Issue: Museums and Social Change

Strandbeest at night

Strandbeest at night

The last three months have been a real emotional roller coaster ride for me in regards to how museums as civic institutions can play a useful role in the larger discussions playing out in the world. This was brought on by two colliding events: Art Basel Miami Beach and  #museumsrespondtoferguson.

[Ferguson protest in downtown St. Louis CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0 image by Flickr user velo_city]

Ferguson protest in downtown St. Louis
CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0 image by Flickr user velo_city

Art Basel Miami Beach

I was at Miami as part of the team from the Peabody Essex Museum that was staffing the U.S. debut exhibition of Dutch kinetic sculptor Theo Jansen’s Strandbeests, put on in conjunction with Audemars Piguet, the luxury watch manufacturer. I’ve been a fan of Theo’s work for years, and the opportunity to work with him, and to see Strandbeests in their native environment was astonishing. Check them out here or here. They’re even better in person, trust me. I’ve watched pretty much all the videos by now.

I was part of the team interpreting the beests, so I spent four lonnnnng days outside, pushing beests around, and answering questions from a neverending stream of visitors to the exhibition. I don’t get to spend a lot time in the galleries these days and the charge I got out of working with visitors was tonic for the soul. Being “on” all day and into the night was both invigorating and exhausting. I’d get back to the hotel after twelve or fourteen hours, fall into bed, and pass out. And do it all over again the next day. I felt deeply connected to that core museum practice of sharing knowledge and experience with people and helping people make new meaning out of life.

It was also a privilege to be around so many people who loved what they did. I love museum work, unironically and unapologetically. Theo Jansen’s love of his work is immediately obvious and infectious. If you watch any of his interviews, you’ll get a pretty good idea of the man and his unique outlook. And he is totally invested in his art project. Bill Morrison, the filmmaker behind Decasia and The Great Flood, was there shooting Theo for the New York Times, and we got the chance to hang out, which was bonus fun! Check out his video of the event. Our partners from AP were the same. These are serious watch folks, and their love of their subject was palpable. The unexpected highlight of the Fair for me was watching an AP watchmaker disassemble one of their movements and show us just how much attention to detail went into every microscopic piece of their work, even the pieces that the wearer will never see. Being surrounded by other people doing what they love is intoxicating.

A master watchmaker at work is a thing to behold!

A master watchmaker at work is a thing to behold!

 The conspicuous consumption!

So, on the one hand, I felt very engaged in the museum pursuit on a primal level. Work, love, person to person interaction, meaning-making; I was in the zone. And then I’d look around at the Veyron parked in front of the hotel, flanked by a Ferarri and Lambo, while a Bentley went past. I had to look up Veyron too, btw. Jillian Steinhauer from Hyperallergic summed up the dissonace perfectly in this post.  Go read it.

One surreal moment happened while I was pulling a Strandbeest across the street (with a police escort) and stopped to let a Rolls Royce convertible turn in front of me. The celebrity sightings and attendant panting of us mortals, “Serena’s coming!” “Diddy was there last night” was a constant thread. It turns out I am not immune to it at all. I overheard some pragmatic art fair advice, “Only suckers buy at the Fair! Sure, you might make the deal here, but you don’t write the check for at least a couple of weeks. Unless you’re a poser.” I didn’t hear much about contemporary art at all.

 In addition to the market thriving, it turns out that the patriarchy is alive and well. The heels! The amount of cleavage (enhanced and otherwise) and bum I saw was incredible. Granted, there was also the buff young guy on the beach in a tiny Speedo (waving a big latex dildo, btw) but the vast majority of skin on display was female, and it seemed to be on display for the well-heeled men present. At first, I was gobsmacked, then I thought “You’re just being overly provincial. Relax!”, and finally I just felt kinda dirty. I am privileged enough that I don’t have to encounter it so vividly in my daily life, but it’s still there.

And every night in my email and in the news was the drumbeat of Ferguson and Staten Island and the turmoil they engendered. As someone who’s worked their whole life in the cultural sector, and frankly was often quite smug about the social value of museum work, it was a repeated slap in the face. The armored vehicles versus unarmed protesters, the police who were to all intents and purposes indistinguishable from an army, and the systemic violence exposed for all to see.

 
“Social value, huh? How does your museum adresss this?!”
SWAT team, fully assembled CC-BY 2.0 image by Flickr user Jamelle Bouie

SWAT team, fully assembled
CC-BY 2.0 image by Flickr user Jamelle Bouie

Many of my colleagues in the field were grappling with the question of “How can/should/must museums respond to events like Ferguson if they really want to be engaged in the important cultural conversations of the day?” and it’s not an easy question to answer. The traditional avenues that museums utilize, like our national adovcacy group, weren’t much use at all. So the group decided to bypass the established routes and speak directly, as individuals affected by Ferguson and lucky enough to have the means to spread the word. Was it enough? Probably not. Was it more than might otherwise have been said? Definitely. And it wouldn’t have happened without a group of committed people taking time to organize and have hard conversations. So, I want to give much respect to Gretchen, Max, Aletheia and Rose, Mike, Aleia, Porchia, Adrianne, and all the others I’m forgetting who gave their time to create the statement. And, to be clear, I wasn’t much help at the time, aside from amplifying the message they crafted. I take no credit, but I am very grateful to have been able to be part of it.

What did the statement accomplish? AAM hasn’t come out with a forceful statement or suggestions for museums to tackle racial inequality. Thousands of museums haven’t added new exhibitions and programs to their calendars that address Ferguson. So, did the statement fail? I don’t think so. Sometimes just wrestling with the big, ugly, seemingly-intractable problems is restorative and necessary. We are so outcomes-based as a society that I think the really big problems are especially hard for us to grapple with, because it’s hard to see the direct path from here to a better world. And maybe that fixation with outcome gets in the way. I’ve come to believe that it is more important to stand up and speak up against injustice now than to have “the answer”. The conversations that led up to the statement were challenging, provoking even. And I’m glad I was challenged and provoked.

And since then, things have happened…

Grassroots organizing seems to be alive and well

One of the encouraging results of #museumsrespondtoferguson was that Aleia Brown and Adrianne Russell initiated a monthly Twitter chat on museums and race. I’m confident that there’ll be some sanctioned or unsanctioned conversations at AAM this year. Rebecca Herz wrote an excellent meditation on ethics in museum practice that touches on a lot of the same issues I’ve been grappling with. It’s well worth a look.  Separate conversations on income inequality and the high price of museum conferences have sprung up as a result of #museumsrespondtoferguson. There was a great debate recently on Twitter between current media darlings MuseumHack and a bunch of New York-based museum professionals over the high prices of their tours, and the larger issue of whether museums’ eagerness to court younger audiences really means only affluent young audiences. These are all good signs. Issues of import are being discussed in public forums instead of behind closed doors or at conference sessions attended by a few dozen of the usual suspects. The questions being raised will doubtless irritate some and offend others. And that’s not a bad thing. The museum endeavor, that direct experience with the sublime, the unbelievable, and the novel, has such tremendous potential to uplift people of all ages and inclinations that it’s worth some discomfort.

4 responses to “Issue: Museums and Social Change

  1. A great example of museums responding to social issues is this display from the Field Museum, courtesy of Emily Graslie: http://thebrainscoop.tumblr.com/post/112537703161/imagine-if-all-our-display-cases-like-this-one

  2. Pingback: On (not) writing | Thinking about museums

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