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Museums as Systems Sessions III & IV

Fred Joiner

In his collection of essays, The Delusions of Care (Archive Books, 2021), Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung opens with a short essay called “Act I: The Reciprocity of Care.” Ndikung asks us what it means when we say, “we need to take care of each other” as we experience “the re-blossoming of “proto-Fascist tendencies worldwide,” the “failures of the nation-state,” and “the collapse of consciousness, awareness and responsibility towards our environment” and “co-humans.” Ndikung pushes us further to ask who is the “we” and thus “each other” referring to, and consequently, “what does ‘care’ actually mean, considering the history that birthed our times?” These questions Ndikung poses about care resonate with many of the questions and considerations in Day Two of the Museum as Systems symposia.  

Session I: The Role of Care & Wellness Within Institutions  

From the beginning of Day Two’s proceedings, in the “housekeeping” comments, Daonne Huff, Director, Public Programs & Community Engagement at The Studio Museum in Harlem, called the audience’s attention to use language of care during the time we spent together. This simple gesture of stating parameters around the language and tone of the discussion set an important intention in the kind of care we would deploy with one another as an audience. 

As a licensed social worker and visual artist, moderator Shanell Kitt extended the intention laid out by Huff by guiding the panelists and audience through a breathing exercise. This brought an embodied practice to the evening which was effective as we considered the ways some publics, as they enter a museum, may encounter work on display or the confines or openness of a particular space. Although “the body” was not extensively mentioned throughout the entire panel, it underpinned our discussion about what care, comfort, and wellness might look like in practice in the spaces in which we work, move, and live.

While both Studio Museum Director of Education Chloe Hayward and Laurabeth Lima, Visiting Assistant Professor of Museum Studies at New York University and an adjunct professor at the Bard Prison Initiative, presented different strategies for articulating what care or “care work” looks like, they each articulated community was the as a common feature of their frameworks. Hayward and Lima stated that sharing and shared values remain central to care. In Hayward’s articulation of care work, curiosity, creation, and community were key considerations. These are not easy categories, especially if one is sitting in privilege or a position of power; Hayward’s open questions made space for those less in need of care to begin thinking about what extending it to others might look like.  

Lima (who uses they/them pronouns) pushed the audience to think about what it would mean to have a forward-facing staff who can address, repair, and restore situations when someone has been harmed. Although they specifically mentioned forward-facing staff, what Lima implied in their articulation was the importance of having a staff versed in the ethical underpinnings of care such that these ethics can be employed so everyone feels safe, whether they are a member of the public, institutional staff, governing members, or members of the community.  

Kitt then asked the panelists and audience to consider how we defined wellness. All three of the panelists offered perspectives that approached wellness from perspectives about remaking our institutions into ones that serve an “us” of our own making. Kitt’s definition of wellness included an embodied and holistic notion, asking us to consider a wellness where everyone is physically nourished, hydrated, and moisturized. I appreciated this question of the body because in intellectual work we often forget our minds are connected to our bodies and that the wellness of our bodies plays a role in the quality of ethics that informs our intellectual work.  

Hayward provided many valuable offerings on wellness, but as a poet, the one that resonated most soundly with me was kaon-like:   

Hayward suggests,  

Wellness is   

     the answer to   

     the question  

     that care   

asks of us.

After hearing this I considered my own working definition of wellness, which is a mash-up of Hayward’s suggestion and my background in mathematics. In thinking about Hayward’s definition of wellness, I could not help but think about wellness as having a relationship to time.   

Which made me think, perhaps, that we can think of wellness as something like:  

Wellness = Care + Time

At this point in the conversation, Kitt posed the question “Who is doing the work (of care and wellness) in museums? And who should be?” Hayward intimated a personal anecdote about her difficulties in preparing for the presentation. Her realization resonated deeply with a point made by Lima earlier that “we (workers) are not robots.” Hayward extended this by saying “We are not our work” and that it is important to remember the “role of care work in the museum is to make space for humanity.” 

Hayward’s direct answer to who should be doing this work in the museum was “everyone,” not just frontline workers, educators, visitor services, facilities, and public programs, but curators, operations, administration, and leadership as well. This point echoed Lima’s earlier one that often the people who are most impacted and in need of care are also those usually doing that work.  

In the last segment of this session, Kitt asked questions specific to Hayward and Lima’s respective training and practice. Both Hayward and Lima shared tools and case studies to help us understand the theoretical underpinnings of their work. For Hayward, she referenced Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences and a tool called the Expressive Therapies Continuum. The former she considers as she takes into account different modalities of intelligence and the latter helps her think about how people process and integrate information at different levels. Hayward briefly touched on her chapter in the volume Museum-Based Art Therapy (Routledge), which she described as text on how museums are therapeutic spaces.   

Lima explained that her thinking is grounded in a radical, Black feminist tradition, which helps her create an environment where the educator and student are co-learners. Lima went on to break down her approach into two categories: organizing and care in action. In elucidating this formation, she provoked a sense of urgency in addressing the needs of the individual and community, which may take the form of Audre Lorde’s ideas around self-care as a necessary and political act, or in finding ways to enact care in the community at large. Her end goal is to create what Lima called “safe realities,” which respond to the needs of the now. Other concrete examples of what these formations may look like are unionizing among museum workers and raising funds for laid-off museum workers, whose work is often devalued or seen as “disposable” by institutions.  

Session II: Intersections: Educational & Curatorial Practices  

In her opening comments of Session II, moderator and arts worker Jordan Jones made a profound suggestion that museums are a kind of infrastructure. Jones’s brief comment resonated with the title of the entire symposium—Museums as Systems—and with other conversations around infrastructure in the art world, as indicated by the recent RAW Académie Symposium developed by ICA Philadelphia RAW Material Company, directed by Linda Goode Bryant. The symposium asked its residents, fellows, and its publics to consider the theme “Infrastructure” over the course of their residency and during the symposium.  

Jones’s first question about creating guideposts catalyzed the second question, which asked about bridging the space between education and curatorial while also making space for “the multihyphenate” museum worker who may come to education or curatorial after having worked in other areas.   

Former Studio Museum School and Community Partnership Manager Jennifer Harley spoke about her experience working at the front desk of a museum and being unprepared for the scope of questions visitors had. Harley said this caused her to look toward education in museums. Curator and educator AJ Girard voiced his experience with the tension that often exists between roles and departments in museums. More specifically, Girard talked about “the restrictions” of working in visitor services (and other frontline roles) while at the same time making sure members of the community felt they had permission to bring their ideas into the space. It’s worth asking these questions if these experiences suggest some publics look toward anyone who “looks official” in the museum to answer for information about the institution’s work, space, and values.   

Around the time Harley and Girard were making these points, a parallel conversation circulated in the chat about interpretation and interpretation departments. Audience member Olivia asked if interpretation teams could act as the bridge between curatorial and education departments. Audience member Jihan suggested that the emergence of an interpretation team could layer on more hierarchy and barriers to knowledge sharing. Another audience member, Maya, noted that workers in visitor services and other frontline positions are “important liaisons to the work and are perhaps accessible employees at many institutions.” Davis posed the question: what type of less hierarchal museum structures are possible (or are currently at work)?  

In an appropriate shift, Harley invoked the late Samella Lewis, whose practice and work exemplified “the multihyphenate” innovator in the art world, particularly in the Black art world. Harley shared a powerful anecdote from an interview with Lewis, where she talked about her work at LACMA and her involvement in the formation of the Black Art Council.  Lewis recounted that she was not an officer of the Council but offered her home as a meeting space for the guards, art installers, and other community members to think and learn about art. While at LACMA, Lewis advocated for those workers who were educated practitioners but who did not have certain credentials. One guard, known as a “seamstress,” had been teaching the curators at LACMA about textiles but did not have academic degrees to be called a curator.   

After Harley’s brief but important aside on Lewis, Jones asked a question that turned toward the future. She asked us to look beyond bridging the divide between curatorial and education; probing deeper, she asked, “Where does it lead us after this divide has been bridged? What becomes a metric by which we can measure what a successful public institution might look like?”  

Harley’s answer to this was wide-ranging and included approaches to how one might build an exhibition over time or spaces and structures that engage the community in ways that make space for a range of educational backgrounds. Girard, contrasting his experience with The Broad with his time with the Underground Museum, expressed some uneasiness about “creating something that does not exist.” Yet he spoke to the necessity and importance of spaces like the Underground Museum that exist in rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods. My cohort in the Studio Museum Education Practicum talked about this tension extensively. How do we, with all of our committed study, work experience, mainstream credentials (and student debt), and creativity build institutions that are engaged, nimble, and caring enough to respond to the needs of our community, however we choose to define that “our”, “us,” and “we”?

As Jones shifted to the Q&A she asked, "What about curatorial and education work brings you joy?” Both Girard’s and Harley’s comments focused on the pleasure and joy in habiting space alongside beautiful, thoughtful, caring people they work and collaborate with. Chat members Tennille Mack and Lillian Young echoed this sentiment, approaching it from different directions; Mack’s comments centered on being guided by the people she served and collaborated with. As an artist and a museum worker, Young found purpose in sharing the work of Black artists with young people, who took great pleasure in seeing various modes of expression by Black artists.  

In closing, Girard made two practical points that aligned with Lima’s comments about mutual aid and safe realities. Girard referenced his friend, artist Lauren Halsey, who uses the proceeds from the sales of her work to provide groceries to communities in need. Girard suggested we rethink our notions of what high art and culture are. Feeding people and responding to their immediate needs can be achieved by arts and creative spaces, which aligns with a point that Kitt made in the first session about nourishment, hydration, and moisturizing as elements of care. Girard’s other point echoed both Hayward’s and Lima’s earlier suggestions that in these spaces of care, teaching and learning should be non-hierarchical, and students and teachers should exist as co-learners and bring their identities and agency with them to their spaces.  

If the conversations of Museums as Systems are any indication, we are beginning to ask the questions that will help us build the kind of institutions that make sure their constituents will feel seen, heard, cared for, and felt. You feel me? 

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