All posts by eesten1@brown.edu

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

Toby Ziegler, The West Wing, and Government’s Role in Culture

The government is actively involved in creating and preserving cultural heritage. How can “ungovernable” art collaborate with government? What effect do large scale institutions have on local public humanities work? What benefits are there to a top-down approach versus a bottom-up approach? How to account for the difference between democratic and dictatorial effects of art? What happens when our governing bodies are corporations?

The questions behind this week’s readings reminded me of two  episodes of The West Wing where the national consciousness of arts and culture come into play. In S3E7, “Gone Quiet,” WH Communications Director Toby Ziegler meets with a representative from the appropriations committee who wants to cut the NEA out of the budget. Weaving in and out of their conversation through the episode, there are some great rants interspersed throughout about the need to support the arts. The representative’s real problem lies the Director of the NEA, who’s funding “outrageous” projects by funding the museums rather than individual artists.

Toby Ziegler does a couple of these rants throughout the show about democratic ideals and public-funded cultural works, but I find this one to be most interesting because of Toby’s argument. Reading through UNESCO and the NEH legislation, there is this aspirational quality to getting the government involved in creating and preserving culture. There’s this nationalistic quality around culture that Toby espouses – that government must work to fund it because there’s a possibility of a Da Vinci: because if art is thriving, society will thrive as well. I’m not as convinced by this line of thought, though I do think institutions like governments should strive to promote displays of art and culture. But I’m interested in the idea that art/culture are connected to greatness – that there’s a conscious effort by government officials to curb and direct that greatness as a form of propaganda.

The second episode I’m thinking of this week is S3E16, “The U.S. Poet Laureate,” Ziegler again gets into conversations around art and activism. This time, U.S. Poet Laureate, Tabitha Fortis (Laura Dern), chooses to speak out against POTUS’s lack of support for a landmine treaty. Ziegler tries to sweet-talk Fortis into coming to the party without publicly mentioning her politically charged position. His argument is that her confrontation, rather than the landmines issue, would become the media story. In happy-government fashion, Ziegler arranges for Fortis to have a private conversation with POTUS so that she can personally tell him about her disagreements. It’s a weird  cop-out for the show, though contextually makes sense (POTUS has a few other media-related issues at the moment.) There’s also this  line from Fortis:

“You think I think that an artist’s job is to speak the truth. An artist’s job is to captivate you for however long we’ve asked for your attention. If we stumble into truth, we got lucky, and I don’t get to decide what truth is.

Again, not entirely sure if I agree with Fortis in this moment. But in our transition from viewing art as resistance to art being part of the structure, I wonder what some of the governments looking to use socially-engaged art would think of this quote. Who gets to decide its truth? Who gets to decide its relevance? And is the role of an artist really just to capture attention, or to do something more than that?

 

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.

tl;dr: Vagnone is right, but is this visionary?

Like Rica, I am both excited and skeptical of Vangone’s approach to the historic house museum. Vagnone, like Simon, shows investment in community, creativity and culture for the field. But, as Rica discusses, none of this seems particularly anarchist/revolutionary? Sure, Vagnone may be the first to compile it into a text, but much of this language has been part of what I consider public humanities literature and discussion of at least the last 5-10 years. I feel bombarded with “museum visionaries” like Simon and Vagnone to the point that this is my norm and my expectation for museums. The person that needs to be convinced is no longer me – in fact, it probably never was me, because this is the standard for thought leadership in the field at the moment.  I’m interacting with the “right” people – the people interested in change and ~revitalization~ – and so I’d be more curious to hear from classmates who’ve been on the inside about just how difficult these kind of changes are once inside the museum. Is Vagnone directing his work at the wrong person? Or am I just too optimistic about how change works?

I’d also like to point out that Vagnone takes a page from Mark Schlemmer’s playbook with #ITweetMuseums. But one should note that #ITweetMuseums started as a way for cultural workers to tweet about museums – an independent initiative, separate from the organizations themselves, and also not directly for these new audiences that Vagnone talks about for HHMs. Why is that? Well, these suggestions requires a lot of investment on the part of the community to be interested in your museum! Citizen Advisory Groups, young volunteers, N.U.D.E. tour guides, new paradigms of thinking – these are great partnerships for the museums, but I’m not sure if visitors/communities understand the benefits they would be getting from this conversation. And they’re the ones who, at the end of the day, need to be convinced as well!

I’m also interested in how Falk can play into conversations with Vagnone and Simon. Both seem more focused on getting people in the door with dynamic presentation, but not necessarily getting into the intricacies of those visitors’ needs and desires once inside. Which shifts into my next point…

Continue reading tl;dr: Vagnone is right, but is this visionary?

Non-Object Based Cultural Appropriation (?)

Conn in particular, though it’s certainly a running theme in all of these readings, identifies that objects are no longer central to the conception and function of the museum (58). (I mean, the entire book is called ‘Do Museums Still Need Objects?’, so that’s not insightful.) Still, though, Conn’s discussion around of objects in the issues of repatriation highlights issues specific to cultural work around displaying and interpreting these objects.

It’s difficult, though, to discuss cultural appropriation in this larger context – not limited to objects, but to festivals, language, activities, ideas. These “objects,” not tangible to the museum element, are still just as relevant to our questions around our work and practice. But in the object-focused culture surrounding museum collections, the visual aid limits the types of conversations we can have about stereotypes and cultural  appropriation. It places the issue first and foremost on the physical presence of the object, making the connections – programming, interpretation, or other – seem tangentially solved. These readings made me feel as though cultural appropriation doesn’t happen, at least for the same reasons, with the non-tangible “objects.”

But we know it does happen – as Rica’s presentation brings up with intellectual property, or as Scafidi describes in the legal issues around African-American music like jazz and blues. And in some cases, like in Scafidi’s case of depreciative commodification, the symbolism or images that depict an aspect of culture should be just as scrutinized as the use of objects themselves.  Though our readings make a distinction between repatriation and appropriation, the issues are intrinsically linked – even more so cases without visual or tangible elements.

Clifford seems to challenge this idea then – making museums-as-contact-zones less about the objects, but about the relationships between object and culture, people and place. Still, the object is central to exploring the contact zone and structuring collections in this fashion. But I want to take it a step further and remove the physical element of objects entirely. What happens to these discussions of cultural appropriation in digital, exploratory spaces? How do digital-born objects experience cultural appropriation, and in what ways can they be rehabilitated or repatriated? How do reproductions function in this space, when the text, language, or associated materials? In what ways is cultural appropriation minimized or amplified in these environments? Digital projects, spaces, and collections should have the same responsibilities as museums to ensure, but in what ways is cultural appropriation occuring  when the object is partially (or entirely) removed from the situation?

A (Failed) Performance of Live Reading Fusco’s “The Other History of Intercultural Performance”

I wanted to try something new this week – live tweeting myself working through the assigned readings. I had a plan to Storify these tweets, but

  • a) 50 tweets is a lot for a Twitter thread and
  • b) even for Storify, it would be a lot of work.

Here’s the draft of what I had written, though:

Tweet Charac. Count
Trying something new for #AMST2560: bear with me y’all. 55
This week, in talking about “Empathy & Other”, we watched Paula Heredia’s “The Couple in the Cage.” http://bit.ly/2mUaRP5 121
I found myself taking lots of notes on Fusco’s article “The Other History of Intercultural Performance.”  http://bit.ly/2mDQq6Q 127
& seeing as I like livetweeting lectures……why don’t I try livetweeting my notes? So here goes. 95
“While the experiences of many of those who were exhibited is the stuff of legend, it is the accounts by observers and impresarios… 131
…that comprise the historical and literary record of this practice in the West.” 81
There’s an emphasis on historical and literary here…what other records might bring forth diverse accounts? Are there any? 121
The language of “legend” is interesting, too – adding to the exoticness being applied to those exhibited. 106
I rarely read behind-the-scenes review of exhibits, but it’s cool to see Fusco acknowledge the intent & realities of the project. 130
And these realities of fiction and misinformation, literalism and public interest, seem more relevant now than in 1994. 119
“the Bush administration had drawn clear parallels between the ‘discovery’ of the New World and his New World Order.” – I just wrote ? Here. 140
A little research brought me here, explaining her calling Columbus a “smokescreen” http://bit.ly/2ny4fmG 104
“Out of this context arose our decision to take a symbolic vow of silence….” – I wonder what the performance would’ve been like w/o this? 137
Speaking English, of course, wouldn’t have made sense. But how would language have altered the performance? 107
“Our cage became the metaphor for our condition… 48
linking the racism implicit in ethnographic paradigms of discovery with the exocticizing rhetoric of  ‘world beat’ multiculturalism.” 133
I circled the details of the performance – the ‘traditional tasks’ incorporating both old and modern concepts, the ‘ethnic’ dance to rap… 137
…the ‘Amerindian stories’, the guards on hand….the leashes made me EXTREMELY uncomfortable though. 99
Immediately after reading the list of performance environments: “THIS is going to be a point of contention.” 108
What were the conversations were like behind the scenes? Esp. places like the @NMNH or @FieldMuseum? 101
How does performance art fit in natural history museums? Esp. recognizing the history of such events in similar spaces? 120
I mean, I think of intercultural performances as events for state fairs and expositions – but there’s something unsettling… 123
about this in a museum. Even if it is satire. 46
“The contemporary tourist industries…still perpetrate the illusion of authenticity to cater to the Western fascination with otherness.” 135
^this reminded me of seeing shows like The Lion King on Broadway, or iLembe at the National Arts Festival.  http://bit.ly/2mGiLuR 129
In the case of shows, the focus is cultures over exotic individuals…but seeing these shows & paying to see them… 112
…makes me think about how exoticness persists. The type of display has evolved, but is the West masking the intentions of performance? 136
“These shows were where most whites ‘discovered’ the non-Western sector of humanity.” Where do we learn about that now? 119
“The original ethnographic exhibitions often presented people in a simulation of their natural habitat.” 105
^Does Fusco explain why they chose not to do so? I think the cage is more powerful in display if people were taking it as satire. 129
But, as we know, they weren’t… 30
“…even though the idea that America is a colonial system is met with resistiance-since it contradicts the dominant ideology’s presentation… 139
…of our system as a democracy-the audience reactions indicate that colonialist roles have been internalized quite differently.” !!!!! 135
Fusco goes on to discuss how exhibiting humans has continued – through decapitated limbs, gentials, etc. 105
What does removal of the whole body do for these presentations? How does it remove and obscure the “other”? 107
“The desire to look upon predictable forms of Otherness from a safe distance persists.” I’m reminded of Jennicam. http://bit.ly/2mlrlN4 135
Or reality TV. Or YouTube commenters in general. These aren’t racial/ethnic categories of Otherness… 100
…but they are people that we choose to “other.” People we choose to remove ourselves from. People we ogle and do not imagine complexly. 137
“We underestimated public faith in museums as bastions of truth and institutional investement in that role.” !!!!!!!!!!!!!! 123
We had a great conversation about this at #heritage17 w/ Morgan Grefe & Ruth Taylor. http://bit.ly/2n3gMlt 106
Fusco then goes on to discuss the different experiences w/ gen. public from art museums to natural history museums, q’s I mentioned earlier. 140
pg. 157 is just covered in scribbles and notes toward the beginning in the end. 80
But “We found that [children’s] reactions have been the most humane” reminded me of this video: http://bit.ly/2mUohuH 117
Fusco goes on to discuss different audience reactions – POC, white spectators, art aficionados, museum professionals. 117
“No American ever asked about the legitimacy of the map…of the taxonomic information of the signs…” would this change in a smartphone era? 138
(I doubt it, but one would wonder. I, for one, would almost immediately Google it. Or I hope I would.) 102
Fusco then discusses the reactions of Latinos, Native Americans, and Spaniards. She also mentions the gender stereotypes. 122
I’m curious why she chooses to end her article on the frank dicussion of sex – 78
 –  its relationship to exoticness, being catcalled, projection of fantasies onto her body. 92
“Those are also the times when, even though I know I can get out of the cage, I can never quite escape.” 104
(Also did anyone take the time to read through the Encyclopedia Britannica entry? Makes you think about museum exhibition panels.) 130
I’m still fascinated by this performance – its otherness, its satirization, but mostly the reactions. 102
In what ways is this limited to performance art? How do we see elements of what Fusco satirizes in exhibitions, displays? 121
Other questions: what role does performance art have in public humanities? Is it a different one than public art? 114
What stakes does the performer have in its presentation? What about the venue? What if that venue is a museum? 110
Do we need to expect “better” of our patrons? Do we need to challenge ourselves further? To do what, in these cases? 116

Memorial Mania on College Campuses?

I’m fascinated this week by the combination between commemoration as a physical presence (in the construction of memorials, as Doss discusses) and an experiential one (in Sandage’s article on protests during the Civil Rights Movement.) It’s one thing to focus on the ways in the constructed presence or its intended narrative, as Gopnik does in his criticisms of the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. However,  it’s quite another issue to think of the constructed presence as something on which we present our feelings, interpretations, and constructed legacies. While the readings this week have focused primarily on the physical constructions of representations of the past (aside from Sandage), I’m curious more directly how politics of memory influence the celebrations/protests/events that occur around the physical memorials.

There are a lot of different ways to go about this – I’ll stick with protests. Politicization of statues, buildings, and monuments has been an increasingly prevalent theme in recent years. I’m reminded of #RhodesMustFall at University of Cape Town, where students used a protest for removal of a statue to push for wider decolonization of the university. I’m thinking of the recent change of Calhoun College at Yale to Grace Murray Hopper College being part of a larger conversation around the history of slavery and reparations in prominent universities. Amherst College recently took efforts to change their (unofficial) mascot from the Jeffs, a reference to Lord Jeffrey Amherst.  Sandage’s argument places  Lincoln (and the Lincoln Memorial) as a positive piece of symbolism on which black activists projected the growing Civil Rights movement. Now, though, we see a shift to view these figures negatively, and are perhaps more transparent/explicit  in the use of these political symbols of (white) men to make connections to decolonization and racial justice.

I’m also noticing as I write this that the examples I first reach for around memory and memorialization are university-related. I’m sure that’s partially due to my own news-related biases, getting most of my information from professors and academic-minded sources. But I also wonder if that points to the ways in which universities – public and private – use monuments or memorials to establish a legacy parallel to that of a larger, national one. What’s the role of memorial mania on this campus? On any campus? And what’s the role of students, faculty, and staff to acknowledge/challenge these politics around physical constructs?

Ramblings Re: Hamilton, Founding Fathers Fandom, and Myth as a Framework(?)

As a self-professed fan of Hamilton and Lin-Manuel Miranda as well as conscious public historian, I feel obliged to love Hamilton in all its problematic essence. Reviewing it as a case study through this lens of myth, nostalgia, and memory, I’m less curious as a work of “escapist fiction” Allen presents than as a “liberal incremental piece of art” Noonan writes about.

I’m reminded this week of the talk by Rebecca Onion (1:04:55) and a subsequent article, in which she discussed on decontextutalized history on the internet. Onion, who spends a lot of time on the Internet focused on crap history and virality, used the article to discuss the emotional connections to history –  particularly the sexual, LGB nature of the founding father fandom on Tumblr.

Onion received a lot of flak from the fandom on which she writes, most notably this bit from publius-esquire:

Rebecca Onion: No amount of stealing my fanart and taking it out of contextualization, or making fun of LGBT+ people for writing queer historical fiction (which you never would have done had people been writing straight ships) will ever erase the fact that I’ve spent hundreds of hours reading dozens upon dozens of books, and know more on this subject than you ever will.

So, as we say in the serious academia world, eat me.

The fans, many of whom are quoted or referenced in the article, took  issue with Onion’s portrayal of their work as just fans. Many of these bloggers are active amateur historians or grad students in history; many were performing this type of fandom long before Hamilton ever came along. Many thought that Onion failed to mention that it was these complexities of the Founding Fathers and their contemporaries – not so much in Founders Chic fashion, but in the sense of reclaiming these narratives – that made their work important. And her framing of Hamilton and founding father fandom in relation to crap history made it difficult to view her taking this type of myth-making (or un-mythmaking) seriously.

Transitioning from Onion to Monteiro: I struggled with Monteiro’s piece ever since I first read it last spring – partly because its critiques are accurate. It’s fair to say that slavery doesn’t function actively within Hamilton; it’s fair to say that it actively erases the presence of people of color in Revolutionary America. I might even go further to say that the feminism the show has been associated with has also fallen short.

But I also think that Monteiro fails to recognize some aspects of the story – that critiquing the casting of Eliza Hamilton as “white-passing” and her Broadway stile fails to recognize that this is one particular cast and presentation of the story that has not been carried throughout the production; that the “colorblind casting” of Hamilton’s character actually choses to emphasize an aspect of Hamilton’s ethnicity and the early discrediting around his origins,  that the expanded Hamilton universe (most obviously, the mixtape) starts to unpack the question… Thinking of Miranda’s intentions with this story as a concept album rather than a Broadway performance, Monteiro’s criticisms of the show point more to the issue of medium in presentation rather than diving into the stories itself.

But linking Monteiro’s essay with The Atlantic’s re: the Supreme Court, I wonder if her final question is true. If we see Hamilton and the story of America’s founding as fundamental to understanding the politics and interpretations of the structures through which politics in this country operate, isn’t it entirely important that we understand these processes of myth making and reallocation of ownership of the republic? Doesn’t asking us to acknowledge Hamilton’s origin story as a Caribbean “immigrant” and to view his experience through this lens start to challenge the ways in which we look at race relations in this century? And could it be said that if founding father fandom has started using these histories as a way to raise awareness around these other types of histories, Even if we’re interested as historians in chipping away “at the exclusive past typified by the cult of the founders,” doesn’t Hamilton and the physical presence of people of color on the stage start to create a default experience of the ways in which we view history? Hamilton doesn’t try to celebrate the real histories of people and color, but it is showing ways in which we can challenge the faith in history that has been created in public environments.

I don’t feel qualified to answer these questions, or even to propose them – because, to be fair, I’m a) very conscious of the fact that I’m viewing Hamilton very much in the way Noonan does, and b) aware that I’m interested in very different questions re: Hamilton than Monteiro is. But in light of Glassberg’s interest in intermediaries and the dissemination of public histories over time, I’m thinking of Hamilton as a framework for tackling nostalgia, rather than it playing directly into the hands of American myth.

Making Museums Public vs. Making Museum Publics

In talking about public humanities, our first question is always how do we make humanities public? And the question, as identified in these readings, is always a structural one. Especially in the Bandelli and Williams article, the shifts occurring in the museological sphere emphasize changing the hierarchical structures and levels of authority in museum staffing. The article identifies giving a public a voice within the decision-making process, while still upholding reliability and trustworthiness – as key to making museums democratic spaces.

Hein’s identification of the museum as an artifact, “a product of collective human design,” uses language of private, non-private, public to negotiate similar structural issues to viewing art. In discussing critical public art, Hein starts to address the idea of how engagement in the artistic discourse as a form of self-discovery strengthens contemporary memorial art. While Hein’s focus is also more structural than I care for, the mediation of an everyday perception of the world seems to me the most important aspect of our work as public humans.

My central question: Are we talking about making museums public, or is this a discussion about making museum publics? Are we still focused on getting “the public” in the door, or getting them to come back? Thinking of Warner’s idea that anyone coming in contact with “the discourse” and chooses to engage becomes a part of a public, I think only Hein’s approach starts to deconstruct this notion. (Even then, I’m not sure it’s going far enough.) We can make these structural changes in which “the public” is incorporated into the engagement structures of the museum, but in what ways can we use other disciplines to improve upon the discourse we’re presenting? This is where Bandelli’s point re: valuing different knowledge formations (cognitive, experiential, and social) comes into play. Similarly, this is what Canclini starts to address in Chapter 4 around the opposition of sacred/profaned past. In what ways can we shape the existing publics of a museum to look beyond these ideas of conservation, preservation, or temporal culture? Is that even really what’s at stake? How do we center the negotiation of making culture as the role of museums in a different way? Are the structural issues really the ones that need work – how does content factor into all of this?

Providence: The Creative Capital & its Creative Capital

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I found myself drawn to Barrett’s earlier chapters, discussing the history of “the public,” and the role of the state within museums/institutions to craft these narratives of education, leisure, and discipline.  It reminded me of tours I conducted in downtown Providence with the Rhode Island Historical  Society (RIHS). With this collaborative urban education program, the students and I explored the resources of the city.  RIHS made the decision to showcase these resources through publics spaces that emphasized art, history, and culture. Discussing the city as a system of parts, we used places like the Convention Center, Kennedy Plaza, RISD Library, and Burnside Park to celebrate the value of public spaces within the function of a city.

Like Barrett describes in these early chapters, architects and urban planners incorporated these elements of culture into public spaces to emphasize the cosmopolitan-ness of it all. Creating these public spaces that Habermas describes – places where discourse can take place, like the library – and places that intrinsically inspire discourse – the Howard Ben Tre Plaza – Providence’s branding as the “Creative Capital” made a lot of sense to me. As an outsider, I appreciated the tour as way to see how the influences of higher ed resources and these artistic communiteis had been shaped into the city.

But I also found it interesting as part of this tour, and as Barrett reminds me, these spaces weren’t the ones in which the students valued as “public.” The presence of the half-Gaspee in Burnside Park didn’t inspire conversations about the history of the American Revolution. Waterplace Park as a space for multisensory working art was cool to them, but more as something to look at  than as a way of engaging with other people. RISD Library, with its security, gates, and overwhelming quietness (and arguably, not being a public space) came off less as a model for adaptive reuse and more of a liminal space.

The students didn’t feel comfortable in the public spaces we took them through, because the city as a public space (or at least in my interpretation of it) didn’t value their own experiences. Even though we had created this interesting tour to celebrate public space, the students came away feeling like strangers. As Barrett quotes of Zukin in Chapter 3, the relationship of art and culture within the economics of a city can often make publics or communities feel manipulated by this visuality.  I think the students intrinsically saw RIHS as a frame through which they could view these spaces as public, and yet still felt as though the dominant culture kept them from experiencing the city in that way.

How do we as cultural workers, museum professionals, or new public intellectuals make sure to use the value of publics to the fullest extent? How do we respect the intrinsic value of a public and its knowledge as well as create our narratives in these spaces that acknowledge differing public missions? And can Providence be a creative capital without marketing on that point?