Lauren Cross & Tiffany R. Isselhardt
Lauren Cross is Program Coordinator & Senior Lecturer, Interdisciplinary Art and Design Studies at the University of North Texas. Lauren is a member of the 2020 Knology — Curator: The Museum Journal Writing Scholars Workshop.
Tiffany R. Isselhardt is Program Developer at Girl Museum, and serves as Development and Marketing Manager for the Kentucky Museum. Tiffany is a member of the 2020 Knology — Curator: The Museum Journal Writing Scholars Workshop.
Whether museums want it to be or not, their audiences are composed of diverse social categories that must be embraced and represented. In order for museums to become truly democratic institutions, a variety of visitor needs must be met both individually and collectively. These needs include education, entertainment, socialization, and economic empowerment, among others, but are highly dependent on who is visiting the museum. John H. Falk’s 2009 synopsis of colleagues’ research on visitor identity revealed that museum visits are “profoundly personal and strongly tied to each individual’s sense of identity.” This sense of identity must be understood by the museum, both in statistics of who they serve as a whole (i.e., community demographics) but also in recognizing that individual visitors fit within these statistical categories in overlapping ways (i.e., how the individual self-identifies forms a unique set of circumstances that inform their visit). For each visitor, the museum serves as a site of autonomous interchange — a concept approximately forty years old and defined in Duncan F. Cameron’s seminal work (1971), which argued that museums should become both temples and forums.
So far, cultural institutions have done very little to discuss intersectionality, a term that has only recently entered into our professional lexicon. Intersectionality, coined in 1989 by Kimberly Crenshaw, a Black feminist and legal scholar, was created to describe interlocking oppressions of race and gender experienced by Black women and women of color. As a social justice framework, intersectionality is far more familiar in feminist scholarship than museum scholarship, yet is applicable to every field.
As scholars focused on intersectional feminism and its relationship to museums, we stumbled upon a 2016 article by Lisa Gilbert entitled “Loving, Knowing Ignorance: A Problem for the Educational Mission of Museums.” In it, Gilbert uses the feminist stance of “loving, knowing ignorance” in museums to describe the ways that institutions exhibit an arrogant, assumed authority over a subject that fails to recognize the subject’s self-knowledge and agency and that also carries a convoluted notion of love for the subject. Gilbert’s definition of “loving, knowing ignorance” connects with Charles Mills’ (2007) philosophical unpacking of “white ignorance,” where knowing ignorance of the experiences and realities of racially and culturally oppressed communities are links to white supremacy (Mills, 13). In its simplest form, a museum that is “loving” yet “knowingly” ignorant is one that strives to embrace the democratic ideal, but does so without consulting those it seeks to include. Yet, even museums that do achieve inclusivity for those it represents can also fail to conquer their ignorance by not recognizing the intersectionality of ignorance — the diverse, interlocking oppressions existing in the museum’s community. These stretch beyond race and gender to include age, class, sexual orientation, religion, creed, and ability. A museum’s failure to recognize how these categories interlock and affect their communities can result in unloving behaviors and exhibit a willful ignorance towards the people they aim to serve.
Addressing recent movements in diversity, equity, access, inclusion and relevance, Gilbert argues that museums can and should recognize their own lack of “loving” and “knowing ignorance,” especially in exhibitions, and work to correct it if they wish to be truly democratic institutions. But how is a museum to do so? And once recognized, how can knowing ignorance be corrected?
We scoured Curator’s archives for case studies that would help reveal how museums can identify and work to correct their “loving, knowing ignorance.” We found many examples where museums have not only succeeded but, in so doing, have become better at representing the diverse communities in which they work. Some were able to do so while also addressing intersectionality. For us, their successes are a guiding light for our future as a field.
Peopling of London
The first challenge is for museums to identify and recognize their ignorance. Even those with the best intentions – those who are “loving” in their ignorance – can find that their roads lead, so to speak, to a public relations nightmare. To avoid such dubious paths, museums must work from the initial planning stage of an exhibition or program to identify areas in which they are “ignorant” — in other words, areas in which the exhibition team (and perhaps museum team) are unable to speak directly from first-person experience.
The Museum of London’s experiences during their Peopling of London exhibition in the early 1990s provides an example of identifying ignorance as early as possible. In planning the exhibition, the museum looked at its internal and external motivations. The article in Curator was written by David M. Kahn, the Executive Director of the Brooklyn Historical Society at the time, and was based on an interview with a curator of the Peopling of London. Reflecting on the interview, Kahn wrote that the Museum of London’s internal motivations were seemingly good: they wanted to “demonstrate goodwill, to indicate to London’s diverse people that they and their history were important to the museum, and that they were welcome within its walls” (Kahn, 242). Internally, their motivations also centered on wanting to reach, represent, and welcome the 20% of London that identified as non-white, especially during a time of rising racism in Europe, and particularly in Britain. Despite these good intentions, the Museum of London realized that they could not accurately represent, nor fully welcome, these people without also ensuring that the people had a say in how they were represented. The exhibition planning needed to include the communities it sought to represent, not just as respondents or reviewers, but as full actors within the exhibit team. But, as Kahn posed, challenging a museum’s internal ignorance challenges museum and curatorial leadership to ask specific questions: “What do we do when little or no research has been done on the groups we are interested in portraying? And do we address diversity in discrete temporary exhibitions or in permanent installations or both?” (Kahn, 240).
The first decision the Museum of London made was to expand its definition of who was represented. They changed the scope of Peopling of London to go beyond the previous exhibit’s narrative conclusion (which ended in 1945), before postwar immigration changed the demographics of London. This addressed an unconscious barrier — age — that sought to include modern visitors as the people of London. They also recognized, in reviewing the prior permanent installations, that they had not addressed the role immigrants had played in London’s development in prior centuries. To ensure Peopling of London would address these problems, and ensure accuracy, the exhibition team identified a wide array of historians, community members (particularly those who had worked on oral history projects), librarians and archivists with whom they met to gather primary source documents. Meeting mostly one-on-one, the team was able to gather significant material to inform and be displayed in the exhibition. Additionally, the team decided to invite diverse communities — young and old, working and not, rich and poor, and of varying ethnic backgrounds (truly “intersectional” as the largely white museum team sought non-white perspectives) — into the project immediately. Utilizing press releases and the Museum on the Move program (a traveling van which brings museum programs and collections into London’s communities), the exhibition team announced the project, sent previews of their intentions into London neighborhoods with large ethnic populations, and had staff recruit passers-by to talk about their lives as part of informal and formal oral history interviews. By the time the exhibition went into production, the team had gathered 65 formal oral history interviews from non-white participants. Another invitation was extended to 60 photographers who previously worked in London’s ethnic communities and could contribute photographs to the exhibition. The team also commissioned photographers to help fill in the gaps in representation.
Embracing oral histories and inviting comments and contributions was just one part of the exhibit process. In reviewing the exhibition content, the team discovered that the Museum of London had a critical lack of collections reflecting London’s diversity, both past and present. To rectify this, institutional collecting strategies were amended to focus on identifying and collecting the material culture of groups previously overlooked. Yet rather than attempt to do so themselves, the museum reached out to others for help. Notably, they forged relationships with the Black Cultural Archives and London Museum of Jewish Life, empowering the museum to better represent its community through both collecting and loans.
Finally, the exhibit team ensured that all visitors could access the information presented through their interpretive brochure, which was translated into eight languages and stated,
“What many people do not know is that London has always been an immigrant city. This exhibition shows that the cultures, skills, and hard work of settlers from overseas has made a vital contribution to the development of London for centuries. The history of their contribution has rarely been told, and with growing racism in Europe, it is especially important to tell this story now” (Kahn, 243).
This set the stage for the exhibition, informing audiences of what they were about to see and recognizing the museum’s motivations for presenting it. It was, nearly 20 years before the activist museum movement arose, a “museum’s are not neutral” exhibition. Peopling of London took a specific stance as pro-immigrant, both in embracing an “immigrants are Londoners, and Londoners have historically been immigrants” interpretation and by providing exhibition information in formats intended to welcome the majority of Londoners.
This labor-intensive work paid off. Not only was the team able to reveal their intentions, they were able to use those intentions to make a statement. By exposing their compassionate yet willful ignorance, and endorsing solutions that included groups the exhibition team had been ignorant about, the museum was able to truly embrace non-white Londoners as subject and audience. Between the November 1993 exhibition opening and May 1994, the museum’s non-white audience jumped from 4% to 20% – becoming reflective of the 20% of London’s non-white population and furthering the museum as a truly democratic institution for all of London.
In “Interpreting Sacred and Contested Historians: The Broken Links Exhibition,” Professor Roy Ballantyne and colleagues (2012) of the University of Queensland, highlights an exhibition that successfully identified and addressed their knowing ignorance was the State Library of Queensland, which hosted the Broken Links: Stolen Generations in Queensland exhibition from May to September of 2007. As a response to the tenth anniversary of the “Bringing Them Home” report, Broken Links intended to explore the 100-year history and impacts of the forced removal of Aboriginal children from their biological parents. Knowing they would be dealing with highly emotional and controversial subject matter, the State Library adopted“hot interpretation,” a method in which interpretation and visitor experiences are designed to prompt visitors to re-examine their own previously held beliefs and perceptions (Ballantyne, 153). This method dates to the 1980s and has been recognized as a valuable means for interpreting controversial, challenging and emotional subject matter. It encourages museum teams to embrace and actively recognize the emotions aroused in visitors, and to encourage visitors to use these points as areas for self-reflection both during and after the visit. Using hot interpretation, Broken Links actively sought to arouse emotions that would empower visitors to connect and reflect on the exhibition’s content.
The State Library decided to portray all exhibition content from an Aboriginal viewpoint, despite their audience being mostly non-Aboriginal. In so doing, they realized their ignorance in that no member of the team had lived through, or been directly affected by, the forced removal. To tell the story effectively, and infuse it with truthful emotion, the State Library team decided to focus on the personal stories of five Aboriginal Queenslanders who were removed from their parents. Working directly with the individuals, they created audio, video, and photographic records — supplemented by government documents, artifacts, personal letters, and interpretive text — that formed a highly immersive, first-person experience where visitors felt as if they were having one-on-one interactions with the Aboriginal Queenslanders.
Additionally, the team added a response wall to the exhibition, where visitors could write comments or impressions. The State Library staff left all visitor comments on the wall, even those that were offensive, so that the wall became a place of conversations between visitors. Some comments revealed how hot interpretation helped visitors connect with the issues presented:
“Some of the people featured in the exhibition are the same age as me…I had no idea that this practice was occurring at the time”;
“The personal accounts were very moving, reading the letters…brought home the feelings in such a personal way”;
“I have a real experience to put up against what seemed like a fanciful story”;
“The exhibition…made me think about how we (as a population) continue our tendency to ignore the plight of contemporary ‘others’ in our society…” (Ballantyne et al., 158-160).
The comment wall also prompted the revelation of untold aspects about the forced removal, such as a 40-49-year-old female from Brisbane’s comment: “When I was little, we would hide some of the Aboriginal kids so that no one in town could find them. We were ‘poor white trash’ so nobody paid much attention to us. Mum was pretty racist, born in the 20s but she thought a child deserved its mother” (Ballantyne et al., 158). This comment is revelatory, not just for the story it adds to the exhibition, but also for the intersectional issues of race and class that it reveals in Australia’s history. Would a rich, white mother have done the same? How did the Aboriginal and poor white classes interact? These are questions raised by a single comment, which open doors to greater exploration of the forced removal period.
While Ballantyne et. al (2012) did not address the proportion of offensive remarks, visitor surveys and reviews demonstrated the exhibition’s success. Broken Links visitors reported that they came away with insights into the personal experiences of those removed and had accepted a new perspective on their shared history. As Ballantyne stated, “Participants’ comments indicated that the exhibition had prompted them to reflect, not only on issues regarding the Stolen Generations, but also current issues affecting Indigenous people and other minority groups” (Ballantyne et al.,159). The exhibition had revealed a major benefit of hot interpretation: by letting visitors engage with the material, even through something as simple as a post-it response, visitors could make their own meanings of what they had seen and be able to feel their own voices were heard. Everyone in the community was invited to have a say about the issue, thereby implying that everyone could contribute to addressing the past and present challenges facing Aboriginals in their communities.
Hot interpretation using intimate, first-person stories told by those who had been forcibly removed was integral to Broken Links’s success. The State Library team embraced the need to let go of curatorial authority and have the story told directly by the people who lived it, in order to forge greater emotional bonds with viewers. As a result of this approach, the State Library confronted its own ignorance while inviting visitors to do the same. Additionally, they took a stance in choosing to display the Stolen Generations period as Aboriginal history — rather than as part of white colonialism — that fostered a greater awareness of Aboriginals as a vital, and still very much present, part of Australian society. The State Library was not neutral, publicly promoting the belief that Aboriginals should be respected and that the legacies of forced removal still needed to be addressed.
Five Best Practices
In reflecting on these examples, we distilled five best practices which museums can implement to become more intersectional, and democratic, institutions.
- Rely on, and display, explicit facts. The Peopling of London did so, both in the exhibition and brochure. Another example comes from the Brooklyn Historical Society, whose permanent exhibition in 1994 explicitly stated that “black people have lived in Brooklyn since the seventeenth century” — a fact little known in most of America (Kahn, 247). In relying on, and stating, explicit facts, museums embrace what Kahn calls “myth-shattering weapons that undermine popular notions of otherness, and rootlessness, of people of color.”
- Collecting must be comprehensive. In the Peopling of London exhibition, curators realized that the museum had little, if any, collections that reflected the experiences of non-white Londoners, even those who had been in the London area for centuries. The museum tried to rectify this gap not just in the exhibition, but in their collection as a whole, through amendments to their collection strategies as well as forging relationships with ethnic museums throughout London.
- Focus on the first-person narratives. This strategy was highly effective for Broken Links, enabling a “deep dive” into a controversial, emotional topic without the potential white-wash of curatorial authority. By the end of the exhibit, visitors talked about “our” history rather than “Aboriginal” history, demonstrating how first-person narratives had turned a historically Aboriginal issue into a Queesnlander issue.
- Provide a place for reflection. Another high-impact strategy of the Broken Links exhibition was the response wall. Other museums have seen similar success with such initiatives. The Levine Museum’s 2009 Changing Places exhibition – focused on immigration into Charlotte since the 1970s – had a Talk Back board with explicit prompts, such as, “Coming to Charlotte, what cultural traditions did you keep, what did you lose?” (Hayward, 486-489). Record-your-response videos were played back on a nearby television and posted on the museum’s YouTube channel, allowing visitors to contribute their stories and feel represented in the exhibition. The result was a democratic platform where local residents could reflect on their personal experiences of immigrating to the city, rather than perpetuate cultural stereotypes of people representing each culture .
- Embrace Open (or Contextual) Authority. The Peopling of London and Broken Links exhibitions were successful in identifying their ignorance and seeking to address it by proactively seeking out their subjects and inviting them to participate in the exhibition process. Additionally, the museum staff let go of curatorial voice in favor of ensuring accurate, inclusive representation by relying on first-person narratives told through oral histories, interviews, and other contributions. Lori Byrd Phillips identifies this as the “Open Authority” model, which is often utilized in the technology field (Phillips, 220). The analogy is simple, but effective: much like how code improves with more coders reviewing it, cultural interpretation can only become truly intersectional and democratic by increasing the number of direct cultural representatives engaged during the process of interpretation. Whether for a single group or an entire city, interpretation improves through greater public participation in the interpretive process. To achieve this, museum teams must reject “absolute” curatorial authority; instead, they should embrace a mixture of institutional expertise (museum staff, historians, librarians, and archivists) and community expertise (the discussions, experiences, and insights of those represented).For the museum world, Phillips calls this “contextual authority.”
Many of these strategies are ones we’ve heard before, making it interesting that despite forty years of reflection, we still — as a field — have yet to fully use the practices that will further our goals of being democratic institutions. We’ve discussed just two case studies, yet there are many examples that can guide us down that path. They provide us with a continuity of evidence that shows the museum’s potential as a forum in which contextual authority — acting as a system of checks and balances between curator and community — leads to the potential resolution of our “loving, knowing ignorance.” This, in turn, opens the doors to greater room for diverse peoples not only in our galleries and collections, but in our lives — and societies — as well.
Australian Human Rights Commission (1997). Bringing them Home: Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families. https://www.humanrights.gov.au/our-work/bringing-them-home-report-1997
Ballantyne, R., Packer, J., & Bond, N. (2012). Interpreting Shared and Contested Histories: The Broken Links Exhibition. Curator: The Museum Journal, 55(2), 153-166. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.2151-6952.2012.00137.x
Cameron, D.F. (1971). The Museum, a Temple or a Forum. Curator: The Museum Journal, 14(1), 11-24. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.2151-6952.1971.tb00416.x
Crenshaw, K. (1989). Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics. University of Chicago Legal Forum 1989(1), 139-167. https://chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/uclf/vol1989/iss1/8
Falk, J. H. (2009). Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience. Left Coast Press.
Fischer, D., Anila, S., & Moore, P. (2007). Coming Together to Address Systemic Racism in Museums. Curator: The Museum Journal, 60(1), 23-31. https://doi.org/10.1111/cura.12191
Gilbert, L. (2016). “Loving, Knowing Ignorance”: A Problem for the Educational Mission of Museums. Curator: The Museum Journal, 59(2), 125-140. https://doi.org/10.1111/cura.12153
Hayward, J. (2010). Connecting a Museum with Its Community. Curator: The Museum Journal, 53(4), 483-490. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.2151-6952.2010.00048.x
Kahn, D. (1994). Diversity and the Museum of London. Curator: The Museum Journal, 37(4), 240-250. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.2151-6952.1994.tb01022.x
Merriman, N. (1995). Looking at the People Behind the Objects. Curator: The Museum Journal, 38(1), 6-8. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.2151-6952.1995.tb01029.x
Mills, C. (2007). White Ignorance. In Shannon Sullivan and Nancy Tuana (Eds.), Race and Epistemologies of Ignorance. (1-38). SUNY Press.
Phillips, L.B. (2013). The Temple and the Bazaar: Wikipedia as a Platform for Open Authority in Museums. Curator: The Museum Journal, 56(2), 219-235. https://doi.org/10.1111/cura.12021