Activism, Social Justice, and Repairing in the Museum: How Can We Be Useful?

Bourdieu was right. The activist possibilities of most museums are limited by the essential function of the museum, which is to store objects; the historical origins of the institution; and the feeling of exclusivity that permeates through many museums, which limits who they can help. Of course, this isn’t to say that museums can’t affect social change or that museums wouldn’t benefit from addressing the social inequalities that get reproduced within their walls; the latter is a particularly critical issue for museums to address. If cultural institutions such as museums remain places in which POC do not see themselves reflected in exhibits, programming, and staffing, both society and museums lose.

Rather than retreading Bourdieu’s intellectual territory further, for the purpose of this blog post, I will add a final thought on the pitfalls of thinking too much about the possibilities and limitations of activist work done by museums: Privilege distorts perception. As Public Humanities graduate students, we believe in the importance of accessible culture. However, we don’t always question the ways in which the cultural capital of attending a prestigious university to study an esoteric interdisciplinary subject precludes us from fully understanding the nature and depth of some problems, as well as precisely how they affect others, in the first place. The words activism, social justice, and repairing mean something different to everyone. I think the operative idea for us to remember when we attempt to facilitate change around these issues was best phrased by Steve in his “Seven Rules for Public Humanists” post: “Start not by looking at what you, your discipline, or the university needs and wants, but by what individuals and communities outside the university need and want. It’s not, ‘we’re from the university, and we’re here to help,’ but, ‘What are you doing already, and how can we participate? How can we be useful?’”

Works Cited

Lubar, Steve. “Seven Rules for Public Humanists.” Public Humanities & More, 5 June 2014, Accessed 12 May 2017.

Get to Work: Leveraging Momentum to Get Things Done

At Thursday’s lunch talk Public Humanities alumna Kaitlynne Ward spoke about her work in the state archives and how public humanities and public sector work intersect. Ever the public human, she demonstrated how difficult it is to define both publics. However, in her time in the public sector, she’s learned that both spheres are similar in terms of how work constantly evolves with time. She framed her talk around the four skills she learned from this program and that she’s honed in her career: collaboration, relatability, accountability, and adaptability. When she talked about her work, and the many, many, many moving pieces she manages, I immediately thought about the Kurin readings. Perhaps the greatest takeaway from the readings (and her lunch talk) is that public humanities work involves managing many parties, with differing goals and metrics of success. Listening, flexibility, and compromise are the keys to a successful project.

However, I think the most interesting piece of wisdom she passed on was the importance of “leveraging momentum to make things work.” Hearing this and thinking about our recent class conversations and readings about how the current political climate affects our work, made me a little more optimistic about the days ahead. The one good thing about the threat of cutting the NEA and NEH is that people are more invested in these organizations work than ever. People and the media are tuning into organizations dependent on NEA and NEH funds that support communities. Recently CBS Sunday Morning ran a story on my favorite public humanities organization, Appalshop. For 48 years Appalshop has challenged Appalachian stereotypes and diversified Whitesburg’s historically coal economy into a modern creative economy. They depend on federal money to run the programs that make them a beacon for creative expression in eastern Kentucky. Riding on momentum regarding larger national conversations about rural v urban, red state v blue state, white collar v blue collar bubbles, Appalshop is subverting the stereotypes. Admittedly not every museum can get national news coverage, but now’s the time leverage the threat of budget cuts into a conversation about an organization’s worth. What marketing strategies can organizations use now to assert their community value? How can organizations ride the momentum of this years threatened budget cuts into next year without getting stale?

Social Justice Programming and the University

Over the course of the semester and in the course of completing the readings for this week I have spent a lot of time thinking about the ways in which Public Humanities work, and the work that Museums and other Cultural Institutions are doing relates to the similar work that is taking place on college campuses.

In Museum, Society, and Inequality, Richard Sandell writes about a framework in which “museums can impact positively on the lives of disadvantaged or marginalized individuals, act as a catalyst for social regeneration and as a vehicle for empowerment with specific communities and also contribute towards the creation of more equitable societies.” (pg 4) Students and educators working in Student Activities Offices, multicultural centers, and other spaces here at Brown are taking a similar approach cultural and identity centered programming, with similar goals.

For example, this year Je-Shawna Wholley, Program Coordinator for the LGBTQ Center here at Brown, hosted a Queer Legacy entitled Radical Joy.

The lineup for Radical Joy Queer Legacy Series 2017

The series, which centered experiences of Black Queer people and took an intersectional approach to conversations on masculinity, racial identity, queer love, and trans identity.  It was also a direct response to complaints from students about anti-blackness in social justice spaces. Through Radical Joy Je-Shawna sought to empower queer black students by making a marginalized community more visible and also create a more equitable community by providing spaces for others to learn (both of which are strategies employed in Sandell’s article).

Though there is often a similarity in the social justice programming happening in Student Affairs and Arts Administration, it seems rare (at least in my experience) that Student Affairs professionals collaborate with Arts Administrators on the creation of programs or exchange of strategies. As I continue on in my journey as a budding Public Human / Student Affairs professional one question continues to be on my mind and at the center of my work:

How can Student Affairs professionals draw from the work of museum professionals and arts administrators to create dynamic and meaningful arts-based social justice programs on college campuses?

Maybe we should just let the Jesus museums take over

Since post-Trump is the new post-9/11, I have been thinking about what constitutes activism in post-Trump America. This line of thought was prompted by a combination of our readings for this week and the world-wide March for Science that occurred on Earth Day.

As far as I can surmise, there have always been propositions based in truth and evidence that seem activist or controversial in nature due to entrenched interests: the Earth is not in the center of the universe, for example. Furthermore, for as long as these propositions have existed, entrenched interests have sought to discredit those responsible and cast their ideas as radical and dangerous.

Two of the major examples of this phenomenon in the United States in my lifetime have been Evangelical Christianity’s rejection of the theory of evolution and the fossil fuel industry’s obfuscation of the realities of climate change. Both of these positions are pretty firmly entrenched in the GOP mindset at this point, and the distrust of scientists that both of these positions depend on has permeated the Republican base. Perhaps more worrying is that this mistrust extends to other experts and beyond Republican voters. Vaccines are a good example of something that experts (in this case doctors) view as imperative but are viewed by some people on both sides of the political spectrum as harmful.

With all of this in mind, it seems to me like our readings for today suddenly feel a bit dated (like so many other things). In Chapter 2 of Museums in a Trouble World Janes notes that “the majority of museums have attempted to remain remote from the demands and disorder of daily life of the planet.” I would, like Janes, like to see museums take a more proactive role in educating various publics about things like the existential threat of climate change, but I am currently at a loss as to how to accomplish this without preaching to the choir. In the article “Museums and the Combating of Social Inequality,” Sendall argues that one of the ways to accomplish the goal laid out in the article’s title is the inclusion of differing viewpoints and caution with regards to the authoritative voice in museum work. I see ignorance of things like climate change or the value of vaccines as an issue of social inequality, but I don’t see the value in the inclusion of viewpoints that are demonstrably wrong in such debates. I am also terribly perplexed as to how museums can best present information that is widely agreed upon by experts without alienating certain publics through perceived or actual condescension.

Museums and Socially Engaged Art: Reflections from Open Engagement 2017

This past week, I attended Open Engagement (OE), a conference focused on socially engaged art whose theme this year was “Justice.” The full program can be found online and I’m happy to talk more about my experience. One of the key questions for the conference that the organizers encouraged participants to think about was: “As artists, curators, and cultural producers, how are we implicated in the particular conditions we are working in, all the while engaged in challenging and changing these conditions?”

In thinking about Eve’s post and the question of “Why museums?” I’m left wondering whether museums have acknowledged their role in creating damaging conditions (e.g. their colonial histories) and if they are the best suited to challenging and changing these conditions. Like Sandell asks, “What role might museums play in tackling inequality through their ubiquitous and long-established functions of collection and display?” (8)

One of the sessions I attended at OE was at the Smart Museum and focused on building an ethical practice of collecting socially engaged art and whether it was possible for a museum to not deaden or make static the work it collects. Can collection and display be opportunities for conversation, for connections to lived experience? With this question, I’m also thinking about the following quote from Sommer: “Teasing elements apart is just what theater does, Boal explained, simply by staging a problem” (57). Can museums “tease elements apart” by using their collections or do they need to reexamine their fundamental functions?

An initiative that seeks to tackled these questions is the Museum As Site for Social Action (MASS Action) project: a national convening of museum practitioners, artists, community organizers, and scholars working to build a resource dedicated to social justice in museum practices.

In addition to the resource list of blogs and hashtags (posted below), one of the most interesting parts of the MASS Action session at OE was imagining the headlines we’d like to see about museums 100 years from now: “Community Curators at an All Time High,” “Formerly Incarcerated Individual Becomes Director of MoMA,” “Quaker Group Takes Over Museum,” “Museum Develops New Public Transportation System,” and “50th Annual Deaccession Day.”

Resources from MASS Action Discussion:

Museums as Social Agencies and Their Autonomy

This week’s reading focus on the role of museums as social service, specifically their potential as social agents of well-being and social change, and examine how museums can adopt social work perspectives, methods, and practice in their field. I am very interested in the Richard Sandell’s discussion of museums and their social responsibility and how an increasing number of museums have been working on behalf of human rights and social justice.

I found a number of interesting articles talking about museums and social activism, like #blacklivesmatter. Yonci Jameson, an African American female activist involved in Minneapolis’s art culture, gave three recommendations for museums in her article “How Can Museums and Artists Help Advocate for Social Change?” The first one is One Word: representation; the second advice is Art Museums can Facilitate discussion on the intersection of art and activism; the final one is Museums could further advocate by facilitating community events. Similarly, Mike Murawski, in his keynote address to the MuseumNext conference in New York City, talked about the urgency of empathy, social impact, and social action in museums today, focusing on 5 actions: ACTION 1: Be More Local; ACTION 2: Recognize and Support the Movement for Black Lives; ACTION 3: Flip the Script (challenging the traditional museum authority and power relationships); ACTION 4: Have a Personal Vision for Change; ACTION 5: Build Communities of Action and Change. There are many other published articles and the ones spread on social media that are equally inspiring in the discussion of museums and social justice. Yet after reading the assigned book chapters and some of the online articles, the question of autonomy arouse my interest and attention:

  1. While we emphasize social responsibilities of museums and urge them to take a (political) stance in their exhibitions that explore social problems, how should museums maintain their autonomy and not fall to be the tool of social control?
  2. How do museums balance the urge to respond adequately to a diverse and rapid changing society and not be limited by “contemporary” issues and maintain its autonomy and something essential for the long run?

Navigating Power & The Current Political Climate And Doing Socially Engaged Work

Socially engaged work is crucial to keeping museums relevant. I’ve been thinking a lot about Bryn’s presentation on the SMART Museum and their engaged scholar’s program. Particularly on the importance of using the word “engaged” over the more traditional museum choice “outreach”. As Bryn pointed out, engaged points to an exchange of ideas and a dialogue. Whereas “outreach” is one sided (you can imagine a museum patting themselves on the back). I’m interested in how museums can be more socially engaged within their communities while also being aware of the power dynamics at play. Sandell writes museums, “are undeniably implicated in the dynamics of (in)equality and the power relations between different groups through their role in constructing and disseminating dominant social narratives.” Particularly considering the history of museums as elitist institutions there needs to be a careful understanding of power dynamics in the community before taking on socially engaged work.  How can museums be cognizant of this and still be active, eager participants in their communities?

If doing socially engaged work makes museums relevant, what is their role in the post-Trump era? I can’t help but wonder how the vocal minority in the post-Trump age will affect museums doing socially engaged work.  Sandell addresses the role of objects in recognizing and understanding prejudice but that’s only work we can do if people choose to walk through the door. Janes writes, “at their very best, museums present the richness and diversity of life, and keep reflection and dialogue alive for their visitors.” The New York Historical Society is embracing that by offering programs designed around the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services naturalization test, to aid people in becoming citizens. This is relevant, engaged, important work but I wonder if smaller museums in more conservative places could take on a similar program without the risk of losing community support. Additionally, at a moment when distrust of institutions is at an all-time high and skepticism to facts permeates the news, how do we do foster dialogue on polarizing contemporary issues? What strategies can we use to engage with those who claim that museums offer strictly “politically correct” ideas? Is it a battle even worth fighting?

Why Museums?

This week’s readings brought me back to a question I’ve been pondering throughout the course: Why do we assume museums have some innate radical (or even social) mission they have yet to unleash?

Silverman, Janes, the House Museum “Anarchists” and others we’ve read seem to take for granted the notion that social engagement extends from the museum idea. We talk about universities in a similar way. I understand that these writers are calling on museums to take up a more progressive mission than they generally pursue, but the basic premise is that museums and social change fit together naturally.

That seems to contradict what we’ve learned about museums. The histories we’ve encountered in class suggest that museums, in origin and actuality, are fundamentally elite and elitist. The more established and influential the museum, the more likely that is to be true (i.e., The Smithsonian). They rely on corporate and foundation money–both elite sources. They hire people with elite educations. And as we learned from the museum mission statement last week, they are largely organized around elite property: “the things of the world.”

I entirely agree that museums have social and political potential.  Like universities, they house resources and knowledge that add value to social justice projects. But it seems to me that it is very difficult for a museum to do much of anything useful politically without acknowledging that disrupting social structures represents a conflict of interest for all elite institutions. For instance, if a museum’s goal is “knowledge sharing,” it must recognize its historical reliance on the monopolization of knowledge production. This is the first step toward considering how those histories linger (for example, in the practice of regularly hiring students from schools like Brown).

I like Emily’s concrete recommendation that museums simply open up more space for self-organized publics. But what this does is actually absent the museum apparatus so that other community work can take place.

This seems like a useful metaphor for how elite institutions can do radical work more generally: by sharing their resources and stepping out of the way.

Instead of asking museums to change, should we be building alternatives to museums entirely? By attaching the high-minded ideals of social learning and historical dialogue to the museum form, don’t we risk reinforcing elite authority (per Mullen)? When is the social good museums can do worth that risk?

Getting Back to the Basics of PH

I feel like public humanities, as a field, is pretty explicit about its interest in social change. The institutions aren’t always clear on this point – it gets a bit muddled somewhere along the line. But the ideas upon which public humanities is based seem to be focused on social knowledge production and sharing.

So in the readings for this week, I felt fairly reaffirmed by Sommer, Silverman, and Sandell. In their efforts to represent the history of the work of museums, ideas of civic engagement and responsibility to engage with social issues showcases the longstanding efforts by institutions to get back to this foundation.

So it’s interesting, then, to consider the ways in which institutions struggle to find that foundation. There seems to be an over-correction by connecting museums to the issues at hand, rather than considering the resources and skills that institutions can offer to social justice & activism. As the critics cited in Silverman mention, there are some serious practical concerns around whether museums actually have the resources to engage in social service.

By “traditional” standards, they might not: I’m not arguing that all museums should go out and hire social workers to do social service. So what are those skills and resources that cultural institutions offer to a public and to advancing social justice?

For one, there’s the spatial component – museums offer a physical space for a public to congregate within and visit. Even if the institution doesn’t directly address a social issue, it can allow its public to use that space to further those aims. (I’m taking this directly from the mouth of Devon Akmon, director of the Arab American National Museum. The museum hosts town halls, receptions, and festivals in its space.)

Building on this idea, museum educators and programming staff can offer partnerships and connections to other cultural institutions or social service mechanisms. At AANM, that includes summer camps and entrepreneurial training. At New Bedford Whaling NHP, that means working with the Buzzards Bay Coalition for clean water and City Hall to promote preservation of the historic waterfront.

And I think collections can be a way to connect back to social service, if indirectly. I think rapid response exhibits like that of the Maine Historical Society or carefully curated collections like those shared on DPLA can speak to social and cultural events relevant to the world around us.

These are currently existing models that I know of – but the programs mentioned in the first chapter of Silverman are much better examples of what museums can do to futher connect to these ideas. And a running theme from all these texts is the idea that perhaps the more important concept is that museums can offer their values to a movement or an idea. This has been something recurring in our conversations around science museums and the March for Science –  but also present in the tension around NEH/NEA funding, avoiding political statements in cultural institutions, and the #DayofFacts we started off our course discussing.

Part of what institutions can provide is legitimacy and authority to these conversations. We talk a big game about shared authority, and most cultural institutions are still finding a way to really acknowledge that concept in their work. But if our goal is to embrace and shape communities for social change – which I think is the goal of many institutions today – part of that is done at the core level of our values. The building of relationships, crucial to social service work in general, can only occur if the institution prioritizes these needs. And looking to the future of museums as transformative spaces, I think it’s crucial we push in that direction.

Continue reading Getting Back to the Basics of PH

Social and Political Commentators vs. Agents of Social Change

The reading for this week prompted me to differentiate between two distinctive paradigms of the museum’s role in social justice: social and political commentator and active agent of social change.  Lois Silverman’s  The Social Work of Museums really brought this distinction to the fore. Her argument that social workers should serve as key museum staff members reified the active role museums could have in affecting social change within their own walls.  The other paradigm is brought forth in Richard Sandell’s “Museums and the Combating of Social Inequality”. There he demonstrates how museums can utilize their exhibitions to reflect their social and political positions, and provide commentary on major social and political events. While I am not making a value judgement, to me this seems a more passive role than Silverman’s strategy.

The New York Times article “Museums Chart a Response to Political Upheaval” further underscores the difference between a museum’s role as social/political commentator and agent of social justice, as it charts various museums’ responses to the Trump administration’s social/political agendas. One example the article describes is the Guggenheim Museum’s response to plant Yoko Ono’s “Wish Tree” in front of its building for passers-by to write down their wishes for the future and hang them on the tree.  In this case the “Wish Tree” was implemented in response to the tense political environment and to promote inclusivity, allowing the whole public to contribute to the art piece (Bowley, 2017). The “Wish Tree” is a symbolic endeavor to reflect the Guggenheim’s response to Trump’s inauguration and seems to fall in the social/political commentator camp. Another cited museum response is the New York Historical Society’s plan to open an exhibition on immigration and its programs that help people learn “what they need to know to pass a Naturalization Test and become a citizen” (Ibid.). In this case, the Society is actively confronting the Trump administration’s immigration policies by aiding and educating immigrants about the citizenship process.


Bowley, G. (2017). Museums Chart a Response to Political Upheaval. The New York Times. Retrieved from