All posts by Bryn Pernot

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:

Multiple Cultures, Multiple Markets?

In thinking about how Kurin’s “Brokering Culture” outlines the multiple meanings of “culture,” I was struck by how “market” also has a range of definitions. When I hear this word in phrases like “market forces,” I tend to envision something abstract, the general operation of supply and demand. But market can also imply a physical space where people gather to purchase and sell goods. In this sense, I see markets as social and relationship-driven, a site for connections between individuals.

I’m working to reconcile this idea, the balance between abstract forces and in-person connections in the market, with Janes’s point: “Some museum work is clearly subject to market forces, such as restaurants, shops and product development, while other activities such as collections care, scientific research and community engagement are not. The latter bear no relation to the market economy and, in fact, require a safe distance from marketplace and corporatist fallout.”

If all of these activities are social or tied to at least one definition of cultural, can they stand outside of the market? It seems strange to me to delineate some activities of the museum as market-driven and others as not;  does that lead to an identity-crisis for the institution? Does returning to Kurin’s point that there are multiple definitions of culture, some money-driven and others not, clarify museums’ role in the marketplace or just add to the confusion?

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?

Continuity, Change, and Museum Research

“What makes a museum visitor experience high-quality and personally engaging is that it fully satisfies the visitor’s entering identity-related museum motivations. As museum researcher Zahava Doering wrote: ‘Rather than communicating new information, the primary impact of visiting a museum exhibition is to confirm, reinforce, and extend the visitor’s existing beliefs.” (Falk 153)

“When I looked into the research on relevance, I discovered that experts define relevance as more than a link. In the words of cognitive scientists Deidre Wilson and Dan Sperber, relevance ‘yields positive cognitive effect.’ Something is relevant if it gives you new information, if it adds meaning to your life, if it makes a difference to you. It’s not enough for something to be familiar or connected to something you already know. Relevance leads you somewhere. It brings new value to the table.” (Simon 29)

In reading Falk and Simon, I was struck by these two quotes and what they imply about visitor experience as well as the role of research experts in understanding these experiences. Falk and Doering seem to be suggesting the relative stability of visitors’ relationships to exhibits (confirm, reinforce), although the idea of “extend[ing]” existing beliefs implies some change. Simon, on the other hand, is more explicit about the idea of newness—relevance means adding something, making a difference.

I’m interested in museum research’s relationship to stability and change—how we can study the effect of a museum visit without implying that it needs to alter a visitor’s self-perception? Research is often thought of as a time consuming process and one that needs to hold certain variables constant, but if relevance implies newness and difference, then what might relevant research look like?

Empathy as Habit of Mind

One of the first results for a Google image search for “empathy.” I liked the play between overlapping minds and the idea of a habit of mind.

In 2014, in response to AAM’s newly released diversity and inclusion policy, the Incluseum featured guest posts (Part 1, Part 2) from Gretchen Jennings, a museum consultant and founder of the Empathetic Museum. In both posts, Jennings describes empathy as a “consistent quality, a state of being, a habit of mind”. Translated to a museum, empathy as a habit of mind is:

“A persistent orientation to its community, such that whatever is happening in the community (whether or not it is related to museum type or collection) is of interest (and is considered to be legitimately of interest) to the institution and is taken into consideration in its planning and activities.”

While Fusco notes that Couple in a Cage “became a pretext for internal discussions about the extent of self-criticism those museums could openly be engaged in” (159), I’m curious about what motivated them to show Couple in a Cage in the first place. Was it reactive to what was happening in the community, a desire to be aligned with contemporary performance art, a recognition of the injustices of anthropology and colonialism, some combination, or something else entirely?

Ken Gonzales-Day, Kerry James Marshall and Photography as Memory/Memorial

In reading the chapter in Memorial Mania on shame and Ken Gonzales-Day’s project “Erased Lynchings,” I was reminded of Kerry James Marshall’s “Heirlooms and Accessories.” Marshall’s piece takes an image of a double lynching in Indiana, reducing it to near invisibility and drawing attention to three women by placing their images in a locket. Marshall wanted viewers to look at this scene of violence and brutality and consider the implications of what’s being represented and the ways in which it is a spectacle. He says:

“The thing that is the most striking about the image is not so much the brutality, but the casualness with which the audience are there as witnesses, how little regard for the rule of law, how immune they felt from prosecution. So instead of dwelling on lynching, on the brutality of it, that’s the thing that struck me the most. Just how ordinary this all seemed as a spectacle.”

In Memorial Mania, Doss writes that “While there is no ontological basis for photography’s privileged status as ‘a direct transcription of the real,’ particularly since photos can be manipulated and manipulate their viewers, photos are still generally and uncritically perceived as inherently ‘truthful.’” (Kindle location 4965) With this quote in mind, how do Gonzales-Day and Marshall’s work grip us as truthful? Are they more “accurate” than the original images? Do they serve as a kind of memorial or undo typical ideas of memory?

Moonlight: Public History Dream

What is the role of expert reviews and awards in determining the meaning of a film and how it is classified as historic? Even before the Oscars on Sunday, I was regularly thinking about the movie Moonlight and how it feels like nothing I’ve ever seen before, a dream that is simultaneously intimate and universal.

Some questions that are swirling around my brain with reference to Moonlight and our readings about public history are:

  • How could we apply Glassberg’s idea that the meanings of books, films, and displays can change “as audiences actively reinterpret what they see and hear by placing it in alternative contexts derived from their diverse social backgrounds” (10) to Moonlight?
  • What does it mean for me as a straight, white woman and the Oscar voters (a mostly white, male group) to celebrate Moonlight as a Best Film?
  • How have expert reviews and the various think pieces about Moonlight and its Oscar win affected my and others’ view of the film? How will these reviews be read in the future?

A Slate article published yesterday titled “Forget the Embarrassing Mix-Up. The Real Story Is Moonlight’s Historic Win” ends by stating, “By awarding Moonlight, at a time when both blackness and queerness are being directly challenged at the highest levels of power, the Oscars landed on the right side of history—both cinematic and otherwise.” I agree with this sentiment while also wondering how Moonlight will be contextualized in the future, especially as a movie that doesn’t overemphasize its themes of homophobia, poverty, or bullying but focuses on the intensely personal and the power of glances and small gestures.

The Newseum as Lieux de Mémoire

Image of News History Gallery at Newseum. The side of the timeline that is shown begins in 1455. There are glass cases on either side of the timeline filled with additional artifacts.

In reflecting on Nora and Trouillot’s accountings of the production of history and memory, I was strongly reminded of the News History Gallery at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., the site of my undergraduate anthropology* thesis research.

Called a “museum unto itself”, the News History Gallery is laid out in a linear, chronological pattern, centered on a timeline displaying 500 years of historic newspapers and magazines, starting in 1455. The narrative provided by this display offers a view of how the form and content of news has changed over time, while also illustrating major world events over time. The display upholds the idea that news is a direct translation of the world; if we were there to witness the events, we would have noticed the same things as the reporter.

The News History Gallery offers a contrast to the linear march through history suggested by the physical timeline by interspersing touch screens throughout the display. These touch screens allow visitors to jump around in time, to consider how news was presented at different points in history. This interplay between different notions of time calls to mind Trouillot: “Time here is not mere chronological continuity. It is the range of disjointed moments, practices, and symbols that thread the historical relations between events and narrative.” (146)

At the end of the timeline, a label referencing Marshall McLuhan reads, “In the 21st century, the medium and the messenger often are considered as newsworthy as traditional news.” In other places, the Newseum defines news as the constantly new: “Every day the world comes to you: we call it the news. Prints and pictures, sights and sounds, reports that tell you what’s new, what’s news?” (Newseum Orientation Film, visited 14 September 2012). The Newseum functions to memorialize the news, which on the one hand feels like extreme absurdity, but on the other hand could be read as the height of lieux de mémoire: “Lieux de mémoire have no referent in reality; or rather, they are their own referent: pure, exclusively self-referential signs” (Nora 23).

*Side note: I was excited to learn that Trouillot was an anthropologist and was curious how this affected his interpretations and how the book would have been different if he were an historian.

A Dialogue Between Public and Institutional Ways of Knowing

Reading over the Bandelli article about governance in science centers, I was struck by the call to “expose the epistemological basis of museum exhibitions and programs to the public” (93) and to create opportunities for “dialogue about the societal aspects of current science,” a dialogue which “has the potential to impact the very nature of the epistemological process of the museum” (94). Dialogue calls to mind our discussions about discourse last week and how discourse forms a public. Yet, I’m not sure if this dialogue could impact the existing epistemology of the museum. It seems like the terms of engagement are already set and the public just contributes rather than enacting a fundamental shift.

In Bandelli’s sense, the public feels like a fixed group of people. For example, he writes, “For science centers, sharing the decision-making process with the public and building the necessary mutual trust cannot be achieved without a better understanding of who the public is that will engage in this process” (98). This makes it sound like science centers can know who exactly their public is and then engage with them with that knowledge in mind. But shouldn’t the public always be shifting and changing? Shouldn’t the public decide what constitutes them?

This is a very abstract view, though, and I agree with Bandelli that perhaps the best way to go about knowing the public is to have deep connections with a subset of the population or what he calls “small groups of ‘engaged citizens’ – those who are committed to discuss and participate in the dialogue about science and society” (101). These groups are representatives of a larger public, not quite the science professionals, but a kind of expert. What is unclear though is if these groups of engaged citizens already agree with the epistemology of the science center or if they are able to enact a different worldview. Would a dialogue between this group and the science center lead to a shift in the way science centers operate? Are we as public humanists part of this group of engaged citizens? Or are we the institutional voice? Or do we exist somewhere else in the dialogue or outside of it?

Stranger/Public: Like a Light Switch?

“Public speech can have great urgency and intimate import. Yet we know that it was addressed not exactly to us, but to the stranger we were until the moment we happened to be addressed by it…To inhabit public discourse is to perform this transition continually, and to some extent it remains present to consciousness.” (Warner: 57-58)

In Warner’s conception, there seems to be an almost instantaneous switch from stranger to public; when we are addressed by speech and we are at least somewhat attentive to it, we are no longer a stranger. I wonder how this might function for “public” programs—do we just need to imagine ourselves as an attendee of an event to be part of its public, do we need to attend, do we need to attentively engage in its proceedings?

Warner is focused on text and literary studies, so thinking about events where direct contact is important to hailing the public might be out of his purview, but he did allow me to think of organizers of events as “authors” and what this implies about institutions’ relationship with their “readers.”

Barrett pushes us to think about space and visuality, building on Habermas’s notion of the literary public sphere: “Public space is both abstract and material, conceptual and concrete” (148). But I was curious what Barrett would say about when or if we transition from strangers to public and at what point deeper relationships are formed in public spaces. Is it the sort of instantaneous switch that Warner imagines or a deeper, more sustained engagement?