Activism is definitely having a moment in the museum sector. Last week, I was in Portland, Oregon reflecting on the theme of ‘revolution’ at a MuseumNext conference. We discussed social action and civil rights in a city struggling with a homelessness epidemic, against the backdrop of news reports about the mass shooting in Las Vegas and Trump’s pitiful response to the humanitarian aid crisis in Puerto Rico. The current state of affairs is pretty grim so it’s reassuring to know that there are plenty of people working hard to make things better. The conference presentations and discussions were wide-ranging and varied, but there was consensus (in the room at least) that museums are not neutral, in either their current engagement with issues affecting their communities, or in their histories and dominant narratives, infused with anglocentric and male biases. Consequently, conversations gravitated towards two fundamental questions: what role should museums play in the 21st century, and what still needs to change in order for that to happen?
There was a lot of information crammed into those three days, and I’m not going to attempt to capture it all here. Instead, I’d like to share a few examples of projects and initiatives that I found particularly interesting:
Museum of Impact (MoI)
MoI defines itself as “ the first mobile social justice museum, inspiring action at the intersection of art, activism, self and society”. Its founder, Monica O. Montgomery, spoke at the conference, and also curated a special display for the event, hosted in one of the Portland Art Museum galleries (where the conference was held). Montgomery is clearly a well-respected figure in the US cultural sector and her involvement in the conference was warmly received. She shared two MoI case studies: #UpstanderLoveLetters, where participants were asked to write ‘love letters’ to those activists, teachers, carers, and grafters who are upstanding members of their community, celebrating their positive contribution to the lives of others; and Every Mother’s Mural, depicting women of colour whose sons have been murdered as a result of racially-motivated violence. As well as the mural, a social/support group was established, where mourning mothers could meet others going through the same experience.
War Childhood Museum (WCM)
WCM is based in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. It began as a crowd-sourced book, published in 2013. The museum itself only opened in January 2017, believed to be the only one of its kind. The war ended 20 years ago, and Bosnia remains a deeply-divided and traumatised society. The museum’s director, Amina Krvavac spoke movingly about this project as a ‘peacebuilding tool’ and there is a strong educational component; they worked with over 5000 children in the first six months after opening. There is a lot of content on their website, and they are actively looking for partners and contributors.
This 24-hour social media campaign came about as a witty counterpoint to the ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news’ that are so closely associated with the Trump administration. Two museum workers, investing their own time and initiative, declared 17 February 2017 the #DaysofFacts and enlisted a range of cultural institutions to share factual information about their collections. Not surprisingly, these often took a political slant (for example, providing evidence of climate change). The tweets are funny and angry and passionate – a moving reflection of how we feel about our work. The Field Museum even created a short film for #DayofFacts that is guaranteed to give you the warm fuzzies.
Museum as Site of Social Action (MASS Action)
This initiative started with the question, “how do you transform museums from the inside out?” It’s the brainchild of Elizabeth Callihan, Head of Multi-generational Learning at Minneapolis Institute of Art (MIA). Callihan is an action-oriented person, and has achieved a huge amount over a very short period of time. She started by consulting with leading peers who were also looking to make their museums ‘sites of social action’. This led to a convening of 50 museums at MIA in 2016, where the idea of a toolkit was developed, to support other museums interested in this work. Twelve months on, and the toolkit has morphed into a book, to be launched at the next MASS Action convening (14 October 2017). The convenings go beyond swapping notes and sharing anecdotes, they are used to set goals and chart courses of action. It’s an exciting model and I’m hoping it’s only a matter of time before something similar catches on in Europe.
Second Story – ‘Lunch Counter’ interactive, Center for Civil & Human Rights
Second Story is a design practice with offices in Portland, Atlanta and New York. They started out in web design, and have since moved into immersive and interactive experiences, pushing the potential of digital well beyond screen-based expectations. Their studio hosted conference break-out sessions on the first day, so we were able to hear about projects and then explore some of the prototypes in their workshop. They shared many examples, but the one that really stuck was the ‘lunch counter’ interactive, developed for the ‘Rolls Down Like Water’ American Civil Rights exhibition at the Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta. Museum visitors are invited to sit on a stool at a proxy lunch counter, wear a headset, and place their hands flat on the counter. The interactive aims to evoke the experience of campaigning for civil rights in segregated states in the US. Visitors are subjected to verbal abuse (via the headsets) which escalate to physical intimidation as the stool is ‘kicked’. We didn’t see it in action, but I was told by a friend who had tried the interactive that it is genuinely frightening (and a drop in the ocean compared with what those brave individuals experienced firsthand).
I attended the MuseumNext conference as a speaker, having teamed up with Cindy Foley to present ‘The Quiet Revolutionaries: How Learning Can Reshape Museums’ (which pretty much does what it says on the tin). Cindy’s work at the Columbus Museum of Art featured as one of five case studies in my Churchill Fellowship research and her fantastic insights into creativity pop up throughout my Fellowship report. Thanks to the magic of modern technology, our presentation was online about 10 minutes after we finished speaking (you can find it on Vimeo). We argue that the work of Learning departments has the power to transform museums but it must be embedded strategically; Cindy has lived this transformation and her museum’s new strategic roadmap is a thing of beauty.
While slightly off topic, I also have to mention the Portland Children’s Museum. Located in Washington Park, it is a fascinating venue that houses a museum, a school (Opal), and a research centre. All three strands are heavily influenced by Reggio Emilia, and yet all three need to operate in slightly different ways to meet the needs of their relevant stakeholders and visitors/pupils/researchers. The child and the nature of play are central to their practice, and the walls are covered with examples of the learning that happens there.
I’ve returned home with that familiar post-conference feeling of being mentally overloaded and emotionally stimulated. The breadth of the conference provoked a lot of discussion around the ‘so whatness’ of it all – are we preaching to the choir? In this work, are we aiming to provide a safe space for those who are otherwise marginalised, ostracised and without a voice, or are we trying to educate society and eradicate social injustice? And if it’s the latter, whose minds are we changing? Where are the racist, sexist, homophobic, alt-righters and neoliberals in all this? On the other hand, all social change has to start somewhere and museums could be the ideal location to question, challenge and progress social issues (as long as we’re willing to also point the finger at ourselves and face our own institutional prejudices and shortcomings). It’s all so knotty and messy and complicated. The trail of breadcrumbs that I think will guide me through this terrain is the importance of intentionality. When we are asking such big questions, it is even more vital to be clear about why we are doing this work and what we hope to achieve. Aim high and stay honest.
IMAGE: ‘Napping with Monsters’ (2015), by Renee Zangara, Portland Art Museum