(As a preface, I ended up reading a larger scattering of online blogs throughout this process so I’ve inserted links when I quote something rather than just referring to the author because I think a couple were actually linked in the readings but not the actual assigned readings)
Museums should be neutral institutions and they should reflect the public they serve and the communities in which they lie. Unfortunately, neither of these is true. First, I offer a definition of neutral that differs from the traditional concept. Here, neutral does not mean silent. It does not mean complicit. Neutral means providing the public with the opportunity to engage with all sides of an issue. Museums should not be afraid to engage with difficult issues and should certainly be venues for public discussions on such issues. “By providing a space for difficult conversations on issues of race, class, gender identity, and immigration, museums establish themselves as a place where communities can come together to discuss conflict and begin to find resolution.” (Melanie Adams) As public institutions they need to serve the public in a democratic (equitable) manner. I am hesitant to support the idea that museums should take a stand on one side of an issue or another because, in so doing, I wonder, is half of the dialogue shut down or turned away? I do not mean to suggest that museums should not challenge their visitors’ beliefs. Rather, they should be facilitating the public dialogue that challenges long-standing prejudices, on both sides of an issue. In order to have true democratic deliberations on tough issues, all sides must be represented. In the past, one side dominated the other and public institutions (schools, museums, libraries) served to perpetuate that side’s viewpoint. Museums must be sites for open dialogue. A neutral territory is needed. Museums are capable of filling this need. “How do we facilitate a conversation that may include opposing, and heated, perspectives? How do we maintain a safe space while allowing people to disagree? How do we correct misunderstandings and faulty assumptions that emerge in conversation? How do we guide these conversations to help people better understand each other and the world we live in?” (Rebecca Herz). By remaining neutral and by training frontline staff in facilitation of difficult discussion, museums can begin to answer these questions and begin to create safe spaces for conflict conversations.
As for the idea that museums should reflect and serve their communities – it is fairly clear from the readings this week that many museums struggle with this. First, the history of museums are tied up in the institutionalization that perpetuate many of the problems between races, ethnicities, genders, and classes. Museums began as the wealthy white man’s collections and many museums still maintain this depiction, although they are open to an increasingly multicultural public. “Oppression plays a role in the history and acquisition of all the works in our collections, and if we are to grow with our communities we need to move towards a place where we can honestly talk about even the unpleasant aspects of all our histories.”(Nikhil). Multiple blogs called for top-down self-examination to ensure that museums are not just preaching equality, but also truly practicing it. “Most museums are largely staffed by white people. They often evidence a difference in the color of administrative and support staff. They are run by boards made up of the “One Percent”. Until we can make change in our own institutions, any effort to address issues such as the Ferguson grand jury verdict will be artificial, and will be perceived as such.” (Rebecca Herz). This is the first step in the process of ensuring that museums become institutions of the public as well as for the public. The next step is to include the public. As Melanie Adams said, we need to begin talking “with the community” and not “to the community”. How can we hope to serve the community if we do not know what the community needs? Museums must begin by engaging the public before a crisis arises. Museums should be inviting the public to participate and partnering with local groups to build relationships. This must be part of the vision and mission of the museum and involve the entire museum, top to bottom. Jeanne Vergeront states, “Nothing less than a whole-hearted, sustained effort, guided by an aligned vision and mission and community outlook; with committed resources and activities; and support all across the museum from leadership to the newest hire is essential for relevant and meaningful action to issues like Ferguson.”
As a slight aside, but relevant to this discussion, did anyone else hear any of NPR’s This American Life this weekend? (I tried to find a link to the actual episode, but their website wouldn’t load on my computer. There is a free podcast you can subscribe to if you are interested.) It discussed police and policing across the US in light of the events in Ferguson, New York, and elsewhere. One of the points that struck me while I was reading for this class, is the simple fact that the police in the interviews were constantly talking about “public engagement” and building trust within the communities they serve. It was interesting to find out what that engagement entailed and if any part of it included addressing institutionalized issues and prejudices.
Also, this David Fleming tweet.