The Nation We Make Together (Part II)

For our two-part series “The Nation We Make Together,” Ravon and I are taking a longer look at issues that inspired us to start Brown Girls Museum Blog in the first place: questions of patriotism, marginal perspectives, and radical vulnerability all under the museum field umbrella. Our goal has always been to find our space in this industry, in these institutions, but that work cannot be done until we have made clear our positions relative to culture at large. If we don’t make it clear what we believe in, and how we struggle to reconcile our differences, the task of creating space will be impossible.

The first piece in this series began with a quote:

“I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” —James Baldwin

 

With it, Ravon argued rightly that criticism is an act of love, and that to be critical of the nation is to make yourself be a citizen of it. In the tradition of Baldwin, and in agreement with my co-blogger, I also insist on my right to critique. I would add that in addition to being an act of love and belonging, critique is an act of creation. Although it’s easy to think of criticism as a negation, simply tearing down something made by someone else, in its best form, critique creates new possibilities and offers a different view of the world and the object it’s aimed at.

When we think about criticism — of an artwork, of an institution, of a nation — as a kind of making, we open ourselves up to the opportunities of new perspectives. Instead of fearing criticism and its ability to destroy, we start to think about the mindset behind it, and what it might be like to live inside that perspective. For museums that silo the creations of artists, historians, and culture workers, making and criticism are deeply intertwined, and being aware of that connection will make the work we do all the more compassionate.

Museum Work as Making

This summer, I went back to my hometown of El Paso, Texas, to work with an artist as she researched a new piece to be installed at a historic site. Although I have been working with artists and museums for some time now, this was the first time I went back to my hometown to put my skills to use, and the strangeness of going home for this reason had me turning to old favorites for comfort and wisdom.

During one of my frequent rereads of the classic Borderlands/La Frontera: the New Mestiza, a book I have read again and again before I go back to Texas, this time a specific quote stood out to me:

“Home is a bridge.” —Gloria Anzaldua

 

In the current moment, when the rhetoric of the borderland is overly-concerned with walls and divides, thinking about home, my home at the port of entry between three states and two nations, as a bridge felt healing. Just like a wall, a bridge is a built structure, something that had to be made with the intention to bring together two places. For Anzaldua, who makes use of the bridge metaphor over and over again throughout her work as both a defining characteristic and redemptive construction of the borderland, building a bridge is just another way of creating art.

Working in El Paso, watching an artist go through the process of creation which, for her, entails archival research, field work, and countless conversations with local citizens, I thought over and over again about Anzaldua’s words. Home is a bridge, a thing you make, a thing that connects you to other people and other places. Even when it doesn’t look like art, if your bridge can do these things, it takes you home.

Since this trip, I have been thinking more and more about museums, and museum work, as bridges in their own right. Curators and exhibition designers might think of themselves as collectors and guardians of art and culture; local communities, especially those who are underrepresented in institutions, might think of them as gatekeepers. But instead of thinking about exhibits and collections as gatherings, or refinements, I want us as a field to start thinking about them as new acts of creation.

When I work with artists to design public programs in support of their pieces and exhibitions, my goal is to think of every event as a new invention. Public programs, like exhibitions and collections, need to be thought of as new creations that run parallel to, and in support of, the messages of any individual artwork. Thinking about our work as additional acts of creation allows us to consider what we are adding to the discussion, and acknowledge our own roles in communicating knowledge, rather than seeing museums as passive lenses.

Making Compassionately

Focusing on the generative, creative aspects of museum work, thinking about this work as making, gives us the opportunity to make our institutions as empathetic and compassionate as possible. Thinking about museum work as making forces us to think of ourselves as actors in the ways people encounter art and culture, rather than neutral facilitators. All too often, museums and the people who work in them see their roles as making information available to the public, rather than seeing themselves as shapers, marketers, and interpreters of that information. By changing this narrative and recognizing the impact museum work has on both the artifacts and their audiences, we are also changing the responsibility that museums have toward their communities and visitors.

Thinking about exhibitions and public programs as new creations has a double effect: it reminds us of the material aspects of the work we do, and it illuminates new methods to make sure this work is as compassionate as it can be. The attention to the material impacts of museum work, rather than focusing on the intellectual alone, leads us directly to the place where materiality is most visible: in issues of inequality.

If you view your work as an intellectual exercise in which information is simply made available to the people who seek it out, a more traditional view of museum work, it becomes difficult to consider the people who are left out — either of the narrative being presented in an exhibit, or from the community who don’t feel at home in the institution. On the other hand, if your exhibition or program is a new invention that runs parallel to and expands upon the items in the collection, something that museum workers as creators feel invested in, the goal will be to bring as many people in to participate as possible. Immediately, the focus becomes the material, physical world, rather than a theoretical or hypothetical one.

We are able to create, or to make, the kind of community we want through the exhibition or public programming that goes on in the museum. With this view, we end up not thinking about art or cultural criticism as it happens in the museum world as a negation or purely theoretical intervention, but rather as a practical and material suggestion of something new.

Criticism can mean so much more than negation, or passive reflection upon an piece of art, history, or culture. Like when Anzaldua says home is a bridge, museum workers too can think about the things they build — exhibitions, collections, or public programs — as inventions to support the messages of any artwork or cultural artifact in reaching out to all kind of communities with the kind of world-building, bridge-making efforts that museums can offer.

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