In her last couple posts, our regular contributor Porchia Moore encouraged us to re-think how we speak of and envision diversity and open authority in museums. This month, she shares with us her vision for what she has coined the “Kaleidoscope Museum”, a museum that is, at its core, racially diverse and in which visitors of all backgrounds see themselves reflected in the objects on display. Although the notion of Radical Trust she develops below seems straightforward at first glance, it presents us with a consequential lens to re-imagine how we work with community groups that have traditionally been under-represented in museums. She will pursue this idea of Radical Trust in her next post for the Incluseum.
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In the month since my last contribution, I had the pleasure of helping to plan our annual state museum conference here in South Carolina. Our theme, Let’s Talk: Museums and Communities in Conversation, was selected to provide a platform for museum professionals and vested stakeholders to discuss critical issues for museums throughout our state. And discuss, we did. Our exchanges focused on everything from sustainability, diversity and technology; to cultivating young stakeholders; to concerns with marketing; to the most effective way to bridge the gap between emerging professionals’ passions and the powerful hard-learned lessons of veterans. What I was able to take away from these conversations is that no matter the size of a museum, cultural heritage institutions remind me of the children’s story “The Little Engine that Could”; they are like little engines that can and do. Museums ignite intellectual curiosity. They act as places of entertainment and education. They are the cornerstones of communities. They are gathering places. Museums are the Third Place. And, the dedicated professionals who work tirelessly in their institutions act at anytime as: artists, teachers, bridges, stewards, and magicians. Both the role of the museum and the role of the museum employee is a vast multi-layered existence. These thrilling conversations reaffirmed for me the reason why I am so invested in cultural heritage– museums matter. Museums matter because they are institutions whose sheer existence aids in the shaping of individual identity. I firmly believe that visitors come to the museum to find answers to the timeless question: Who am I?
The Kaleidoscopic Museum
As children many of us owned or played with kaleidoscopes. In an instant, the kaleidoscope altered our vision and what appeared as the most humble curio became a powerful tool which procured a new vision: a bright, colorful world complete with bold, beautiful patterns. Imagine the museum as a kaleidoscope. Then, consider how the kaleidoscope could help us to better realize what culture is and what heritage means. Indeed, if museums help us shape our understanding of identity, then, as we take into account that racial demographics in this country continue to transform our notion of cultural identity and our racial identities become more complex and multi-ethnic; the museum as kaleidoscope is a perfect analogy to employ as a model for increasing diversity and inclusivity within the realm of cultural heritage. As a critical race theorist, I envision that the museum itself is the cylinder. The colored bits of glass beads and paper represent the diverse racial groups. The mirrors are a museum’s objects and racial diversity is the light we draw upon to produce a multi-faceted vision—a racially kaleidoscopic vision.
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. Visitors want to see patterns of shared authority, equity, and power in the museum. The kaleidoscope holds the viewer’s attention because there is startling beauty in its diverse colors and patterns. In essence, what I came to perceive as I walked from session to session at the conference is an understanding that this “thing” that we were all speaking about as we voiced shared desires for the improvement of our cultural heritage institutions was the need for: TRUST. Visitors need to trust that we can meet their myriad of needs just as the museum requires a sense of trust that the visitors’ needs are ones that help advance their missions, and are sustainable to the growth of what museums are and can be. I reason that as we continue to monitor the vast ways that technology transforms our cultural heritage institutions and subsequently visitors’ expectations, ensuring that our institutions invite full participation by making them culturally competent and inclusive in the areas of 1) marketing schemes 2) programming and events 3) exhibitions, and 4) collaborations only strengthens the museum. If the museum is truly a kaleidoscope it must be representative in the above areas or it would be like looking through a kaleidoscope to discover that only green beads were inside.
In the last year, I have conducted a series of short interviews with people of color in an attempt to assess their museum-going habits and attitudes about cultural heritage institutions. What my short interviews have imparted upon me is a clear understanding that a mistrust of the museum is one of many barriers to participation. On the one hand, my interviewees viewed museums as fun, innovative, and valuable institutions. On the other hand, the individuals I spoke with also shared that they do not trust that the museum sees them. In most of these interviews, this “seeing” was explicitly identified in terms of representation in exhibitions. What can we learn about our current institutional practices and the ways that the museum does or does not evoke trust?
I was initially introduced to the concept of Radical Trust in Lynch and Alberti’s work regarding co-creation and since then, I have spent a good amount of time musing upon what role Radical Trust might play in the context of the future of museums. If cultural heritage institutions are to survive in this new era, whether you perceive of our changing times as the Information Age or the Digital Age, (a preference which might have various distinctions for how to prevail) it is clear that the value of trust—be it the lack of trust, the kindling of trust, or the building of trust–is a vital component for forging deeper connections and active engagement. In my next post, I would like to explore an extended definition of Radical Trust. I will draw connections between this extended definition and suggest how shifting to a kaleidoscopic museum generates trust for a demographic whose active participation effects the colored beads we need to reinforce the bold, bright patterns of the kaleidoscope.
Lynch, B. T. and Alberti, S. (2010). Legacies of prejudice: Racism, co-production, and radical trust in the Museum. Museum Management and Curatorship, 25(1), 13–35.
“Radical Trust”. http://ideum.com/blog/2006/08/radical-trust/.
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Porchia Moore, is a third year doctoral candidate dually enrolled in the School of Library and Information Science and McKissick Museum’s Museum Management Program at the University of South Carolina. She is the recipient of the Cultural Heritage Informatics Leadership fellowship as endowed by the Laura Bush 21st Century Librarian Grant. Her work employs Critical Race Theory as an informative framework for interrogating and exploring the museum space as a means to advocate for inclusion in the museum world. In addition, she is interested in the intersection between culture, technology, information, and race. She is a 2013-2014 Humanities, Arts, Science & Technology Alliance & Colloboratory (HASTAC) Scholar. Currently, she serves a two year appointment to the Professional Development Committee, which helps design and plan the annual conference for the South Carolina Federation of Museums. She regularly presents on race, culture, and museums at conferences such as Museums and the Web and Museum Computer Network. She is an avid lover of museums, having explored museums from Malaysia to New Zealand and back. Follow her on Twitter @PorchiaMuseM.