Museums as opportunity makers

The past couple of months have been extremely busy for me. I’ve definitely neglected the blog. But despite this, I’ve managed to keep up a fairly regular schedule of cultural activities and museum visits. My ongoing “museum anthropology” work feels really important, not just for professional development purposes, but because it’s an investment in my personal development, including my mental health and wellbeing.

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I took this photograph during a recent visit to The Phillips Collection. The prompt was something like “What are you doing to invest in yourself?

Back in early March, I was so fortunate to have the chance to attend the Vital Voices Global Leadership Awards honoring phenomenally courageous women taking great risks to address urgent contemporary issues. Later the same month, I attended a much more low key but equally thought-provoking and inspiring panel discussion at the Alexandria Black History Museum on the subject of integrating art into historic sites. And last week, I attended a tour of the mysterious and amazing Dupont Underground with the Emerging Arts Leaders DC group.

Being surrounding by these opportunities in Washington, D.C. and feeling comfortable and welcome enough to take advantage of them is an incredible gift – and the realization has me thinking about how important it is for museums to understand their role as “opportunity makers” for their communities, and the immense responsibility this entails.

Museum visits really are like investments – both in you, the visitor, and in the institution, which provides something of value in exchange for your time, openness, and collaboration. All members of the community, even those who have never visited, should be considered stakeholders—potential partners with something to offer.

Social equity and access are fundamental mandates for community institutions such as parks and libraries. Museums, in theory, are held to the same standards, but frequently fall short, often choosing to focus on their narrow subject specializations and to prioritize collections over people. In theory, all museums want to provide great opportunities—experiences involving beauty, growth, healing, and intellectual engagement—for all members of their community. However, many seem content to simply attract and retain their “default” audiences, visitors who easily see value for themselves in the museum’s offerings.

According to Gretchen Jennings’ concept of an “empathetic museum,” museums that want to be genuinely visitor-centered, responsive, and connected to all aspects of community must develop a culture of empathy—a strong foundation of empathetic and inclusive practice where all community members see clear personal relevance and feel esteem within the museum (see this post on Museum Commons).

To this end, museums as opportunity makers should actively seek to create diverse opportunities for their communities that are perceived as deeply valuable, welcoming, and accessible. All museums, no matter their subject matter, mission, or collection, can work towards this.

As I’ve suggested before, museums, institutionally, have a special asset that traditional social service institutions do not. Museums don’t have to treat their users solely as clients (a unidirectional service relationship). They can actually work in partnership with users, with both parties bettering the other. This has been one of the great joys of my career change from human services to cultural services. And I think this distinction has enormous potential for transformative museum practice that offers genuinely valuable opportunities for all.

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The museum’s ‘ask’: 2015 in review

Happy New Year! The dawning of 2016 marks 15 months of Museums with impact. Evaluating and reflecting on my first full year of blogging, I return to my original goals for the blog, articulated in the following mission and vision:

Mission

To facilitate an inclusive, collaborative platform for museum workers, human services workers, educators, students, writers (and hopefully many others) to discuss, celebrate, and build possibilities for creating empowering museum experiences.

Vision

A supportive forum where you can share your successes, challenges, and ideas relating to social service endeavors in the museum, and maybe even develop some collaborative projects.

While the blog hasn’t spawned any large-scale collaborative projects (yet), it has inspired opportunities for community-building and professional dialogue that have exceeded my wildest dreams, and made me feel truly excited about the abundant energy around leveraging culture to help people and communities.

In addition to the incredible adventures that I have had visiting museums, participating in programs, and meeting great people, I have received several emails from people reaching out to discuss ideas and collaborate in small ways. I’m so delighted and grateful that the blog has helped me to connect with new people and ideas. Thank you so much to those who reached out; I hope we can stay in touch in the New Year.

In looking back (and forward), I recall favorite posts from this and other blogs, reflect on recent museum visits, and try to coalesce the big ideas that are percolating for me in 2016.

These were my favorite Museums with impact posts—the posts that still excite me and raise unanswered questions that I hope to continue exploring:

The following were my favorite blog posts of 2014/2015 from other blogs:

Looking at these posts, I seem to be moving into 2016 curious about what museums are asking of their visitors and how these experiences might be empowering, inclusive, empathetic, therapeutic, and community-building.

What might some of these ‘asks’ look like?

  • To play freely like a child?
  • To submit to healthy experiences of discomfort, ambiguity, and doubt?
  • To self-examine and share the findings as part of a larger story?
  • To be ‘complicit’ in a unique experience?
  • To be self-efficacious?

Recently, my husband and I visited the Matilda Joslyn Gage Center in Fayetteville, NY. Gage was a women’s rights and social justice activist who fought for causes including woman suffrage and equality, separation of church and state, and violence against women. This museum strongly epitomizes the idea of a demanding yet supportive (and highly validating) cultural and community space (see photos below).

This recent Twitter conversation is going to be one of my guiding ideas this year as I pursue the importance of the individual person’s story (to the museum).

Imagine a place where you could go to feel totally and completely welcome and valued—as a partner, to feel challenged but efficacious, to feel sparked and excited, and to feel awe and a numinous connection. Could that place be a museum?

The key questions, at least for me right now, are how and what do we ask of visitors and how do we leave the answer open to develop in a way that serves individual and community needs, and is visitor-driven. And what do we also ask of ourselves as institutions in terms of actively serving communities in crisis, modelling congruent values in museum labor practice, and ensuring museums are accessible and welcoming multi-purpose spaces?

The ‘uncurated’ Christmas tree

Every time I drive west down Duke Street past Landmark Mall (towards 395), I am cheered and comforted by the sight of an eclectically decorated ‘Christmas tree’ growing out of the sidewalk by the overpass to the Mall.

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Photo by David Konigsberg

This tree has become a fixture in my mind—a landmark, in fact. Over the past several months, it seems to have cycled through several rounds of very creative decorating—undertaken, I assume, by members of the community.

Lately, the tree has gotten me thinking about museum participation and the varying degrees to which visitor participation is shaped and refined by the museum.

While I love the collaborative museum-visitor model where the museum uses its expertise to guide visitors’ contributions, the tree reminds me that the spontaneous, grassroots, ‘uncurated’ (nothing is entirely uncurated, but you get the idea) approach to creative participation might have some merit.

The tree also reminds me of my own childhood experiences decorating the family Christmas tree. My mom, early childhood educator and committed proponent of unbridled childhood creativity, always insisted that my brothers and I be 100% in charge of decorating the Christmas tree. She encouraged us to start leading this project from a very early age so you can imagine how special our Christmas trees looked as we were growing up: a massive clump of tinsel here; a scribbled, original paper ornament there; a concentration of decorations on the lower portion of the tree where our short arms could reach—nothing like the composed and visually balanced trees that we saw at our friends’ houses. But we loved our trees and were always proud of them.

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Me and my late grandmother by our Christmas tree.

The urge to ‘correct’ the work of someone we see as less ‘qualified’ can be so tempting as to be almost automatic, especially in the case of young children. The drive for appealing and organized aesthetics is also powerful, and understandable. I’m sure some people drive down Duke Street and have to actively resist the urge to pull over and ‘fix’ the muddled assortment of random adornments on our community, year-round, sidewalk Christmas tree.

However, I think we might consider what we are sacrificing when we ‘edit’ someone’s participatory effort. The opportunity to see or learn something new from someone else, the opportunity to be impetuous and to proceed without a plan, and the opportunity to facilitate unmitigated ownership, self-esteem, and pride are just a few possible losses.

I am curious to hear from other museum professionals on this subject. Have you ever offered your visitors an (almost) entirely blank slate upon which to create something for the museum? If so, how did it work out? Did you learn something? Did visitors receive something valuable? Or was the result too jumbled and disconnected to be of value?

Several weeks ago, I dropped in on the DC Arts Center and saw an interesting effort at an uncurated community exhibit: the Center’s annual 1460 Wall Mountables exhibit for which the 1,460 square feet of gallery wall space is made available to community artists wishing to claim a 2’ by 2’ square to personally install their work. When I visited I saw only the blocked out walls and I am still yet to return to see the resulting exhibit, but I’m curious about the wonderful potentials of this laissez-faire, institutionally-detached approach.

When I was in college, I took a course on the topic of play. For one class session, we were let loose on a local day care center and invited to play, create, and display in any way that we chose using the materials provided. One particular room was my favorite; an eclectic mix of natural and found objects along with an open floorspace provided the opportunity to build, collaborate, and dramatize in unlimited ways—both lasting and ephemeral (creations could be left behind or broken down and absorbed into others’ work).

Perhaps I am being overly idealistic in considering the potentials of such randomness and disorganization in the museum, a place revered for its ability to cultivate the exact opposite environment. And maybe, not everyone finds an ‘uncurated’ Christmas tree quite so charming as I do.

However, I still remember what it felt like to work with those materials in that very unique class activity back in college: scary at first, but then therapeutic and very, very satisfying.

Historic houses and legacies: letting spaces speak

Have you ever wondered what your historical legacy will be? Maybe you will positively alter the course of history and your possessions, stories, and spaces will be preserved somewhere in a museum or historic house. Maybe, by accident, you will cross paths with a significant moment in history. Likely, you will pass some kind of legacy to your family.

Where do legacies reside? They are found in stories and memories, of course, but they also inhabit physical spaces and objects. How such spaces tell their stories, and how visitors might listen and find personal meaning are potentially useful questions for museums and historic houses that care for these spaces.

I began pondering these questions after recent visits to President Lincoln’s Cottage and Mary McLeod Bethune Council House—historic houses that tell the stories of the prominent social reformers for whom they are named. I wondered about the social service or therapeutic possibilities of spaces that house legacies of social change, such as Lincoln’s or Bethune’s.

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President Lincoln’s Cottage is quite different from a traditional museum, and leaves a lasting impression that is both visceral and intellectual. The rooms are relatively bare and do not contain exhibits in the traditional sense—just a few pieces of period furniture here and there. Instead of objects, they are filled with Lincoln’s ideas, experiences, and stories. These intangible pieces of history fill the spaces as completely as any exhibition would; the rooms don’t feel empty—which is surprising because, in a physical sense, they are.

Photograph by Erik Uecke, Courtesy President Lincoln’s Cottage

Photograph by Erik Uecke, Courtesy President Lincoln’s Cottage

The Mary McLeod Bethune Council House, historic headquarters of the National Council of Negro Women and Bethune’s last D.C. residence, feels closer to a traditional museum, but shares some interesting similarities with the uniquely idea-based interpretive style of President Lincoln’s Cottage. The spaces are intended to evoke Bethune’s spirit, intellect, and obvious charisma, and they do it well.

During a recent lecture at the National Building Museum by design psychology founder, Dr Toby Israel, I learned that the spaces we select and the ways we curate and present them are deeply revealing of who we are. I began to appreciate this lasting ‘essence’ of a person or group as a valuable asset of the historic house.

My biggest takeaway from my historic house visits was the intense relationship between historic spaces, and visitor imagination and empathy. Standing in both of these sites, I did more than simply learn about their historical inhabitants, I experienced their lives, and personalities. I think physical space is important for these experiences. We need to imagine ourselves within the space to begin to empathize with its history.

Within Lincoln’s space, once a haven for Lincoln and his family, I sensed his earnestness, his limitations, his anxiety and frequent exhaustion. I idealized him less, and liked him more. Within Bethune Council House, I palpably sensed Bethune’s pride, confidence, and optimism. I got the impression she was a person unafraid to participate fully in the world, despite its oftentimes discriminatory attitudes towards her race and gender. Her inspiring presence danced self-assuredly in every room.

My visit to Bethune Council House made me realize that historic spaces might serve as identity blueprints because they tell us so much about their owners and users—both who they were and how they represented themselves in the world. My guide did an incredible job of drawing my attention to the significance of certain spaces and objects in the House. The scene below captures the importance of the House piano (not the original), its striking presence in the space, and its important role in promoting Bethune’s concern for equality internationally (see the flags).

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Her imagined office space (pictured below) highlights her struggle to represent herself as capable and strong, yet feminine—a difficult (but necessary) line to walk at the time for someone with Bethune’s aspirations, according to my guide.

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This conference table (see below) also tells an important story about how Bethune might have imagined her work: She was doing serious work for African American women and that required a serious conference table. To stand by this piece of history, which may have once given Bethune confidence, was affirming and empowering.

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Historic spaces might also remind us of social and political constraint and thereby engender a sense of pragmatic empathy for historical figures. (Lincoln and Bethune were both limited by their spheres of influence and had to choose their battles.) Historic spaces also bring us a little closer to the greatness within ourselves as we sense the strategy and ingenuity behind successful social change. So these experiences might build empathy and creativity, and re-invigorate our idealistic side.

Of course, when we visit museums such as Bethune Council House or Lincoln’s Cottage, we are experiencing selective interpretations of their lives rather than authentic, unbiased realities. We cannot actually step back in time and chat with Bethune by her real grand piano, or hang out with Lincoln on his porch. But we can occupy spaces they once occupied, and see where this leads us. Maybe we can know something about ourselves, at least through our own intellectual experience. Potential for personal growth and a renewed sense of wellbeing may reside here, in this unusual, and valuable experience.

Both Bethune Council House and Lincoln’s Cottage do an admirable job of stepping back and letting the spaces speak. Historic houses (and the intangible social assets that they house) seem like important social and community resources, even potential building blocks for innovative social programs. These institutions and their resources might make valuable sites for therapeutic programs. I am reminded of Lois Silverman’s work on the Museums as Therapeutic Agents (MATA) Collaborative project. The project included a tour of the historic Wylie House for people with life-threatening illness (and their partners) and encouraged participants to self-reflect, draw helpful historical parallels, and appreciate universal human challenge (Silverman, 2002).

Perhaps historic houses could use their legacies to support young people through special tours and workshops, or to reconnect people living with dementia with their sense of self through casual visits and discussions. Maybe they would be useful resources for programs for helping professionals (doctors, social workers) aimed at refreshing participants and averting professional burnout.

These are merely ideas for consideration, and discussion. Successful programs of this kind would likely require close collaborations with community organizations and social service professionals, potentially creating new opportunities for maintaining institutions’ contemporary relevance and community value.

Do you see any valuable connections between public history, legacies, and therapeutic and social programs? I think there’s something here. After all, why do we look to history if not to avoid repeating it, to be inspired, to feel comfort and a sense of shared experience, and to think critically about its applications to our own lives?

Photograph by Erica Abbey, Courtesy President Lincoln’s Cottage

Photograph by Erica Abbey, Courtesy President Lincoln’s Cottage

 

Silverman, L. H. (2002). The therapeutic potential of museums as pathways to inclusion. In R. Sandell (Ed.), Museums, society, inequality (pp. 69-83). New York, NY: Routledge.

Museums, who are your fans? And how can you make them your partners?

Recently, I realized I have been guilty of museum favoritism.

Almost every day, I become more aware of the diverse and plentiful cultural offerings in the Washington, D.C. area. Frequently, people ask if I have heard of a particular museum or gallery and I happily say, ‘No, but it’s going on my list.’ This ever-expanding list reminds me that I have barely scratched the proverbial surface of local museum visiting possibility.

Why then—with so many unchecked boxes—do I repeatedly visit (and often write about) the same institutions? Firstly, time and energy are not unlimited (even for someone with my flexible schedule) so I am drawn to what intrigues me most. Ease of access is also a factor that nudges me towards the familiar, a constraint imposed by my poor map-reading and GPS-following skills. But another component is clearly the fact that certain museums’ exhibitions and public programs speak to my personal drives for growth and unique experience.

A few days ago, during a thought-provoking visit to the AMA | Art Museum of the Americas’ latest F Street Gallery exhibition, What We Have Within, I began to appreciate my value as an increasingly dedicated and regular visitor to this particular museum. Chatting with my inspiring guide, Exhibit Coordinator, Fabian Goncalves, I noticed (as I had during my first visit) the compelling interests and values that I share with this institution, namely the importance of telling real stories and giving voice to social concerns. I began to wonder, am I a resource to this and other museums whose mission and values I particularly embrace?

Strategically speaking, how should museums approach and respond to visitors who (for lack of a better word) love what the museum does? Do museums know what they’re ‘selling,’ or better yet, what visitors are ‘buying’? Obviously, the answer depends partly on the type of visitor; people visit museums for numerous reasons and with limitless possible outcomes or takeaways. Visitor differences aside, I want to propose the idea of museum ‘fans,’ and then ask the question, ‘Museums, do you know who your fans are—and why?’

A Google search of ‘museum visitors as fans’ turned up mostly articles relating to museums and sports/popular culture and a few intriguing results for ‘fan museums.’ However, I did find this evaluation case study of the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture by evaluation firm, Randi Korn & Associates. The case study identified ‘fans’ as one of the three visitor groups of the museum, using the term to describe the most passionate, enthusiastic group (Randi Korn & Associates, 2012).

Since moving to the US and spending time living with my in-laws, I have been exposed to the fascinating phenomenon of baseball fan culture. I think it’s a wonderful example of the kind of thriving community that can grow from a shared passion, and I now have a new appreciation for the value of professional sports in contributing to community wellbeing and vitality. Fans, it seems, are truly the life and soul of baseball culture, contributing energy and character, and distinctly shaping the experience. Fans often use the phrase ‘our team,’ a linguistic choice that clearly reflects a sense of belonging and stewardship towards the team. I’m not sure exactly how an ‘our museum’ analogy would translate, but it’s an interesting notion. Certainly, understanding and cultivating visitors’ emotional investment in a museum could be a mutually rewarding enterprise.

Many museum membership programs strive to engage their more avid visitors with special opportunities to be involved in the museum’s cultural life. Similarly, crowdfunding projects, visitor-curated or crowdsourced displays, and active social media platforms offer passionate museum visitors the chance to contribute and collaborate. Who are museums attracting with these endeavors? What are participants’ hopes and motivations for participating? And how do these projects fit within the institution’s larger strategy and mission?

Recently, a visitor to the blog from local advertising agency, Brightline Interactive, introduced me to the concept of experiential marketing, which, as I understand it, aims to immerse consumers in a brand through inviting active participation and involvement. Since then, I have been pondering the possible connections between this concept and museum learning and mission engagement. For example, what are the possibilities for active involvement and immersion of ‘fans’ in a museum’s mission and brand?

If we think of fans as institutional resources (much like the collections, staff, and museum building), then what might be their possible roles? Fans may be potentially valuable members of a museum’s social network because they are able to spread a museum or exhibit’s message, raise awareness for issues of concern to the museum, and generally generate attention, for example, on social media (see below).

Although museums may struggle with the practical obstacles of connecting directly with passionate individuals, making the effort to seize small opportunities to acknowledge and celebrate visitors’ exciting connections and shared understandings could be valuable. For example, during my most recent visit to the AMA, my guide, Fabian, expressed his enjoyment of my visit, explaining that these experiences are valuable to him, as he knows they are to me also. This comment made me feel valued and connected to the museum.

As is often the case for me (being an emerging museum professional), this post is largely comprised of questions rather than answers. I sincerely hope that those with greater expertise in marketing, social networks, and museum branding will weigh in with relevant resources, thoughts, and critiques. I am also interested in the question of terminology. Is ‘fan’ an appropriate word here, or does a better option exist? Is the concept valid to begin with?

I wish to propose the following final question as food for thought:

What is the particular value of fans to museums that seek to engage in social work?

A recent post by Zac Stocks on the incluseum really highlighted for me the value of building community networks and creating strong self-sustaining systems of stakeholders when pursuing museum social work. Museums might consider looking to those users and visitors who share their vision in an effort to create enduring foundations for social change. 

What are your favorite cultural institutions and why? What could you contribute to these institutions? … I look forward to continuing my own museum pilgrimage (a term borrowed from Alli Burness), finding many more favorites, and sharing my stories and experiences with you.

 

Reference

Randi Korn & Associates, Inc. (2012). An audience research study for a natural history museum: Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, Seattle, WA. Retrieved from http://www.randikorn.com/resources/burke-visitor-experience.php

The museum stage: performance and pride

On Sunday, I enjoyed a profoundly lovely and uplifting performance by the Student Angklung Orchestra and the House of Angklung of Washington, D.C. The Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler Galleries presented this concert in partnership with the Embassy of the Republic of Indonesia in Washington, D.C. as part of a weekend-long public program titled Performing Indonesia. The program featured performances, family workshops, and a symposium showcasing music, dance, and theater from West Java.

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The performance took place on the Freer Gallery steps, a visually impressive and openly accessible location. I arrived to a mass of beaming parents and a sea of smart phones stretched above heads—kind of a beautiful sight. I immediately noticed the atmosphere of pride and fun.

The Student Angklung Orchestra turned out to be a group of two hundred Washington-area elementary school students each playing angklung, a traditional West Javanese bamboo musical instrument. Performing alongside them was House of Angklung, a local cultural group that promotes peace and harmony through sharing culture (see website).

The museum stage

The museum seemed to make an important contribution to the educative, social, and personal value of the performance. Specifically, it provided a formal structure for the event and an interpretive context for visitors to pursue further learning through related resources. Moreover, the museum created a sharing context where knowledge and learning generated pride for both performers and audience members.

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The angklung was displayed for audience members to see up close.

Educating and collaborating through performance

Throughout the concert, the students shared their knowledge of Indonesian language and culture with the audience. The educative impact of the program (both for the performers and the audience) was apparent and impressive.

Collaboration between the student orchestra and the House of Angklung group was a great display of multi-age collaboration (which I discussed in a past post).

Important collaborations also took place between the students and their parents. Towards the end of the concert, volunteers handed out angklung and taught parents how to play them. For the final medley of songs, parents were invited to join the students on stage for a collaborative performance. An impressive number of individuals were willing to give this a shot—perhaps because the conductor and volunteers had worked hard to cultivate an attitude of fun and acceptance. The performance turned out to be a moving celebration of family and teamwork, which (based on what I learned about angklung and Indonesian culture) seemed fitting.

Performance and quality

In researching this post, I stumbled across a 2007 post by Nina Simon on her blog, Museum 2.0. She discussed the issue of visitor performance in the museum, wondering whether visitor input may be particularly useful and meaningful when visitors have an awareness that they are producing content for a particular audience.

Certainly, I think it is true that when we know that our efforts will be shared with others we generally seek to do our best and to offer something of quality. Nina suggests that museums help visitors make a genuine contribution to the museum experience when they encourage them to consider both the input and the output experiences generated by their participation (Nina Simon, Museum 2.0).

‘Pride’ as a visitor outcome

The Freer|Sackler states, ‘Our mission is to encourage enjoyment and understanding of the arts of Asia and the cultures that produced them. We use works of art to inspire study and provoke thought.’ (See Mission Statement)

This mission cites enjoyment of arts and culture as an important institutional goal. By creating opportunities for achievement and pride, the Performing Indonesia program clearly speaks to this mission.

According to Google, ‘pride’ is ‘a feeling or deep pleasure or satisfaction derived from one’s own achievements, the achievements of those with whom one is closely associated, or from qualities or possessions that are widely admired.’ (See definition)

Therefore, pride is a powerful force for wellbeing because it impacts not only the creator/performer, but touches anyone who cares about and associates themselves with that person, including family members, friends, and community members. Pride is something that we can share.

Other museum theaters

Museums offer many possible ‘theatres’ where visitors’ contributions can be performed and interpreted for other visitors:

  • exhibition spaces
  • permanent collections
  • public programs such as panel discussions, guided tours, and creative workshops
  • online museum spaces (See The Phillips Collection’s uCurate)

Museums can use objects and physical spaces as well as intangible heritage such as the practice of angklung, which is inscribed on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Experiences from the field?

I’m curious to hear from museum professionals. Do you provide opportunities for visitors to perform in your museum? What are some of the management and design considerations that make it possible for visitors to create useful content/experiences for other visitors? Is visitor pride a relevant goal or outcome for your institution?

On a final, mostly-related note…

I find the Freer|Sackler to be a remarkably caring institution. (My personal impression is that they have the most warm and welcoming security guards of any museum I have been to.) Their Performing Indonesia program suggests there can be great harmony between an educational and scholarly mission, and programming that fosters visitor wellbeing. I am excited to continue exploring their programs.

Resilience in the museum

Last Friday, a memorable visit to the Anacostia Community Museum got me thinking about museums and resilience.

I went to the Museum to attend a program facilitated by Move This World, a nonprofit organization that uses movement and the arts to empower communities.

Before the facilitator arrived, I took a look through the Museum’s two temporary exhibitions: Ubuhle Women: Beadwork and the Art of Independence and Home Sewn: Quilts from the Lower Mississippi Valley. (The Move This World (for women) program promised to build on the themes of self-esteem and empowerment explored in the Ubuhle exhibition.)

The heroic creator

The Ubuhle exhibition was one of the most beautiful and awe-inspiring things I have seen in a long time.

The exhibition features remarkable canvas-like works of colored glass beads created by the Ubuhle community, a group of female artists working in rural South Africa. The works are called ndwangos. (See exhibition description).

I could have spent several hours just enjoying being in this space (the Ubuhle exhibition).

I could have spent several hours just enjoying being in this space (the Ubuhle exhibition).

I spent forty-five quiet, restorative minutes poring over these luminous works. As I read the associated stories, experiences, and aspirations of the artists, I came to appreciate the complexity of the lives and careers of each ndwango.

In one sense, the works are a means of economic independence for the artists and a vehicle for sharing their skills. In another, they are deep repositories of emotion, experience, and family life. According to one panel, the creative process may be used to work through grief and preserve memory when a loved one is lost (See panel titled ‘Remembering those lost’).

In essence, all creative expression represents the resilience and survival of the creator. Through artworks and their creators’ stories, we see imagination and creativity, skill and innovation, and courage in sharing one’s ideas with the world.

The second temporary exhibition, Home Sewn: Quilts from the Lower Mississippi Valley, seemed also to speak to the idea of art and creation as a symbol of endurance, adaptation, and human ingenuity. The exhibition explores an evolving, but ever-important quilting tradition in rural Mississippi.

The fieldwork shown in this exhibition is beautifully and empathetically conceived, and conveys the many ways that this quilting tradition absorbs and invigorates, and connects to community.

Again, I was given privileged insight into the forces that move and inspire others. Is this not one of the great joys of visiting a museum?

The heroic visitor

The Move This World (for women) program turned out to be a fitting way for me to process these exhibits and my emerging ideas about museums and resilience. It was a small group so instead of focusing on movement, we had an open discussion about the roles that we take on as women and the risks and rewards that we face as a result.

We discussed times when we have felt both empowered and disempowered, and we explored some of the thought processes surrounding these experiences while celebrating our efforts to persevere.

The experience was underpinned by a supportive atmosphere of esteem and respect. Much of the credit for this safe environment belongs to the facilitator from Move This World who generously shared her own spirit and humor to make the program successful.

I was touched when, at the end of the program, another participant gave me her phone number, inviting me to contact her if I needed help settling into D.C. So I left the museum both a little more confident and empowered, and with a new friend.

Is there a place for counseling approaches in the museum?

Yes, I think so.

The late social worker and researcher, Dennis Saleebey, stated: ‘All humans possess the urge to be heroic; to transcend their condition, to develop their powers, to overcome adversity’ (Saleebey, 2008, p. 123).

All museums, in some way, allude to everyday heroic acts by hinting at the many ways we survive, move forward, innovate and adapt. (Art museums? Yes. History museums? Yes. Science museums? Absolutely.)

Saleebey, who was a strong proponent of focusing on clients’ strengths (rather than their problems), explained that social workers should implore clients to imagine ‘what a dream fulfilled would feel, taste, smell, and look like’ (Saleebey, 2000, p. 135).

Maybe museums can help in this imagining process…?

Public programs that embrace a counseling/empowerment approach may be one avenue for extending and personalizing our experience of human heroism and resilience in the museum.

These programs might be made possible through partnerships and collaborations with social service organizations or with the help of likeminded nonprofits such as Move This World.

… So, if you find yourself in need of a little reassurance or connection, why not spend an afternoon in your favorite local museum? Take the time to recognize all that you already do (every day) that is strong and courageous, and then allow yourself to be inspired by the courageous acts of others.

 

Reference List

Saleebey, D. (2000). Power in the people: Strengths and hope. Advances in Social Work, 1(2), 127-136. Retrieved from http://journals.iupui.edu/index.php/advancesinsocialwork/article/view/18

Saleebey, D. (2008). The strengths perspective: Putting possibility and hope to work in our practice. In K. M. Sowers, & C. N. Dulmus (Series Eds.), & B. W. White (Vol. Ed.), Comprehensive handbook of social work and social welfare, volume 1: The profession of social work (pp. 123-142). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Fearless collaborators, equal partners

A few days ago, my fiancé told me he had found the perfect wedding present for me, but wanted to check with me first before buying it. He had recently seen something on Reddit about Ruth Oosterman, an artist, mother, and blogger (see The Mischievous Mommy), who collaborates with her two-year-old daughter to produce artworks. My fiancé was thinking about buying one of these works for me.

Of course, I was immediately excited at the thought of owning such a meaningful piece (though not convinced that wedding presents between the bride and groom aren’t a bit excessive). I began doing some research on The Mischievous Mommy and also found a similar story about a mother-child artistic team at busy mockingbird. Both Ruth and busy mockingbird author, Mica Angela Hendricks, collaborate with their young daughters to produce highly unique, creative, and visually striking works of art.

On their blogs, both women note the fearless creativity of their young collaborators, the equality of the working partnership, and the remarkable outcomes of the collaborations—which always far exceed their expectations for the works (Mica Angela Hendricks, ‘Collaborating with a 4-year Old’; Ruth Oosterman, ‘Thank you.’).

In many ways, our culture tends to view children as formative beings, or works in progress. As adults, we often value creative efforts that are neat and clearly contained. A child’s ‘scribbles’ may be seen as a valid developmental step, but lacking in control and skill. We fail to see children as our intellectual equals and in doing so, limit the possibilities for what we can achieve in partnership with them.

The opportunities that these two girls receive in co-creating these works are likely very empowering for them. Collaborative projects created in a context of true equality (as these appear to be) confirm for the child that they have truly contributed to the success of the project.

I remember that as a nanny, I was initially concerned about collaborating too much on creative projects. I was afraid I would take over the project or reduce the child’s sense of ownership over the finished product. While it was worth keeping these cautions in mind, I realized that the refusal to collaborate (especially when eagerly invited) can mean a loss of mutual learning opportunities. And I do really mean mutual; on countless occasions, I found myself presented with a superior solution to a problem, or proved wrong in my pessimistic assessment that a certain approach wouldn’t work.

Collaboration with children need not always involve the co-creation of an artwork, but could involve any genuinely shared enterprise. A few years ago, I was leaving MoMA (Museum of Modern Art) in New York City when I came across a mother and child selling their work together on the street. Charmed by this delightful business duo, I bought a wonderful work from young artist, Hannah.

Clearly, one of the ways we can communicate a child’s creative equality is by recognizing the child’s contribution as valid and significant. I am certain Angelina Jolie’s children felt validated to see their drawings depicted on their mother’s designer wedding gown—a ‘not-insignificant’ medium or context.

I feel that these kinds of collaborations could find many happy applications in the social service oriented museum.

At the Queensland Museum (in Brisbane, Australia), the Egg Sort activity invites children to help the museum by identifying and collecting stick insect eggs for their nursery. This activity seems to be deeply absorbing and satisfying for the children that visit, perhaps because the children clearly feel that they are contributing.

What can museums do to ensure children feel empowered to contribute and assured that their contributions are valued?

Here are some of my thoughts:

  • Ask children for their ideas and solutions, and try to implement them.
  • Recognize a child’s work for its equal contribution by elevating, validating, and placing alongside the work of adults.
  • Consider the way that children’s contributions may augment and enhance regular exhibitions and programs (in addition to designated children’s galleries and programs).
  • Invite children to collaborate with artists, curators, parents and caregivers, and other museum staff through participatory exhibits and innovative public programs.

Your thoughts are most welcome.

(Finally, another benefit of meaningfully acknowledging children’s work in the museum is the fact that children—with their unabashed pride and confidence—bring everyone they know into the museum to see their work…)

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Children’s galleries, such as this locally renowned program at Ipswich Art Gallery, Australia, help to recognize the contributions of children in the museum. I wonder if we can extend these programs into regular museum programming and explore the potential for multi-age collaborative work.