Therese Quinn

Museums and Activism

Ethics and activism in museum education is a topic that has been identified and discussed before in special issues of journals, individual publications, communications in conferences, or social media campaigns. This is to say, it is a recurrent conversation. With this in mind, what would you say are the pressing social, political and cultural forces that make it relevant, or more relevant, now?

Your insight that the discussion about museums and ethics and activism, and related topics seems to regularly cycle around—from the “diversity” of museum employees and reaching “underserved” audiences, to decolonization and what to do about funders who have done illegal, unethical, or in other ways dubious things (I’m thinking of the Kochs, branches of the Sackler family, and so on)—is an important one, I think. It reminds us of the long haul of social change work, and also that we may need to make stronger demands than we have previously, to see real change, right now. So, for example, thinking specifically of museum education, I want museums to consider questions like, what kind of education are they implementing, for whom, and to what ends? Will it lead to more experiences, as Paulo Freire described, with the “banking model” of education, in which a teacher attempts to “deposit” information into a learner? Sounds like the usual docent tour, doesn’t it? Or will the museum explore pedagogy that is reciprocal, starts with learners’ interests, and aims at personal and social change? 

“I want museums to consider questions like, what kind of education are they implementing, for whom, and to what ends?”

I think museums should see their work as aligned with and in service to social movement, and to that end, I think they should use popular education strategies like those proposed by Freire and another teacher I admire, Myles Horton, who was a co-founder of the Highlander Folk School in the 1930s. Horton knew a lot about activism; Highlander played a key role in the US labour and racial justice movements and is still operating today. No surprise, “The Long Haul” is the name of Horton’s autobiography. The fact that so many museums use teaching frameworks that alienate and disempower visitors (and employees) is just one reason that this conversation is still relevant. The battered state of the world is another. Just to address our impending environmental devastation, all of us are needed, and museums can play a powerful role, if they want to, in helping educate us all toward action.

Education and activism are often connected. Museums, education and activism are perhaps not so much, at least not explicitly. As you have stressed before, “what is out of cite, can be out of mind”, meaning visibility, internal and external if thinking about cultural institutions, is crucial, although challenging. My question would then be, how to address activism so that it becomes embedded in museums’ practices, in particular museum education, rather than being an add-on topic or a silent movement?

In 2017 the Movement for a New Museology, or MINOM, released a letter that asked museums to reorient their focus from preservation, to transformation, stating that, “Memory is a conscious channel of resistance, a struggle against the levelling forces that destroy…ways of life…not framed into colonialism—the capitalistic system, patriarchy, among others—. Memory is, at the same time, a claim for human values, dignity and social cohesion, becoming a direct action of occupation of the present, allowing the invention of possible futures.” They go on, “A Museology that is not life-oriented is not worthy; All the memories are kept in our bodies; Our museological practice involves affection,…reciprocity, love, joy and poetry.” If museums reshaped themselves around these kinds of values, their practices would also change. Mission and vision statements can be helpful guidelines, and we should insist that they aim at justice.

“Accepting that museums reflect and also reproduce deep social problems, I want to enmesh them with social movements, and envision museum work as cultural activism.”

Related to this and grounded in MINOM’s ideas and the lineage of social museology, I have been exploring ways to nurture museum workers who are oriented toward reimagining and re-making museums as sites that are abolitionist, radically democratic, queered, and central to efforts for justice. Accepting that museums reflect and also reproduce deep social problems, I want to enmesh them with social movements, and envision museum work as cultural activism. As one example of how this orientation can shape practice, following the insight of two US-based activists, Ella Baker, an educator and organizer in the civil rights era Black Freedom Movement, and Charlene Carruthers, a founder of the Black Youth Project 100, that movements can be sustained best when they are leader-full, rather than reliant on one person’s vision, I propose that exhibits may be better crafted by collectives than by curators. Like Baker and Carruthers, I am sceptical of “leadership” and prefer to emphasize flattened hierarchy and collaboration in exhibition and program making. I resist curation, in other words. I also resist “professionalization” as an outcome of museum studies. As Stefano Harney and Fred Moten point out, professionalism is about reproducing structures and behaviours, and museums don’t need to be reproduced; they need to be remade. We need museum un-professionals, I think, people who are willing to exceed and escape the strictures of professionalism. At the same time, I understand that when my students say they want to be professionals, they mean they want to be treated with respect, they want to earn living wages, and they want their intellects valued. Of course! We all deserve those things, no matter what schools we’ve attended, what degrees we’ve attained, how many years we’ve worked, and so on. Those conditions should be true for all of us, not only those who hold certain more-valued positions in museums.

“All museum employees should see their work as pedagogical! They are all teaching something.”

Specifically to the point of education within museums, I have three ideas: All museum employees should see their work as pedagogical! They are all teaching something. Does their teaching support justice, an oppressive status quo, or (probably most likely) some blur of those two? And how will they know? (That’s where assessment comes in…)

Next, I’d like to see more museums cite their sources when making claims in tours and on exhibit labels, which would offer visitors a way to fact-check and support ongoing research. And, as I mentioned above, museums should support action both during and after visits. For example, I created an exhibit about garbage and recycling for a children’s museum. After weighing garbage, sorting materials to recycle, and learning that there were few local recycling centres, visitors were invited to use exhibit supplies to write a letter to the state’s representative about the need for recycling sites. They could then place the letter in the exhibit’s functioning mailbox, and take-away a sheet with ways to follow-up from home.

Last, but still central, museums should begin their justice-work at home, by making sure they pay their interns, that they pay fair wages, that they are accessible to disabled employees and visitors, and so on.

You have written extensively and contributed significantly to the debates on social justice art education. Put briefly “working for social justice (through teaching and other ways) requires attention to the complex contexts of people’s lives, and then, engaged responses aimed at change”.1 Despite the distinctions between schools and museums, namely the latter’s non-formal ethos, how would you describe and what examples would you give of social justice art museum education?

I’ll share two examples of art museum education that have helped me rethink museum practice. In 2011 a guard told two women that they couldn’t hold hands while viewing the exhibit, Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories, at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. The museum responded by adding a “Hand-Holding event” to a program called the LGBT Family Morning of Gertrude Stein and invited visitors to hold hands and wear buttons with messages of support for all families and forms of love. The quick and creative action by the museum demonstrated its affirmation of human dignity and the importance of defending those who have been discriminated against. Because it was public and invited all visitors to participate, it was also pedagogical.

I think museums should see their work as aligned with and in service to social movement, and to that end, I think they should use popular education strategies like those proposed by Freire and another teacher I admire, Myles Horton, who was a co-founder of the Highlander Folk School in the 1930s. Horton knew a lot about activism; Highlander played a key role in the US labour and racial justice movements and is still operating today. No surprise, “The Long Haul” is the name of Horton’s autobiography. The fact that so many museums use teaching frameworks that alienate and disempower visitors (and employees) is just one reason that this conversation is still relevant. The battered state of the world is another. Just to address our impending environmental devastation, all of us are needed, and museums can play a powerful role, if they want to, in helping educate us all toward action.

Next, to call attention to and counter the invisibility of transgender people in cultural spaces, in 2013 the artist Chris E. Vargas founded the Museum of Transgender History & Art (MOTHA). Vargas describes MOTHA as forever “under construction” and evolving, as is, he notes, the identity transgender. Through research resulting in posters, books, and other visual forms, and exhibits and performances in multiple locations, Vargas uses art in the form of a museum to amplify the reach of transgender artists and scholars. He also critiques, pokes fun at, and breaches art hierarchies and exclusions through MOTHA, which will, for example, provide letters of recommendation for all who request them.

You have argued before how popular education, “a particular form of teaching for justice”, can be an important reference or inspiration to museum education.3 Drawing on the success of the Alternative Tours UI4, a project developed by a group of students in the Museum and Exhibition Studies Programme at University of Illinois at Chicago, as well as other examples, how would you elaborate on this pairing and its potential?

Oh, thank you! I am most interested in practices of art education that invite everyone into the category of artist, and in thinking about art as our cultural commons.2 Art museums have rich, albeit largely aspirational, opportunities to convey the connectedness between art and the people, everyone’s cultures, the everyday, the past, and especially, the futures we can create just as we imagined and then made art.

The University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), where I am employed, has a history fully infused with conflict and organizing. It was founded fifty years ago to serve the working people of the state, but to build UIC, a neighbourhood was razed and its Italian immigrant inhabitants were displaced; a lawsuit aimed at blocking the university was filed by a resident, Florence Scala, and reached the Federal Supreme Court before it was declined in 1963. To establish a childcare centre which would make UIC’s offerings accessible to families, students occupied the President’s office with their babies in strollers. After harassment, in 1991 lesbian, gay and bisexual students organized a “kiss-in” in the school’s cafeteria and gathered signatures on a petition demanding office space; the result, a Gender and Sexuality Centre, still exists today.

These are just a few of many instances students in a Museum and Exhibition Studies Program class uncovered with their research investigating and revealing often unknown histories of organizing on our campus. The result, ALTour UIC, was collaboratively developed by a class I taught that drew on popular education ideals, such as building curriculum around contemporary, local, and personal contexts, and extending from those points of entry to broader concerns. For example, both UIC’s faculty and graduate student unions were in the process of gaining their first contracts, and the bargaining process exposed many problems that affected the quality of students’ educational experience. That was the local and personal context. Drawing on students’ skills (design, research, performance) and interests (learning more about disability activism, gaining interviewing experience), ALTour UIC used a walking tour, video, social media, and other methods to make these histories, and especially the successes of organizing for justice, visible, which was a powerful way to both show and contribute to the long work of social change. It can take years of struggle, with failures along the way, to gain something closer to justice. Today we live with the benefits of the work that came before, and should honour it with our own efforts. What can museum workers do along these lines?

“As mediators of culture, all museums should commit to identifying how to connect to relevant contemporary issues irrespective of collection, focus, or mission.”

There are many great examples: Shortly after the 2014 murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, museum workers and scholars Aleia Brown and Adrianne Russell used the Twitter-mobilized hashtag Museums Respond to Ferguson as a challenge to museum silence in the face of urgent social events. The ensuing online discussions inspired a joint statement by a collective of museum bloggers and colleagues addressing the rampant killings of Black people by police in Ferguson, and across the country, which asked: “Where do museums fit in? As mediators of culture, all museums should commit to identifying how to connect to relevant contemporary issues irrespective of collection, focus, or mission. What should be our role — as institutions that claim to conduct their activities for the public benefit — in the face of ongoing struggles for greater social justice both at the local and national level?” They also called on museum professional associations and organizations to act, noting that as they wrote in 2014, “only the Association of African American Museums has issued a formal statement about the larger issues related to Ferguson, Cleveland, and Staten Island. We believe that the silence of other museum organizations sends a message that these issues are the concern only of African Americans and African American museums.”

The challenge these writers posed resonates today. How can museum workers, and those who educate and employ them, help to position museums as vital forces for social change? What, and where, is the justice work of culture?

I’m thankful, Carolina, that you asked me these questions, and I’ll answer my own immediately previous question by noting that I’m inspired by so many cultural workers who are younger than I am, including you. The attention, energy, and care that this “next wave” is bringing to the field can transform museums, and I am excited to see what’s next.

1. Quinn, T. (2006), ‘Out of Cite, Out of Mind: Social Justice and Art Education’ in The Journal of Social Theory in Art Education, no. 26 p. 291.

2. Quinn, T. (2012), ‘Introduction: Yours as much as mine’ in T. Quinn, J. Ploof. & L. Hochtritt (Eds.) Art and social justice education: Culture as commons. New York: Routledge, pp. 3-5.

3. Quinn, T. (2006), ‘Exhibits through the “other eye”’ in Journal of Museum Education, 31:2, p. 95-104.

4. See Toth, E., Guttman, S., Kimura, A., and Quinn, T. (2016), ‘Expanding the boundaries of museum studies: Popular education through engagement with hidden histories of organising and activism’ in Journal for Adult and Continuing Education, Vol 22(2), p. 199-215.

Therese Quinn is an Associate Professor and Director of the Museum and Exhibition Studies Programme at the University of Illinois Chicago. Drawing on her work as an exhibit researcher, developer, and evaluator, she teaches courses exploring the histories and pedagogical practices of museums and exhibitions. She writes about the arts and cultural institutions as sites for democratic engagement and justice work. Her most recent books are Teaching toward democracy (2016), Art and social justice education: Culture as commons (2012) and Sexualities in Education: A reader (2012).

To cite this post:

Santos, C. (2020, January 1). Therese Quinn: Museums and Activism. Youth in Museums. https://youthinmuseums.com/youth-x-contemporary-art-museums/in-conversation-with/therese-quinn-museums-and-activism/