Can discomfort with a presentation or performance move viewers to empathy and reflection? Perhaps more importantly, can this empathy push people (both museum leaders and visitors) to action?
Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gómez-Peña’s “The Couple in the Cage” and Coco Fusco’s piece on the performance both focus on visitor reactions to the piece. While some visitors leisurely strolled up to the cage for a photo or to speak directly to Fusco and Gómez-Peña, many shied away from direct contact and looked uncomfortable. Some parents “looked very nervous” explaining the exhibit to their children” and others “feared getting too close, preferring instead to stay at the periphery of the audience” (Fusco 157, 160). Fusco also described that many asked the museum guards about their treatment in the cage and then “continued with a politely delivered stream of questions about our eating, work, and sexual habits” (Fusco 159). In all these examples, viewers are reacting to their discomfort – either by leaning away from the uncomfortable experience or by seeking an explanation to normalize the performance.
It seems that this is often how museums react, as well. It is easier to disassociate with potentially controversial content rather than making a political statement. It is also easier for museums to call themselves socially responsible by explaining the context of certain items in the collection rather than repatriate them. I was surprised that so many prominent museums agreed to Fusco and Gómez-Peña’s performance and open themselves up to potential criticism, but also curious to see how this criticism might have changed museums’ colonialist approach to collections. Fusco does mention that at natural history sites “our project became a pretext for internal discussions about the extent of self-criticism those museums could openly be engaged in,” though little about how the internal museum conversation continued (if it did at all) after the exhibit (Fusco 159).
Empathy from museum curators, board members, and other professionals could provide a new way for those in leadership roles to view colonialism and change narratives in the museum. Perhaps empathy from the visitors that leads to protest is more important. Demanding changes would make the institution uncomfortable and perhaps force change – museums do depend on visitors as “customers” after all.