Museum educator Andrea Jones writes a blog called Peak Lab Experience – a blog I highly recommend reading. Like many of her posts, Museums, Can We Stop Letting Objects Control The Narrative?, published this week, made me think. In this case, the question it made me think about was: What is the role of objects in an institution committed to social justice?
Jones has created immersive experiences at the Atlanta History Museum and the Accokeek Foundation that are largely divorced from objects.(She spoke with me about these programs in a 2014 interview with Museum Questions.) In her blog post, Jones describes one of these immersive experiences, and argues that programs should be driven by what we want people to take away, rather than limited by the objects in our collections:
Let’s not throw away our collections in favor of experiences. But let’s NOT let them control the narrative either. Imagine the power of museum experiences driven by inspiring ideas and questions instead of objects. If objects can support a big idea or question, then let’s include them. If not, let’s not be confined by their absence.
Jones’s ideas are a continuation of the argument put forth by museum theorist Stephen Weil. In his 1999 essay, “From Being About Something to Being for Somebody,” Weil examined the changing role of museums in the second half of the 20th century, as museums proliferated, professionalized, and looked to new funding sources. Weil wrote:
Over three decades, what the museum might be envisioned as offering to the public has grown from mere refreshment (the museum as carbonated beverage) to education (the museum as a site for informal learning) to nothing short of communal empowerment (the museum as an instrument for social change).
Museum as instrument for social change
I started to write, “Let’s accept for a moment that most museums are at their best and most important when they are instruments of social justice – advocates for tolerance and equity.” But let’s linger for a moment on this point. Museums clearly have an educational mandate, which we agree to when we become not-for-profits. For Weil, this mandate is lived out by serving our communities; museums “use their competencies in collecting, preserving, studying, and interpreting objects to enhance the community’s well-being.” But Jones takes this a step further. She is advocating not for directly and immediately supporting a community’s well-being (for example, by offering programs that educate visitors, or ensuring that the community neighboring the museum has full and comfortable access to the exhibits), but for engaging visitors in the types of social justice-related conversations that teach “the power of being an ordinary person protesting an unjust system,” and empower visitors to become advocates for causes such as Civil Rights.
Many of us (including myself) agree with this agenda for museums. However, note that this is not only a radical agenda, it is one that may alienate a large group of potential visitors. This doesn’t mean that we should not pursue this role as advocates for social justice, but it is a change in purpose that we need to carefully examine and truly understand, and it is something that we should pursue cautiously and thoughtfully – especially as those we most want to convince are those who are most likely to be alienated by these programs.
Jones approaches programming through big, meaningful questions that engage people in thinking carefully about our world. In another post she imagines history museums posing questions such as:
- Are things getting better or worse?
- How should we balance personal freedom with the security of the masses?
- How does where we live influence who we are?
- To what extent should humans interfere with nature?
Jones crafts fantastic questions, and it seems like she has had great success in raising these questions through immersive experiences, especially with school groups. And she notes that museums don’t always have the right objects to go with these questions:
[S]ocial justice topics don’t always come with a nice set of objects to tell the story. Sometimes histories of the oppressed and marginalized never get collected by museums – especially in the past. But this doesn’t have to be a deterrent if we make objects less central to our educational missions (which includes the physical galleries).
But Jones writes off objects too easily. Objects remain important, both because they are the defining feature of museums (still defined as an institution that “owns or utilizes tangible objects”), and because they are powerful tools for education and dialogue.
The Power of Objects
To effectively promote social justice, museums need to provide a safe space in which people from differing backgrounds and political perspectives feel welcomed. It is easier for museums to either offer politicized initiatives or to run away from controversy than it is to foster meaningful dialogue. But neither of these approaches moves our national conversation forward, or helps to change the minds of adult individuals.
Professor Robert Nash writes about using conversation to promote social justice. In a 2010 article Nash identifies different approaches to advocacy, many of them ineffective. For example, one ineffective approach is to teach through anger and moral outrage; this approach is only useful with people “who are already on board … on behalf of certain causes.” A more productive form of advocacy is engaging people in conversation in which we “listen to… and genuinely try to understand the strong beliefs of others. We do this to discover whether or not there is overlap in our various worldviews, and whether there are possibilities for working together to solve problems.”
Objects provide a space in which we can listen, examine, and understand. When I was at the Guggenheim Museum, we conducted a research study that looked at the critical thinking skills built through object-based conversations. It turned out that works of art, when paired with inquiry-based conversations, provide effective tools for build the same critical thinking skills that schools want to teach through reading. When we thought about why this might be, we noted that objects provide a shared, ever-present reference open to interpretation. A group of people can look an object together, and that object can lead to a vibrant discussion which engages participants in thinking critically, including understanding multiple perspectives.
These same qualities – the physical presence of objects, the ability to simultaneously look at and discuss them in a group, their openness to multiple interpretations – make objects effective tools for engaging people in discussions about social justice issues. Art educator Kate Baird gave an example of this in a Museum Questions post in February 2017:
One of the reasons that conversations about art can productively cultivate empathy is that people think they’re talking about one thing, but it turns out they are discussing another. People think they are talking about a portrait, and it turns out they are reflecting on how we treat one another. People think they are talking about colors and shapes, and it turns out they are struggling to make sense of the past. In these conversations, we may find that we have space to be more open and less defensive than we might otherwise be. We are giving our time and attention to something larger than ourselves. In that moment of connection with the wider world, we might find the generosity to consider the experiences, ideas, opinions and feelings of others a little more carefully.
Objects give us a safe (or at least safer) space in which to talk about highly charged issues. We live in an era in which there are fewer and fewer of these safe or neutral spaces. If the goal of social justice education is to broaden the cohort of people who believe in tolerance and equity, rather than to continue an insular conversation amongst self-proclaimed progressives, then we need to create programs that invite others in, rather than shutting them out.
Museums are the places that people of all political persuasions go to see these fascinating objects that tell important stories. Museums can be for someone, and can advocate for social justice, without loosing sight of what it is that we have that makes us unique.