On Cultural Centers and Cognitive Dissonance

When I worked for a Mexican-American cultural center in Los Angeles, the administration was quick to delineate that the center was not a museum. Initially, this distinction was lost on me. I thought, “Okay, so there is no permanent collection–but we have exhibits, educational programming, public events, etc. Practically speaking, we are a museum.” After reading Jennifer Barrett’s Museums and the Public Sphere, I was reminded why the distinction between museums and cultural centers matters—and that cultural (or community) centers may hold particular promise for the future of the public humanities.

Given that museums have not historically been able to (or perhaps desired to) fully separate themselves from their bourgeois origins in an age dominated by colonialism and empiricism, figuring out ways to divest museums of classist power through “the new museology” (280) might be less feasible than perhaps putting more money toward existing cultural centers. This is not meant to suggest that cultural centers are a panacea: after all, they are influenced by (and suffer similar philosophical and material concerns as) museums. However, I think that by decentering fine art as the focus and highlighting sociopolitical themes more deliberately, cultural centers function even more effectively as “space[s] where people can interact” (25) and have meaningful conversations about the humanities; particularly because they are generally grounded in a local cultural and historical context.

From a psychological perspective, I am interested in exploring the cognitive dissonance that might be experienced by people in the modern museum profession given the conflicts at the heart of the history of museums; particularly as it could be felt by museum professionals of different backgrounds with regard to class, race, and ethnicity. As a Chicana, whenever I spend time in museums and arts non-profits, as much as I feel out of place, I feel aware of the privileges that enabled me to get into the space in the first place. This awareness makes me feel lucky and grateful, but also angry because the lack of POC representation in the profession is reprehensible. As a now-middle-class person raised by a single teenage mother on public assistance, the cultural cachet of the profession is as unfamiliar as it is seductive. Barrett references Bourdieu several times and refers to his life as “being derived from a divided habitus” (210). I would be curious to explore this division further in a class discussion.

Works Cited
Barrett, Jennifer. Museums and the Public Sphere. Somerset: Wiley, 2011. Ebook Library. Web. 06 Feb. 2017.

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