Picture twenty museum professionals sitting at a board room with their eyes closed, mouths full of chocolate and listening to the mellifluous voice of a French chocolatier telling us how to taste it. How to listen to it and hold it in our mouths. How to warm it, how to feel its character of flowers, earth, honey.
While it’s chocolate in particular that we’re tasting, we’re being reminded of what it is to savor.
“Now that we’ve had sensual chocolate experience, I’ll tell you a little about where I work and how we have made what was once a dusty historic house into a hothouse for embodied learning, a site that brings theory to praxis, encourages activism around social justice and once a month, screens radical sex films followed by passionate dialogue.”
And so begins the day at the Walker with Lisa Yun Lee of the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum.
I invited Lisa to the Walker to help us think about animating our own spaces and collections. We first met last fall, when I saw her present as part of the panel Working with People: Facilitating Critical Engagement and Collaborative Practices in Urban Design and History at Imagining America. I saw her again during Dangerous Ridiculous, a session about risk–taking during the conference in Minneapolis for the American Alliance of Museums. In each case, she gave one of the most compelling presentations from the conference. We had the chance to spend one-on-one time together in Chicago last May over what turned out to be a My Dinner with Andre-kind of meal, talking about gastronomy, basketball and poetry, civic work, the performativity of language, building archives of the commons, and diversity in museums.
Since last spring, our cross-country conversation around museum work has continued and evolved to more deeply address embodiment, pleasure, participation, and issues of language as they play out in cultural institutions. Lisa’s directorship of the historic landmark—the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum—has been recognized as an exemplar in programming and interpretation internationally. Through her prior work at Hull-House and other projects, including as co-founder of The Public Square at the Illinois Humanities Council (an organization dedicated to creating spaces for dialogue and dissent and for reinvigorating civil society), Lisa has modeled her research and writing about museums and diversity, cultural and environmental sustainability, and spaces for fostering radically democratic practices. Lisa has recently stepped into the role of Associate Director of the School of Art & Art History at the University of Illinois at Chicago, which includes museum and exhibition studies, Gallery 400, the contemporary art museum on campus, and the Hull-House Museum.
My goal in bringing Lisa to the Walker was for her to share some of the extraordinary work she developed at the Hull-House, namely, the Alternative Labeling project, for us to consider some of the parallels between our work, and to spark our own speculative thinking around interdisciplinarity and interpretation. Beginning with savoring chocolate, her visit was a foray into pleasure, politics and perception in a museum context.
—Susy Bielak, Associate Director of Public and Interpretive Programs
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“Engagement” is a near-universal aspiration in organizational conversations about mission, and no wonder: The term is such an appealing catch-all, hitting a sweet spot for nonprofit and commercial ventures alike, vaguely signifying relevance, public value and participation, the common good. Attractive as it is, though, “engagement” is a slippery notion, one whose finer semantic points and “best practices” are damnably hard to pin down.
Lisa Lee’s recent presentation at the Walker Art Center addressed just this issue as part of a series of internal discussions about the nature and scope of “the interdisciplinary” with the center’s “Interdisciplinary Work Group” (a small group of curators, scholars, educators and programmers).
As Lee makes her presentation to our gathered group about the rich programming and outreach undertaken with the community in and around the Jane Addams Hull-House in Chicago, the way she describes her museum’s approach to cultivating engagement and interpreting their collections for the public is itself telling. Her language is open-ended, centered on arenas of inquiry and collaboration, on process and transformation, rather than the usual issues of historical “fact” or effective display and education, per se.
There’s good reason for that. “There are two conflicting notions of culture and how it operates in society. On the one hand,” she says, “there’s the model of aesthetic supremacy: of determining what is delicious, what is excellent, what is a good and true pursuit to have, and then attempting to make that accessible to the broadest group of people.”
“But we prefer another, broader way of thinking about culture,” she says, “one that rejects a fixed idea of culture for a more dynamic determination that involves constant creation, re-creation and intermingling of ideas. Or, as T.S. Eliot would say, ‘Culture includes all the characteristics of people.’”
“For our work at Hull-House” she explains, “we subscribe to the idea that everyone can determine what is beautiful, for themselves; that culture is a product of mixing, adding, conversing. And so, in that spirit, we try to challenge our own tastes and sensibilities by inviting outside groups to contribute. In fact, most of our programs are community-curated.”
Such a collective ethos seems only fitting for a historic site like the Hull-House. Jane Addams, along with her longtime partner Ellen Gates Starr, founded the “settlement house” in a densely populated, near West-side Chicago neighborhood in 1891. At the Hull-House, a diverse population of educated, reform-minded residents – many of them also immigrants – worked and lived together, developing a wide variety of educational and arts programs, trade union groups, cultural events and employment services geared toward the low-income immigrant populations who lived in the surrounding neighborhoods. In the 1890s, those urban communities included newly arrived Polish Jews, Germans, Italians, Irish, Greeks, Bohemians, and Russians; after the turn of the 20th-century, African-American and Mexican residents joined in at the Hull-House as well.
Part of the task of the site’s museum now, Lee says, involves rethinking past conceptions about Hull-House and, more broadly, about Chicago history. And that involves re-evaluating the ways we create and present to the public stories about things and people we think we already know. We need to go further, she urges, to extend our inquiries outward and tap those community resources for the sake of unearthing those narratives we never even thought to look for.
Lee asks us to consider the question: “What does it mean to be a ‘public’ institution?” We need to think more expansively about the terms involved, she argues: “A ‘public’ is not a homogenous thing but many, always changing heterogeneous things; it’s a social space created by the circulation of discourse and language, always in the process of being called into being.” As an example, Lee says, we need look no further than Fox News. She argues the right-leaning cable news network isn’t so much giving a “public” information it needs; rather, Fox News actively takes a hand in creating a certain kind of public in the stories it finds and chooses to tell. The public is not timeless or a-historical. “You shape a ‘public’ by naming it;” and what’s more, she says, “we need to acknowledge our roles and responsibilities in creating the ‘publics’ all around us.”
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Lee describes herself, as, at essence, a Marxist literary theorist and German studies scholar (her academic work includes a book for Routledge on philosopher Theodor Adorno). As such, she laughs, her work is always informed by a Marxist’s persistent anxiety about commodities. She explains, “Things and objects are so readily commoditized in our society, that their labor and use is masked. Things and objects tend to stop us from becoming fully human; particularly when we objectify our fellow human beings.” So, she says, “I have this theoretical clash working in a museum and dealing with the artifacts of material culture.” For inspiration on resolving that internal conflict, she says she’s turned to philosopher, Bill Brown, of the University of Chicago, and his Sense of Things. Specifically, Brown’s “thing theory” outlines an understanding of objects that includes not just a story of their consumption, but of how we think about ourselves; in this way, our things are understood to be sublimations of our desires and utopian dreams.
Considered in this context, Lee says, museums and the things they hold “become the storehouses of our memories. Our things refuse to let us forget; if we really pay attention to the stories our objects want to tell us, historical amnesia is impossible.”
If we’re willing to interrogate, on an ongoing basis, the objects we as museums hold in public trust, she says, “if we ask different questions of those objects, and ask our surrounding communities questions about them, we’ll find ourselves telling very different stories than the ones we think we already know.”
As an example of such a community-activated investigation, Lee describes a collaborative exhibition at the Hull-House, looking into the story of Vice Lords gang in turn-of-the-20th-century Chicago. For the project, museum curators worked with current-day Vice Lords to excavate their history, to uncover historical documents and in so doing to tell a larger story of the criminalization of gangs in the city.
She cites another such community-curated project on the history of home economics and domestic science. The museum’s investigation into the subject began, she says, with a deceptively simple question raised by some of their community partners from a Latino domestic workers’ union. They asked: “Who cleaned the Hull-House?” And so, the museum looked into it. As they pored through house records, they discovered the site’s housekeeper was one Mary Keyser, an important reformer in her own right who was at Hull-House with Jane Addams from the beginning. “All the evidence of her significance was there in front of us,” Lee says, “but because of her role as a domestic worker in the house, we’d neglected to see it.”
She goes on, “Museums have always been the way that the ‘1%’ have re-inscribed the experiences of culture at large. But how can we use these institutional spaces and leverage that cultural clout to tell more nuanced stories about the other ‘99%’? This sort of work has proven a great way to challenge meaningful interactivity in the museum’s exhibition space.”
In a museum setting, so much of that storytelling happens by way of labels. In fact, Lee describes herself as someone “obsessed” by them, calling labels, “part of the great democratization of museums” by providing public access to information about the objects therein, without the necessity of buying a companion book. The task, Lee argues, is to take a lesson from, say improv performers – to see the museum didactics and interpretive materials we in museums create to accompany and elucidate the objects on public view as prompts, a place from which to begin investigation rather than one which gives the final word.
Lee offers this quote from Susan Buck-Morss: “Facts should inspire imagination rather than tying it down. The less they are subsumed under the fiction of secure knowledge, marshaled as proof of a predetermined and authoritative thesis, the more truth they are capable of revealing.”
To put it a different way: What if museums were to create open-ended, even oblique labels for their objects, reflective of a working assumption that, when presenting materials and objects for display, one can expect the “right” understanding of those objects to be fluid; that the meaning and significance of objects will be transformed by the experiences and perceptions of visitors, as well as the museum staff members who’ve framed those objects for public exhibit.
Lee says: “I think it’s wrong to assume that we, in museums, don’t have opinions about the objects we hold; but it’s also wrong to pretend there’s an omniscient mind, rather than a person, behind the label we use to describe those objects. We don’t want to shut the interpretive process down [with our ‘educational and interpretive materials], we want to open it up.”
Exercise: What if we re-imagine labels as something other than didactic statements? Cy Twombly insisted captions for his “Peony Blossom” paintings be rendered in haiku. Let’s try that: Go into the galleries and find a piece of artwork on display; write a label for the work in haiku form. Like Emily Dickinson, try “telling it slant.” Leave the description open-ended; try giving just 50% of the information – just enough to prompt the reader further into the piece.
Seen that way, truly meaningful public participation and engagement with a museum’s objects, artifacts and cultural collections center on a question Lee raises at the conclusion of our talk. “It comes down to this,” she says. “How do we enable people to decide what is true and beautiful for themselves? How do we, as museums, allow for multiple truths, plural cultural experiences?”
And what kinds of new opportunities might arise – for our civic institutions, our historic sites and our art museums, for how we knit together our evolving communities – if our understandings of where we’ve been and to where we might be headed could be opened up in this way? What if our consistent focus shifted to facilitation of such dynamic, transformative, cross-sector conversations?