I think that the article “An Exploration of Race, Social Media, and Museums” introduced a useful concept: that museums create “invited spaces.” Promoting diversity and social engagement within a museum environment depends on who feels welcome there and who feels that the space actual belongs to them. Museums are certainly conscious of the explicit ways they send welcoming messages, perhaps by seeking to create programs that engage diverse audiences. This is important and admirable work. There may be subtler, unintended messages, however, that make diverse communities question whether museums are truly an invited space for them.
I think that this is where the conversation about social media becomes more complex, and why the use of critical race theory can be so useful in informing the discussion. This presents a lens through which museum professionals can view their efforts, uncovering unwitting exclusions of diverse groups and pinpointing strategies to correct any such issues. I have seen articles about differences in social media use among different communities; museum professionals cannot assume that all of their target audiences use technology in the exact same way (this also raises the importance of museums increasing diversity among their own staff, so that the voices weighing in on outreach strategies are not monolithic). Applying critical race theory in any professional environment will involve asking some tough questions, and it is possible that people will not like what they discover about inadvertent exclusion of diverse audiences. As Porchia Moore writes, “It is not enough to draft diversity initiatives if we are not truthful with ourselves in assessing the efficacy of our work. . .It has been my experience that people want to see themselves in totality; not in sparse chunks or—to return to my metaphor— not in dim light.” Ultimately, though, those tough conversations and potentially stark realities could lead to actual change and improvements in making museums an actual “invited space” for all. The discussion in class also touched on the importance of people feeling welcome in museum spaces, and that a lack of this is a major issue holding museums back from moving forward and connecting with their communities.
The “Center for the Future of Museums” blog post on coffee and museum activism also brought home to me the value of engaging with these types of questions in today’s climate, where online pettiness and public expressions of spitefulness seem to be the norm, with no real end in sight. Starbucks received flak for the #racetogether cups last year; this year they received the ire of the Twitterverse for using cups that promoted “unity.”
This would be enough to make plenty of people and institutions want to sign off of social media, but museums have an even greater responsibility to think of ways they can harness their public standing to promote exchange, conversation, and thoughtful engagement. As that blog post put it, “I believe, deeply and fervently, that it is the moral and civic obligation of every nonprofit to make the world a better place. This requires staff to be attuned to the needs of their immediate community and the world, and to the organization’s mission, resources and capabilities.” Each institution can and should think critically about what sort of activism and engagement fits with their own mission, resources, and community – it would be unproductive to focus only on the “headline of the week” without regard to a particular institution’s unique circumstances – but no museum should be excused from engaging with the world around it and encouraging its audience to do so as well. As with everything we have discussed this semester concerning museums and their use of technology, there is no one size fits all solution, and thoughtfulness and critical thinking are essential.
I think that museums are similar to libraries, in that they are respected cultural heritage institutions that the public trusts and will listen to (within reason). I think that the Smithsonian’s reference to museums as “safe spaces” for discussions rang true. During the riots in Baltimore last year, the branch of the city’s public library located at a major intersection of the unrest remained open, providing a welcoming and secure place for people in the community to shelter, read, use computers, and safely gather. Although the facade of that library is completely glass, it was unharmed even in the midst of all of the damage in the city during those days. In this instance, a cultural institution was quite literally a safe place, and its role in providing a space for the community during a stressful and frightening time demonstrated the extent to which the community values the library and trusts it. I think that during complex political and cultural times, museums can also play this type of role, offering a physical place where people feel safe and welcome to discuss challenging issues and learn from one another.
I appreciated the emphasis in Monica Montgomery’s presentation on people taking affirmative steps to improve diverse representation in museum practice – rather than waiting for things to change on their own, or to be rubber stamped by the powers that be (unlikely, or likely to be very slow in coming). It is absolutely necessary for people to actively create spaces for diverse populations, and to engage in advocacy for these vital changes. As she said, “we can’t just keep waiting.”
I’m also glad that we engaged with the question of why community engagement matters – “community” is a trendy term that is frequently tossed around, but I don’t know that people frequently think critically about it. I actually found myself struggling to identify my own community, and to spell out why it is so valuable and essential, even though I am 100 percent certain that community engagement is enormously important for any modern museum. I think one thing that can be valuable in museums is forming connections between communities that might not otherwise have interacted, and expanding the concept of community – especially in the digital age and in a large urban environment like New York, divides between communities are becoming much blurrier, and thoughtful museums can capitalize on this. I liked the idea of community engagement being about “being a resource,” welcoming people in as much as possible, and building trust.
I also loved the “tips” in class, like, encouraging curiosity, joy, and wonder – helping people feel like the museum is theirs to explore, and that visitors are all learning together, is a great way to make these types of spaces welcoming. The same goes for staying away from “fetishizing” – examples like the kimono exhibit brought up in class could make visitors feel like the museum curators see them as an “other” to be put on display, rather than an active and welcome member of the museum’s community. Language and curation can speak volumes about the way the museum views its community. What it boils down to, frequently, is empathy and an openness to a variety of voices and experiences.