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.
“Community” and “public” are both such complex terms that can lend themselves to many different readings, as Barrett and Warner point out. When placed together, though, they help me to pinpoint my own assumptions about each and general discomfort with creating work for “the public.”
When creating an event for simply “the public,” I often feel discouraged and unsure how to proceed. Who are the individuals and where do their interests lie? It’s like talking to an empty room or a stranger, as described in Warner. Warner, though, seems to believe that his words are worth writing and that someone is listening, whereas I would probably consider my work or article a failure without any community responses .
Here is where I realized that “community” is a huge part of my understanding of public humanities. In an ideal project, I would want to speak with stakeholders, historians, and people with different types of knowledge on the subject. All these people are part of communities and help me to focus my work. If the public is a stranger, what I’m showing might not be relevant to anyone. While Barrett disagrees, I find communities are easily more concrete than the vastness of the public.
“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?
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.
Barrett, Jennifer. Museums and the Public Sphere. Somerset: Wiley, 2011. Ebook Library. Web. 06 Feb. 2017.