THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS

 

Learning to Unlearn:

Deconstructing Museum Neutrality

 

by Megan Moran

 

In order to be considered truly “public,” American museums must be held accountable to represent the stories that reflect the diversity of the country. A commitment to this pursuit inevitably exposes the myth that museums are and should strive to be neutral, authoritative spaces that convey universal truths.

New museum theory, also referred to as critical museum theory, calls for museums to be sites of “discourse and critical reflection that [are] committed to examining unsettling histories with sensitivity to all parties.”1 Indeed, Janet Marstine, editor of New Museum Theory and Practice, asserts that, “museums are not neutral spaces that speak with one institutional, authoritative voice. Museums are about individuals making subjective choices.”2 How does teaching and learning in the museum change to align with critical museum practice?

This essay aims to a) assert the value of unlearning as essential to critical museum practice; b) illustrate how tactics of unlearning facilitate agency among both museum visitors and staff and c) provide resources for how museum workers can begin to engage unlearning with critical museum praxis.

Much has been debated and written about learning in museums, the implicit assumption being that the goal of museum learning is to acquire new knowledge. Much less attention has been given to exploring the possibilities of what happens during the process of unlearning. Unlearning is my term for describing the act of transforming and rejecting previously learned knowledge, behaviors and ideology in light of new information.

 

The process of unlearning cultivates the oppor–tunity to empower visitors and museum workers
to exercise agency over the experience of the museum space.

 

In the summer and fall of 2017, I served as the Education Coordinator for an exhibition at Alphawood Gallery in Chicago titled “Then They Came for Me: Incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII and the Demise of Civil Liberties.” The exhibition made connections between the harmful mid-20th century rhetoric of “enemy aliens” and the enemy aliens under attack in America today, namely, undocumented immigrants and people of Muslim faith. Unlearning and, in some cases, reclaiming such pejoratives and euphemisms was crucial to the gallery’s educational programs.

Unlearning Content Knowledge

We cannot expect visitors to take new information presented in the museum at face value, especially when it may be in stark opposition to deeply held values and beliefs. Instead of aiming to replace knowledge, museums can offer new knowledge as an opportunity to critically examine the narratives one has been taught without dictating an ultimate end that supersedes all prior knowledge. Let us use an example:

“When I [museum educator] say the word ‘camp,’ what immediately comes to mind? Just shout it out.”

“Fun!”

“Arts & Crafts!”

“Scouts!”

“Outdoor Activities!”

“Ok, so I’m hearing mostly positive memories of what sounds like summer camp. Now, when I say the phrase ‘concentration camp,’ what comes to mind?”

“The Holocaust.”

“Death.”

“Horror.”

“From that example alone, we can see how when we add just one word, one modifier to ‘camp,’ it drastically changes how we understand it, right? That is the power of words to shape history.”

At the outset of every tour I led at Alphawood Gallery, I used this short exercise that draws on visitors’ prior knowledge and associations with terminology shaped by their personal experiences. This example underlaid the discussion about the gallery’s “Words Matter” panel. The panel included a chart comparing two lists of words, one labeled “Original Terms” and the other “Preferred Terms.”

Words under original terms, such as internment, evacuation and assembly center, were compared to newer terms preferred by the Japanese American Citizens League, such as incarceration, forced removal and temporary detention center.3 The preferred terms more accurately portray the experience of the mass incarceration from the perspective of Japanese Americans, compared to the “official” euphemistic terminology created by the U.S. government.

The chart of original and preferred terms exemplifies a dialogue between past and present, offering visitors an alternative perspective to the dominant narrative. Thus, from the beginning of the exhibition, viewers are invited to engage in questioning all the narratives they have heard, not only about this particular period, but all of American history.

Terminology was a subject we returned to frequently on tours at Alphawood Gallery, pointing out how euphemisms were deployed in official government documents and propaganda alike. My objective was to complicate the euphemistic language without necessarily condemning it.

I would explain to visitors that the intention was not to create a dichotomy of right versus wrong terminology but to illustrate how unlearning old terms can open us up to new, more just, understandings of history from the perspective of those who have been ignored or silenced. Given decades of discourse and textbooks that use the word “internment,” many visitors chose to continue using this deeply internalized term, including those who had been incarcerated in the camps.

Unlearning the Ego

Museum educators are traditionally trained to be subject matter experts or, at the very least, to serve as proxies for the institutional voice. Ideally, having human beings serve in the role of educator (as opposed to audio guides or other didactics) helps transcend information delivery and facilitate dialogue between the public and the museum.

The museum educator is therefore constantly challenged with juggling the subjective perspectives of the institution, curators, historians and visitors—not to mention their own. How does the exchange of multiple subjectivities facilitate the transformation of deeply-

held values and understandings of one’s own place in history and society at large? Whose perspective does the museum educator privilege above all others, and why?

Paulo Freire’s radical pedagogy provides a useful starting point for the importance of unlearning the ego in order to deconstruct hierarchies of knowledge and power. Freire is well-known for seeing education as a collaborative dialogue amongst teachers and students in contrast to a top-down exchange wherein the teacher imparts knowledge to the passive students.4 Museum educators can take this model to heart when facilitating guided tours by making space for multiple perspectives alongside the institution’s narrative.

With a subject so politically and emotionally charged as Japanese American incarceration during World War II, naturally the memories of each individual’s experience varies greatly. Since the events transpired only 75 years ago, I was privileged to have survivors of the camps join my guided tours at Alphawood and share personal accounts of their lives before, during and after incarceration.

This experience was an important lesson in unlearning the museum training that favors my “authoritative” perspective in order to make space for the perspectives of those with truly intimate, firsthand knowledge of the subject matter. Humbling oneself in this manner makes space for visitors to take agency over their learning, oftentimes enhancing the learning of everyone in the group.

Unlocking Agency

The process of unlearning cultivates the opportunity to empower visitors and museum workers to exercise agency over the experience of the museum space. By helping visitors to unlearn beliefs and practices rooted in internalized racism and white supremacy, I am better able to step back and create the necessary space that privileges more diverse voices that deserve to be reflected in the museum and beyond.

 

When we choose to think and act in accordance with what we have unlearned and relearned, we exercise the agency necessary to challenge the status quo.

 

Although we are rarely aware of it, the process of unlearning involves making the choice to continually reinforce new learning. It isn’t an isolated action to be completed only once. When we choose to think and act in accordance with what we have unlearned and relearned, we exercise the agency necessary to challenge the status quo.

Margaret Lindauer, an art history professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, posits a critical typology of museum visitor, one who notices the implicit and explicit biases projected by the written, visual and spatial features of an exhibition.5 Lindauer acknowledges that, currently, there are few models for exhibition development informed by new museum theory; in fact, she recognizes the risks involved for some museums, most especially the economic risk.6

However, I argue that they are risks worth taking and fighting for if we are to foster critical museum visitors. When we allow visitors to critique our institutions, we give them a practice ground for exercising free speech and challenging systemic oppression beyond the walls of the museum. Furthermore, we create an opportunity to model transparent, trusting relationships between the public and institutions of power that might be replicated elsewhere in society.

Resources and Actions

Museums must unlearn the internal practices that have traditionally excluded marginalized people and their stories. What does that process look like, and where do we begin such an endeavor? I have found the following resources to be helpful for engaging in critical reflection and transforming ideas into collective action.

The Dreamspace Project, a workbook and toolkit developed by a museum educator, is an excellent starting point for all museum professionals. The book is organized under three umbrella themes: Deconstruction, Decolonization and Democratization.7 It invites challenging discussions around racism, white supremacy and the multitude of oppressive systems operating within museums, the United States and global society.

In addition to unlearning and deconstructing at the institutional level, it is imperative that educators engage in critical self-reflection. Dr. Melissa Crum (Mosaic Education Network) and Keonna Hendrick (Brooklyn Museum) lead workshops and trainings using the “multicultural critical reflective practice” (MCRP) paradigm to help museum educators “identify, analyze and challenge the cultural beliefs, values and assumptions that color our interactions with artworks and learners.”8

The difficult and emotional work of institutional and self-unlearning cannot and should not be attempted in isolation. We build power for our movement when we collaborate as an interconnected community of museum workers.

In order to integrate new museum theory into long-lasting practice on a systemic level, we must share successes, best practices and resources as well as turn to each other for support. A wealth of knowledge already exists amongst museum practitioners locally, nationally and globally to unlearn practices that perpetuate inequity in museums.

Some online networks of museum workers that you can join today include #MuseumWorkersSpeak, #MuseumEdChat, “Ed Conversations” and the blog, ArtMuseumTeaching.com.

Cultivating agency within ourselves, our colleagues and our visitors is one of the most effective strategies we can deploy to empower museums to break through the façade of neutrality, help visitors and educators unlearn internalized systemic oppression and serve as sites for contemporary cultural discourse.

Change will not happen overnight, but by using the tenets of new museum theory as a blueprint and collaborating with each other, we push incrementally closer to a more equitable and democratic future for our institutions and, by extension, their cultural relevance to society.

 

Megan Moran is a graduate student in the Museum and Exhibition Studies program at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her research is focused on developing a critical framework to explore new directions for social-emotional learning and trauma-informed pedagogy in art museums.

 

  1. Marstine, Janet, New Museum Theory and Practice: An Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2006), p. 5.
  2. Ibid., p. 2
  3. Power of Words Handbook: A Guide to Language about Japanese Americans in WWII. Understanding Euphemisms and Preferred Terminology, (San Francisco: Japanese American Citizens League, 2013), pp. 9-11.
  4. Freire, Paulo, Pedagogy of the Oppressed: 30th Anniversary Edition, (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2000), p. 69.
  5. Lindauer, Margaret, “The Critical Museum Visitor,” in New Museum Theory and Practice: An Introduction, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2006), p. 204.
  6. Ibid., p. 204
  7. Machida, Alyssa, The Dreamscape Project: A Workbook and Toolkit for Critical Praxis in the American Art Museum, (Self-Published, Google Slides/PDF, 2016, p. 35.
  8. Hendrick, Keonna, “It’s Not Always About You: Facilitating Critical Self-Reflection in Others,” Art Museum Teaching (blog), August 11, 2014.

 

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