Deb Kerr, one of the Museum Studies certificate program professors, invited former students to an event at her museum a few weeks ago. It was organized by the Chicago Museum Exhibitors Group and hosted by Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art. Three museum professionals - from Intuit, the Illinois Holocaust Museum, and the National Veterans Art Museum - led a conversation about “Museums & Social Justice: What role can we play?”
The event opened with a video of Dr. David Fleming of the National Museums of Liverpool imploring museums not to be dispassionate. There often is this idea that these institutions should be purely educational, and as such, they should be as unbiased and clinical in their approach to their subject as possible. This isn’t a particularly welcoming, compelling, or relevant strategy, though. Christine Bespalec-Davis, the education director at the National Veterans Art Museum, addressed this issue by explaining how their staff encourage visitors to talk through their emotions. They work to promote dialogue for topics that are difficult to discuss, like violence and trauma, rather than simply “stating the facts.” Kelley H. Szany, director of education at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center spoke to the power of a story in its ability to form connections with visitors, and the idea of this connection moving visitors to act. Far from encouraging passive observation, they promote activism.
I hope that over time, the field as a whole can embrace the idea that museums can be educational while still taking a stance on important issues. I would argue that in some cases failing to address controversy or conflict can intrinsically be viewed as taking a stance. With education comes responsibility, and museums need to learn to accept this responsibility and use it for the greater good.