Nina Simon on Bridging and Beyond at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History

Recently, Nina Simon, the director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (MAH) and Museum 2.0 extraordinaire, joined me (Aletheia) in a conversation/interview about social bridging, the limits of social bridging, working with community service providers to best support participating communities, as well as anti-bias visitor education and changing museums through hiring practices. I was thankful for the time Nina shared to talk and her thoughts on MAH’s recent work, challenges and triumphs. We began by speaking a bit about a couple of MAH’s local detractors and the difference between being all things to all people and consciously seeking to meet your public mandate by trying to welcome all communities to your museum. The conversation then turned to welcoming visitors via museum spaces, programming, reputation and relationships that a museum cultivates.

The following are Nina’s reflections transcribed from the interview, however Nina, Rose and I edited extensively for length.  We hope we have preserved the flow of the conversation.  Keep an eye out at the end of this post: Nina calls on professionals to share about something she has recently become extremely curious about.

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Pecha Kucha at Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History, 2013. Photo Credit SCMAH.

Pecha Kucha at Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History, 2013. Photo Credit SCMAH.

Creating welcoming spaces

What makes a space welcoming is different for different people. If you throw objects and experiences geared towards multiple groups of people into the same space, it can be confusing to anyone who holds one specific idea of what the space should be like. You have to be comfortable with the idea that it might be more important to welcome many different kinds of people together than it is for any one of them to have the absolute perfect experience. This is challenging! I think we’ve all been trained to make the mistake of trying to be all things to all people, but you will always have people who are not happy that you are trying to engage very different groups in the same space.
I am very influenced by Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone and his research that has pointed to the erosion of our civic life and intercultural experiences. Even if people aren’t expressing an explicit desire for intercultural or socially bridged experiences, there is a hunger for understanding and learning from people who are different from us. I see that hunger in myself and in the people who choose to participate at the MAH.

One of the first steps we take in creating a welcoming space for diverse people is focusing on social bridging among community partner programmers. This means co-producing events with people from different walks of life; artists, cultural producers, activists, scientists. These programmers interact with one another, which increases their likelihood of forming new connections and perspectives. We know many artists who have collaborated on new projects because they were brought together through a project at the museum. When you start with diverse collaborators/programmers, sometimes that also trickles down to the diverse communities they are connected to. And then you reach (and bring together) new audiences.

The limits of social bridging

One of the things that I struggle with is the limits of social bridging when it comes to communities with very specific needs. An example is a low-income, predominantly Latino neighborhood very close to the MAH called Beach Flats. We partner with the Beach Flats Community Center and have been conducting great art-based experiences with families there, but we keep struggling with the fact that this isn’t a bridged experience–it’s just for people in that neighborhood.

When we talk about working with communities that don’t have a historical relationship with a museum, often, the best thing to do is be present as a partner in their space first. These art activities are in their community center–a place where they feel safe and welcome. Should we be trying to invite them to the museum to connect with people who are unlike them? Or can we connect with other groups in a third place entirely? How should we think about this complex issue?

Another example is our teen program, Subjects to Change, in which teenagers work together to change our community through art. When we started it, we knew we didn’t just want the “A” students who are looking to puff up their resume. We wanted to include kids who come from different walks of life in our community. We started talking to people who run different youth development programs in town. There are some programs that focus on youth who are really struggling–with drug addiction, or coming in and out of juvenile hall. In talking with people who run these programs, we realized that we are not able to serve those teens because they require a level of staff involvement and expertise that we just don’t have. We had to get comfortable with the fact that we are not going to bridge kids in juvenile hall and kids in prep school. Instead, what we do is focus on geographic distribution, different high schools, and focus on kids with wide-ranging ideas about educational attainment and involvement. We have a very diverse group of teens, but we know there are limits to what we are able to do in terms of social bridging based on our capacity. That is something we continually have to confront and be realistic about.

Collaborating with community partners to build capacity and understanding

Fortunately, we don’t operate in a vacuum. We work with other community development organizations in town to figure out where we can do the most. Over time, I’ve learned from our social service partners and from working with homeless adults specifically that people who are struggling can be extremely sensitive to situations in which they might be set up to fail. Whether that is a sober living shelter or a youth development program that requires traveling weekly to a faraway place, people will opt out if they feel they can’t succeed. We want to make sure that, whatever we are doing, we enabling the people we are working with to be successful. This means we have to allow for flexibility, provide tools (like bus passes for teens) and be realistic about what all of us can contribute, the participants and the staff.

I’ve seen more and more museums hire social workers as they start to have departments focused on community engagement. It’s great to see organizations being intentional about the kind of skill sets they bring into the museum to do this work.

How can museums do work that confronts and dismantles white privilege?

I have not thought about our work in terms of directly confronting or dismantling some of those systems of white privilege. I think we are probably not doing as much as we could in that regard. The way I think about it is there are many projects in which we try to be thoughtful about how we are creating programming and opportunities for people. We don’t want to only focus on supporting diverse experiences inside the museums; we also want to change how art and history are perceived outside our walls.

We are just embarking on a process to reinstall our permanent history gallery here. And yes, of course we are going to do more to represent diverse history and voices in the gallery, but even more importantly we are looking at embedding techniques of anti-bias education into the content. It is similar to media literacy (I don’t know about you, but as a teenager I went through a form of feminist media literacy – how women are being portrayed in commercials, that kind of stuff). We are really looking at how we can create gallery components that encourage people to look at bias, stereotypes, and cross-group judgements in our own community. We want people to be literate in bias and think about how they are going to be involved in addressing bias.

I think a question that is challenging when you talk about a history exhibit is: How do you present history? Whose story wins? And, if you are going to display contested history, how do you do so in a way that really opens up how things are being interpreted?  This fall, we had an exhibit that I’m really proud of called “Santa Cruz Is In the Heart” which was co-curated with a local historian who writes amazing histories of the non-winners of local history. We hope we can give people tools to identify that there is a dominant culture and narrative and encourage them to question and be in dialogue about where their assumptions come from.

I think of things like the Pop Up Museum Project which was started by Michelle DelCarlo, a former UW student. We use a pop up museum format all over the county to be able to co-create these museums that exist for a day on, for example, local African American History, Chinese American History, History of the Wharf – all kinds of places and ideas. I think what’s unique about this format is not only that you are telling diverse stories during those events, but that these pop up museums are deliberately anti-institutional. Objects are provided by the people who come, and they are the ones who give value to those objects. Its sort of like if you had a trademarking machine for “This is museum quality” and you gave it to a seven year old to just stamp haywire. That is what pop-up museums do. They afford museum validation to a lot of different kinds of material culture and experiences. That kind of project is important.

The notion of museum validation is a really interesting tool to wield in this work. A guy from Barrios Unidos called and asked if they could bring down their giant immersive display on what its like to be a prisoner at Pelican Bay and we said yes. It is really different when they present that outside our museum than when they display it outside the courthouse. I think that’s a value we can offer.

We see ourselves as part of a whole community and want to actively engage across the community in really different ways. This has really surprising outcomes and one of the most surprising is around facility rental. I used to see museum rental as just a business unit, just about making money, and not about the museum. But dozens of community organizations and nonprofits host events here. The people attend these events, if you ask them: “when was the last time you visited the museum,” are going to talk about those events. They don’t differentiate a museum event from a private event. That’s really interesting, because that means when different groups use the museum for their own events they increasingly see the museum as a place for them; even if that has nothing to do with the content of what we have on display.

We just had a wedding happen at the museum during open hours. It was a gay couple who were doing their legal commitment ceremony at the museum. It was a five minute thing that happened during open hours. When we asked them why they had wanted to do it here, they said they had been to a few events hosted by the Diversity Center here, and that helped them perceive the museum as an ally. I personally see myself as an LGBT ally, but don’t necessarily think that because we hosted Diversity Center events we automatically get to assume we are considered allies. I think embracing this side of the museum that is about social work and being part of a community helps diversify how people see the museum, creating opportunities you would never have thought of.

More work to do

Over the past two years, we have done a good job diversifying our participating community in terms of age and background, but not so much in regard to the fact that we live in a bicultural community (White and Latino). We continue to underperform in terms of garnering Latino participation. I know this is something that the Incluseum focuses on and that a lot of museums are interested in too. One of the small steps we have taken to address this is through staffing. Based on our community’s demographics, we decided that we want our front line staff and those working directly with school groups to be bilingual. To this end, we shifted our job descriptions to include bilingualism as a necessity. The last three people we hired, all amazing people, are Latino. One simple change on the job description had a big impact on the racial make-up of our staff.

From a managerial perspective, it was really fascinating for me to see who applied when we added that one requirement to the job description. It made me wonder: are there similar small tweaks that people are discovering that provide partial solutions to a complex issue? What other things are people in the Incluseum universe trying? We often think about issues like staff diversity as being huge complex systems–which they certainly are. But sometimes we hide behind that complexity, using it as an excuse not to do anything about it. I imagine there are lots of ways we can chip away at these issues through small changes, some of which may prove transformative. Do enough small things, and the big system might shift.

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3 comments

  1. […] recently interviewed Nina Simon, director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History (MAH) and learned about the museum’s […]

  2. […] which frame it’s collection against objects and artworks from Western centers. Nina Simon’s ‘social bridging’ at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History is working to change the audience which it best serves. But there are examples which continue to […]

  3. Skúli Sæland · · Reply

    Reblogged this on Menningarmiðlun ehf. and commented:
    Nina Simon, safnstjóri Museum of Art & History, nefnir mjög athygliverð atriði varðandi tengingu safna við sín nærsamfélög í viðtali á þessari bloggsíðu. Hún bendi t.a.m. á kosti sk. Pop Up safna sem eru skammtíma “söfn” um valin málefni og hvernig söfn geta tæklað flókin vandamál með einföldum breytingum á kröfum við starfsmannaráðningar. Hún fer vítt og breitt um nálgun safna við samfélag sitt og þetta er áhugaverð lesning.

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