Episode 48

48. Museums Are Really Sensitive To Critique. Palace Shaw & Ariana Lee Decided They Don’t Care.

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About this Episode

Ariana Lee and Palace Shaw create The Whitest Cube, an excellent new museum podcast about people of color and their experiences with art institutions as artists, visitors, workers, activists, or casual admirers. The podcast interrogates the city of Boston and its museums through the lens of race.

In this episode, Lee and Shaw talk about the reasons for starting the podcast, what diversity in museums really means, and how to pressure cultural institutions to change. If you’re interested in museums, you should subscribe to the Whitest Cube on Apple Podcasts, Soundcloud, or Instagram. You can support their work directly on Patreon.

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Topics Discussed:
00:00: Intro
00:15: “Supposedly, These Institutions Are Trying To Diversify”
00:36: Palace Shaw & Ariana Lee Create The Whitest Cube Podcast
01:14: The White Cube Display Method
01:59: The City of Boston As A Case Study For Talking About Museums And Race
04:09: Palace Shaw’s Experiences Working At Art Institutions
07:17: Art Museums And Other Museums
08:11: “People Believe That Museums Tell The Truth”
09:20: There Are Not Enough Voices Challenging Museums
10:00: Subscribe To The Whitest Cube
10:20: Why We Need An Active Effort To Shift The Culture
11:05: Museum Archipelago’s 50th Episode: Submit Your Audio

This episode was recorded at the PRX Podcast Garage in Allston, MA, USA on August 13th, 2018.

Transcript

Below is a transcript of Museum Archipelago episode 48. Museum Archipelago is produced for the ear and the only the audio of the episode is canonical. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, refer to the links above.

[Intro]

Ariana Lee: Supposedly these institutions are pushing to diversify. What does it mean to diversify? You could say that if you take stock of all of the museum’s employees it is a very diverse workforce because you may very well have many people of color working in your janitorial services. But they are not at any kind of seat of power.

This is Ariana Lee. Together with her co-host Palace Shaw, she founded the Whitest Cube, an excellent podcast about people of color and their experiences with art institutions as artists, visitors, workers, activists, or simply casual admirers.

Ariana Lee: Hello I’m Ariana Lee, and I’m a cohost of The Whitest Cube podcast.

Palace Shaw: Hello, I’m Palace Shaw and I’m the other host of The Whitest Cube. Each episode we unpack different things we’ve been thinking through, so the first episode is about access to museums from the perspective of race and class and our second episode is about…

Ariana Lee: Beyoncé and Jay-Z and their music video for Apeshit in the Louvre and also their relationship to museums.

The name the Whitest Cube comes from a common art museum display method called the White Cube. It’s a clever name for a podcast that works on multiple levels — and their explanation of the name on the first episode was what got me instantly hooked on the show.

Podcast Excerpt: The method is as simple as it sounds: four white walls and good lighting to act as the void in which we situate art. Prior to the White Cube, museums displayed all of their artwork, not just a select few pieces for your consideration. This created the esteemed position of the curator: the person whose job it was to decide what remained in storage and what was seen by the public.

The White Cube display method was first introduced at art museums in the city Boston. Lee and Shaw live in Boston, and so do I. As hosts of the Whitest Cube, Lee and Shaw interrogate the city’s cultural institutions through the lens of race.

Palace Shaw: We try to bring in Boston as a case study because it is kind of the perfect city to be having this conversation [in] because Boston is a city that is really controlled by its institutions, whether that’s hospitals, universities, whether that’s museums.

Ariana Lee: It’s also a really amazing place to be having a conversation about race because I think that Boston is somewhere where people say Boston is just an incredibly white city. But Palace actually pointed to me early on in this process that actually there are more people of color in Boston than there are white people which actually speaks to some of the structural violence that’s going on in institutions.

Palace Shaw: And how segregated this entire city is.

Lee and Shaw realized that podcasting was a way to broaden their conversations about museums without having to go through any of Boston’s institutions.

Palace Shaw: I was like, okay cool. I’m not feeling museums right now, but I am feeling the conversations we’re having about them. A podcast was a natural medium to have these conversations in, especially because it is conversational. At least when we come up with ideas. Maybe when it comes to actual episodes it is a bit more constructed, but it was mostly like we’re having a conversation that needs to be heard.

Ariana Lee: In terms of audience, I think that’s something that’s really interesting in having a podcast that’s about race and art institutions and being people who have been in the role of not feeling powerful in their ability to communicate about these things. It’s almost what you wish you could say It makes me feel when you see a docent do x, y, or z and expressing that to people who may not be willing to hear that or may have defensive first reactions, right?

Palace Shaw: Or respond to it as if it is an emotion issue rather than an issue of systemic racism, which is not a personal problem, it’s a much larger issue.

Palace Shaw has worked at art institutions in the city of Boston. Her experience with these institutions, particularly how sensitive museums are to criticism, comes through in the episodes. One of the tag lines of The Whitest Cube is “Museums are really sensitive to critique. We decided we don’t care.”

Palace Shaw: This is the field that people are working in where you can’t criticize the institutions that you work for. Which I think is pretty dangerous for institutions that are meant to educate and that are meant to be spaces for open dialogue. And if your staff doesn’t have the ability to talk about these things in a really real way and there’s no space for some of the emotional harm that can happen in these environments… I think that these conversations are being had, but I feel like they are being had in a way that is not considering what the institution actually is and the space that museums occupy. I’ll give an example. In one of my meetings, people had said they were having a really hard time talking about a particular piece and that piece depicted a mutilated black body. Very hard to talk about, especially for young white folks who may not have the language to navigate something like that — totally understandable. We had a meeting about this specific piece, and we had almost the entire meeting without naming that this was what was making them uncomfortable. This meeting was called to have a difficult conversation about this specific work, but it when it came down to it, I literally said, “is everybody looking at the same thing that I’m looking at? Do you see a body there? Can you understand that this is a black body?” And everyone was like, “yes.” And I’m like, “Okay, now we’re talking about what is really hard to parse through.” And I strongly feel like that shouldn’t have been my responsibility to bring up. I feel like if you’re going to call a meeting about something that is really hard to talk about, it’s your role as the facilitator to get into the hard stuff.

Ariana Lee: The difficulty is that as a facilitator in that situation, you want to create a setting in which someone’s situated knowledge, the knowledge that they have from just being who they are, in the world, being affected by the social structures that they are affected by, where they can use that and be an asset to the workplace. But saying the reason we are all uncomfortable is because there’s a mutilated black body here, which is something everyone can see with there eyes, is not an example of using your situated knowledge.

Palace Shaw: Yes, I was not saying because of my personal experience, I can tell you this is a black mutilated body, I’m literally talking about material and form and language that we all have to talk about art in this specific educational context. It did end up falling to me.

Art museums are the focus of The Whitest Cube podcast. Both Lee and Shaw came into museums first with a passion for art, contemporary art specifically. But of course, the entire archipelago of museums institutions, children's, science, art, expanding to museum education, museum conferences, all have structural similarities.

Palace Shaw: We do use museums really generally, we’re not always really saying art museums, which is sometimes an oversight, but also not untrue that museums outside of art museums have this similar structure. Because it is about the function of a museum. And what is the function of a museum but to educate the masses and who is in the position to do that? As a whole, when we were interviewing people about museums, we just were like why are museums important? And what we got from that is that it is a widely held belief that museums tell the truth, that they are a direct shot from the heavens. This is exactly how it is. I think there is a lack of acknowledgment that there are people that are actually controlling the narrative of what you’re learning and that maybe the full truth isn’t being shown.

Isn't it funny how that sense museums tell the truth is true even today, when almost everything else is not widely considered to tell the truth? People don’t trust newspapers, and yet if you put something in a gallery… the medium just does something to you. I don’t know how long this is going to last.

Palace Shaw: I’m really glad you bought it up because definitely when I think of the Whitest Cube and I’m thinking about how museums are one of the last media institutions, because it is a media institution that people trust without question. I don’t think there are enough voices challenging that. I think that what we are trying to do is bump up against that fragility, and bump up against something that hasn’t been challenged.

Ariana Lee: There’s sort of this lack of connection between what feels unjust in the setting of museum politics, and quote unquote the real world. There’s a divorce between the museum and the real world I think in many people's minds, certainly in mine before I was working on this project to some extent. Where’s that pressure going to come from?

If you’re at all interested in museums, and I think you might be if you’ve made it this far, you really should subscribe to the Whitest Cube. It’s on Apple Podcasts, Soundcloud, and instagram at whitestcube. There are links in the show notes.

Where is that pressure going to come from? Well, I would argue, independent podcasts like The Whitest Cube.

Palace Shaw: Something we return to again and again is what is the value of the museum? And who determines that value? I think returning to that questions is really important, because I don’t think it gets considered enough, especially with regards to changing the field. I feel like there’s a lot of really shallow attempts at figuring all of this out. I think there’s a lot of acknowledgement that needs to happen, in terms of what museums are and what they have been historically and the fact that there needs to be an active effort in shifting the culture.

In just a month, Museum Archipelago will reach 50 episodes. To celebrate, I’d love to hear from you!

To get on the 50th episode of the show, record yourself saying where you listen to Museum Archipelago and why you keep listening. You can say something funny, or, if you insist, something heartfelt. Then send me a link to your recording using the contact forum at museumarchipelago.com. Send those files to me in the next three weeks, by September 10th to get on the show. It feels good to get to 50, and it’s all thanks to your support.

[Outro]