Melissa Houston is the 2016/17 NEMA Fellow. As part of the fellowship Melissa is writing a series of articles for the NEMA community. Here are her reflections on the most recent conference.
I started writing my reflections on the NEMA conference the day after I came home knowing that I would need to have an article ready as the NEMA 2017 Fellow. To be honest, I did not know where to start. Sitting at my desk in the corner of the dining room, surrounded by the beauty of New England, and considering the colleagues I spent the conference with I was completely at a loss as to where to begin. The conference theme, “Plug In: Museums and Social Action,” was amazingly apropos given the recent election results and the museum community’s launch into the land of uncertainty. So many of the sessions I attended focused on centering our programs, exhibits, and actions on communicating tolerance and advocating for the voiceless. So many of the hallways were filled with friends hugging and colleagues commiserating – I even witnessed tears in the crowded avenues between sessions. With so many emotions and so many excellent sessions with challenging, inspiring ideas, where do I start?
My original essay began “I am a middle class cis white woman married with three small boys, a house in the wooded suburbs of Connecticut (and, while we don’t have a dog, we do have chickens), who works part-time and participates in PTO activities like book fairs and Veteran’s Day assemblies. I am not qualified to speak to the experiences of minorities or the underrepresented populations of our country. Many days I feel barely qualified to speak to other parents in my own small community. I’ve spent eight years in museums doing everything from registration to social media to disaster preparedness and thus I am not an expert but rather a jack-of-all-trades. My degrees are in history and secondary education. I’ve studied urban history and the history of ethnicities in America but never taken a museum studies course in my life. In so many ways this conference was overwhelming for what I am not, rather than what I am.” And here I stopped. I was stuck on how to move from negatively labeling to a positive reflection on the conference.
So months went by and the one paragraph in the Word document labeled “NEMA Essay” sat alone haunting me from the desktop of my work computer.
In late January a postcard arrived in my mailbox that freed my thoughts and centered my reflections on the NEMA Conference. As part of the PAG Educator’s lunch, we were given crayons and blank postcards. We were to draw or write on the blank side and then finish the prompt on the back of the card before self-addressing the postcard. My table was a wonderful mix of old and new educators, different genders, ages, sexual orientations, and other labels that perhaps before this election we wouldn’t have mentioned at a table full of strangers whose only commonality was a shared vocation. The rainbow boxes of crayons were passed around the table and I received, at the end of the line, a mix of browns, creams, yellows, beiges, and items I declared “perfect for drawing a desert”. The woman next to me said, “Actually I was considering taking all of those colors because they are the rainbow of skin colors.” I turned to see that she was drawing a rainbow of stick figures across her postcard in brilliant reds, blues, and greens.
Receiving that postcard and triggering that memory brought out one great lesson from NEMA. Our lives as human beings are shaped by the labels we place on ourselves and that others place on us, but we are all human beings. The Gates Foundation’s ad on NPR this morning declared “all lives have equal value: we are impatient optimists working to reduce inequity”. That was the focus on the NEMA 2017 Conference in the sessions, in the sidebar conversations, in the workshops, in the casual meetings and in the purposeful opening up of our hearts to reveal the labels that continue to inhibit our potential and the labels we want to create opportunity and equality for. We may get caught in the negative, in the things we don’t do or the lives we can’t understand, but we all are working towards expressing in the equal value in all lives.
The prompt on the back of the postcard read, “I will channel my feelings into action by…” That was the great call to action from the conference. This sense of negativity, of despair for the new political atmosphere we are all walking into, this sense of not being or doing enough, needs to move us into action. In the opening session, Bated Breath Theatre Company presented their work “Freedom Deconstructed” which was immensely powerful in how it voiced our need for action to represent history. The woman who played the black student walking through the Civil War exhibit is extolled by the paintings to “know my history”. We need to not give just words to equal representation but wall space. As one of the performers states, “It is exhausting being the token black exhibit to educate all young white people while remaining emotionally neutral.”
If anything, our emotions now should spur us on, and I speak from my experience working in history museums, to cease fearing the emotions of history and embrace that common human condition. The emotional journey that we walked through Annawon Weeden’s performance of Native American history engaged the audience because our human experience circles around common human conditions and desires including family, loss, foodways, storytelling, protection, destruction, and advocacy.
The power of words, experiences, ideas, and labels to define the world around us was central to each of the sessions that I attended. The lesson in “Engaging Young Professionals and Millennials in Museum Collections: A Study of Murder Mystery @ The MATT” could be applied to all museums and programs – regardless of target audience we need to move to co-creation and co-ownership. We are not authorities on the experiences and needs of others and co-creation and co-ownership is necessary in order to do justice to stories that are not ours. Beyond asking for input, we need to move to re-appropriate the story into the hands of those who experienced the story. My white suburban life will never, and should never, allow me to be an authority on black urban life. If I am seeking to facilitate the telling of that story, I need to find someone that story belongs to for they are the authority. I can recognize that we share common human experiences and still know that I am not that story’s author.
While this call to action was clear in the sessions, there were also amazing examples of institutions and organizations already responding to today’s challenges through social action. In “Museums and Civic Discourse: Exploring Challenges and Opportunities for Social Action” we were encouraged to “know the past to inform the present and plan for the future”. The question of museums being a social instrument for change was asked by AAM during the 1930s housing crisis. The exhibit that was created during that decade was meant to lead a visitor through a place of empathy to find answers to civic questions. Having museums take an active role in encouraging social justice and civic discourse is nothing new and history can teach us how to move forward in this era of murky waters. Modern examples given in this session ranged from UConn’s Ballard School of Puppetry that utilized the “compressed power of the miniature” to help students express the complexities of black identity; to the Jane Addams Hull House which had an exhibit titled “Vox Pop” which allowed the disenfranchised locally and regionally to vote on ballots that included the prompt “I’m voting here because” that were then counted and hung in the exhibit. Both examples were channeling the feelings of voiceless people to create meaningful, powerful expressions of social justice and civic discourse.
Museums are not new to controversy or the angst of political change. Perhaps what we are awakening to is that we have a voice and responsibility to support each other in more dynamic and personal ways than previously done. Most museums have historically focused on lessons of common experiences.
Across art museums in New England there are hundreds of paintings of families. We’ve all had parenting experiences, even if we aren’t parents today, but how do we broaden the conversation of family to include today’s definition instead of relying on yesterday’s label?
Science museums have always challenged us to experience our shared world in new and informed ways. How do we use the lessons already in place in our permanent exhibits to voice the current issues of water availability and climate change?
History museums have collections that point to how life was in the past, but how can we engage the common human experiences that transcend time to bring out the lost stories and underrepresented peoples?
We have focused on these lessons and we need to continue to focus on representing complete stories. Celebrate our differences and the vast diversity of the humanity we exist to serve. Let our labels define us not out of fear or divisiveness but because every life has equal value and our labels are worthy of celebration.
So what did I write on my postcard? After discussing with my tablemates over lunch, one thing I felt we all needed was encouragement. Bring social action to museums is hard work – but it is work we do every day without realizing it. My local historical society hosts every second grade class every year as part of the walking tour they do down Main Street. Every single second grader walks willingly into my twenty-minute lesson on life in colonial Newtown. What a moment to use! Our challenges are hard, but our opportunities are all around us to affect positive change in our immediate communities and with our visiting audiences. Schools trust us with their students because we have something important to impart upon them – that every life has equal value, though our daily experiences, self expressions, ways of life, styles of clothing, environments, and living conditions may be different. So I wrote, “I will channel my feelings into action by promoting understanding even for opposing views, fostering empathy for peoples past and present, making experiences available to face differences, and providing safe space for people to move through their cognitive dissonance.”
And this is what I drew: