the Library of Congress’ images, which they recently released on Flickr. She showed the LOC website’s entry of a photograph in their collection, and then showed the Flickr page for that same object. For example, here’s the LOC page for [Grand Grocery Co.], Lincoln, Neb. from 1942. Compare that with the Flickr page for the same photograph. The Flickr page clearly has people engaged, talking to one another, and sharing their personal stories and knowledge. The LOC page… notsomuch. Likewise, social tagging helps people make their own connections and assign their own meanings to objects (or at least the object’s digital representation).

Both of the above examples clearly help people interpret objects in relation to themselves. This is great. But I feel like we should go much further to use our objects as catalysts for social discourse. The examples above are so easy that I also wonder if they’re ephemeral. Are these armchair discussions really contributing to some greater dialog that promotes learning and social involvement in the physical world? Is there some other way we could bring objects into the discussion without making the discussion object-centric? Are we using our collections in the best way possible?

It's clear that museums need to harness this kind or participatory culture. Already science caf├ęs are facilitating discussions between scientists and laypeople about current issues in science. The Brooklyn Museum offers its community members a number of ways to connect with the institution, online and off. Public radio stations encourage their listeners to call in to discuss the big issues of the day. Jane Addams's Hull House, now a museum, has been a forum for civic discourse and community engagement since its founding as a social settlement in late-nineteenth-century Chicago.

Why aren't more museums adopting these models of community engagement in order to promote civic discourse? Is it that museum folk fear the loss of some control that comes with user- and visitor-generated content? Do museum professionals feel under-prepared professionally for this kind of engagement? Do museums as institutions fear a loss of status as cultural institutions if they allow just about anyone to speak within their space?

Nina Simon shares an anecdote from the symposium that highlights one source of anxiety for institutions considering inviting a broader and deeper discussion with the public:

Yes, there may be sites for discourse in our lives, but they are not well-facilitated and are more often seen as undesirable disturbances--the kinds of incidences to lead us to look away from strangers on the street. We all have plenty of prejudices, but I was taken aback at the number of people at the session who said, in one way or another, "I don't want my institution to be a place where it is safe for THOSE people to air THEIR beliefs." I guess I shouldn't have been surprised; I've been there. I remember walking out of the Spy Museum during a workday to stand in the middle of the street facing thousands of pro-life marchers parading on the anniversary of Roe V. Wade. I would stand there, my face screwed into the hardest angles possible, and I wasn't looking for discourse. I couldn't even imagine discourse. I was a ball of confused, unfulfilled hate.

We live in an increasingly polarized society. We are encouraged to define ourselves by what we are and aren't for, and we're lousy at respecting people on the other side of the aisle. When I think of the times I have experienced civic discourse in a positive way, it was because of a personal relationship built through a common interest. For me, that's often sports. I pride myself on the friendships I have with Exxon Mobil engineers, evangelicals, people who I'd classify as OTHER if not for our common love of rock climbing and a desire to protect each other in challenging physical situations.

A lot of this has to do with creating more venues for people from different backgrounds to interact safely--and that's a place museums can start. But it also requires those venues to be places where people initiate and cultivate relationships with the strangers who are there, places where the prescribed interaction is civil and implies a fundamental respect for and interest in others. In the climbing gym, people naturally raise their arms to spot each other on tough moves and call out words of support without knowing each other's names. But the climbing gym is not in the business of encouraging discourse, so the gym facilitators don't take advantage of the common respect therein to take the social experience to the next civic level. Museums could be in that business. It's a unique value proposition for museums, one that might be useful at a time when our other value propositions are being challenged by a growing experience economy.

In a subsequent post, Nina offers some guidelines for engaging with visitors.

Maybe museums could start with the model Barbara Ganley describes as at once uncomfortable and powerful: a lounge/classroom that includes

. . .just a small portable blackboard and a circle of comfy chairs, so all we have is one another and the materials we have explored. We have to talk, to turn over and over and over again the concerns of the writer. Sometimes class discussion is quite awkward, stiff, stuttery--this is hard hard stuff. Students do not want to feel exposed. No one has asked them to talk about what they have read as writers--I'm not looking for "smart" responses; I'm looking for discovery.

What about you? Where would you feel comfortable talking about big issues with people you don't know well? What would that space look like, who would be there, and what would you talk about? And would you ever imagine a museum could offer such physical, intellectual, emotional, and civic space?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


What a fabulous post, one I will share with my students. I was an art history major who ultimately turned from museum studies and decided against pursuing a doctorate in art history precisely for reasons you get at here. I couldn't stand the self-righteousness, the narrowness of much of the art history crowd I had come across.

One big problem with many "adult" museums, libraries and schools is how we've become conditioned to see them as silent, hallowed spaces, like cultural places of worship. As kids, we were taught to be quiet in the classroom, silent in the library and, well, the art museum. Children's museums and science museums were such welcome exceptions. We've accepted our roles as observers, passive, at the mercy of the expert who sets up the space, curates the show (and the museum guard who makes sure we do not touch). The curators and experts often have no clue as to how the public is interacting with the materials on display (hence the semantic gap between experts and public tagging digitized collections). Yes, we need experts. Absolutely. Just as we need teachers. But if experts continue only to lecture they keep us out by having us look and listen only. Flickr lets us in by letting us participate. I agree that we need bridges between these worlds.

So yes, I think we have to reimagine spaces, but we also have to unlearn conditioned responses to museums and their contents. Perhaps there should be "noisy" interactive hours and quiet, meditative hours every day.
What if museums let the public participate in a series of discussions leading to the design of exhibitions a couple of times a year? What if people could participate in this process from their homes (via their laptops)? What if every gallery had laptops where people could comment, ask questions? Or art materials? I had a student last year who set up an installation including cameras and computers and notebooks and gathering spots for viewers to comment, discuss, explore and create for themselves. What if docents asked questions rather than just answered them (or worse, lectured?) What if everyone could participate in ARTmobs kind of activities, narrating their own tours?

Many museum art exhibitions include side rooms with videos on the artistic process, or the era--people file in, watch, file out. What if every exhibition had a discussion room--with video clips or one especially controversial or important work, a moderator who asked good questions, and a circle of chairs? What if there were in conjunction with physical museum spaces, online spaces such as the Museum of the People in Brazil?

That people like you are involved in this discussion at high levels is very hopeful indeed! Thanks.