Museums, Social Media, and Activism

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.

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Site Visit: Whitney Museum of American Art

Established by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney as the “Whitney Studio” in 1914, and founded as the Whitney Museum of American Art (WMAA) in 1930, the WMAA is dedicated to the collection and exhibition of twentieth-century and contemporary American artwork. In 2015, the Museum moved to a new space in the Meatpacking District designed by renowned architect Renzo Piano, and it has remained a major destination for tourists and native New Yorkers alike. I noticed groups of visitors of diverse ages visiting and enjoying the WMAA on the days that I visited, including couples, solo visitors, older adults, tour groups, and family groups with young children. It is impossible to tell for certain just by looking, but the WMAA does seem to attract a decent proportion of native New Yorkers, in addition to the scores of tourists that you see at the MoMA or the Met. Although the space is quite busy on a weekend day, with a long line for tickets (the Museum mercifully sells advance tickets at a discount online), the galleries are open enough that I have never found the space overwhelmingly packed with people.

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What roles can social media play in the museum world?

The Hyperallergic piece that we read for this week’s class captured my frequent frustration with social media and selfie obsession in museums (and beyond). It frequently seems that people are so focused on taking pictures to post on social media and prove “I was there, doing this cool thing!” that they are completely unaware of their surroundings. This is not just true of people at museums; I have seen countless tourists absorbed in selfie sticks and posing while they wander New York City’s historic sites or even in the National Parks. Much of our discussion this semester has involved how we can tear people away from their devices and get them to actually look at and engage with exhibits on view.

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Session 11: Site Visit to AMNH

The most heartening thing about our visit to the American Museum of Natural History was the emphasis on education for its digital projects, and the enthusiasm with which Hannah spoke about working with students and encouraging the public to get excited about science. AMNH obviously has a clear sense of its mission and what it does best, and that shows in the types of digital projects developed there. Using the App and hearing about the museum’s projects reminded me of how much I loved science when I was in elementary and middle school, which is the exact feeling that AMNH should want its programming evoke.

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What kind of digital experience do museums offer outside the building?

I am a big fan of museums utilizing technology to provide content and experiences outside of the physical museum space. A major goal for museums should be opening up their collections to as wide an audience as possible, and technology can be an amazing tool for connecting with new and diverse virtual visitors. There are plenty of museums spaces around the globe that I may never have a chance to visit in person, but that does not mean I am not eager for an opportunity to see and learn from their collections. I think that museums are increasingly seeing themselves as global institutions – their collections are not just cultural heritage for local populations; they are the cultural heritage of the entire world. I think that this is true of many of the digital museum projects that we have looked at so far this semester, from major institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Tate Modern.

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exhibitions.globalfundforwomen.org

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How has digital shaped information and asset sharing and access?

This week’s readings brought to mind the question that I have heard multiple times when I bring up that I am going to library school: “Librarian? But can’t you just find anything you want through Google?” It actually surprised me to learn that this is a familiar refrain for museum professionals as well – I always imagined that the general public has more reverence for the role of museums. I can, of course, understand that information professionals from all sorts of institutions find this view of their work troubling. As the articles that we read make very clear, and as I think cannot be overemphasized, if the public does not understand and appreciate the work done by information professionals, the institutions in which they work might not receive the funding needed to continue important work. I understand that adequate funding is an omnipresent issue for many different kinds of cultural heritage institutions.

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How do museums use technology to encourage social interaction and participation?

I am very intrigued by the idea of museum exhibits as a collaboration between the visitor and the institution. Nina Simon uses examples of very simple displays – like the Ontario Science Centre Mars exhibit – that can have a major impact on the visitors’ collective experience. As Simon put it, the “displays created a social context for what was already a compelling personal experience by networking the individual selections of each visitor.” For a solo museum-goer like myself, who prefers quieter and less-crowded spaces, this is absolutely perfect. You share with other visitors and feel like you are part of a group experience, without actually having to physically be part of a group experience. (I also think that this is part of the appeal of social media for many introverts).

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Site Visit: National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, Cooperstown, NY

The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum was dedicated in 1939 in Cooperstown, New York to become “the home of baseball by serving as its cornerstone and housing the stories honoring the greats of baseball’s past,” according to the Museum’s web site. In addition to the Hall of Fame’s walls of plaques, the space provides three floors of fascinating exhibits on the history of baseball, and miraculously manages to be fascinating for both die-hard baseball fans and those with no strong connection to the game (I fall into the latter camp). Many of the exhibits are interactive and draw visitors in using various forms of media, including video, audio, photographs, artifacts, and crisply-written wall labels and narratives. In addition, the Museum makes a noticeable effort to be inclusive, reflecting the diverse people who have played and loved baseball.

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Effective Project Management

Much of the advice in our reading about project management seems quite basic – communicate, clean your desk, keep an eye on budgets. However, as I know from my prior career working in legal practice, these simple rules are not always applied, and this can lead to disastrous results.

It is true, as the Daniel Threlfall blog post framed it, that many people do not anticipate their future work as project managers – they are just tossed in and expected to swim. The phrase “failing forward” from last week’s class presentation seems to fit here. Reluctant project managers have to simply try their best and, hopefully, discover that they are capable of much more than they previously realized. For these types of situations, Threlfall’s approach of breaking things down into smaller steps is essential. When major projects are presented as a series of smaller undertakings, they appear much more manageable and less frightening.

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