The StoryCorps Effect? “A Shared Authority” on America’s Front Lawn

With the popularity of podcasts and the ease of technology, oral history is more accessible than ever. Podcasts like StoryCorps and the Southern Oral History Program’s Press Record share crowd-sourced and academic oral histories with the general public. StoryCorps however, is the newest generation of oral history work that disrupts the traditional practice. Instead of Studs Terkel holding a microphone and asking questions, StoryCorps deputizes the general public to participate in making a “history of America by America for America.” Traveling StoryCorps booths have captured thousands of stories and challenge the traditional narrative of history. However, StoryCorps is more than just a guaranteed weepy “driveway moment”. Its effect is opening new doors for shared authority in museums.

When I visited the NMHAAC this winter I was struck by the curatorial approach of collecting a “people’s history”. Seeing objects that belonged to people whose names are not in American textbooks was inspiring. However, I was most interested in the oral history booths located throughout the main exhibit. The booths allow individuals to continue to share their stories, adding to the diverse history celebrated at the NMHAAC. Most importantly, recording oral histories through the NMAAHC offers a chance to fill in the silences of American history. American history has largely ignored the African-American experience and recording oral histories at this place, on the National Mall, powerfully acknowledges the importance of African-American lives and culture.The future for museums and cultural institutions is embracing shared authority. Using oral history as a tool for community engagement is crucial to garnering interest in an institution and remaining relevant. More museums should follow the lead of the NMAAHC and embrace

The future for museums and cultural institutions is embracing shared authority. Using oral history as a tool for community engagement is crucial to garnering interest in an institution and remaining relevant. More museums should follow the lead of the NMAAHC and embrace crowd-sourced oral history to add people’s voices and stories to the formal collection.





On Activism & Authority

Where does activism fit in the museum? With the museum curators and staff, with the public, or some combination between the two?

Robert James and Pablo Helguera seem to provide a nice balance in this regard. James tells us what museums should be doing and how they should be structured to best contribute to civil society – “that space between the individual and the government” (James 123). James doesn’t delve deep into how we might actually achieve this, but Helguera provides one example. Helguera is speaking specifically of socially engaged art, but I think (hope) practices of collaboration/engagement/conversation between artists and the public are possible in other types of museums.

Specifically, museum professionals seem to be moving away from a pretend neutrality towards open activism. This shift still allows the museum to remain the top authority without input from public or communities that a museum serves. I was impressed with the socio-environmental programs James mentioned, but wonder what each actually looks like on the ground. How were these exhibits or programs accessible to and received by the public?

I find myself engaged with new climate change networks in Canada and the UK (the US does not have a defined network). In each, professionals from multiple museums have come together to consider how museum collections, education, structures can address climate change. What should a new activist network take into consideration regarding shared authority and engagement?

(sorry to those of you who have heard me gush about this a thousand times)

Reading through Museums in a Troubled World, specifically the chapter “It’s a jungle in here: Museums and their self-inflicted challenges,” I immediately thought of my beloved Meow Wolf. This Santa Fe organization seems to excel in many of the areas the author criticizes and brings up interesting questions about how we perceive museums and cultural organizations as functioning or not functioning.

A little background: Meow Wolf was established about 10 years ago, growing organically out of a community project of artists making things in a garage and inviting others to join them. Over time it became a bona fide art collective, unifying individual artist ideas in massive, maximalist installations around Santa Fe. They now run permanent art space in Santa Fe that is both an experiential artwork and an educational tool to teach people how to use various maker tools. Think of an otherworldly children’s museum with a lot of secret doors, unexpected musical instruments, an inter-dimensional detective narrative, and subtext of way more adult interfamilial strife and like, Nietzsche. This concept has become so popular that they’re anticipating expanding to another Southwestern city within the next year. They do all this without a hierarchical structure, as the concept originated and thrives on polyphony. For legal purposes, they do have a CEO, but this distinction is in name only (supposedly). Though their projects culminate in a singular installation, the individual voices within the space are evident and they regularly incorporate outside projects and exhibitions into their programming.

The  questions I think Meow Wolf brings up for the purposes of our discussion this week stem from these, shall we say, alternative origins. First, do organizations need to originate from a point of collectivity, teamwork, and democracy in order to function that way in the future? In other words, is it possible for institutions to change their ways if they want to become less stratified? Secondly, what does it do to know that Meow Wolf is both for- and non-profit? The art space is for-profit, supposedly to show that art can be a financially sustainable pursuit, while the maker studio and classes are non-profit. What’s going on there? What does being a for-profit enterprise change about working in the public arts and humanities? Does it matter? And I suppose more holistically, are you all sold on this model or are you skeptical? If you’re skeptical, where does that skepticism come from?

Sustainability & Resilience & Futurists

This week’s readings reminded me of our review of Nina Simon’s job application, and the choice to relegate “sustainability” of community engagement efforts as least important. At the time, I chose to do so out of clarity – shouldn’t sustainability be addressed in the bridging and engaging activities, and so this would be an afterthought?

Reading through the chapters of Janes’s Museums in a Troubled World, I found the increasing references to sustainability and resilience to be along this same theme. However,  Janes sees these issues of sustainability for the museum as overarching themes rather than project-based ones. Make the changes on the inside – in the hiring processes, in reports and assessments, in thought leadership – and it will find its way into the larger work of the individual museum.

I found myself most interested in the MA’s draft of sustainability principles, of which Janes includes five:

  • Manage collections well, so that they will be a valued asset for future generations, not a burden.
  • Make the best use of energy and other natural resources and minimize waste, setting targets and monitoring progress towards them.
  • Contribute responsibly to the social, cultural and economic vitality of the local area and wider world.
  • Resppond to changing political, social, environmental and economic contexts and have a clear long-term purpose that reflects society’s expectations of museums.
  • Join with other museums, and other organisations, in partnerships and mergers, where it is the best way of meeting their purpose in the long term.

Thinking of these principles in the context of resilience, it’s asking a lot. I certainly think museums should hold themselves to these standards – to place their mission and work in context with broader society. But it also changes the game in some way. There are greater issues at hand than just a museum being resilient – both Janes and the MA ask for the museum to fundamentally shift their role from knowledge production to knowledge sharing. These are the museums for public humans – people interested in the visitor-centric models, responding to changing contexts, and building partnerships with a community.

Tying this sustainability checklist and James’s idea of resilience, I’m also reminded of Nicole Ivy‘s work at the Center for Future of Museums. As a Futurist, Ivy works to identify the issues museums will have to wrestle with in the coming years. Where does the United States stand on these issues now? Where will be in the future? How can museums of all types – art, history, science, culture, etc. – contribute to a world embraced by (or devoid of) this trend?

I kinda see public humans (and public humanities as a field) taking on this role of futurists in museum/cultural organization culture. For us, engagement and bridging tend to come first – traditional museum work, like collections, seems to come second. We’re much more interested how the museum engages with larger trends and social issues (or perhaps how they don’t) and how the institution can right its previous wrongs. And finally, I think we’re more interested in building historians – as mentioned in Letting Go? – than taking on the traditional role of historians ourselves.

The World Made Social Practice Art Necessary

“Socially engaged art functions by attaching itself to subjects and problems that normally belong to other disciplines, moving them temporarily into a space of ambiguity.”
– Pablo Helguera, Education for Socially Engaged Art: a Materials and Techniques Handbook

When it comes to engaging communities in projects that would typically fall under the purview of disciplines like psychology, public health, urban planning and even public policy, socially engaged artists are less hindered by the ethical and legal constraints usually imposed on workers. Sometimes I wonder if social practice art exists because the barriers for entering these professions, perhaps for job security-related reasons, are artificially high and the work itself is onerously and prescriptively regulated. Art can offer a sort of shield from certain criticisms. Unlike other professions, artists are not typically evaluated based on how useful their artworks are. If anything, given art’s contemporary status as a luxury item and indicator of wealth, it may even be devalued if it’s determined to have utility. Unless, of course, it is social practice art, in which case, its usefulness and efficacy can play a beneficial role in how it’s perceived. Social practice art’s greatest strength lies in its ability to leverage its artistic quality to escape the paradigm of art as necessarily impractical, as well as circumvent pesky rules in order to employ creativity into situations of social engagement. That being said, depending on the project and the sensitivity of the artist, the lack of qualified oversight might not always be ethical. Empathy should be a requirement of socially engaged art.

Works Cited

Helguera, Pablo. Education for Socially Engaged Art: a Materials and Techniques Handbook. New York: Jorge Pinto Books, 2011.

Preconceived Audiences or a Public that Cannot Be Known in Advance?

In reading Pablo Helguera’s Education for Socially Engaged Art, I kept thinking back to Michael Warner and especially his argument that a public does not exist until discourse creates it: “A public sets its boundaries and its organization by its own discourse rather than by external frameworks only if it openly addresses people who are identified primarily through their participation in the discourse and who therefore cannot be known in advance” (56).

In contrast, Helguera writes, “Most curators and artists…have expressed wariness about the notion of a preconceived audience. To them, it sounds reductive and prone to mistakes…I usually turn the question the other way around: is it possible to not conceive of an audience for your work, to create an experience that is intended to be public without the slightest bias toward a particular kind of interlocutor?” (24).

I’m interested in this tension between preconceived audiences and publics that cannot be known in advance. While Warner’s work remains useful, I feel a stronger resonance with Helguera, perhaps because he more explicitly addresses what it means for a particular individual to organize or hail a public, and how this individual is part of the audience. He writes, “What is usually not questioned, however, is how one’s notion of one’s self is created. It is the construct of a vast collectivity of people who have influenced one’s thoughts and one’s values, and to speak to one’s self is more than a solipsistic exercise—it is rather, a silent way of speaking to the portion of civilization that is summarized in our minds” (24-25).

How do we, as cultural workers and members of publics, more honestly recognize how our selves are created and the ways in which our values overlap with audiences we work with?  At what point does the “civilization summarized in our minds” get replaced with actual individuals?

Strategies for Public Programs

When thinking about this week’s theme of Accessibility I was reminded of the article Professor Smulyan highlighted in the JNBC Weekly News email, “Museums in the Age of Social,” by Karen Mittelman. The article is about how museums can and should integrate technology and social media into their exhibitions, as well as how museums are increasingly being used as town halls and public forums. This later point was particularly interesting to me as it made me think about the different approaches museums take for their public programming. Many museums orient public programming around exhibitions on view, with the idea of increasing exhibition attendance through related public programs. This perspective prioritizes exhibitions over other museum departments and functions in a way that the Mittleman article seems to indicate might be less effective in the modern age. While different museums may find their audiences through different strengths it is important to consider how practitioners versus visitors value the different offerings of a museum.

In terms of accessibility, offering content that is relatable and relevant to visitors is one way to make a museum more accessible. By freeing programming from the constraints of exhibition themes, museums will vastly increase their ability to respond to the most up-to-the-minute trends, questions, and topics relevant to their public. Even when exhibitions themselves touch on contemporary and local issues, exhibitions can take many months or even years to plan and install—meaning that they cannot as easily address the latest issues in the public sphere. Flexibility and improvisation are perhaps not words closely associated with museums in general, however public program and education departments, amongst others, could more easily lend themselves to these concepts. This is not at all to say that museums should stop programming related to exhibitions, especially as there are many perennial themes in history, but instead a suggestion that museums not feel beholden to programs strictly related to exhibitions. Providing spaces for productive, public conversation helps the community and can also help the museum, by increasing a sense of connection between the institution and the public and in doing so increasingly the accessibility and utility of the museum.

Rethinking the “House” in Historic House Museums

I appreciate the premise of the Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums, but I can’t help but wonder if the focus is misplaced. The book encourages a broad reconstitution of house museums that involves neighborhood integration, diversity, community service, and local “relevance.” While the principles of the book are worthy, (and perhaps carry transformative potential) I am disappointed that the guide seems to accept the basic format of the Historic House Museum.

The Forward to the book notes that historic buildings often become museums automatically. As a result, “questions about the intersection between community needs and the history of the building go unasked: For whom shall we preserve this historic house and how will it serve the local community? Why should members of the community care about this house and how can it serve a vital role to its public.” (12)

Yet over the first few chapters, the authors offer their guidance almost entirely in terms of museum operations: staff outreach, community and business partnerships, visitor marketing, and educational programming. Moreover, they repeat the same vague ideas pushed by the museum visionaries they critique: acknowledging socioeconomic difference, talking to community members, and looking for “unexpected” collaborations. (67) This might lend itself well to house museums in their current form, but I’d say it falls short of the overhaul they propose.

I think a more radical (and arguably, more “anarchist”) model for house museums would carry forth the guide’s critique of use, rather than execution.

One example is the preservation of black schools in the rural south. In order to revive the spirit of black schools that white-led policies forced closed during desegregation, black community members later repurposed the school spaces for contemporary community needs—adult classrooms, Head Start programs, and meeting spaces. In addition to making the schools into historic landmarks, they fit their function to the ongoing struggle of local black communities. These historic schools promote shared ownership, immediate relevance to the daily lives of local people, and direct community participation. They completely erode the proprietary ownership of culture, knowledge, and material objects that the Anarchist’s Guide critiques.

If the authors hope to build a world “that no longer derives knowledge from objects, looks to institutions for answers, or defines reality through materiality,” then asking what a community can do with a house may be better than asking what a community can do with a house museum.  (51)


Relevance at the Brooklyn Museum

The readings for this week have gotten me thinking about a lot of things: ways in which institutions can be relevant to multiple audiences, the different expectations that visitors bring with them when the visit a museum, and what my identity is when I enter a space (I think I’m an explorer).

For this week I wanted to share the process that I used when I was Brooklyn Museum, an institution which is known for its relevance to many communities. The Museum’s largest and most well-known program is Target First Saturdays, a monthly after hours event, which features music, dance, film, and scholar performances centered on a theme relevant to an exhibition.

At the Brooklyn Museum, we utilized the diverse permanent collections and special exhibitions, which often highlighted Brooklyn artists, women artists, and artist of color, to showcase and celebrate communities whose experiences aren’t always centered. For example, to celebrate A New Republic, an exhibition of works by black, queer artist Kehinde Wiley, we invited Browntourage media agency to curate a series of programs which included voguing performances, a pop up bazaar featuring a diverse array of designers and artists, and a DJ.


We often collaborated with local artists and community members and relied on these local arts leaders to curate and suggest events that would be relevant to their communities, much in the way that Nina Simon recommends in The Art of Relevance.  This method allowed us to build trust with the communities we sought to serve and to allow for many groups to be able to see themselves in the programming.  Curators also did this work by collecting and exhibiting artworks that are reflective of many communities. Target First Saturdays draws thousands of visitors each month, based on a model which is community centered and relevant.

The conversation on relevance, community-centered programming, and “pandering” is one that I’m really familiar with and I look forward to our conversations in class!

HHMs, Duke Farms, and Relevance

Vagnone’s “Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums” might not be as revolutionary as the title (as many of us have noted), but it is still practical, much needed advice. As Amelia noted, many historic house museums are behind the curve of accessibility and relating to visitors, so a more middle-of-the-road approach to programming and visitor relations might work best.

Sometimes, though, museums take a more drastic, new approach to programming. Reading Vagnone and Simon, I was reminded of the historic house museum – Duke Farms – that demolished its historic home. Well, the property was really preserved for the landscape and because it was owned by the tobacco money heiress Doris Duke, but it also included a 1893 historic structure that was torn down just last year. Doris Duke created foundations for her other homes based on their architecture, but Duke Farms’ was meant to preserve the farm and property. Over time, the mission evolved to “inspire visitors to become informed stewards of the land” and inspire “people to transform their approach to conservation” (About Duke Farms 1).

The historic home was never designed as an architectural beauty – it was only meant as a temporary home while the family waited for a nicer house to be be built (which never was). Demolishing the house created controversy in the New Jersey community, but also perfectly followed Simon’s advice on relevancy. The home did not hold any particular historic value, and demolishing it allowed Duke Farms to further realize its mission of protecting the landscape and providing recreation space for visitors.

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