What Means This Object?
For the final exam this past semester in my Museum Practices seminar for the Museum Studies Graduate Certificate Program at the University of Memphis students wrote essays responding to the questions from one of nine themes in the paper The Future of Museums and Libraries: A Discussion Guide published in 2010 by The Institute of Museum and Library Services. Although I enjoyed reading all the essays this year, one stood out in particular. The essay below by Penny Dodds takes up the theme Shifts in Power and Authority. From a perspective that draws on the material objects and relationships from her own life history, Ms. Dodds powerfully articulates the essential engagement between communities and their museums. She has graciously allowed me to post her essay for this week’s blog as follows:
December 13, 2012
My mother grew up the eldest of seven children. She lived in a Polish ghetto neighborhood in Utica, NY – a bastard child, poor, raised by her adopted hobo father and her mother who left for weeks at a time. Although my mother’s background is integral to this story, the story I want to tell has to do with me; and a stool. I am the fourth of five children. When I was born, my sister, the eldest, was fourteen. I was the only child raised by my mother who received any type of chair. It was mine, my mother told me, because she noticed that I had nowhere to sit that was my size. My stool was five simple pieces of wood stained dark brown. It had a little base for me with four holes where the pegged legs held it up. No nails. I cherished this stool growing up because it meant my mother cared for me in my daily life of constant neglect. I felt special because she bought it just for me.
When I left home, I took the stool with me. It continued to be part of my visual home life. In my mid-thirties, pregnant and purging my belongings readying myself for my first child, I gave this stool away. I had reinterpreted it to symbolize my mother’s clear inability to think of others. She grew up with children. She had three before me! The stool became a token, rather than the proof that my mother’s love hovered over me daily. I refused to think of myself as special from my siblings and deserving of her attentiveness. I gave it away with my need to give away all my childhood pain so that I would be my own version of “mama” and not a reaction to her.
But I ache now for that stool. I am now in my early forties and I want to touch it. I want my own girl to touch it. Now, it means to me that I was loved despite her constant inability to take care of me. It means I had a place to sit in our home that was my size and she made sure of it. My stool represents her thinking of life from my perspective. It’s somewhere. The pain of its absence now could be perceived as nonsensical yet, as the work in museums of presenting objects with stories, this seemingly worthless item holds the dearest of life’s learning about being a child, an adult, a mother, and love, understanding and forgiveness.
I begin with this story to address the discussion theme on “Shifts in Power and Authority” and the impact they have on future museums. This story illustrates 1) the psychological relationship individuals can have with objects and the shifts in interpreting that relationship that can happen with just one person; imagine a whole community; 2) the impact of thinking from someone else’s perspective in a position of power; 3) the flux of valuing and devaluing one’s own history in connection with objects; and, 4) subtly, the impact a third party would have had on my decision to give away my stool. To me, museum staff represents the “third party” in our culture. They can offer their expertise in how to cherish objects, tell stories from them, and empower people; especially, those who feel disconnected in our culture by making sure their objects are treasured, seen and, through them, their stories are told.
How will museums make materials and information available to their communities and provide context and content which is appropriate? This will happen in a constant engagement with a museum’s community. This process will include: knowing which stories are important to the community through dialogue and observation; offering volunteer opportunities to engage on different levels of desired participation; using digital technology to catalogue and interpret a museum’s collection for visitors; and, designing the museum space (physical and virtual) to engage a range of ages, social groupings (i.e. families, school groups, individual visitors, etc.) and diverse backgrounds. Museums will use their space to have exhibitions that unite collections under “big ideas” which “ha[ve] fundamental meaningfulness that is important to human nature.” More of the collections will be used because they will rotate exhibition space more often. As communities adjust to seeing their “authority” grow in choices of exhibitions and accessibility to materials, we cannot predict the multitude of innovative ways future museums will expand their abilities to share what they house in ways that keep content and context.
As the shift continues in museums to open its collections and choice of themed exhibitions to their communities, a museum will be judged by how well it shares its authority and is authentic in its quest to honor differing worldviews. Excellence in museum work will include identifying the community as stakeholders in the museum and including them in the museum’s strategic plan; viewing objects through overarching themes which help visitors examine and question who they are; and “…integrat[ing] assessments of progress into the day-to-day activities of the organization as an integral part of the planning and development process.” This cycle of acknowledging the diverse public as stakeholders, creating meaningful presentations, and self-evaluation will perpetuate a sustainable museum in the future. Trust in these presentations will not be lost but gained. Finding value in all people’s histories will help us as a whole, politically, to understand one another and communicate better with each other to address common world-wide concerns; such as, the environment, food, opportunities for all to have basic needs met, etc. Museums, as well-respected authorities and places of life-long learning, have the unique position to keep the community in touch with one another through these actions. They can help people to know themselves as individuals within our complex society and, hopefully, set a course for a future they choose – not settle for.
Digital social networking will impact museums and their services by expanding the discussion space outside of the actual physical building. The community could have the opportunity to comment, challenge, and add their own perspectives through the museum’s website. Museum administrators can advocate their work through blogs and find political and financial support for their work. Visitors may be able to personalize what they learned and share this with others on websites they create. Visitors using social media can tag, leave comments, and add to collective memories within museum exhibitions to be stored by the museum for the community’s reference later. The more voices heard, the more voices can be included. It does not mean that the authority of the museum is questioned or even taken away. Not a bit. Hearing what more people think is a way to know one’s audience – where they are at intellectually, psychologically, and emotionally– and this knowledge can be used to scaffold learning in exhibitions, create engaging themes which one may never have thought of, learn oral histories or memories that would not surface without this “openness” and ease of dialogue, and help identify misunderstandings that inhibit peace – socially and environmentally.
Some impediments to sharing and providing access to materials lie within the museum itself. If the wider community base is now considered “stakeholders”, traditional, key stakeholders may fear the changes that will occur. They may have to let go of some programming to include newer programming. Genoways and Ireland suggest that when the whole museum board and staff have worked on a strategic plan together to include the community as stakeholders, then referring back to the soundness of this plan should help overcome this fear. Another impediment within museums is the challenge to shift from object-based museum work to culturally centered work with communities and their relations to the larger natural world. It requires an adaptation of thinking that people who have worked in museums for years may not be able to do initially. The way to overcome this, I believe, would be to have a balance of newer museum staff that is able to think this way more easily; a strong commitment from the museum team to make this shift; and, baby steps through exhibition design and new programming which utilizes the collections, curators, etc. in new ways. Successes in culturally centered work will encourage the continued evolution of museum practices.
A final impediment is museums’ tendencies to use outside consultants and outsource jobs. This may impede the process of sharing the most significant information. “A museum’s board, staff and supporters are potentially the real experts on the organization and what is needed – the challenge is to unlock their tacit knowledge and put it to use.” The staff of a museum may not know how to implement getting more information on the web but they should know what they want on it. When I had to design the educational webpage for the group exhibition in my Exhibitions class, I thought I would just e-mail my content to the web designer. No. I sat with him throughout the entire process to answer questions, clarify things I thought would be obvious, while he implemented, with ease, things I would need training on. Finding the time, and realizing one must make the time, to work side by side with consultants and contractors to create the best possible communication devices for exhibitions and virtual museum spaces must be done.
“Deep in the soul of any organization that wishes to practice stewardship there must be a profound awareness that the gifts it receives are to be held in trust for the public good.” As museums shift to expand its acknowledged stakeholders, encourage them to communicate and engage with the museum on more and more levels, then the museum is actually becoming more of what it is meant to be as a steward of public goods. The collections will grow to include more of what their diverse populations want. The participating community will have the opportunity to feel increasingly like “experts” in their social history after personal reflection from exhibitions and conversations through social media and face-to-face interactions.
I believe there are many of us who are trying to grasp where we fit in and who we are in this multicultural society wherein the supremacy of the individual overshadows the connections we are capable of feeling in a more collective society. Museums, by embracing their position within society as trusted, competent keepers and storytellers of cultural heritage, while honoring all of their community members in the mix of their archives and exhibitions, may find that their real power is not in what they know how to do but what they do with what they know. Just like me and my little stool. I didn’t know that I may look back and value it so greatly. It’s just an object. Museum staff know that nothing is just an object but material parts of our stories – some, extremely painful. Knowing which ones to keep – even when the community is unaware of their potential meaning – and how to present the stories of our lives together with them, is the art of museum work.
Penny Dodds is a student in the Museum Studies Graduate Certificate Program at the University of Memphis. She can be reached at pdodds(a)memphis.edu
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