Can Museums Play a Crucial Role in Bringing People Together amidst Growing Divides?
I see my country heading into a deeper moment of division and I keep asking myself “What can museums do?”
We live in a time of deepening divides — social and political, economic and cultural, generational and geographic, real and imagined — and I want to know how museums can help.
It will come as no surprise to you that I strongly believe that museums have a responsibility to serve as agents of change within their communities, and within society. These institutions have never been neutral, and have always been a part of shaping and responding to the shifting social-political landscapes. Yet the fear of being “too political” has led museums astray from their important civic role and from the vital role they can play within our communities and within our democracy.
I’m interested in diving into this topic here at Agents of Change because I see my own country heading into a deeper and darker moment of division with the 2024 election on the horizon paired with so many other dividing forces that only seem to be growing. And I keep asking myself:
What can museums and cultural institutions do?
With over 35,000 museums here in the United States alone, can these public-serving institutions step fully and bravely into their role as civically-engaged spaces?
What role can our museums play to help bridge divides, foster productive dialogue, build relationships, and foster understanding and empathy?
And what are some actions we can take right now to move in this direction (understanding that some of the best next steps may be small, imperfect, and in-process)?
So this continues the series here at Agents of Change by asking questions, sharing some of the work already happening, and providing a set of initial resources and guides to help ensure that more and more institutions are engaging in this work.
Museums can be a part of building a better, more connected future for our communities, and it’s up to each of us to make that change happen!
Stay tuned for more on this topic, including a future post on some action steps we can all begin to take to bring these ideas into our institutions and make this work happen.
What does it look like for museums and cultural institutions to be bridging spaces?
I began my exploration of this topic here at Agents of Change with an open thread post a few weeks ago asking everyone to share the exhibitions, programs, pop-ups, or projects you've worked on that help bridge social or political divides and bring people together. And I always think this is a good way to ground these questions (which can seem abstract or even polemical) in concrete practice. This work is happening, and we need to find more ways to celebrate these practices and learn from them.
Here is just some of what people shared (see all the Comments here):
Agreement is a partnership between Ulster Presents, artist Amanda Dunsmore, and quarto, and creates space to explore the heritage of the Belfast Good Friday Agreement with communities across Northern Ireland. In its 25th anniversary year, this project invites people into conversation, reflecting together on how and why they have lived the Agreement, and exploring what the the process of coming to agreement means today. The project is intentionally engaging with people whose voices tend to be overlooked or ignored in public dialogue, including those living in rural areas, people born since 1998, and people born elsewhere who have made Northern Ireland their home.
Borders and Boundaries is an example of another project that is opening up meaningful dialogue, conversation, and reflection within Northern Ireland. This exhibition and series of programs at The Linen Hall in Belfast explores the meanings and realities of borders and boundaries in Northern Ireland throughout the last century, examining their changing cultural, political, and economic implications over time. Programs bring together athletes, academics, activists, politicians, and writers to reflect on the borders and boundaries that have influenced politics and society in Northern Ireland through their own experiences and perspectives.
Middle Ground is an outdoor exhibition at San Francisco’s Main Public Library (and online website) creates opportunities for people to experience and question their own beliefs, behaviors, and assumptions about others. Through 14 architectural-scale, interactive exhibits, Middle Ground invites people to explore topics such as stereotypes and bias, social influence, prosocial behavior, and social polarization. The installation was designed and developed by the Exploratorium, in close partnership with the San Francisco Public Library, the Civic Center Commons Initiative, and other partners. Check out the online interactives that are part of this project, and their guide to working in public spaces.
The Empathy Museum has been leading projects that center empathy & connections since at least 2016, and I included their work in my book Museums as Agents of Change. Yet their projects are always worth mentioning again, especially A Mile in My Shoes. Through this roaming pop-up exhibit, visitors are invited to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes – literally. The exhibit holds a diverse collection of shoes and audio stories that explore our shared humanity. From a Syrian refugee to a sex worker, a war veteran to a neurosurgeon, visitors are invited to walk a mile in the shoes of a stranger while listening to their story. For me, this project continues to highlight the importance of storytelling as we work to build human connection and understanding.
If you’re interested in learning about more exhibitions and projects like these, I recommend that you check out the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, a global network of more than 350 members in 65 countries (including historic sites, museums, and memorials) that are dedicated to protecting human rights and promoting social justice. Be sure to check out their Resources page to find a wealth of information and expertise on program design, dialogue facilitation, transitional justice, and urgent issues relating to race, women, contested histories, migration, and much more.
There are SO many more examples of this work happening, so please keep sharing. When we’re faced with detractors or those who challenge this type of practice, it can be extremely important to have a sizeable set of examples to point to — and colleagues we can connect with who are doing this work right now (huzzah to them!). And when we want to get started but don’t know where to begin, it’s key to have these resources.
Check Out the Upcoming “Museums and Change” Program
If these issues and questions interest you, please join me on December 7th at 12:30pm Eastern time when I am the guest speaker for the MUSEUMS AND CHANGE virtual program. All are welcome to join!
Zoom link: https://us06web.zoom.us/j/85919354629
I’ll be speaking about these issues around museums, politics, and bridging divides, and I’d love to hear your thoughts, experiences, and questions. There will be lots of time for discussion.
Some Really Useful Resources and Readings
For everyone wanting to learn more about bridging divides and what it means to create spaces of connection and shared humanity, I wanted to share some resources to support and scaffold your work.
Having a set of resources for developing programs or projects that build bridges is crucial because it can provide an informed approach to fostering understanding and connection. Resources such as these (and others) can help museum and cultural professionals create projects that are well-researched, inclusive, and sustainable going forward. This ensures that museum programs not only initiate conversations but also actively contribute to positive societal change by promoting radical empathy, dialogue, and mutual respect.
I hope you find these useful — and please share any additional resources you find helpful in the Comments:
Better Conversations Guide, On Being
This guide is intended to help ground a conversation or series of conversations, providing meaningful tips and a roadmap you can adapt for your group and intentions. It was created out of what those involved with On Being learned in more than 15 years of conversations. Very practical and useful!
This new book by journalist and bridge-builder Mónica Guzmán is such a fantastic read, and one of the best guides when it comes to learning how you can talk to people whose worldviews are different from yours in a way that feels productive. She frames how to have “bridging conversations” in a way that feels immediately practical to use, and she provides action steps for how to begin listening, be curious, ask better questions, and find common ground. Also be sure to check out Guzmán’s TEDx Seattle talk “How Curiosity Will Save Us” from November 2021, as well as her new podcast A Braver Way.
”Have Conversations Here: Supporting Productive Dialogue in Museums” (from ArtMuseumTeaching.com, August 2016)
Back in 2016, while working at the Portland Art Museum, I developed the “Have Conversations Here” guide as part of our efforts to support visitors in having meaningful, respectful dialogue there at the museum (and after their museum visit). The key sources of inspiration and content for this guide included Hillel International’s Ask Big Questions, the Public Conversations Project, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Learning for Justice Project, the curriculum resources of Teaching for Change, and PBS’ Talking with Kids guides. We handed out this guide at programs, some tours, and made it available for download on the museum’s website (from 2016 until 2020). You can find the full content of this guide in my post on ArtMuseumTeaching, linked above.
“Cultivating Brave Space,” On Being podcast episode with Jennifer Bailey and Lennon Flowers (October 2019)
This is an exceptional conversation about creating spaces of community and how we can be bridging people during divided times. Jennifer Bailey is the Founder and Executive Director of the Faith Matters Network, and Lennon Flowers is the co-founder & Executive Director of The Dinner Party Labs and the People’s Supper.
People, Politics, & Reweaving the Social Fabric: A Supper, Story-Sharing, and Listening Guidebook, created by The People's Supper (2018)
The People's Supper is a non-profit organization dedicated to fostering meaningful conversations and connections among diverse individuals through shared meals. This guide provides practical step-by-step advice on how to create a gathering for productive conversation, including some great questions to ask and guidance on how to host/facilitate these types of gatherings.
“Divided by Politics, a Colorado Town Mends Its Broken Bones,” New York Times, November 30, 2023
This recent article features a really great case study of how a small town in Colorado, through the support of a non-profit called Community Builders, is working to bridge heightened political divides and have real conversations. Through a series of bridging community conversations that they hosted, Community Builders facilitators asked open-ended questions like: “Why do you love to live here? What are your hopes for the future and your life here? What are your fears?” Worth a read.
Check out the latest Agents of Change podcast episode
In my most recent podcast episode “How can we work to bridge divides?”, I dig a bit deeper into the idea of bridging divides both in terms of institutional actions and personal actions. I also share some great resources and links on this important topic, including a downloadable worksheet on “Bridging Conversations.”
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