Episode 71

71. Assessing Curatorial Work for Social Justice With Elena Gonzales


October 28th, 2019

15 mins 6 secs

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About this Episode

Museums are seen as trustworthy, but what if that trust is misplaced? Chicago-based independent curator Elena Gonzales provides a solid jumping off point for thinking critically about museums in her new book, Exhibitions for Social Justice.

The book is a whirlwind tour of different museums, examining how they approach social justice. It’s also a guide map for anyone interested in a way forward.

In this episode, Gonzales takes us on a tour of some of the main themes of the book, examining the strategies of museum institutions from the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia to the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago.

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Below is a transcript of Museum Archipelago episode 71. Museum Archipelago is produced for the ear, and only the audio of the episode is canonical. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, refer to the links above.

The American Alliance of Museums often says that museums are the most trustworthy institutions in modern American life.

And the statistics are remarkable: some surveys indicate that museums are the second most trusted news source after friends and family.

As rates of trust in other institutions plummet: the news media, etc, museums still enjoy a privileged position in collective consciousness. It’s something I’ve noticed over the past few years: even non-museum spaces try to adopt museum-like presentations to apply the veneer of trustworthiness.

But it’s an uneasy set of statistics. Is it possible that the reason museums are so trustworthy is because they've been excellent at toeing the status quo, the party line? And whose public consciousness are museums enjoying a privileged position inside of anyway?

That’s why I was thrilled to come across Exhibitions for Social Justice by Elena Gonzales during a recent museum binge.

The book presents the current state of museum practice as it relates to the work of social justice, but also a guide map for anyone interested in a way forward.

Elena Gonzales: I think if a lot of people fully understood how museum work is done, they might actually not trust us so much because they would understand the subjectivity. But I think the more that we are transparent about museums, content, who creates it, how, what the goals of an exhibition are, et cetera, the more people can trust us authentically and rightfully.

I’m joined today by Elena Gonzales, author of Exhibitions for Social Justice.

Elena Gonzales: Hello, my name is Elena Gonzales and I’m the author of Exhibitions for Social Justice which is newly out from Museum Meanings and Routledge. I’m an independent curator and scholar in the Chicago area, and I’m also the co-chair of the exhibitions committee at the Evanston Art Center where we curate 20 to 30 exhibitions per year.

In Exhibitions for Social Justice, Gonzales lays out the ways that institutions can use the overwhelming and uneasy trust capital built up over centuries.

Elena Gonzales: Museums have a centuries-long history of supporting white supremacist, colonialist, racist, bigoted ideologies and helping them flourish, and providing the evidence for them and undergirding them. And it is museums' ethical and moral obligation now to not only dismantle that through de-colonial practices, but also to make themselves into pro-social inclusive institutions that are actively working for social justice.

Gonzales believes that museums have the power to help our society become more hospitable, equitable, and sustainable, and the book presents a survey of specific museums and exhibitions that have made their goals clear.

Elena Gonzales: People often ask me what counts as an exhibition for social justice? And I think people, they immediately snap to museums and exhibitions that deal with mass violence, that deal with redress of major wrongs like genocides. Your Holocaust museums, your Memorial museums, that type of thing. And when they ask this question, I say what I think is the most readily accessible definition for social justice, which is that social justice is the equitable distribution of risks and rewards in society. And then I say that there are so many different areas that this touches in terms of content beyond Memorial museums, beyond Holocaust museums. And that's not to minimize the work of those institutions. Those are critical institutions and holding those memories is very, very important. And sites of conscience are very important to my work in general.

Elena Gonzales: But I think there are many topics anywhere ranging from equity in education, equity in health care, environmental justice, gender equity. Any kind of moment where a culturally specific group is gaining access to historical voice or contemporary voice in the public sphere. There are just many different entry points to this topic.

One of the main ideas of the book is that the work of social justice must be institution-wide, not just the work of one curator.

Gonzales writes about the experience of her first curatorial effort at the National Museum of Mexican Art (NMMA) in Chicago. NMMA is a culturally-specific first-voice museum dedicated to serving its local Mexican community.

Elena Gonzales: It was a really big project for us. It's called The African Presence in Mexico. And the main exhibition was called The African Presence in Mexico: From Yanga to the Present. I curated a second exhibition. It was about the relationships between African Americans and Mexicans in the United States and the relationships between African Americans and the country of Mexico, and that was called Who Are We Now? Roots, Resistance, and Recognition.

At an all-staff meeting shortly before the opening of the project, Carlos Tortolero, the president and one of the founders of the museum, reiterated the goal of solidary to the entire staff of the museum. If the museum did everything right, the museum would have a large number of new African-American visitors in particular. He said that if any staff members felt prejudices towards the museum’s Black visitors or doubted the history being presented, then they should look for another job now.

Elena Gonzales: The President of the museum, Carlos Tortolero, who's still the President now, said that he wanted everyone in the museum to feel that we had found long lost members of our family. Cousins, brothers and sisters, however you want to think of it. And he was saying he wanted us to feel this way and he wanted us to make all of our visitors feel that level of celebration as we welcomed them to the museum. And in particular, he wanted our African American visitors to feel extremely welcome, extremely celebratory about the nature of this relationship that we were eager to share at a level that it really hadn't been told in an educational way before, or even in a history capacity.

Exhibitions for Social Justice makes the point that the exhibition was successful because the whole museum -- every person in the building -- was behind the mission.

Elena Gonzales: I've studied museums like the NMMA where the entire institution is headed in the same direction, and everyone is committed to the goal of this exhibition for social justice in question, in this case, the African Presence. And then I've studied museums where that that's not the case. Where the curators may have this idea that they're working for social justice, but the institution is not behind them in that way. The institution does not believe that that is an inappropriate goal. And that just hampers the work of those curators in that are.

Gonzales discusses the various ways that museums can inspire action inside and outside the museum, and the states involved in how museums envision visitors as social actors. One of these strategies is questioning the visitor -- like the traveling exhibit Free2Choose developed by the Anne Frank House museum in Amsterdam.

Elena Gonzales: But I think that what is a strategy that I talk about in the book and that I've discovered in other places that I think is really effective is questioning the visitor. Questioning the visitor in a way that involves the visitor in this dialogue with him or herself, once again. This conversation that is going to create memories about the experience and produce rehearsal of the experience, like an ongoing thinking about the experience after the fact and possibly talking about it with others. For example, the Anne Frank House Museum in Amsterdam had an exhibition for a number of years, it's since closed, that had you think about the tensions between freedom of speech and protection from hate speech, and you got to think about some examples where these things come into conflict and then you voted on which right should win out, which was more important, and you voted in such a way that people could see the responses going up in real time.

The Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia features another example of the visitor questioning technique. The museum address the American crisis of mass incarceration directly by making visitors answer the question, “Have You Ever Broken the Law” by the two pathways into the Prisons Today gallery.

Elena Gonzales: the Eastern State presentation is not confrontational. It's, I think, thought-provoking and inviting. They simply say, "Have you ever broken the law? Yes, no," and there are two pathways that you can take. And you're going to see the same material or you're free to see the same material after that, either way. You're not actually separated from the other content.

This works because 70% of American adults admit to committing a crime that could have put them in prison, but most of them never go. The exhibit goes on to explore some of the systematic reasons why, as well as what life is like for those who go to prison and the families they leave behind. But the path you walked down to get in is always on your mind.

And the museum also has strategies to reconnect the visitor with the content even after the visit -- sometimes even years later.

Elena Gonzales: So at the end of the Prisons Today show, you can do an activity that that allows the museum to send you postcards to yourself after the fact, after the visit. So they send it at a couple of different intervals. It's like a month, a year and two years or something like that. It's a few different intervals of time. And it's very clever because you don't just fill out a postcard and put it in a box, it's a digital thing. You answer some questions and they create the postcard. So you haven't seen the postcard in advance. You don't see it until you actually check your email and then you receive a postcard based on the responses that you answered to the questions. So I think that is a very effective way to create ongoing engagement because when you consider the way in which the position that museums have in our informational environment, and then you consider the position of the museum experience in the life of the visitor, this content might actually become more relevant over years or even decades. So I think that ongoing contact that takes place not soon after the visit is really valuable.

But Eastern State Penitentiary also sits in a unique place: the social justice aspect of the exhibition is far from the primary draw of the institution.

Elena Gonzales: It's a very interesting spot to visit. Most people think they're going to visit there because they want to see Al Capone's cell. They're passing through, it's this historic penitentiary and there's all kinds of draws that have nothing, so they think, to do with social justice. And for Eastern State, they have an opportunity with a huge number of this middle majority for them, of this body of visitors that is not necessarily apathetic about criminal justice and mass incarceration. Not necessarily experts in criminal justice or mass incarceration. They're tourists and they're visiting for that purpose.

Elena Gonzales: So Eastern State has an opportunity by not advertising the social justice content that they do indeed provide in their exhibition presence today, and in other ways throughout the prison. They have an opportunity to explore the topic with visitors who aren't seeking it out, which is very special because as you say, the minute you say the words social justice, or justice, or activism or a variety of other keywords, you do start to get a self-selecting audience. Eastern State offers this opportunity to talk to people that you might not otherwise get to talk to if you say that your topic is social justice. And I think that actually works really well for visitors, and visitors have very important experiences there that they might not otherwise have.

The book is excellent -- for me it was helpful just to see the way the book categorized different types of museums and introduced vocabulary and models I’m unfamiliar with. Gonzales provides a whirlwind tour of various museums, each presenting different strategies, buttressed by academic studies. If you’re looking for a jumping off point to think more critically about museums, take a look.

Elena Gonzales: This is a moment when we need all of our institutions and all of our people in different areas to help work for social justice. And museums are a huge part of that. But it's not just for museum professionals. People who are activists in other areas, people who are educators, people who work in environmental justice, people who are community organizers, I think are going to love translating the tactics and strategies to their own work.