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Museum Archipelago

A Society, Culture and Travel podcast
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A tiny show guiding you through the rocky landscape of museums. Museum Archipelago believes that no museum is an island and that museums are not neutral.
Taking a broad definition of museums, host Ian Elsner brings you to different museum spaces around the world, dives deep into institutional problems, and introduces you to the people working to fix them. Each episode is never longer than 15 minutes, so let’s get started.


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73. Sanchita Balachandran Shifts the Framework for Conservation with Untold Stories
The field of conservation was created to fight change: to prevent objects from becoming dusty, broken, or rusted. But fighting to keep cultural objects preserved creates a certain mindset — a mindset where it’s too easy to imagine objects and cultures in a state of stasis. Sanchita Balachandran, Associate Director of the Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum, founded Untold Stories to change that mindset in the conservation profession. Through events at the annual meetings of the American Institute for Conservation, Untold Stories expands cultural heritage beyond preserving the objects we might find in a museum. In this episode, Balachandran talks about Untold Story’s 2019 event: Indigenous Futures and Collaborative Conservation, avoiding the savior mentality, and how the profession has changed since she was in school. Topics and Links 00:00 Intro 00:14 The Conservation Profession 01:12 Sanchita Balachandran 01:35 Untold Stories 03:30 Mohegan Sun 2019: Indigenous Futures and Collaborative Conservation 04:58 endawnis Spears and the Akomawt Educational Initiative (episode 68) 06:09 Savior Mentality in Conservation 07:37 Changing Working Practices 09:03 Changing Technical Practices 10:30 Changing Social Practices 11:25 Activating Cultural Heritage 12:15 Salt Lake City 2020: Preserving Cultural Landscapes 12:30 Learn More About Untold Stories and Watch Recordings of Past Events 12:40 SPONSOR: StoriesHere Podcast 13:40 Archipelago at the Movies 🎟️: National Treasure 14:34 Outro Photo credit: Jay T. Van Rensselear Museum Archipelago is a tiny show guiding you through the rocky landscape of museums. Subscribe to the podcast via Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, or even email to never miss an episode. Sponsor: StoriesHere Podcast This episode is brought to you by a new museum podcast, StoriesHere! The latest episode is an excellent two-part series about the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. It includes the story of a family secret being hidden from a daughter, revealed after talking at the site with a former incarcerated person. If you like Museum Archipelago, check out StoriesHere! Transcript Below is a transcript of Museum Archipelago episode 73. Museum Archipelago is produced for the ear and the only the audio of the episode is canonical. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, refer to the links above. View Transcript The field of conservation was created to fight change: to prevent objects from becoming dusty, broken, or rusted. But fighting to keep cultural objects preserved creates a certain mindset -- the mindset of protector. A mindset where it’s too easy to imagine objects and cultures in a state of stasis -- that this is how it always was and will be forever. Sanchita Balachandran: Often, I mean, just given the Colonial and Imperial histories of museums, it was because people were going to be gone forever. That culture was gone. And so this is the last trace, but in fact, that's not how cultural heritage works. It's transformed. It's changed. It continues on in different forms. And a lot of the way that conservators think about cultural heritage is, is about mitigating that change, which makes it a little bit fossilized. But to me, that changes where things are really vibrant and exciting and people are so closely connected to cultural heritage, that it really feels alive. This is Sanchita Balachandran, Associate Director of the Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum. Sanchita Balachandran: Hello, my name is Sanchita Balachandran. I’m a conservator and I’m trained in the conservation of archaeological materials in particular. And my day job is the Associate Director at the Archaeological Museum at Johns Hopkins University. Balachandran founded Untold Stories, a project that pursues a conservation profession that represents and preserves a fuller spectrum of human cultural heritage. For the past few years, the project has been hosting public events at the annual meetings of the American Institute for Conservation. Untold Stories emerged out of Balachandran’s frustration with how narrowly conservation has been defined. Sanchita Balachandran: I felt that there were, literally, too many untold stories in the field of conservation. I wanted to find ways to actually start to think about what else cultural heritage could mean other than, say, the things we typically think of as belonging in a museum. For many of us, cultural heritage means going to this, you know, important-looking building that has paintings and sculpture and has labels next to it. And I think we've kind of decided in some ways that that's cultural heritage and preservation means taking care of those things. And really, I've become more and more aware and curious about the fact that cultural heritage is a much more complicated and diverse set of practices. It's often not necessarily about a single object or a thing, but rather how that thing might function within a community or communities as part of a series of practices and exchanges and storytelling. And I just wanted to have a way to work with people who are really doing that work outside the museum and doing it in ways that, I think preserve, but also change cultural practices. Since Untold Stories takes place at the annual meetings of the American Institute for Conservation, a lot of professionals in the field are already gathered there -- the meetings attract over 1000 conservators. Like many professional conferences, the meetings are often held in a nondescript hotel setting. But Untold Stories makes it a practice to contextualize where attendees are sitting and the history that preceded them. An example of this is the 2019 Untold Stories event, titled Indigenous Futures and Collaborative Conservation. Sanchita Balachandran: How many times have you been to a conference and you could be anywhere. Right? I mean, you're in this big room and you never leave the hotel or the conference center. And part of what I was interested in was trying to actually place us somewhere. So in 2019 since we were actually meeting at the Mohegan Sun, which is a Mohegan owned casino. We were on native land. It seemed like a really important opportunity to talk about Native sovereignty and the kind of history of genocide in our own country. The fact that anyone who's non-indigenous in this country is a settler-colonialist. But to really think about what this means in terms of how we take care of collections that have come to us, as a result of historical happenstance, but also a very violent past and to acknowledge the fact that museums, which for most of us who work in museums are very safe, welcoming, and, you know, joyful places are evidence of this history of pain and removal. So, the opportunity to work with, the Akomawt Educational Initiative was really exciting because it's a partly Native cofounded and they do a lot of educational work around questions of how we even think about the history of this country. And to me that was really important to be able to say in native space as opposed to, you know, in a place somewhere else. Part of Balachandran’s point is that there isn’t such a thing as a contextless cultural material: the intentionally non-descript conference ballroom has a lot in common with a deliberately sterile museum environment. Episode 68 of this show features an interview with endawnis Spears, Director of Programming & Outreach at the Akomawt Educational Initiative and one of the conveners of 2019 Untold Stories event. In the episode, she discusses her presentation about how Native narratives are violently presented through a white lens in museums. Sanchita Balachandran: It was in endawnis Spears of Akomawt who suggested the title. She had worked in museums, she's very familiar with these questions and she's the one who suggested Indigenous Futures, which forces you to recognize that this is not something of the past. We really wanted to do something that felt like we were going to push. This had to be uncomfortable, but it also had to be aspirational. Where do we go now? And how can as conservators we actually be part of this very kind of collaborative, supportive mission to ensure futures? We can't make it happen by ourselves. It's not like we're saving anybody. And that's another big concern of mine. There's a real sort of savior mentality that I think conservation has to, we save objects. And I certainly came out of graduate school thinking that I was going to save everything. Um, and to me that's a very problematic way to think about it because frankly, if the object still survives, it didn't need me. Right? It made it thousands of years without me. Somehow we've kind of decided that we're the ones that making the, that make these things live forever, which is pure arrogance. So part of this event was really to think about how as conservators can we come up with action items and by action items it was practices, but more than anything a kind of shift in a mental framework for working much more equitably and more humbly, you know, to really have a sense of respect for this notion that there has already been a history before you. And so when you enter into this hopefully collaborative relationship, you need to acknowledge that things have survived for a long time without your intervention and they don't need you, but you could actually provide some sort of service, some sort of benefit that could actually help. The Untold Stories team, true to their mission, is careful not to present the workshop as a single solution, or even a set of solutions. The team wants to counter the assumption within the profession that all you need to do is go to one workshop and you're all done. Sanchita Balachandran: Unfortunately this doesn't change the working practices. It doesn't change the mindset. It doesn't change the way an organization functions. And what happens is, you know, then marginalized people are called upon again and again to kind of keep performing this vulnerability and this discomfort for themselves in order to educate people who are unwilling to do the work, the consistent -- like, every single day for the rest of their lives work -- that will be required to make transformative change possible. So part of what, in the 2019 conversation we, we felt very strongly we had to say is if, if you really believe in equality, if you really want to do something that is truly collaborative, that does not assume some sort of hierarchy it means being really uncomfortable the entire time. And maybe at the end of it things will change, but you still have to kind of follow through on it when it gets really uncomfortable. And the fact is most marginalized communities, people have done this their entire lives.So it just feels like it's time for, you know, I think in general, the museum community to say we're willing to engage in these kinds of difficult ongoing, perpetual conversations. It’s really interesting to approach these issues from the framework of such a technical profession. What is different, what has changed in the field of conservation since you were in school? Sanchita Balachandran: I was in grad school two decades ago, so it's, you know... I guess I would break it down into technical practices, which I think most conservators would, would think of themselves as doing sort of things with their hands, changing a surface in some way and then more social practices. How do you be in this world? Uh, in terms of technical practices, some of the things that we do on a regular basis are certainly did to me raise a lot of questions about how do we even come up with this. So, you know, one of the things that I was trained on, and I think a lot of conservators still do, is something like spit cleaning, right? For a long time, uh, it was known that something like human saliva has really amazing cleaning properties. And, you know, it's the reason why your mom might've like licked her thumb and you know, rubbed a mark off your face. But, but it works really well and it's, you know, there have been attempts to make this much more scientific as to like, what are the enzymes, for example, in saliva that work. But you know, now thinking about it and my gosh, to spit on someone else's things, it's this really strange concept. And yet it was something that was really suggested as a very efficacious way of doing a treatment. For me, this has meant that I really have to be extremely aware of the choices I'm making and at least be aware of the discomfort that they raise in me when I start thinking about what I'm actually doing. So that's the kind of technological discomfort and awareness. And then there's how, how does one work with anybody else? Certainly in academia, and I would say also in museums are very hierarchical spaces where, you know, in the museum the sort of curator often has had the privilege of storytelling. And often when people who are not within the museum are consulted, they're consulted either after most of the work has been done or that that information is kind of extracted from them and presented as part of this larger narrative rather than allowing people to simply say what they believe these objects are, or how, you know, the story needs to be presented. For those in an established field, like museum professionals or conservators, it is easy to go with the language and practice that exists before you arrive. Projects like Untold Stories challenge those assumptions and help create a new model. Sanchita Balachandran: For me, it's really about kind of activating cultural heritage and, in very kind of living ways. Underlying all of this work with Untold Stories was to really think about what is possible, in terms of preserving cultural heritage. I think if you think of cultural heritage as being something that's preserved by people in, you know, conservation labs only, to me that's really limiting. And it also is untrue because we have millennia of, you know, people caring for their things and their stories and passing this knowledge on, um, through oral traditions and other kinds of traditions. So to somehow claim that we are the only ones capable of doing this kind of preservation work is fundamentally untrue. And so to me, kind of bringing up this resilience, but also just this joy of doing this incredible connected, human work was something that I wanted to be around. The next Untold Stories event will be held during the American Institute of Conservation’s annual conference in Salt Lake City from the 19th to the 23rd of MAY 2020. The title of the event will be PRESERVING CULTURAL LANDSCAPES. You can learn more about The Untold Stories Project, and watch recordings of past events, at Untold Stories dot live.
72. ‘Speechless: Different by Design’ Reframes Accessibility and Communication in a Museum Context
Museums tend to be verbal spaces: there’s usually a lot of words. Galleries open with walls of text, visitors are presented with rules of do and don'ts, and audio guides lead headphone-ed users from one piece to the next, paragraph by paragraph. But Speechless: Different by Design, a new exhibit at the Dallas Art Museum and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, guides visitors as far away as possible from words with six custom art installations. In this episode, curator Sarah Schleuning and graphic designer Laurie Haycock Makela discuss how their personal experiences lead them to Speechless, and describe the process and considerations of putting it all together. Topics and Links 00:00 Intro 00:14 Museums as Verbal Spaces 00:52 Speechless: Different by Design 01:05 Sarah Schleuning 01:30 Schleuning’s Personal Experience 02:45 Picture Exchange System 03:40 Planning Speechless 05:00 Yuri Suzuki’s ‘Sound of the Earth Chapter 2’ 05:17 Misha Kahn 05:38 Laurie Haycock Makela 06:08 Makela’s Personal Experience 06:55 The Exhibition's Ground Rules 07:11 The Exhibition's Design 09:26 Museum Fatigue 11:30 What Keeps Schleuning Up at Night 12:16 Museum Selfies 13:29 Introducing Archipelago at the Movies 🎟️! 14:16 Outro | Join Club Archipelago Museum Archipelago is a tiny show guiding you through the rocky landscape of museums. Subscribe to the podcast via Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, or even email to never miss an episode. Unlock Club Archipelago 🏖️ If you like episodes like this one, you’ll love Club Archipelago. It offers exclusive access to Museum Archipelago extras. It’s also a great way to support the show directly. Join the Club for just $2/month. Your Club Archipelago membership includes: Access to a private podcast that guides you further behind the scenes of museums. Hear interviews, observations, and reviews that don’t make it into the main show; Archipelago at the Movies 🎟️, a bonus bad-movie podcast exclusively featuring movies that take place at museums; Logo stickers, pins and other extras, mailed straight to your door; A warm feeling knowing you’re supporting the podcast. Transcript Below is a transcript of Museum Archipelago episode 72. Museum Archipelago is produced for the ear, and only the audio of the episode is canonical. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, refer to the links above. View Transcript Museums tend to be verbal spaces: there’s usually a lot of words. Galleries open with walls of text, visitors are presented with rules of do and don'ts, and artists guide headphone-ed users from one piece to the next paragraph by paragraph. But there’s a new series ot exhibits designed to be different, to guide visitors as far away as possible from words. One of those is a collaboration of the Dallas Art Museum and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. It’s called Speechless, and to underline the point, it is subtitled: different by design. Sarah Schleuning: Speechless has been an exhibition that merges research and aesthetics and innovative new design to explore accessibility and modes of communication in the museum setting. This is Sarah Schleuning, curator of Speechless. Sarah Schleuning: Hello, my name is Sarah Schleuning and I am The Margot B. Perot Senior Curator of Decorative Arts and Design and the interim Chief curator at the Dallas Museum of Art. And I love to focus on projects that really explore ideas of how design and art can transform our everyday lives. The roots of Speechless come from Schleuning’s own rethinking of how to communicate without language. Sarah Schleuning: The idea really germinated out of something very personal for me which is that one of my children has motor planning disability, a neurological issue that rendered him, when he was younger, fairly speechless and I had to sort of rethink how I communicated with him and how we as a family interacted with somebody where language wasn't the primary avenue. So it started in that idea, but I was also in my curatorial work had been really interested in issues of playscapes and interactivity and how the exposure to aesthetics and design are really great gateways to get people to really think about how that impacts their everyday life. And so this project was a merger of these ideas. Even museums that specialize in the visual arts have a tendency to communicate verbally with their visitors. Sarah Schleuning: I think that that was the thing that I realized even for myself here. I deal in visual culture. But the way I communicate about it is through words or through, you know talking about it and and that I myself am hyper sort of hyper-verbal. All of a sudden, I had this very close proximity to somebody who wasn't interested in learning from me through language and what I started to realize really because we started using the Picture Exchange system communication system, which is a series of images that you use to communicate. So you'd say what do you want to eat? And on the sheet would be a picture of a series of different foods and then they could point and so it's very sort of prescriptive. And it would be apple. And then what I started thinking was we at museums are sitting on this vast repository of images is I mean, you could use Magritte's Apple, there are so many different looks and feels and kind of different nuances to what an apple could be or these images and in essence that communication is kind of a two way thing. The project is made up of six art installations intended to foster “participatory environments” within a museum context, and in particular, engage the senese. Sarah Schleuning: We had the opportunity about a year ago to invite 6 design teams to come to Dallas and work on this project. And we invited six specialist from the Dallas community that were scientists, but kind of both theoreticians and practitioners who specialized in fields like neuroscience and autism, dementia, communication disorders, physical therapy related to sensory issues and really to think about the broader spectrum of what disability looks like and how to broaden our own perceptions of how to design for that and think through those ideas. Sarah Schleuning: But I think the biggest underpinning of the exhibition for me and for the institutions were that it was an experience that ultimately was positive and joyful so that these fully immersive interactive spaces that each design team was creating was really something that was positive and felt like it offered an opportunity to see the greatness in the difference between us, instead of seeing it as a negative. One of the pieces, by Yuri Suzuki is called ‘Sound of the Earth Chapter 2’ and features a giant, unmarked black globe. Without the context of the familiar outlines of continents, visitors instead hear sounds recorded at the part of the earth while they place their ear against the surface of the globe. Sounds from more southern regions are accessed by crouching down. Another, by Misha Kahn, features a garden of colorful sculptures that inflate and deflate throughout the day. The task of bringing all of these tinstallationals together fell on designer and educator Laurie Haycock Makela. Maklela was responsible for the overall graphic identity and the corresponding exhibition publication. Laurie Haycock Makela: Hi. My name is Laurie Haycock Makela. I'm a graphic designer and an educator and I'm working on the book and some of the kind of related exhibition kind of graphic identity issues for Speechless. As a book designer I deal with words also, so there's a certain irony and working on this project, but it made me really attentive to you know, I'm a typographer, you know, kind of. You know from the bottom of my heart, you know, I look at language as image also, Like Schleuning, Makela understands what it is like to communicate non-verbally. Laurie Haycock Makela: I've been a book designer and an educator and all that for years and years and then I had two brain hemorrhages and brain surgery which really made my everything stopped, you know, that was but… So yeah, I think that Sarah brought many of us in here because of certain personal experiences that make it so we really understand in some pretty deep way or experiential way what our options are when we. You know are left with maybe for a while. I couldn't I didn't speak or write or read or anything like that. So I had to rethink all that. So I really identified with the content or the concept of this project from the very beginning, you know. The six installations only thematically relate to one another, and are introduced by the ground rules “Be curious, be thoughtful, be gentle.” -- one of the few instances of text in the gallery. Visitors can experience the installations in any order they choose by going into rooms off the main area, which Schleuning explains by evoking a sea creature. Sarah Schleuning: The exhibition itself will be designed kind of like an octopus is I guess the best way I can think to describe it and when you go in the room if you think of the octopus's sort of head, it is actually going to be an empty room. Sarah Schleuning: And that room will have some furniture and we'll have some things and they'll be these kind of videos that are really going to be sort of short Boomerang videos of each artist in their space kind of showing people what to expect what they would use their and so that then you could understand. Yes, they're six spaces. Sarah Schleuning: Then the place like Lori's doing is really. We wanted to make a space. That was what we called kind of a de-escalation Zone and you know those spaces typically a museum like sensory spaces and others which are becoming more commonplace in institutions, like Museum often are off of the sort of educational space or in other places, and we wanted to put it primary in the exhibition it we wanted it to be sort of fully accessible and not, stigmatized is probably too hard of a word but making it feel like it was accessible to everyone that everybody may need it the opportunity to just have a moment to take a to sort of reboot and refresh. In that space there will be rockers and weighted blankets and one of our Specialists deals primarily with that. So we vetted that project and what we wanted to use in there in that. And then Lori the book that Lori is done, which really shows the whole creative process of each of the different designers will be wheat pasted on one of the walls and and so we'll both be a place for reflection for people to look at these but also a kind of stabilizing line for people if they need to sort of combat calm down or recenter. Even though the museum world has a term for visitors needing a break from galleries -- it’s called museum fatigue and you can listen to a brief overview of it on episode 2 of Museum Archipelago -- the causes of museum fatigue and a best practice approach remain speculative. Researcher Beverly Serrell found that visitors typically spent less than 20 minutes in exhibitions regardless of topic and size before becoming much more selective about what they explore. Her research supports the notion that visitors have a limited time frame after which their interest towards exhibits diminishes. And this is the reason why you can usually find at least a bench 20 minutes into a linear exhibition -- but it’s clear that museums can do much more. The designers of Speechless hope that their approach can contribute. Sarah Schleuning: The other thing that I really wanted to make sure happened in the exhibition was that you never walked from one project to another you always go into a space and then you come back into this central, sort of emptier, zone so that you always have a chance to it's almost like a palate cleanser, right? You always kind of go from one experience and then you're able to reflect a decompress and then you can move into another. Sarah Schleuning: We don't know how it's going to go. I mean part of the idea of being experimental, and I applaud both institutions for encouraging us to go really go for it is that you don't know what's going to be successful or not. And so we are investing in doing evaluations during the project and it's our intention to then publish those findings at the end because we want to. So much of the planning for this exhibit comes from making visitors comfortable enough to have a non-museum-like interaction with the art, but visitors are used to a museum context with clear text instructions. So how soon into the visit do they start playing and lose some level of inhibition, loose some of the exhibit context. Sarah Schleuning: I stay up at night thinking about that. I think it's been really interesting because even with you know, the designers themselves, you know, it's that balance between they want to make something that's really spectacular and it's in an art museum and they want it to really have, you know be elevated at that level and at the same time, how would you interact with this as a child? You know and and how would you change that to be more responsive to that or to think through these things? And trying to work through, you know the best you can but you never know. And and that's what makes it both, you know, exciting and anxiety-producing. Laurie Haycock Makela: Yeah, I just started biting my nails. Yeah. Speechless, with its visually-striking rooms is opening into a world more comfortable than ever about expressing itself non-verbally. Audio and images and animations of images are just as easy to create, modify, and share as words. Episode 14 of this show, which was an entire discussion of museum selfies from 2015 feels hopelessly outdated in 2019 -- images are how many visitors “talk” about the galleries they visit. Like any language, there’s a continually evolving grammar in images and selfie, and one strategy is for a museum to give visitors the tools of that grammar: a dictionary and a thesaurus in the form of strange shapes and a colorful backgrounds. Exhibits like Speechless give visitors the tools to center non-verbal expression within a museum frame. Speechless: different by design is now open at the Dallas Museum of Art, and will be until March 22, 2020. After that, the same exhibit will be on display at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta.
71. Assessing Curatorial Work for Social Justice With Elena Gonzales
Museums are seen as trustworthy, but what if that trust is misplaced? Chicago-based independent curator Elena Gonzales provides a solid jumping off point for thinking critically about museums in her new book, Exhibitions for Social Justice. The book is a whirlwind tour of different museums, examining how they approach social justice. It’s also a guide map for anyone interested in a way forward. In this episode, Gonzales takes us on a tour of some of the main themes of the book, examining the strategies of museum institutions from the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia to the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago. Topics and Links 00:00 Intro 00:15 Trust in Museum Institutions 01:00 Elena Gonzales Website Twitter 01:45 Exhibitions for Social Justice 03:05 What is an Exhibition for Social Justice? 04:20 National Museum of Mexican Art 07:12 “Questioning the Visitor” 07:50 Anne Frank House Museum 08:25 Eastern State Penitentiary 11:23 Buy Exhibitions for Social Justice On Routledge (Use Promo Code ADS19 for 30% Off) On IndieBound On Amazon 12:30 Introducing Archipelago at the Movies! Museum Archipelago is a tiny show guiding you through the rocky landscape of museums. Subscribe to the podcast via Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, or even email to never miss an episode. Unlock Club Archipelago 🏖️ If you like episodes like this one, you’ll love Club Archipelago. It offers exclusive access to Museum Archipelago extras. It’s also a great way to support the show directly. Join the Club for just $2/month. Your Club Archipelago membership includes: Access to a private podcast that guides you further behind the scenes of museums. Hear interviews, observations, and reviews that don’t make it into the main show; Archipelago at the Movies 🎟️, a bonus bad-movie podcast exclusively featuring movies that take place at museums; Logo stickers, pins and other extras, mailed straight to your door; A warm feeling knowing you’re supporting the podcast. Transcript Below is a transcript of Museum Archipelago episode 71. Museum Archipelago is produced for the ear, and only the audio of the episode is canonical. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, refer to the links above. View Transcript The American Alliance of Museums often says that museums are the most trustworthy institutions in modern American life. And the statistics are remarkable: some surveys indicate that museums are the second most trusted news source after friends and family. As rates of trust in other institutions plummet: the news media, etc, museums still enjoy a privileged position in collective consciousness. It’s something I’ve noticed over the past few years: even non-museum spaces try to adopt museum-like presentations to apply the veneer of trustworthiness. But it’s an uneasy set of statistics. Is it possible that the reason museums are so trustworthy is because they've been excellent at toeing the status quo, the party line? And whose public consciousness are museums enjoying a privileged position inside of anyway? That’s why I was thrilled to come across Exhibitions for Social Justice by Elena Gonzales during a recent museum binge. The book presents the current state of museum practice as it relates to the work of social justice, but also a guide map for anyone interested in a way forward. Elena Gonzales: I think if a lot of people fully understood how museum work is done, they might actually not trust us so much because they would understand the subjectivity. But I think the more that we are transparent about museums, content, who creates it, how, what the goals of an exhibition are, et cetera, the more people can trust us authentically and rightfully. I’m joined today by Elena Gonzales, author of Exhibitions for Social Justice. Elena Gonzales: Hello, my name is Elena Gonzales and I’m the author of Exhibitions for Social Justice which is newly out from Museum Meanings and Routledge. I’m an independent curator and scholar in the Chicago area, and I’m also the co-chair of the exhibitions committee at the Evanston Art Center where we curate 20 to 30 exhibitions per year. In Exhibitions for Social Justice, Gonzales lays out the ways that institutions can use the overwhelming and uneasy trust capital built up over centuries. Elena Gonzales: Museums have a centuries-long history of supporting white supremacist, colonialist, racist, bigoted ideologies and helping them flourish, and providing the evidence for them and undergirding them. And it is museums' ethical and moral obligation now to not only dismantle that through de-colonial practices, but also to make themselves into pro-social inclusive institutions that are actively working for social justice. Gonzales believes that museums have the power to help our society become more hospitable, equitable, and sustainable, and the book presents a survey of specific museums and exhibitions that have made their goals clear. Elena Gonzales: People often ask me what counts as an exhibition for social justice? And I think people, they immediately snap to museums and exhibitions that deal with mass violence, that deal with redress of major wrongs like genocides. Your Holocaust museums, your Memorial museums, that type of thing. And when they ask this question, I say what I think is the most readily accessible definition for social justice, which is that social justice is the equitable distribution of risks and rewards in society. And then I say that there are so many different areas that this touches in terms of content beyond Memorial museums, beyond Holocaust museums. And that's not to minimize the work of those institutions. Those are critical institutions and holding those memories is very, very important. And sites of conscience are very important to my work in general. Elena Gonzales: But I think there are many topics anywhere ranging from equity in education, equity in health care, environmental justice, gender equity. Any kind of moment where a culturally specific group is gaining access to historical voice or contemporary voice in the public sphere. There are just many different entry points to this topic. One of the main ideas of the book is that the work of social justice must be institution-wide, not just the work of one curator. Gonzales writes about the experience of her first curatorial effort at the National Museum of Mexican Art (NMMA) in Chicago. NMMA is a culturally-specific first-voice museum dedicated to serving its local Mexican community. Elena Gonzales: It was a really big project for us. It's called The African Presence in Mexico. And the main exhibition was called The African Presence in Mexico: From Yanga to the Present. I curated a second exhibition. It was about the relationships between African Americans and Mexicans in the United States and the relationships between African Americans and the country of Mexico, and that was called Who Are We Now? Roots, Resistance, and Recognition. At an all-staff meeting shortly before the opening of the project, Carlos Tortolero, the president and one of the founders of the museum, reiterated the goal of solidary to the entire staff of the museum. If the museum did everything right, the museum would have a large number of new African-American visitors in particular. He said that if any staff members felt prejudices towards the museum’s Black visitors or doubted the history being presented, then they should look for another job now. Elena Gonzales: The President of the museum, Carlos Tortolero, who's still the President now, said that he wanted everyone in the museum to feel that we had found long lost members of our family. Cousins, brothers and sisters, however you want to think of it. And he was saying he wanted us to feel this way and he wanted us to make all of our visitors feel that level of celebration as we welcomed them to the museum. And in particular, he wanted our African American visitors to feel extremely welcome, extremely celebratory about the nature of this relationship that we were eager to share at a level that it really hadn't been told in an educational way before, or even in a history capacity. Exhibitions for Social Justice makes the point that the exhibition was successful because the whole museum -- every person in the building -- was behind the mission. Elena Gonzales: I've studied museums like the NMMA where the entire institution is headed in the same direction, and everyone is committed to the goal of this exhibition for social justice in question, in this case, the African Presence. And then I've studied museums where that that's not the case. Where the curators may have this idea that they're working for social justice, but the institution is not behind them in that way. The institution does not believe that that is an inappropriate goal. And that just hampers the work of those curators in that are. Gonzales discusses the various ways that museums can inspire action inside and outside the museum, and the states involved in how museums envision visitors as social actors. One of these strategies is questioning the visitor -- like the traveling exhibit Free2Choose developed by the Anne Frank House museum in Amsterdam. Elena Gonzales: But I think that what is a strategy that I talk about in the book and that I've discovered in other places that I think is really effective is questioning the visitor. Questioning the visitor in a way that involves the visitor in this dialogue with him or herself, once again. This conversation that is going to create memories about the experience and produce rehearsal of the experience, like an ongoing thinking about the experience after the fact and possibly talking about it with others. For example, the Anne Frank House Museum in Amsterdam had an exhibition for a number of years, it's since closed, that had you think about the tensions between freedom of speech and protection from hate speech, and you got to think about some examples where these things come into conflict and then you voted on which right should win out, which was more important, and you voted in such a way that people could see the responses going up in real time. The Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia features another example of the visitor questioning technique. The museum address the American crisis of mass incarceration directly by making visitors answer the question, “Have You Ever Broken the Law” by the two pathways into the Prisons Today gallery. Elena Gonzales: the Eastern State presentation is not confrontational. It's, I think, thought-provoking and inviting. They simply say, "Have you ever broken the law? Yes, no," and there are two pathways that you can take. And you're going to see the same material or you're free to see the same material after that, either way. You're not actually separated from the other content. This works because 70% of American adults admit to committing a crime that could have put them in prison, but most of them never go. The exhibit goes on to explore some of the systematic reasons why, as well as what life is like for those who go to prison and the families they leave behind. But the path you walked down to get in is always on your mind. And the museum also has strategies to reconnect the visitor with the content even after the visit -- sometimes even years later. Elena Gonzales: So at the end of the Prisons Today show, you can do an activity that that allows the museum to send you postcards to yourself after the fact, after the visit. So they send it at a couple of different intervals. It's like a month, a year and two years or something like that. It's a few different intervals of time. And it's very clever because you don't just fill out a postcard and put it in a box, it's a digital thing. You answer some questions and they create the postcard. So you haven't seen the postcard in advance. You don't see it until you actually check your email and then you receive a postcard based on the responses that you answered to the questions. So I think that is a very effective way to create ongoing engagement because when you consider the way in which the position that museums have in our informational environment, and then you consider the position of the museum experience in the life of the visitor, this content might actually become more relevant over years or even decades. So I think that ongoing contact that takes place not soon after the visit is really valuable. But Eastern State Penitentiary also sits in a unique place: the social justice aspect of the exhibition is far from the primary draw of the institution. Elena Gonzales: It's a very interesting spot to visit. Most people think they're going to visit there because they want to see Al Capone's cell. They're passing through, it's this historic penitentiary and there's all kinds of draws that have nothing, so they think, to do with social justice. And for Eastern State, they have an opportunity with a huge number of this middle majority for them, of this body of visitors that is not necessarily apathetic about criminal justice and mass incarceration. Not necessarily experts in criminal justice or mass incarceration. They're tourists and they're visiting for that purpose. Elena Gonzales: So Eastern State has an opportunity by not advertising the social justice content that they do indeed provide in their exhibition presence today, and in other ways throughout the prison. They have an opportunity to explore the topic with visitors who aren't seeking it out, which is very special because as you say, the minute you say the words social justice, or justice, or activism or a variety of other keywords, you do start to get a self-selecting audience. Eastern State offers this opportunity to talk to people that you might not otherwise get to talk to if you say that your topic is social justice. And I think that actually works really well for visitors, and visitors have very important experiences there that they might not otherwise have. The book is excellent -- for me it was helpful just to see the way the book categorized different types of museums and introduced vocabulary and models I’m unfamiliar with. Gonzales provides a whirlwind tour of various museums, each presenting different strategies, buttressed by academic studies. If you’re looking for a jumping off point to think more critically about museums, take a look. Elena Gonzales: This is a moment when we need all of our institutions and all of our people in different areas to help work for social justice. And museums are a huge part of that. But it's not just for museum professionals. People who are activists in other areas, people who are educators, people who work in environmental justice, people who are community organizers, I think are going to love translating the tactics and strategies to their own work.

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    Podcast Details
    Apr 3rd, 2015
    Latest Episode
    Dec 2nd, 2019
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