Tag Archives: museums

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:

What about the Insiders?

While Nina Simon’s The Art of Relevance presented compelling and important arguments, I was left thinking that the solutions she advanced did not address the complexity and nuance of different types of museum visitors.  In her dichotomy between ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’, Simon differentiates between museum visitors who are regulars– the ‘insiders’–and those who need to be given the ‘key of relevance’ before even thinking of visiting the museum–the ‘outsiders’.  In addressing the issue of relevance, Simon offers suggestions for motivating ‘outsiders’ to visit and become invested in what the museum has to offer. She writes, “to be relevant you need to cultivate open-hearted insiders, who are pleased to let new people in even if it requires a little change” on the terms of the ‘outsiders’ (65). While this sounds nice in an ideal world, practically the museum needs to make sure it is relevant to all its patrons: ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’.  ‘Insiders’ are probably not going to have the open-hearts that Simon suggests cultivating, as they too see themselves as customers who expect to receive the services they seek. Furthermore, while Simon focuses on ways to expand the museum-visitor population beyond the small and homogenous ‘insiders’ group, she does not recognize the dependency that museums may have on their ‘insiders’.  Those ‘insiders’ may be donors, key supporters and/or steady, regular visitors of the museum, whom the institution cannot afford to alienate. In this sense the museum must remain relevant to its ‘insiders’, while expanding its relevance to ‘outsiders’.

The non-profit I worked for last year made this very mistake. Although not a museum, the organization–unintentionally–followed Simon’s advice and attempted to make its mission more relevant to the younger generation, so to expand its membership. However, in employing this very tactic the non-profit alienated its older and committed population who felt they were being neglected. As most donations came from this older, more established membership, the organization suffered financial losses and had to reconsider its future activities. While I completely agree with Simon’s emphasis on the need for museums to reach out to their local communities and become relevant to a more diverse population, I feel that her quick and overly optimistic assumption that ‘insiders’ would adapt and be on-board does not reflect the complexity and difficulties involved.

Discomfort + Empathy = Action?

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.

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?

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

Where Should Public Discussions Take Place?

How do we, as public humanists and interpreters, help create space for public discussion and debate in museums rather than simply a public space to view private works? Where should these discussions take place: in the galleries, in creating the work, or even in the governance of the museum?

I found Hilde Hein’s chapter “Public Art” History and Meaning” particularly useful to think through the distinctions between art in a public place and public art. While a visitor to a public museum could come and leave without interacting with anyone, a person engaged in a public art work is compelled “to refine communication skills” by interacting with other visitors and the artist (Hein 55). The artist cannot loose sight of the visitor, as a grouping of the public is needed to create the work. Hein points to recent public art as examples of “replac[ing] answers with questions” and “mak[ing] room for doubt,” lessons from which traditional museums can learn (76). For Hein, the public interacts with the materials and concepts, though the artist probably retains the authority on the initial idea.

Bandelli has a more radical method to bring the public into the museum. While Hein focuses on the public’s role in interacting with established programming, Bandelli advocates for public input in museum decisions. I imagine this would include choosing which exhibits are displayed and perhaps helping to curate some of the work. How does the meaning of the public change as individuals are invited into the decision making process? Are they still members of the public once they have inside status and information or does their role change in some way? I’m interested to further consider how Bandelli and Hein’s views intersect, differ, and play out in various museum settings.

Should Museums look to the Public Art Model?

Thinking through our conversation last week about publics and museums and the interrelationship between the two, I found Hilde Hein’s Public Art: Thinking Museums Differently thought provoking in its argument that museums can learn from public art methods. Hein explains that public art is created with the intended purpose of instigating discourse about important social issues among the public (64, 89). In this sense, the art itself is not an aesthetic product, but rather a process in which public reaction and discussion is embodied within the art itself (90). Recognizing public art’s positive impact on the public, Hein argues that as museums attempt to distance themselves from their paternalistic, top-down tradition, they should embrace the public art model (18). In fact, she posits, museums in of themselves are public art in so far as they are public places that spark public discourse (17). Like the ephemeral nature of public art, Hein writes that museums should not offer undeniable truths, but rather should present less rigid and more fluid narratives that promote exchange between visitors and the institution (18).

While Hein provides a convincing viewpoint, I was left wondering if it is practically possible for museums to embrace this methodology. Public art, according to Hein, is mobile and temporary, while museums are bureaucratic institutions with expenses and responsibilities to their donors, board members, and invaluable collections. Therefore, while public art may be a jumping off point for thinking through how to improve the museum experience, I think it is also necessary to highlight and recognize their fundamental differences.