Last week, in honor of Bastille Day, we opened the PlayHouse Art Room to the public with a flag-making activity.
We saw a range of flags created by kids and parents. As I share them, imagine some music playing, something vaguely patriotic but from an imaginary or unknown country.
There were French-inspired flags:
There were PlayHouse flags:
There were flags celebrating visitors’ cultural heritage:
And there were flags with indecipherable symbolism (indecipherable to me, but perhaps the flag makers had a very clear intent!):
And then there was this:
The imaginary music screeches to a halt.
And here comes this week’s question: When do we edit participation?
I left the wall of flags up in the Art Room, the walls of which currently hold the evidence of about five different projects.
But those Confederate flags (which, I am guessing, are by a parent and child)? I took them down.
The joy and difficulty of open-ended participatory activities is that we cannot predict or control visitor contributions. This should be a good thing: museums are a safe and neutral space to share one’s ideas. But what happens when some contributors offer ideas that are anathema to one’s own beliefs?
On the one hand, nothing sparks dialogue like a politically charged symbol. If I left it up, would parents and children who happened to see it engage in a meaningful conversation about the power of a flag, the historical weight of the Confederate flag, recent events in South Carolina, and whether or why some symbols should be retired?
On the other hand, would leaving it up make it seem like the PlayHouse endorses the Confederate flag? How would the public interpret our willingness to display this symbol?
A number of museum professionals are calling for museums to take on difficult issues, particularly those related to societal racism – one of the most important challenges facing us today. Linda Norris recently published a post encouraging museums to take on the Confederate flag and other similarly difficult issues. Gretchen Jennings called for museums to become place-makers: “How can your anchor institutions [museums] wield soft power [meaning act as influences in the development of their communities]?” But that same post draws on and cites Gail Lord: “the inclusion of multiple voices is critical to achieving soft power.”
Participatory museum culture, and the inclusion of multiple voices, means that we must allow and listen to voices we disagree with. Are we ready for that? I worry that by taking down visitor-contributed Confederate flags I have shown that I am not. But could I really leave them up?