Last year, a cross-departmental group of staff from the Art Institute of Chicago attended MASS Action, a national convening of cultural heritage institutions committed to supporting practices of equity and inclusion at their home institutions. The goals of this group are far-reaching and ambitious, but they are necessary. From MASS Action’s website:
“As the museum field begins to shape its identity in the 21st century, MASS Action poses the following questions for practitioners to consider: What is the role and responsibility of the museum in responding to issues affecting our communities locally and globally? How do the museum’s internal practices need to change in order to align with, and better inform, their public practice? How can the museum be used as a site for social action? Through a series of public convenings and the creation of a toolkit of resources, this project's intention is to share the strategies and frameworks needed to address these important topics.”
The first two institution-wide meeting to discuss the toolkit took place this month. MASS Action provided a framework for this discussion to get started, which is invaluable given the challenging nature of the content to be covered. We started by chatting with a neighbor, and posing the question - what does social action mean to you? There were lots of animated conversations taking place throughout the room, and my discussion partner and I talked about the necessity of connecting with people directly. Even though there are many means of interacting, face-to-face communication is necessary to forge strong ties, build momentum, and provide a reminder of the humanity of both peers and the public we’re serving.
A set of ground rules were then laid out by the organizers, to which we all agreed:
We are making an honest attempt to address the most pressing issues of equity within our museum. We are building a network of people that are (and have been) developing long-term solutions and effective strategies based on the immediate confrontation of our most pressing issues.
In developing these strategies and solution, we emphasize our own power, not our powerlessness.
We share the airtime. We listen to understand. We ask questions before assuming. The best way to understand the choices, actions or intentions of one another is by asking.
In order to create a space where everyone may speak freely, we recognize the importance of confidentiality. What is said here stays here, what is learned here leaves. We encourage you to ask before quoting, online or in-person, someone when they are sharing their thoughts in a space of trust.
We encourage people to engage with their whole selves, not just with one part of their identity.
We deeply value the time and energy participants are contributing to this project, and therefore want to create a safe, productive, healing space. Please ensure you maintain your health, energy and wellbeing throughout these discussions.
These guidelines helped set the tone for the work that we need to do. It is about sharing in a non-judgemental way, working together, and respecting where folks are coming from - basic ideas, but necessary to state in an increasingly hostile world.
We then broke into groups of about 10, to address two prompts: what is our truth, what is our role in the museum. I ended up talking with many peers I’d never met before, who represented a range of departments across the museum and central administration. We discussed in depth our identities and how certain “truths” (place in the family, state we grew up in, etc) inform how we function both in and outside of work. Additionally, we talked about how we exist in this institution, its relation to our identities, and the challenges we personally face. We also addressed the fractured nature of this museum, both in terms of physical space and in terms of work divisions. Given how large the institution is, many staff do not have opportunities to connect with each other.
I have always approached museums and archives from a collections-oriented perspective. I believe in the power for original source material to tell stories, for the benefit, growth, and education of all. As such, my focus in career development has been on the stuff-side of the GLAM (galleries, libraries, archives, and museum) world. I now know that there is no neutrality in the notion that cultural heritage institutions are collectors. The history of our holdings are rife with trauma. Colonial powers have taken materials they had no right to. Museums have continued imperialist tradition by continuing to claim ownership, and presenting in often uninformed or insensitive ways materials from hosts of cultures. Even the ways in which we categorize and catalog materials has been done in a privileged and tone-deaf manner.
Museums cannot be neutral, every choice made betrays priorities and biases - even when we are not aware of them. Fortunately, there are efforts to address these problematic sides of collections and archives. NAGPRA is one very small step in a positive direction, necessary but limited in scope. Mukurtu collections management system is an even more meaningful effort. This open-source platform allows communities to assert sovereignty for their cultural materials - in how these items are cataloged, shared, and keyworded. On the stuff-side of GLAM work, we need to be open to change and we need to move away from institution-as-owner-and-authority. Dr. Kimberly Christen gave a wonderful presentation on all of these ideas, and it is something all museums need to embrace.
Outside of collections as challenges in the context of social structures and uneven power, museums must also address our institutions in the context of our local and global communities. I have been slowly coming around to the idea that without people, without outreach and support to and interest by these people, these materials have little value. The human-side of GLAM institutions is thus crucial. This is likely obvious to most, but it’s dramatically altered the way in which I think about my work and the work of my peers. It was therefore striking and confirming that our group discussion focused on people, not the museum as a collecting entity. The museum is an organization of people, and it is for the benefit of other people. As such, our identities and challenges as staff can help to inform how we might think about the public we serve. Additionally, this groundwork can help us to determine what change can come from within. It is not enough to offer more programs for local public school kids. We need to embrace and reflect the change we want internally before we can hope to expect meaningful change externally. And as a member of our group succinctly pointed out, everyone wants change, but not as many want to change.
At the end of our too-short introductory MASS Action session, each group chose a representative to say once sentence that summed up the discussion in their group. It was interesting to listen to the range of ideas expressed: accessibility, audience selection, donor relations upholding the status quo, institution size as both a pro and con, the need for vulnerability. As the meeting ended, what stuck out in my mind was the notion that our reputation and identity could hold us back.
Art museums have a reputation for being elitist, for catering to and telling the stories of a select few. I think this is even more-so the case of a museum like ours, which does not focus on contemporary practice, but rather attempts to be encyclopedic in scope. It may not seem necessary, then, for our museum to embrace issues our world faces today head-on. Our behemoth size make timely, meaningful internal change difficult. It feels akin to correcting the course of the Titanic - we will need buy-in from hundreds of staff and from all levels of management. Our reputation as one of the top art museums will make external change difficult. We need to find a way of moving beyond this way of defining the institution, so that it can be a more welcoming, inclusive community center.
I do not think these challenges are insurmountable, and I do not think we should use them as excuses to not even bother trying. I hope that we can continue coming together to reflect on who we are and what we can do, so that change can happen internally and externally. This is a good start to larger conversations here at the Art Institute of Chicago, and I sincerely hope we can turn the conversation into action.