All posts by Brigitte

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.

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.

Keeping Historic Houses Relevant (or Getting Over Ourselves in order to Connect People with Places and Things)

Hale House in Los Angeles, CA

Within the United States, Los Angeles is not exactly known for its historic house museums. Owing to its relatively late industrialization and urbanization, it never had the abundance of pre-Civil War era homes that places like New England are famous for and many of the historic houses that did exist were demolished in the name of urban renewal to make space for more “efficient” post-war housing and industry. Nevertheless, there are more than a few notable historic homes in the Los Angeles area: in this post, I’d like to talk about my experience with one cluster of historic homes that make up the Heritage Square Museum.

Located off the Arroyo Seco Parkway (a narrow, winding old highway that cuts through the hills of Northeast Los Angeles) at the end of a cul-de-sac in the working-class neighborhood of Montecito Heights, it is a relic of the Victorian era. The immaculately maintained houses look like beautiful haunted houses and growing up, I thought they were. It wasn’t until the 2016 Museums of the Arroyo (MOTA) Day that I realized that these houses are indeed haunted: haunted by the specter of antiquated historic house museum practices.

Normally, the price of admission prevented me from visiting. But on MOTA Day, when several local museums offered free admission, I came with my younger sister. While the folks working the admission table were friendly, some of the house guides were not. I did not see a sign prohibiting photography, so I tried to take a photo of the interior of a house and was promptly yelled at by a guide. This startled me and set the tone for the rest of my experience.

I don’t think the guide was trying to be rude. Like people in other professions, museum professionals can forget how much authority they have in certain situations and how this comes across to visitors. Unfortunately, this makes us worse at our job, which is to connect people to objects and places. Reading the Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums was a helpful reminder of this and I appreciated its strategies for engaging visitors and communities.

Historic house museums are often paradoxical in that they are homes but you do not feel at home. The philosophy of the Anarchist’s Guide basically boils down to enhancing communication through self-awareness and empathy. You are interested in a subject: now imagine someone could be less interested in this subject than you. You grew up in a certain class: now imagine a person grew up in a different one. Imagine these things and now with this knowledge, try and connect to other people, as fellow humans with their own thoughts, bodies, and experiences. Within the context of house museums, enhanced communication serves the role of facilitating a meaningful experience for the visitor with regard to education and interpretation.

Recently, it seems like the Heritage Square Museum has made efforts to address its shortcomings, through programs like the Inhabit Heritage Square Museum. The Inhabit Heritage Square Museum site describes it as “a new program which asks artists who reside in Los Angeles to interpret and explore the historical buildings and the site of Heritage Square Museum. Artists will present works that question notions of preservation, interact playfully with the collection, and foreground Los Angeles as a site of exploration.” This sounds cool and I hope it’s just the beginning of future efforts to increase communication, connection, and goodwill with the surrounding community and visitors. As they are, the houses of the Heritage Square Museum serve as attractions for film crews, wedding venue seekers, and fans of historical architecture, but they have the potential to do so much more.

Works Cited

“About.” Inhabit Heritage Square, Accessed 31 Mar. 2017.

MOTA. Museums of the Arroyo Day, 2017, Accessed 31 Mar. 2017.

Vagnone, Franklin D; Ryan, Deborah E; Cothren, Olivia B; Sorin, Gretchen. Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums. Walnut Creek: Taylor and Francis, 2016. Ebook Library. Web. 31 Mar. 2017.

“Visit.” Heritage Square Museum, 2013, Accessed 31 Mar. 2017.

Cultural Appropriation at the Biennial

Cultural appropriation has been particularly on my mind this week in light of the inappropriate inclusion of a painting by Dana Schutz in the Whitney Biennial. The painting, Open Casket, depicts the corpse of Emmett Till. The selection of this subject matter by a white artist signals a disregard for the legacy of violence that has historically been (and continues to be) directed against Black people in the United States and abroad. It demonstrates a lack of judgment and sensitivity on the part of the artist. As Hrag Vartanian wrote in Hyperallergic, “The image is particularly troubling because a white woman’s fictions caused the murder of the young man, and now a white female artist has mined a photograph of his death for ostensible commentary, which in reality does little to illuminate much of anything.” The ensuing request for the removal of the painting, written by artist Hannah Black, and the protests in response to this offensive painting are apt.

While Schutz created the painting, curators selected it for display. I think the selection of this painting was a misstep on the part of the two curators, Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks, who otherwise seem to put together an overall remarkable, politically engaged exhibition. Curators have a responsibility to select and position artwork in such a way that it stimulates thought and emotion; I would also argue that they are obligated to be empathetic, too.

Works Cited

“Artists and Critics Demand Whitney Biennial Remove Painting in Open Letter.” Artforum, 21 March 2017, Accessed 21 March 2017.

Vartanian, Hrag. “The Violence of the 2017 Whitney Biennial.” Hyperallergic, 21 March 2017,  Accessed 21 March 2017.

Expectations of Empathy

If museums are uniquely situated locations for empathetic encounters, it’s interesting to think about what an effective outcome would look like from different perspectives within the museum (curatorial, artistic, and administrative, among others). I bet each would look very different.

Museum work can almost be psychologically organized according to what type of (and how much) empathy is expected from the various professions that fall under its purview. From a curatorial perspective, minimally, it is absolutely crucial to cognitively empathize in order to put on a successful exhibition (though I think a truly inspired curator is able to affectively empathize as well). Affective empathy, in abundance, is something that is expected of artists, but not necessarily of administrators.

In the context of the museum, it is also interesting to point out how these discrepancies in expected empathy are valued. For instance, curators (as salaried employees of museum) benefit from stable salaries and health insurance but tend to keep low profiles. Artists suffer from notoriously unstable and often inadequate wages but receive perhaps more cultural capital than anyone else in a museum context.

Thinking about all of this, I wonder: if most humans are inclined towards one type of empathy over another, how productive is it to encourage museum workers to develop other types of empathy? Is one kind of empathy more feasible to develop than another?

Politics of Memory Activism in Liminal Spaces

The idea of commemorating the past through a static public display or object is something that made complete sense as a child and makes less sense as I get older, perhaps precisely because my knowledge of politics and political agendas has matured (or shall I say, I’ve become cynical). If it’s already difficult to create an appropriate monument, it is impossible to create a monument that stands the test of time. Which, I guess the point of a monument is not to last forever, per se, but to last as long as it’s needed to remind people of an event. I guess also that monuments do not exist to make sense, but to emotionally appeal to a memory of an event or history. Anyway, this is how I usually (perhaps reductively) think of monuments: as physical objects. However, reading about how “protesters mobilized mainstream symbols to further alternative ends, to constitute (not just reflect) shared beliefs, and to open spaces for social change” (Sandage 138) specifically with regard to the Lincoln Memorial opened up my mind to the idea of monuments as sites of potential social change by virtue of being liminal spaces.

In “A Marble House Divided: The Lincoln Memorial, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Politics of Memory, 1939-1963,” Scott A. Sandage defines a liminal space as being “a realm of ambiguity-and therefore of possibility-where public rituals and appeals to sacred symbols possess an unusual potency to effect both social change and group unity.” (143) Sandage goes on to describe the liminality of the Lincoln Memorial, writing, “Conceived and dedicated as holy ground, the Lincoln Memorial became…racially contested ground. By chance or design, the shrine straddled boundaries: between North and South, between black and white, and between official and vernacular memory.” (143) It’s important to remember, however, that people, not spaces, are the agents of any social change. Sandage writes, “By invoking and reinterpreting a national icon, black protesters explored the ambiguities and possibilities of American society in the mid-twentieth century. Their protests at the Lincoln Memorial were repeated, standardized rituals that evolved from experience and ultimately constituted a formidable politics of memory.” (143) Liminal spaces may indeed provide a unique space for political action, but ultimately it’s the political savvy of the activists themselves that generates change.

Works Cited

Sandage, Scott A. “A Marble House Divided: The Lincoln Memorial, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Politics of Memory, 1939-1963.” The Journal of American History, vol. 80, no. 1, 1993, pp. 135–167.,

On Public History and Gentrification

“Public historians can participate in the process of placemaking and contribute to local residents’ sense of place by adding a sense of location to local residents’ sense of emotional attachment, helping residents and visitors alike to see what ordinarily cannot be seen: both the memories attached to places and the larger social and economic processes that shaped how the places were made.”
– David Glassberg, “Public History and the Study of Memory”

If placemaking is one practical application of public history, could peacemaking be another? Conflict resolution is usually seen as antithetical to scholarship: the point is to contest, to critique, to problematize. But could methods of public history also be applied to promote understanding among people with divergent experiences and aims, even as we understand the divergence to be informed by historical inequalities of access to power?

Before going into praxis, let’s talk about a particular place: Boyle Heights. Boyle Heights is a neighborhood in Los Angeles that is experiencing gentrification as a result of relatively low rents and proximity to the Arts District/downtown Los Angeles.

To the discerning public humanist, reading “low rents” signals histories of institutionalized discrimination and economic subjugation, leading to the current situation; historical institutionalized racism in the form of redlining versus contemporary institutionalized racism in the form of speculative property investment that converts homes to condos, renovated “flips,” or gyms and other non-residential uses. Of course, this is a reductive summary. To begin to know the history of the neighborhood would require many rich and varied sources of information including oral histories, census data, videos, and maps.

Gentrification is ongoing. As Boyle Heights residents face the threat of displacement with rent increases, community activists have staged protests against recently arrived art galleries, resulting in the closure of one particularly contested art space. These conflicts, between residents and developers, between protesters and art institutions, are important and should be archived in a way that situates them in the history of the place and the people who have lived there.

In the fall of 2016, I presented an idea to our Methods of Public Humanities course of a digital public archive on the history of gentrification in Boyle Heights. This would serve the double function of preserving memory and visualizing knowledge in ways that could help facilitate understanding. After reading David Glassberg’s “Public History and the Study of Memory,” I am particularly inspired by the possibilities of applied public history. Glassberg wrote, “[Public historians] confront the problem of historical representation on a daily basis, immersed in a world in which the boundaries between knower and known, between subjectivity and objectivity, have long been collapsed.” (23)

Perhaps peacemaking is not an application of public history, but a potential outcome. We know that archives are not neutral; that privilege is embedded into the very structure of an archive. If this archive project were to be realized, the project’s leadership team needs to include Boyle Heights residents–otherwise, it risks perpetuating the same issue it seeks to understand. As Glassberg wrote, “In presenting history to the public, [public historians] soon discover that the public is presenting history back to them as well.” (23)

Works Cited

Glassberg, David. “Public History and the Study of Memory.” The Public Historian, vol. 18, no. 2, 1996, pp. 7–23.,

The Lieux de Mémoire of Aztlán

“Representation proceeds by strategic highlighting, selecting samples and multiplying examples. Ours is an intensely retinal and powerfully televisual memory.”
Pierre Nora, “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire

As I learned about les lieux de mémoire in the Nora reading, I thought of the transformation of the sites of collective memory of Chicanx culture over time. In Los Angeles, there are certainly many Chicanx sites that meet the criteria of being “material, symbolic, and functional” (19): Self-Help Graphics comes to mind, as does the former Sixth Street Bridge.

Piers of the Sixth Street Bridge.

It’s interesting to think of these sites of collective memory as always shifting, as our understanding of the past, the present, and our selves change. These days, popular Chicanx lieux de mémoire include: Selena Quintanilla, tacos, Saltillo blankets, pan dulce, and 1940s pachuco outfits. Pan dulce existed in the 1970s; why did it only recently become a popular motif? I think the answer to that lies in the “principle of double identity that enables us to map, within the indefinite multiplicity of sites, a hierarchy, a set of limits, a repertoire of ranges” (20).

Pan dulce.

Nora references “the cult of the dead” as a “broad category of the genre” (20): this is fascinating, given the commodification of calacas, marigolds, and other symbols associated with the Day of the Dead in the 2000s. Formerly a tradition observed mainly by indigenous people in certain parts of Mexico, it had become popular in the US. In the fall of 2016, MAC released a Selena Quintanilla-themed line of makeup, 21 years after her death. While she was always beloved among Mexican-Americans, she experienced a resurgence of popularity in the 2000s among Latinxs and non-Latinxs alike.


While Nora seems averse to “dominant and dominated lieux de mémoire” (23) imposed on from on high, I wonder what he would have to say about these sites when they are co-opted?

Works Cited

Nora, Pierre. “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux De Mémoire.” Representations, no. 26, 1989, pp. 7–24,

On Critical Public Design

“The new public art is local and vernacular. Obsessively ordinary, it may be vulgar, irreverent, and even repulsive. It is suspicious of beauty as aesthetic affectation, a false friend, culturally relative, and maybe a distraction.”

Hilde Hein, Public Art: Thinking Museums Differently

As I read through Public Art, I wondered if it would not be useful to make a distinction between public art and public design, rather than between critical public art and (uncritical?) public art. Hein begins her chapter on “Innovation in Public Art” with an epigraph by Krzysztof Wodiczko that defines critical public art as “an engagement in strategic challenges to the city structures and mediums that mediate our everyday perception of the world: an engagement through aesthetic-critical interruptions…” (96). I spent part of the chapter wondering whether uncritical, aesthetically-minded public art serves a function and came to the conclusion that I think it does (namely, beautifying public spaces) and rather than consider it a lesser a form of art, it might be more useful to think of it as something else.

A planter on Cesar Chavez Avenue in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, California. 

Of course, my use of the word design might imply that the primary distinction between design and art is a focus on making things beautiful. I don’t mean to be reductive, as there are certainly critical designers and there is critical design. Hein points out that is difficult to be an effective social practice artist: “To rally a public, artists must therefore analyze it carefully, and this is a task for which few are prepared…Striving toward engagement, artists risk appearing both crudely hectoring and cynically opportunist, their symbolic interventions indistinguishable from the manipulations of the commercial marketplace.” (101)

But beauty does serve an important role in our public spaces. It makes our communities pleasant places to live. Rather than downplay the significance of beauty, perhaps it is better to simultaneously promulgate it and interrogate it: to say that we like beautiful public spaces and also acknowledge that the practice of beautifying public spaces is, philosophically, uncomfortably close to broken ideas like “urban renewal,” and broken windows theory, for that matter.

Hein writes that “Rejecting the passivity promoted by conventional aesthetic and critical theory that pertains to private art, we may revert to an earlier claim that art is transformative: it can change your life…Not content with merely affecting subjective experience, contemporary public art aims to change the world through multitudes of public events” (110). I would argue that, by questioning as it beautifies, critical public design could change the world just as well.

A crosswalk on Pike Street in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle, Washington.

Works Cited

Hein, Hilde. Public Art : Thinking Museums Differently. Blue Ridge Summit, US: AltaMira Press, 2006. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 14 February 2017.

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.