This week I became an enthusiastic listener and fan of the new podcast, A Frame of Mind. This podcast covers so much ground—from urban planning in Kansas City, to residential segregation, to memory, memorials, to colonial legacies, to labor history, and healing. It’s expert storytelling about the stories we tell in and about museums.
While rooted in the Kansas City context, many museums will undoubtedly find echoes of their own history reflected back to them in some or all of these episodes. In fact, the show could serve as onboarding material for new staff at museums across the country. For those museums actively re-examining their past or who want to start, this podcast might inspire you on that journey or prompt new questions such as: “Whose memory and experience should guide the evolution of the museum’s historic narrative?” We extend our deep thanks to this week’s guest contributor Jocelyn Edens, Interpretation and Digital Engagement Associate at The Nelson-Atkins Museum, who takes us all behind the scenes of making the podcast. – Aletheia
A Frame of Mind is a new five-episode podcast that takes a hard look at race in America through the lens of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri.
The project began in the spirit of participatory institutional genealogy. We set out to better understand the past and present of our museum through personal memories and racialized experiences of people who live in Kansas City. What emerged is an experiment in museum storytelling that opens a dialogue about what art museums can be in a future without a roadmap.
A Frame of Mind grapples with the impact of the museum’s architecture and neighborhood on visitor experience, monuments designed from settler colonial perspectives, racial representation in museums, and how museums have the power to build and construct new stories.
A Frame of Mind shares storytelling authority with people outside the museum. We wanted to approach personal racialized experiences of the museum with honesty and bravery, without being performative. We imagined our listeners to be both visitors and non-visitors to the Nelson-Atkins.
We proposed this project to museum leadership in June 2020. We were three months deep into the COVID-19 pandemic and a few weeks in the wake of major Black Lives Matter protests, some of which took place a block away from the museum, after the murder of George Floyd.
Our methodology was built on the long term work of many colleagues. The most recent precedent, which almost everyone we interviewed for the podcast brought up as a pivotal moment for their experience of the Nelson-Atkins, was an installation of 30 Americans (listen to episode four, “Under Construction” for memories of this exhibition). That project developed with a local advisory group who helped shape an interpretive strategy that included community-written labels. The podcast extends that experiment to open up paths for different voices in museum storytelling.
Making a big tent
The closing credits in our last episode run for more than three minutes of audio. We had a lot of people to acknowledge! Early in pre-production we drafted a map of our process:
This is what worked for us:
We assembled a core team that included a podcast host and writer (Glenn North, Kansas City poet and currently Director of Inclusive Learning & Creative Impact at the Kansas City Museum), an audio producer, writer, and story editor (Christine Murray, freelance on this project and content director at Art Processors) and project stewards inside the museum (curator Kim Masteller and myself from our interpretation, evaluation, and visitor research department). We met weekly for more than a year. Some of our conversations were deeply pragmatic and logistics-oriented. Others helped us learn about each other and our own orientations to museums and Kansas City and what the podcast could be. Some of the stories that came up in those conversations, especially ones from Glenn, our podcast host, became key story beats in the final audio story. Glenn’s role as our host evolved through his subjective witnessing, personal opinions, and his own experience with the Nelson-Atkins. His perspective became a throughline in the podcast that acted as both amplifier of community perspectives and a listener surrogate.
Our methodology for unearthing experiences of the past and present of the Nelson-Atkins combined interviews and archives. The interviews would drive and shape the story. With advice from across the museum and an advisory group, we compiled a list of people we wanted to talk to who intersected with some of our big themes: welcome and belonging, the neighborhood of the Nelson-Atkins, the land the Nelson-Atkins occupies, the museum as an icon, and navigating the future. These themes were tools to help focus our scope and communicate the project at the museum internally; we fully expected them to change or deepen.
Our host and audio producer made space for every interview to have different questions with a different vibe, meeting our interviewees where they were. Members from our Teen Council joined some of these interviews, asking critical and brave questions. We also asked every person the same five “Inside the Museum Studio” questions toward the end of the conversation:
- What turns you on about the Nelson-Atkins?
- What turns you off about the Nelson-Atkins?
- What do YOU want from a museum?
- What words come to mind when you think of the Nelson-Atkins?
- Tell me about a powerful memory that happened at the Nelson-Atkins.
Parallel to the interviews, we worked with our archivist to dig into records and emerging questions, some of which she was already working on in her own investment in institutional genealogy. (1) Our archivist became a recurring character in the podcast.
We reported progress to museum leadership throughout the process. A table read for our first episode was a pivotal moment. It began with audio from a Black Lives Matter protest in Kansas City; one of the first things our host Glenn North says is “The way I see it, you can’t talk about anything in our country—museums, barbecue, football, whatever—without talking about race. Even choosing not to talk about it, you’re talking about it.” We weren’t at all sure what kind of response to expect. It felt like a risk to be so direct about race and the museum’s relationship to it. When the first point of feedback was “This is great! What’s next?”, our collective shoulders dropped and we dug in. Crucially, strong allies for the project cleared an internal pathway for this project. As department and division heads, they were advocates, institution whisperers, and advisors at key choice points along the way.
And finally, we relied on beautiful sound nerds and local artists to level up the production quality of A Frame of Mind. The content of the stories was crucial, but they needed to be pleasurable and listen-able. An internal A/V engineer and a contracted sound designer, who is a long-time collaborator with our lead producer, had the expertise to help us gather and combine audio assets. Local band The Black Creatures composed our theme song; local letterpress print shop Two Tone Press designed our cover art.
Change is good
We set out to make an audio story that was co-creative and participatory. We could create a framework or methodology, but we weren’t doing our jobs right if things didn’t change. I’ll share three examples:
Our original proposal for this audio project vaguely envisioned the outcome as an audio tour of our grounds. When Christine Murray, our lead producer, joined the team, she said, “I think it’s a podcast.” These stories needed more room than a two minute audio stop. The works of art in the stories could be jumping off points, not anchors. And crucially, listeners don’t have to be on site at the Nelson-Atkins to get the full experience. For a project intended to reach both visitors and non-visitors, this last point was crucial. A podcast it was.
A Frame of Mind was originally a response to the Kansas City Police Department using the Nelson-Atkins grounds as a staging area for responding to BLM protests a block away. We asked nearly everyone we interviewed about the police staging, and only two people (in the same interview) remembered the incident at all or or as something personally meaningful. For a long time we thought it would be dishonest and timid to avoid this story. But it became clear that the single incident was not a priority for our partners–that it perhaps made more of an impact on our staff than our wider community–and we honored that.
Every episode went through many, many (many!) script iterations. At one point, we envisioned the credits of our third episode, “First You Have to See It,” rolling out over Sharon Jones’s cover of “This Land Is Your Land.” We thought her subversive take on a song that carries a colonialist message for many Native people was a sonic version of one of the big ideas of the episode: speaking back to settler colonial narratives about what it means to be American. We had permission from Daptone Records and we were ready to go. But when we played a draft of the episode for members of our advisory group, we heard that it wasn’t working. It wasn’t so subversive in this context, it mostly ran the risk of repeating the problem. The song was out.
We’re not sure what’s next. To be honest, we’re still working through the lessons we learned. A Frame of Mind owes a debt to other Nelson-Atkins projects that came before it, and to methodologies of co-creation throughout the arts. We’ll build on this step with another one–TBD.
We think the biggest strength of this project is its capacity to spark conversation. We hope you’ll listen and share. Send us a note if you’d like to continue the conversation.
- “Institutional genealogy” resonates, and is used here, in part because we didn’t always have a name for what different teams across the museum have been doing. In some cases, this work was responsive research, following up on questions about the museum’s history we heard from different communities. In other cases, the work was motivated by investing more deeply in participatory or co-creative methodologies as museums across the field grappled with questions about who holds storytelling authority.
Jocelyn Edens is the Interpretation and Digital Engagement Associate at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, MO. She is currently a co-chair of the MCN Mentorship Program. You can reach Jocelyn at firstname.lastname@example.org.