In an effort to bring in traditionally “othered” communities, museums have opened themselves up for their authority to be criticized and challenged. Information that was once on display unquestioned is now reexamined through diverse lenses. Historical interpretation is not black and white, and thus museum professionals do not hold the last word on interpretation. What about in art museums? In his book The Painted King: Art, Activism & Authenticity in Hawai’i, Glenn Wharton describes the focus many place “on the essential nature of artworks” (169). This focus on the essentialism of art creates a false sense of stagnation and reverence. With many contexts and backgrounds, the visitors that come to the museum have vastly different experiences with the art on the walls. Even its placement and curation by museum experts, influenced by the profession’s best standards and individual viewpoints, disprove its essentialism. So how does one challenge the expertise of the art museum, when art itself is often treated as unquestionable and pure? Pushing beyond the idea of the unquestionable expertise of the museum professional also allows the public to look beyond the fixedness of the object. This push away from the traditional understanding of authority and respectability is often influenced by “the other”.
In her book Subject to Display: Reframing Race in Contemporary Installation Art, Jennifer Gonzales profiles several artists who have challenged the authority of the art museum by highlighting “the other”. The artists profiled are “exploring how public and private spaces are embedded with the history of race discourse and related forms of subjection” (9). Take the artist Fred Wilson, for example. In much of his work, Wilson aims to bring out “the other” part of the narrative in the museum that is being rendered silent or invisible (65). Wilson challenges the supposed essential nature of art and the sense of fixed reality the objects’ presence in museums can give us. Wilson also challenges the visitors’ complicity in comfortably distancing themselves from the object they are viewing and the culture it was taken from (67). Gonzalez describes some of the tools Wilson uses to aid his mission: “Sound recording is a frequent device Wilson employs to disrupt the authoritative, familiar, yet repressive sound of silence maintained in galleries and museums” (69). With sound, along with other tools like lighting, repositioning of objects, and rearranging of labels, Wilson gives a voice to the object and invites the audience into a type of dialogue.
I find Wilson’s work of highlighting “the other” to be very interesting when thinking of the many stories an object can tell us. Once when I was searching for objects to add to a tour on artistic representations of slavery, I thought about raw materials in the museum that may have ties to slavery, but would not be immediately visually obvious: mahogany, silver, sugar etc. When searching the museum’s online database with the keyword “sugar”, I was brought to a sugar bowl that was a part of a 19th century American tea set. The handle of the sugar bowl was the head of a black person with exaggerated lips and wide eyes.
I was struck by the artist’s visualization of the connection between the raw product of sugar and the black body that labored it. Thinking about the particularly deadly, cruel nature of sugar plantations, it was disturbing to think about someone pinching the black head to remove the lid and consume the product inside. I was also struck by the online description for this object:
The label seemed like such an odd non-acknowledgement of the political nature of this object and with a limited recognition of its “otherness”. I am reminded of Wilson’s statement on collecting: “the collecting of things can make you forget how awful they are” (107).
How can museums better highlight the otherness of their collections and practices, and in doing so disrupt their own authority? How can they do so internally, without turning to Fred Wilson to turn their museum upside down? I wonder if this a place for sharing the authority with visitors. I did end up using the sugar bowl on my tour, and I asked visitors how it made them feel. The responses ranged from disgust to shock to confusion, and when asked to unpack these feelings, many visitors responded with a thoughtful nuance that obscured the detached “authority” of the label. Encouraging visitor intervention in the museum helps remove the feeling that objects exist under an untouchable aura of respectability. To do so the museum must meet its guests half-way with their own understanding of the objects and their role in highlighting or not highlighting them.
Museum professionals have sought to integrate those who have been traditionally othered, or undervalued into their work, challenging traditional models of procedure. In The Painted King, art conservator Glenn Wharton details his experience with creating a restoration plan for a monument of the Hawaiian King Kamehameha with the input of the local community who had varied relationships to the sculpture. When Wharton arrived to the rural town of Kapa’au, where the statue was displayed, he found a brightly painted statue instead of the bronze-based and gold gilded object he expected to come across. It was evident that the monument had been repeatedly painted for years leaving it far removed from its original aesthetic.
Wharton describes the conflict that arose within his role as a conservator. On the one hand, he felt a strong connection to his formal training which dictates that he follow the original artistic intent in his restoration of the statue, but on the other hand he felt a moral obligation to respect the people of Kapa’au who interacted with the statue regularly, many of whom felt a strong connection to its painted exterior. Wharton decides to present his research and conservationist approach to the community, but aims to ultimately let them decide on how the statue should be conserved--painted or stripped. The editors of the book Letting Go?: Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World explore the idea of “combined expertise”. They argue that this “combined expertise” is the goal of the modern museum that aims to share authority with their publics. They state that “public curation demands not less, but more from history museums and their experts staff” (13). This “more not less” ideology can be applied to Wharton’s experience with public restoration. He spends nearly 6 years crafting and implementing a conservation plan with the local community, navigating state agencies and local politics and gaining an understanding of Hawaiian history and the socio-political context of Kapa’au and its residents. This is perhaps a maximal method of sharing authority through integrating others, but at its core, it reflects the efforts of many museums and public professionals to loosen the reigns of their expertise and bring in the expertise of others.
In Letting Go? there is a discussion on the push to look to the web in order to bring in more bottom up expertise and storytelling in museums (11). Many look to social media as a way for museums to express diverse opinions and share outside narratives within the boundaries of their walls. While it is true that many museums are aiming to harness the powers of social media for good, there is still often a gap between its intentions and its practice. In her article “Participatory Design and the Future of Museums”, Nina Simon notes that the participatory aspects of the web is what the museum should aim to emulate. Simon states “Participatory websites are built to harness the power of diffuse collections, not refining what’s offered, but by making it easy for people to consume exactly the content they want” (19). In the museum, visitors come in with their own expectations and backgrounds but they are often faced with rigid institutional experiences that can be alienating and dissatisfying. To combat this rigidousity and utilize visitor expertise and agency, Simon argues that museums should invite visitors “to participate in the construction of interpretation alongside professionals” (20).
She uses Netflix as an example of a successful participatory platform. Netflix encourages visitors to rate movies and then provides them with personalized recommendations based on their ratings. Simon argues that museums might provide visitors ways to participate and contribute, but it is not clear if anything comes from these contributions. She describes the result as that of “a broken feedback loop” (24). How can museums create stronger mechanisms of participation that value visitor engagement on the web and within their walls? The Studio Museum in Harlem’s program Expanding the Walls comes to my mind.
This is an eight-month long program for NYC high school students that provides them with the opportunity to study photography and learn how to use a camera as a tool of community engagement. The program gives the students behind the scenes access to the museum and its professionals, and at the end of the program the Studio Museum creates an exhibition of their photography work. In this instance the visitor, or the student, learns from the museum but also adds their own perspective and art to the museum’s physical landscape. Perhaps all museum participatory initiatives do not have to be as intensive as this, but they should aim to be impactful in a similar way. The success of participatory mechanisms and integrating others into the museum’s work and its world, is not in the details, but in the experiences and the sustained relationship of shared authority between others and professionals.
Just as the museum’s traditional embrace of intellectual authority has lead to a fetishization of the archive, the push to share authority can also lead to a fetishization of “the other”. While many museums are making strides to integrate other narratives from the public into their spaces, sometimes this is done in a self-serving manner. In an effort to bring in different audiences and prove their worth to the public, museum’s can co-opt outside voices as their own. Museums must reach out to those they have traditionally othered, while simultaneously looking within. What does it mean when an institution uses its social media presence to highlight a feminist message while ignoring its own sexist workplace environment? What does it mean when an institution uses its teen voices to espouse radical thought, but does not back up this thought in any other tangible manner? Museums should be cautious of using “the other” to add dimension to the status-quo of their institutions. Others and otherness should not be used as dashes of flavor added to otherwise bland institutions. They should be regarded with value, integrated into the museum, and given the space not to be swallowed by the institutional authority.