Responding to the Events in Ferguson and Beyond: The Northwest African American Museum’s Example

In the weeks that have followed the grand jury’s decision not to indict Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of unarmed teen Michael Brown, museums and museum professionals across the country have been wondering how to respond. A twitter hashtag, #MuseumsRespondToFerguson, was launched the day after the verdict announcement to promote and document discussion on the topic. The Association of African American Museums (AAAM) released a statement and a group of museum bloggers collaborated on a response to the recent events. Examples of how museums have responded are few while questions about how to best respond abound. Given this situation, we are happy to share an article our friends Chieko Phillips and Leilani Lewis from the Northwest African American Museum (NAAM) wrote for the AAAM’s latest newsletter on how their museum responded to Mike Brown’s shooting back in August.  The article below, which was also picked up by Seattle’s local paper The Stranger, is republished here with the authors’ approval. You can see photos of the event on photographer, Robert Wade’s website and watch the entirety of the event on the Seattle Channel.

NAAM will be hosting a similar event next month, PKN SEA vol. 58: #BlackLivesMatter -Examining AmericanIdentity in the 21st Century,  as a response to the non-indictment rulings in the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases. The event will bring together voices from across the Seattle community to illuminate the landscape of activism shaping the regional and national conversation around race and to provide tools and resources to inspire change. The event will be held on Thursday, January 15th, 2014 from 5:30-9pm at NAAM.

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“How Did a Historical Institution Get with the Current Moment So Quickly?” Journalist Charles Mudede posed this question in his complimentary article, “Northwest African American Museum Just Became a Lot More Relevant” published on September 10, 2014, in Seattle’s weekly newspaper, The Stranger. Two weeks prior, Mudede was a featured speaker at #Ferguson, a collaborative PechaKucha 20×20 held at Seattle’s Northwest African American Museum (NAAM) in response to the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and the subsequent social unrest. A PechaKucha is a simple presentation format where presenters are given 6 minutes to speak and show 20 images, each for 20 seconds. The images advance automatically and the presenter talks along to the images. NAAM’s goal for the PechaKucha program was to bring activists, scholars, lawyers, and artists together with an audience as an act of learning, healing, protest, and community. Mudede deemed the program a “success” and worthy of generous print space in The Stranger.

With the designation of success also came a label of relevance, “The success of this event represented the growing relevance of NAAM on the city’s shifting cultural landscape.” Relevance is the golden egg of the museum field, so to be called relevant in a major publication is a huge honor and also forces, as the event organizers, to think about how we would answer the question: “How Did a Historical Institution Get with the Current Moment So Quickly?” While pondering this question, we arrived at three answers that help explain how the event developed, the lessons we learned, and practical advice for others to replicate its success.

Answer 1: We lay the groundwork for collaboration in real-time

We place a high value on our ability to collaborate and have worked diligently, and sometimes cumbersomely, for six years to improve our practice and solidify our reputation as a collaborative institution. As a young museum opened in 2008, we are still shaping our identity and practice of actualizing our mission. Our identity and survival is dependent on reciprocal participation with our audiences and communities. Our passionate, professionally trained, multicultural, and multigenerational staff of twelve advances our mission with a mutual understanding of the vitality of relevancy and collaborative practices. We develop multidisciplinary programming with the explicit intent to create a safe space where all can come to understand new issues and concepts.

The above commitment sounds nice, right? But it is certainly not easy to implement. Our past attempts at response programming were generated without authentic collaborations and fell short of the program goals. These efforts did, however, help us to publicly establish ourselves as viable partner willing to create responsive programming. This is undoubtedly one of the ways we caught the attention of Ana Pinto da Silva of PechaKucha Seattle who reached out to Leilani Lewis of NAAM, and Davida Ingram, of Seattle People of Color Salon (SPocS), to create a programmatic response to the murder of Mike Brown. Without this real-time commitment to collaboration, our three organizations could not have brought together 14 speakers and hundreds of people in ten short days.  Collective mobilization of networks through word of mouth and social media were vital elements of our program’s success. We were able to galvanize the Seattle community, bring them to the Museum and present them with a number of opportunities to engage and act. We spent several days reaching out to potential speakers, each taking an equal role in the effort to provide a high quality program to speak out against injustice and cruelty.

Answer 2: We are plugged into social media

We know, we know, you don’t have time to sit around and track what is trending on Twitter during the workday. But you must try.  The concerted effort between NAAM and its collaborators involved tapping into the stream of conversation that was already taking place online, so that we could work on a program that would contribute to the social digital dialogue. We aimed to engage with our audience in real-time in the museum, while scaffolding audience participation in the existing social media conversations.

We used the hashtag as a tool to expand the reach of the conversation. Without a formal question and answer session incorporated into the PechaKucha format, we knew social media would be an outlet for dialogue about the topics presented by our speakers. The audience was going to tweet so we established suggested guidelines to facilitate conversation online as well as in our museum space. PechaKucha Seattle builds audiences strictly through social media and online channels, and presented #Ferguson as the title, and #Ferguson_SEA quickly emerged as the hashtag associated with the event. In addition to naming our event after a hashtag, we clearly posted the event’s hashtag, #Ferguson_SEA, at the beginning of the event as a main component of the event. We gave the audience a vehicle to connect the conversations from our Legacy Hall with the existing conversations both in our area and outside it. Multiple attendees compiled the tweets from the event and curated them to illustrate the night, which expanded the reach of the conversation for those unable to attend. Quotations, photographs, doodles, reactions, and opinions were recorded and filed under #Ferguson_SEA that could be followed in real-time or searched for the following morning or even today. Interacting with social media as a part of our workday, helps us to understand how it works, grasp what it is capable of, and use it as a tool in our programming and our success.

Answer 3: We’re ok with being a conduit for connectivity rather than claiming the spotlight

14 people, 6 minutes, 20 slides, 20 seconds, no formal Q&A—the PechaKucha format was appropriate for facilitating Seattle’s response to this murder. The format lends itself to the democratization of museums by creating space for multiple voices to be heard. The pluralistic nature of responses to tragedies like Brown’s murder also partners well with the PechaKucha’s ability to host multiple disciplines and genres of presentations. Understanding this flexibility, Leilani Lewis and Davida Ingram collaboratively developed a roster of community members, scholars, artists, lawyers and activists who delivered compelling thoughts on Mike Brown’s murder, police brutality and ways to combat multiple forms of racism.

We carefully decided how the audience would experience these ideas by determining the order of speakers, much like the way museum staff think how visitors move through their exhibitions. This allowed us to focus on selecting speakers that would feed the conversation, and steer it toward a constructive path. In the end, we had 14 presenters, ranging in ages, disciplines, and identities, each with a unique perspective on the topic of focus. Some used video as their short presentations, while others tightly timed rolling images to a practiced speech.

One presenter moved the audience with a poetic expression of grief and hope. The program was not always clean–it was raw, uncensored, and deviated from the standard “stand and talk” productions that some in the audience might have expected to see at a museum. There was movement, call and response, stream of consciousness, and pure personal reflection at the podium. It was the variety of presenters and their rapid and raw performances that made the program so compelling. From the moment guests heard the first presenter, they knew that they would experience a program that would enlighten and inspire. Each presenter was given license to form and lend their interpretations (in 6 minutes) to an exhibition of ideas that audiences could experience online, at the museum or both simultaneously.

“I’m reaching out to you my white friends, because the words of people of color have been consistent and direct. We need to use our relations and power and privilege to help end the genocide of black and brown people.” Diana Falchuk, #Ferguson Presenter

“If we want unjust deaths to end, we need more than black people calling out for our beauty and humanity… I wish a mother would be able to sleep at night knowing her children are safe and valued in society.” Davida Ingram, #Ferguson Presenter

As we as a staff continue to think about responsive programming, we understand that crises will be different and so will the resultant programs. We are certain, however, that people are growing to expect these types of programs and the PechaKucha format is a successful and easily replicated format for them. #Ferguson reinforced NAAM’s commitment to social justice, and actively listening to the collective, and individual voices of our community, so that the Museum continues to inspire change.

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Chieko Phillips joined the NAAM team as an curatorial intern during her first year of the University of Washington master’s program in Museology and has since made a home of the Museum. While pursuing a BA in history from Davidson College in North Carolina, her enthusiasm for museums and public history blossomed after rewarding internships at the Atlanta History Center and the Levine Museum of the New South. As the Exhibitions Manager at NAAM, Chieko will continue to immerse herself in the collections and exhibitions with a curiosity her parents nurtured and supported from a young age. You can reach her at cphillips@naamnw.org

Leilani Lewis is a creative arts administrator who is passionate about visual art and culture. She has a strong interest in community building and audience development through web based-communications, partnerships, and coalition building. She also leads  NAAM’s high impact events including:  Afrofuturism Pecha KuchaAfropunk Bash, #Ferguson and  NAAMTASTIC Voyage. Her deep roots in the creative community along with her leadership skills  make her a valuable part of the NAAM team. Leilani received her post-graduate degree from Seattle University. You can reach her at: llewis@naamnw.org

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5 comments

  1. Reblogged this on Art Museum Teaching and commented:
    Exceptional post that I wanted to reblog from Incluseum about the Northwest African American Museum’s response to Ferguson and the lessons learned. Thanks to Chieko Phillips, Leilani Lewis, and everyone at the Incluseum for sharing these insights.

  2. Your third answer is really powerful–I believe that museums need to embrace the role of perceptive, active listeners rather than being so tightly focused on institutional brand/message and crafting the most strategic response. . .and clearly NAAM modeled that. . .

  3. Thanks for reblogging, Mike!

  4. […] Responding to the Events in Ferguson and Beyond: The Northwest African American Museum’s Examp… […]

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