Words have always been important to me — there was no question that language was going to be central to the message Ravon and I wanted to communicate during our chance to speak at AAMD. While Ravon’s talk focused on putting an end to tired vocabulary like “diversity” and “inclusion,” I spoke about possible alternative language that could get at intersectionality without sacrificing specificity. To keep that sense of community present, I turned to the realm of geography.
Place as a concept has been on my mind for weeks now, particularly the duty of museums to act both on a global scale and a local one. The geographic actions of museums have far-reaching consequences, for people in their immediate area and those far away. Museums dictate the canon of art, history, and science, and they provide necessary spaces for critical thinking in the humanities — or at least they have the opportunity to, if the right moves are made. In my talk, I addressed three of these pathways for museums to engage their communities and make a place-specific change towards intersectionality.
This is the obvious one. Museums need to find the lines that mark the limits to the institution, and walk right over them. Museum walls are borders. The statement “this isn’t art” is a border. And these borders are designed to keep some artists, aesthetics, and communities inside, and some of them outside. All museums should be wondering what “isn’t art.” And to find out, they have to cross these lines, see what exists in the geography of uninstitutionalized creative expression, and bring these things back.
We could also call this path finding your roots: you have to dig for them. As I said above, museum walls are borders, and these walls are deeply entrenched in the soil foundation where they are built. Every museum has a local community that is supporting them at the place they stand in the earth, and this community is a resource.
Even national organizations can tell the stories of the place they are rooted. And in digging downward into their own history in that place, they will of course find the histories of the other people who live there, the people whose stories haven’t made it to the highest level of cultural awareness yet. For museums who occupy a geographic location, that is, for most museums, going underground excavates not only their own history, but the history of the community around them as well.
Museums should be changing and stay on the move. The paths to intersectionality will always be changing, there is no standard process that ends in a final location. There will never be a moment where it has finally been achieved and the field can move on to another goal. Intersectionality, inclusion, these are horizons that we will always be chasing.
But the perpetual migration towards intersectionality can be its own reward. Constantly pushing to new geographies in the art landscape, crossing borders and bridges as we come to them, can leave your institutions with the broadest fields to draw from and the widest communities to reach.
Travel expands the mind. Art expands the mind.
(Special thanks to AAMD for hosting the original version of this piece at their annual meeting.)