Tag Archives: Social Justice

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:

Social and Political Commentators vs. Agents of Social Change

The reading for this week prompted me to differentiate between two distinctive paradigms of the museum’s role in social justice: social and political commentator and active agent of social change.  Lois Silverman’s  The Social Work of Museums really brought this distinction to the fore. Her argument that social workers should serve as key museum staff members reified the active role museums could have in affecting social change within their own walls.  The other paradigm is brought forth in Richard Sandell’s “Museums and the Combating of Social Inequality”. There he demonstrates how museums can utilize their exhibitions to reflect their social and political positions, and provide commentary on major social and political events. While I am not making a value judgement, to me this seems a more passive role than Silverman’s strategy.

The New York Times article “Museums Chart a Response to Political Upheaval” further underscores the difference between a museum’s role as social/political commentator and agent of social justice, as it charts various museums’ responses to the Trump administration’s social/political agendas. One example the article describes is the Guggenheim Museum’s response to plant Yoko Ono’s “Wish Tree” in front of its building for passers-by to write down their wishes for the future and hang them on the tree.  In this case the “Wish Tree” was implemented in response to the tense political environment and to promote inclusivity, allowing the whole public to contribute to the art piece (Bowley, 2017). The “Wish Tree” is a symbolic endeavor to reflect the Guggenheim’s response to Trump’s inauguration and seems to fall in the social/political commentator camp. Another cited museum response is the New York Historical Society’s plan to open an exhibition on immigration and its programs that help people learn “what they need to know to pass a Naturalization Test and become a citizen” (Ibid.). In this case, the Society is actively confronting the Trump administration’s immigration policies by aiding and educating immigrants about the citizenship process.


Bowley, G. (2017). Museums Chart a Response to Political Upheaval. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/13/arts/design/museums-politics-protest-j20-art-strike.html.