Expanding Care: Curation in the Age of Engagement

This piece first appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of Fwd:Museums Journal, a publication edited and produced by the U. of Illinois at Chicago museum and exhibition studies program. Fwd:Museums allows authors to retain copyright, giving me the opportunity to republish here. Recently, I (Aletheia) have been returning to these ideas to reflect on where my thinking has grown and changed and where it has remained – in some form – the same. Fwd:Museums is now accepting submissions (deadline is January 5, 2020) for their next issue, “Home.” (link here)

When I entered graduate Museum Studies, my expectation was to become a curator. As a newcomer to the field, it struck me as counterintuitive how much authority was held by an institutional agent with a title appearing so modest on paper. There is nothing in the Latin etymology of the word curator, “care taker,” that prescribes inherent authority. The phrase evokes domestic tasks and invites application to any number of everyday activities, an interpretation no doubt informed by my own gendered and classed experiences. The more I have focused my practice and research in the realm of Curation, the more I understand the role of power in defining how-to-care in museums. Care has been used to frame the act of maintaining institutions and their self-interest; consolidating power in dominant cultures and narratives. On the other hand, when museums upend dominant practices and their associated power structures care can be understood as affirming the self-determination of communities. This realization completely challenged my understanding of how curation operates in museums and continues to inform my work as a curator. Building an analysis of the ways in which how-to-care and what constitutes care underpin museum practice has shaped how I enact care as a cisgender, white, non-disabled woman working in and with cultural institutions. In order to collectively advocate for the curation we desire to model in museums, I believe the field can benefit from exploring what has and what should constitute care.

Care, as a concept, and curation, as its application in museums, has been constructed through changing museological discourses of how museums should relate to people. For this reason, it is important to look at the history of the Curator’s relationship with museum “Engagement” work. Engagement is a term commonly used in museums and cultural institutions to describe any labor related to building relationships between institutions and people. The changing relationship of curation to the labor of engagement in museums can be charted through three distinct progressions of whom or what has been the subject of care in museums: object care, educative care, and liberatory care. I will use these progressions to frame my review of emerging discourses that inform how care is understood in a museum context. I will also draw from my graduate thesis research, in particular an analysis of the interviews I conducted with four museum curators that saw social justice and community engagement as integral to their practice. My findings, based on these interviews with curators, illustrate more liberatory modes of care and describe a curation less associated with authoritative positioning and more expansive in the scope of its relationship to the work of engagement.

From Object Care to Educative Care 

In early European and US museums, ideas of curation and associated practices of care were referencing collections and the objects that comprised them. As Hilde Hein points out, objects are inherently about people and ideas and that is where their value comes from. However, the act of caring, even in early “public” museums, was oriented, not toward the well- being of people, but toward the object’s role in the curator’s and the curating institution’s scholarship. One example being the “pillage and abductions of objects from sacred sites and cultural sanctuaries” that many museum collections are built upon. The amassing and making accessible of collections without the consent of their owners is an act that shows no care for people and their descendants.

While the stewardship of collections for scholarly purposes continued to play a defining role in museums of the 19th and early 20th century, museums also understood themselves to be the means by which the public could improve themselves and, by extension, a democratic society. “The public” was conceived to be at a deficit, a condition museums could remedy through education. In this era, care was not only object focused, but also paternalistic. Educational practices reinscribed the dominance of European knowledge and value systems, nationalism, and colonialism. Thus, while museums generally understood their purpose was to serve the public through education, the freedom to learn, experience, and feel safe in museums continued to be extremely limited. The resistance of Curators to these early stages of museum and curatorial practice development is well documented. Due to their reputation as bastions of elitism, museums with growing interest in engagement practices created and hired entirely new positions. Curators were slow to adapt to the new ways in which the museum was preparing to engage with the public.

Liberatory Care

From the mid 20th century up to our present moment, ideas of how-to-care have continued to expand in relation to museums. The third phase in the expansion of care in museums is centered around a discourse of liberation. Odalice Priosti writes, “According to our view, a museology of liberation would be the process by which communities… can build a memory as a resistance, a memory that does not subjugate to a model that was imposed, but with which it negotiates, imitating it and differentiating itself in multiple ways.” Priosti’s vision for museology is informed by Paulo Friere’s pedagogy of liberation. Within Priosti’s “Museology of Liberation,” the goal is to make space for the self-determination and knowledge of communities as a means of resistance against dominant structures. In relation to curation and curators, Christina Kreps states “Because of the hegemony of Western museology, most people have difficulty thinking and talking about museums, curation and heritage preservation in terms other than those provided by Western museological discourse.” Kreps sees her work as liberating museological discourse and curation from the limitations of European ideologies, and exploring alternatives that represent multiple voices and perspectives. Within the context of Kreps’ observations about curation, care enacted by museums should bring silenced or marginalized knowledge systems and voices to the center of museum practice, in particular Indigenous and local knowledge. Kreps and Priosti present a vision for museums wherein care is necessary for liberation and dismantling dominant museum practices and ideologies.

Emerging Museum Discourses of Care

In addition to scholarly perspectives, emerging discourses around care in museums can tell us more about the ways how-to-care, or what constitutes care, is coming to be understood by museum professionals. For example, those discourses of:

  • Ally/Accomplice: Modes of engaging in liberation movements for those with power and privilege. // nikhil trivedi was the first to address the role of individuals that shape museums in the work of dismantling oppressions as they manifest both inside and outside the museum context. Diana Falchuck has also notably written about the possibility of museums doing the work of allyship, using the Race: Are We So Different? exhibit as a case study. Conversations around allyship and accompliceship have notably informed the development of two recent museum focused projects, the Museums & Race Initiative as well as MASS Action (Museum as a Site for Social Action.) It has been integral to the ongoing work of each project that organizers recognize and navigate their broad range of identities, related systems of oppression and the ways that these inform their organizing roles. Individual roles need this consistent examination and development as demonstrated by the fact that the idea of “accomplice” has been proposed as a mode that improves on that of “ally.” A distinguishing aspect of being an accomplice includes a focus on relationships of and systems of accountability with Black, Brown, LGBTQI +, Indigenous, disabled, immigrant, women organizers and leaders.
  • Community Membership: Responsibility to the greater fabric or whole you exist within. // This phrase and framework for best practices in community engagement is premised in an idea of a museum as accountable to the communities with which it engages. I want to acknowledge the advocacy of Stephanie Cunningham and her comments made at Carnegie Museum of Pittsburgh for “A Conversation about Inclusion” in October 2016. She specifically used “community member” to describe how museums should understand their role in relationship to communities. The phrase frames a museum as one member of many community members, as opposed to the focal point or the one member that dictates the terms of engagement. Porchia Moore writes extensively on museum relationships with communities and the way museum assumptions about communities and respectability politics are ways that museums prioritize themselves over communities. The Community Member model is vital as it asks of museums to commit to the collective well-being of those with whom it wishes to share a community connection.
  • Empathy: Understanding experiences of another based on shared humanity. // The work of Gretchen Jennings, for example the Empathetic Museum Maturity Model, as well as Mike Murawski’s writing and public speaking have played a large role in advocating the application of this concept in museums. The premise of empathy is that museums, as public facing and engaging institutions, are responsible to bridge audiences through practice that critique instances of individual or group apathy. In this way, empathy poses a discourse of resistance to the ways separation can be a tool of domination by oppressive systems.
  • Intersectionality: The ways in which overlapping identities relate to systems of oppression. // Porchia Moore’s scholarship has influenced the application of this term, originally coined in the field of Critical Race Theory by Kimberlé Crenshaw, to the museum field. For example, through her leadership intersectionality became foundational to the work of the Museums & Race Initiative. To highlight the role and necessity of intersectionality in the practice of contemporary creatives, the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center hosted the watershed exhibition and event “Crosslines: A Culture Lab on Intersectionality” in 2016. These projects reject binary narratives of difference and have built an awareness in the field for the connections between liberation struggles.
  • Listening: Acknowledging self-deficit through showing up as a learner, not expert. // This framework for museum behavior was something I first experienced in readings about Asset-Based Community Development, which is premised on the idea that the starting point of any sustainable community development must be the assets of the community itself. This requires any person engaged in community development to first know the value of a given community’s assets through learning and listening. For museums, this framework is broadly applicable. For example, the idea of listening is key in the concept of Open Authority, developed by Lori Byrd Phillips, which illustrates the way museums can be content facilitators and bring user-generated content to the center of their interpretation.
  • Self-care: Affirming and making space for acts of self preservation. // bell hooks wrote that knowledge of the self, the self in relation to others and the time to build a “critical consciousness,” all play a role in facilitating liberation. Audre Lorde notably asserted that, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Lorde also wrote extensively about affirming anger felt in response to oppression and erasure and the use of this anger in defining a vision for liberation. These ideas are only two examples from the rich discourse of self-care developed by radical, Black feminists. Museums have the power to change their workplaces through self-reflection and interrupt the ways in which the well-being and self-care of employees is made to be a struggle. To demonstrate the integral nature of self-care, the MASS Action project intentionally incorporates the ethic of self-care into its institutional transformation toolkit. Likewise, museum projects, such as the previously mentioned Crosslines exhibit, bring previously omitted narratives of marginalized groups or individuals to the core, with the leadership of represented communities. These projects can be a means to preserve cultural heritage and themselves become sites of resistance and self-care.

While, these examples are by no means comprehensive, they are meant to demonstrate that collectively these frameworks represent some of the emerging vocabularies influencing how care is understood in museums today. Together, these ideas of care express a common interpersonal and experiential focus and a strong interest in deepening museum accountability to individuals and communities experiencing oppressions. If individuals with the least protections under society’s laws and policies are not foremost in mind when we define how-to-care, then we have not truly designed engagement practice to address a comprehensive public. The discourses also represent a transposition of what is commonly understood as human scale behavior, demonstrating care for another person through the ways that we engage with them, to institutional scale behavior. This demonstrates a growing expectation that museums, as human-centered and operated institutions, should be accountable to the same standards of care that individuals aspire to enact in their daily lives.

Toward Liberatory Care in Practice

An expanding sense of what constitutes care in museums was also demonstrated during interviews I undertook for my Master’s Thesis in Fall 2012. I interviewed four art museum curators working in museums publicly committed to social justice and community engagement. I interviewed curators at The Oakland Museum of California, The Bronx Museum of the Arts, The Guggenheim Lab in New York City, and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. The interviews allowed me to identify and compare emerging curatorial practices; “emerging” was used to refer to practices interviewed curators understood as integral to their practice, but were unlike traditional, or object-focused, curatorial practices. While interviewees did not describe their practices in terms of “liberatory care,” many of the practices they described are premised on the idea that curatorial care should be focused beyond object and educative care, and primarily responsive to the self-determined goals of local communities. In that sense, I understand many of their practices to be aspiring toward the realm of liberatory care. Emerging practices that were most often identified by interviewees included:

  • Planning exhibits and/or programs that address grassroots organizing or social justice movements;
  • Responding to grassroots organizing and social justice movements as they happen;
  • Exhibiting artists whose work comments on issues that relate to lived experiences of local communities;
  • Connecting programming and exhibits to ideas of Place (shared meanings connected to a location, which imbue a space with value for one or more communities);
  • Using culturally familiar gathering and participation formats to promote comfort;
  • Inviting communities to share their creativity and their experiences;
  • Collaboration with trusted community leaders on programs;
  • Providing communities with direct access and representation in art exhibition and program development.

Because each of the curators worked within institutions that publicly aligned themselves with social justice and/or community engagement practice, it is worth noting that these curatorial practices represented a small subset of arts institutions. Nonetheless, they indicate the expanded understanding of care that can take place both in the self-definition of curatorial positions and in the way curating functions in museums. These ways of working exemplify that the lines between “engagement” functions and traditional curatorial functions easily blur without dissonance in the practice of curators today.

How should these findings, in the context of new ideas of liberatory care and emerging discourses of articulating care through museum practice, inform our actions and thinking in the field? For one, we should be wary of any impulse to maintain curation as a static concept or role; a rigid view of curation only benefits those people and ideas that already dominate the field. Room to redefine the practice of curation itself and invite it to be different based on context and community responsiveness, increasingly directs care and benefits toward people. As ideologies of how-to-care expand through efforts to demonstrate care as a tool of liberation, so do the possibilities and opportunities for curation in the age of engagement.


The Asset-Based Community Development Institute. Accessed November 15, 2016. http://www.abcdinstitute.org/

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Bryant, J., Calllihan, E., Moore, P., Morgan-Hubbard, S., trivedi, n. and Wittman, A. “Crafting courageous truths: The creation and philosophy of MASS Action: Museum As Site for Social Action.” Accessed April 5, 2017. http://futureofmuseums.blogspot.com/2016/11/crafting-courageous-truths-creation- and.html

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Murawski, Mike. “The Urgency of Empathy and Social Impact in Museums.” Art Museum Teaching. Accessed November 15, 2016. https://artmuseumteaching.com/2016/07/11/the- urgency-of-empathy-social-impact-in-museums/

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Osler, Jonathan. “Opportunities for White People in the Fight for Racial Justice” http://www.racialjusticeallies.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/from-ally-to- accompliace.pdf

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