What is the role of objects in an institution committed to social justice?

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.

Kids as Freedom Riders at the Atlanta History Center

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.

3 thoughts on “What is the role of objects in an institution committed to social justice?

  1. Rebecca, I love your brain and this post. Here’s one more thought. Couldn’t an experience without objects provide stimulus for an open-ended and welcoming dialogue like you’re talking about? I find that the discussions after experience-based programs are where the real magic happens — teasing apart what happened and making sense of it from multiple perspectives. All while embracing that there is no correct answer to the over-arching question. I’m wondering … whether the stimulus is an object or an experience, is the important part a facilitated dialogue? This is something not possible in an un-staffed, self-guided exhibition. But maybe if more participatory open-ended elements were built in?
    Lots of thoughts.

    • Thank you for continuing this dialogue, Andrea! I was thinking about this same question as I wrote – and honestly, I still have more questions than answers. But here are a few thoughts: First, YES, but you need to engage people in the experience first, which might be more challenging for adult or family groups than for school groups, and the people who sign up might self-select in a different way than general visitors. And second, there are experiences like this that are offered in organizations other than museums (for example, experiences in which people engage in a simulation around budgeting which helps them understand poverty) – so I keep coming back to the question about what makes a museum a museum.

      Regarding participatory open-ended elements – as you note, the “real magic” happens in the discussions. All too often museums depend upon a participatory experience without the staffing needed to make this experience meaningful. It’s problematic to set the stage for an experience and say that experience is happening, without the facilitation needed to actually have the impact we claim.

  2. Thanks for the great discussion! While I agree that we shouldn’t be limited by our collections, I am a believer in the power of objects. At the Oakland Museum of California, our exhibition All Power to the People: Black Panthers at 50 (which closed in February) demonstrated how powerful objects can be for visitors. I’m the in-house evaluator and when we conducted a summative evaluation of the exhibition, we were truy amazed by visitors’ responses. Here’s how some our visitors talked about objects in the exhibition:

    (What, if anything, stands out in your mind as meaningful or memorable?) The one thing that I really liked–when you first come in there’s the wall with what they wanted [the Ten Point Program]. They have the . . . manila notebook paper. And it was the real writings, of [what] they were trying to make as their rules, why their organization [was being formed], and what they wanted to work towards. (Why was that meaningful?) Just to see it all spelled out in black and white. [Middle Eastern/North African female, age 39]

    (What, if anything, stands out in your mind as meaningful or memorable?) The two things that stood out to me were the remains of the homes that were destroyed. I thought that was a cool way to do it. If it was just a . . . picture—that doesn’t tell you everything. [Showing] the actual things [that] were destroyed because of development—I thought that was powerful. . . . Then the last one I liked [was] the display of all the newspapers. . . . This is what was important to them at that time, because that’s the actual cover. . . . I’m surprised this kind of stuff got saved here at the Museum. [Latino/Hispanic female, age 23]

    (What, if anything, stands out in your mind as meaningful or memorable?) I appreciated the way the Klan uniform was displayed. (How so?) It was removed. It was dark-lit. * Rumpled. *You kind of felt like maybe you were looking in a coffin. *It wasn’t glorified. *And the photo of when they’re marching here in Richmond. I had no idea. [White female, age 60; African American male, age 56]

    Staff worked hard to secure these objects–in part because staff value the power of such objects and it turns out our visitors value them, too. Looking forward to the ongoing discussion…

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