Category Archives: Theory

Putting things in Order

I’ve been re-reading Foucault’s The Order of Things (in the hopes that I’ll understand more of it the more times I read it – which I’ve usually found to be true, among the many, many philosophers whose work I struggle to understand), and came across something great. I remember, the first time I read it, I had so many feelings – but the biggest one was wonder.

In this book Foucault introduces a taxonomy of animals, supposedly from a Chinese encyclopedia, but more likely from the fantastical mind of Jorge Luis Borges (Edward Siad might have something to say about the way this list has been taken up in the west, but we won’t go there). The list is a proposed classification system of animals, that divides them into 14 categories, and it goes like this:

  • Those that belong to the emperor
  • Embalmed ones
  • Those that are trained
  • Suckling pigs
  • Mermaids (or Sirens)
  • Fabulous ones
  • Stray dogs
  • Those that are included in this classification
  • Those that tremble as if they were mad
  • Innumerable ones
  • Those drawn with a very fine camel hair brush
  • Et cetera
  • Those that have just broken the flower vase
  • Those that, at a distance, resemble flies

What I (and maybe Foucault, but again, I’m struggling) think is great about this list, is how it draws our attention to the ways we classify and arrange, and reminds us that many of the things we think are natural, are actually constructions.

For example, inside the museum, historically we classified artifacts according to their materials, and where along the spectrum of progress that artifact belongs. This way of thinking assumed that there were people called “savages” and people called “civilized” and an artifact could tell you where between those two points, a group of people belonged. Many museums have rethought this perspective, and today arrange, display, and classify artifacts according to the cultural group. This sounds a lot more thoughtful, but in practice it’s complex and messy. Who gets to decide that an artifact is indexical of a group of people? If not the museum scholar (anthropologist, archeologist etc.) then maybe the community of origin? But who among them? Most communities don’t have an internal process for describing and categorizing their own culture just waiting for a museum to come ask - and if you don’t believe me, ask a few folks you know what Canadian culture is.

In a museum, the idea of a “scientific” taxonomy is naturalized. You come to a museum for knowledge about the world, so of course the museum “knows” – we’ve already built this idea into our culture. There are devices in the museum that help reify this too, from the architecture of the building (museums are intended to look grand, to make you feel small and the importance of the collection, and it’s state collector, large), to the tiny labels on all the artifacts. These labels are often called tombstones in museum parlance, which is interesting because it implies that the object is dead, and that the key information about it’s life is what it was, who contributed to its meaning, and when it was made. As a scholar recently pointed out to me, reading labels is iterative; you might read hundreds on a single trip to a museum, which is a practice that entrenches their meaning and value. When you read one, you might think “huh, interesting!” But after a day of reading labels that tell you what something is, you walk away trusting the knowledge of the museum more deeply.

While in western culture it’s common to see artifacts as non-living, many of the items in a museum come from communities  that have very different ideas about personhood. Likewise, there are many different ways to describe an artifact. Marnie and I were imagining re-writing labels according to new taxonomies the other day – thinking about what information might be most helpful for understanding something or relating to it. Here’s some of ours:

  • classification based on what was in the artists/makers heart at the time of making
  • classification based on who an item was made for (self-other)
  • classification based on the types of reasons things are made according to the maker
  • classification based on resemblance to a dog… ;)

I’m not trying to suggest that a museum designed and organized based on all artifacts proximity to dogs would be a better way to know the world (although, I would absolutely go to that museum if it existed), but it’s kind of an interesting thought experiment to examine the ways we classify. It’s also important to helping us bring empathy to a museum, because the ways I classify are much different than perhaps the ways other people would. So I’ll leave you with a few questions, just for fun: How would you order the world? How might your ways of seeing, be impacted by the order itself?

“Honoring who we are” is rooted in honesty

I recently read an article about a project at the Brooklyn Museum where folks who have been charged with a minor offense can avoid jail or court appearance by participating in an art empathy program.

I’m not sure what the program entails, but looking at the art they use, I can begin to imagine. In the museum, we often talk about how artifacts & art tell stories. We love to tell the ones that show the beauty of humanity, and the thoughtfulness and care that an artist puts in to their work.

But those artifacts often tell hard stories too. Sad ones about challenging personal experiences, or about the systemic hardships that whole groups of people face. We wouldn’t have such beautiful Yoruba works in the west Africa gallery without the history of the Atlantic Slave Trade. The beauty of the rocks and minerals stand in contrast to the dark scars on the land that mining causes. Our Indigenous collections hold legacies of theft and genocide.

Each of these stories are complex, when we use the word story it’s a convenient shorthand, but if you’re thinking of children’s stories that’s not what I mean. In these stories, there are no neat categories, no “good characters” and “bad characters” – although there are plenty of humans, more than humans, and other beings too.  In the modern world with so many demands on our time and attention it feels (to me at least) that binary thinking provides some easy answers to challenging questions. Yet this is the kind of thinking that leads to seeing “ourselves” and “the other” everywhere we look. It’s the kind of thinking that encourages judgement instead of compassion. It’s the kind of thinking that doesn’t allow time to really consider all the stories.

If we want to really understand, we need to take honest looks at the stories in these artifacts, and sometimes that requires a lot of courage. We might discover things about our past, or even our present that make us uncomfortable. We may see reflections of our legacy that we don’t recognize ourselves within. We might have to grapple with new ways of thinking about things we thought we knew. All of this is hard work.

This is the kind of work that it seems to me this program at the Brooklyn Museum is doing: having a close look at a work, and reflecting on what it says about society, our world, and ourselves. Their work shows that this type of engagement can be really productive – and by extension, that museums that help us think in new ways can be really productive. When I’m working in the museum, I’m always working at this. To try and help guests and students see the stories that are there with a compassion that helps us all exist in kinder ways. Sometimes this means working through some challenging ideas, but I believe as long as we’re working on them together, we’ll get somewhere new, and hopefully better.

When you come to the museum, expect honesty, and bring your courage (too). It’ll be beautiful, it’ll be surprising, it’ll be hard, but it’ll be worth it.

 

Some Starting Points for Considering Cultural Appropriation

At our September Pedagogy night, some of you (very bravely) pointed out that sometimes the work we engage with in museums facilitates cultural appropriation. This is a profoundly important issue for museums, and not just because it’s come up in popular culture recently.

For decades, and especially since 1988 in Canada, museums have struggled with voice, and respecting cultures from which collections originate. But the very reason we have some of these collections is because that respect was missing for a significant portion of our history. Only recently have we begun the work of respecting voice, traditional law, and insider views of culture. So, right now we’re all in a bit of a mess together, and it will take some time and some work to figure it all out.

Luckily, the pop culture awareness of this issue has led to some great writing. Here’s a few articles that have some especially helpful thoughts on appropriation. Apologies for the language – understandably, some people are quite upset. I’ve tried to find articles that present a balanced view, but there are some NSFW words (and images) in some of these.

Kim Tran’s  article in Everyday Feminism  

Nadra Kareem Nittle’s article in ThoughtCo

I also want to share Jenni Avins article, which is a bit tone deaf, but I think speaks to some of the confusing ways we navigate our daily lives in a globalized world working through appropriation concerns.

And a follow up to some of Avins’ questions from Julia Brucculieri. I want to point out that these last two authors are representatives of the dominant culture, but Brucculieri cites people most affected by appropriation in her writing. I’m sharing this as an illustration of how Avins article is off base, but is part of a dialogue that we are really still in the thick of.

Lastly I just want to take a minute to say thanks to those of you that are willing to engage with this material. Its frightening in some ways, and it would certainly be easier to just avoid altogether, but we know Museum School teachers see the value of learning about other cultures for your students and we’re grateful for that.

Well, it happened again

Every year, I say I’m going to keep the blog going, even through the busy season…

Spring is when we’re simultaneously thrilled for all the schools that are joining us till June, and wildly busy confirming next year’s participants. Also reporting. Lots of reporting.

This year we had the added fun of planning summer PD for ourselves which actually, turned out to be pretty darn fun.

But each year around this time, I look back at the blog and start to feel guilty. Here’s the thing though, all I’m thinking about is that I should have done it. I’m not remembering all the other extra little things I had to do, or help with, or take on, that stopped me from doing what I intended to do. When I have moments like these, I try to remember my spoons.

That’s right. I wrote spoons.

Have you ever heard of spoon theory? It’s one of my favorite ways to explain personal capacity. I borrow it (regularly) from disability theory, and Christine Miserandino.

Basically a spoon is a metaphor for a unit of energy that an individual has. People have a different amount of spoons, and they are replenished at different rates. Some days you may have more than others. Things like illness and stress cause you to have less spoons, and although most people can refill their spoonfuls by sleep, those with chronic pain  or sleep disturbances may have trouble filling theirs. Today I might have 10 spoons, but if I get a good sleep tonight, I could have 15 tomorrow. Tasks take up different amounts of spoons, but I get to quantify how many. Today I might choose to spend some of my spoons on walking the dogs, but after work spoons, and commute spoons, and making a stressful phone call spoons, that might not leave me enough to wash the dishes. And thats okay.

I like spoon theory because it acknowledges how different our capacities might be at any given moment, and asks us to define our abilities internally, rather than in comparison to someone else’s achievements. I recently met an ultrarunner… he has more spoons in one day than I’ll have in my whole life. And that’s okay.

Some students have lots of spoons; they have healthy happy lifestyles and have lots of support. Not all students are like this. Some barely show up with any spoons (and the ones they do have sometimes get spent on things they want, rather than the things we want of them). Same with us, sometimes we have lots, sometimes not so much. And thats okay.

Are you picking up my theme here? I’m forgiving myself for not doing everything I had planned, because I know I tired my best. my best fluctuates daily. I’m also not taking it personally when the people around me don’t live up to their commitments, including and especially the little people. I know you all try your best too.

Making an impact

Did you know that there have been studies of the long term impact of Open Minds sites? (Maybe I already mentioned it)

Gillian Kydd, who pioneered the program made a video recording of students who participated in Zoo school 7 years earlier. Through that experience we learned some interesting (if slightly anecdotal) things, including:

- Students remember tactile and sensory things (like smells and playing with snow)

-Students don’t often recall programs, or activities that they did. They remember the things they saw more than the tasks they completed

- Upon reflection, the students realized that the experience taught them that there were more ways to learn than the “classroom method” and that these other ways were valid and important

- Each participant shared their intended career path, and attributed that path to something they learned at Zoo School (so the learning is deep, and the lessons are sustained although perhaps not immediately recognizable)

And…

- Students totally forget facilitators, but they have strong memories of their teacher and parents (if they participated) from that time.

This idea is well established in research – emotion and learning are closely connected and student teacher bonds are an important part of student success.

 

But don’t worry – we don’t get down on ourselves because we’re ultimately forgotten! Because for the brief period that your students are here, we know we’ve captured their attention.

Thank you Marnie! from Nakoda AV Club on Vimeo.

 

 

It’s okay to be uncomfortable

My partner and I have an agreement, and it involves me seeing a lot of movies that I really don’t want to see (but in exchange he accompanies me to Haunted Houses, which he hates). This week I found myself at yet another theater watching something I really would have rather watched at home. REALLY. It was the kind of movie where you feel uncomfortable with the content, but also with the laughter of those around you. I just wished I had a journal, a pause button, and a chance to google before deciding if a joke was funny or not. In short, it was a very uncomfortable 103 minutes.

But… that’s okay (and not just because it means next October I get to go to the haunted corn maze again). Sometimes uncomfortable is where you need to be.

In my life, there are not too many places that I go where I feel uncomfortable. I can generally set up my day to avoid things that make me squirm. This isn’t so for many people, and it’s a facet of my privilege that I live life this way.

I used to work for a First Nation. I could always feel the dread welling up in me whenever I knew I’d have to stop at the Gas Bar. At first I just thought it was because I worried that I didn’t belong there. I’m a sensitive person, and I felt that maybe my presence wouldn’t be welcomed in that space. That’s probably partially true, but I think the more relevant reason I didn’t like going there was that I wasn’t used to being a minority. It felt uncomfortable. When I finally put a name to my feeling I understood a little better what folks of color, and others who may be marginalized, might be feeling in situations where they are the minority. They enter those situations a lot more than I do. It was important for me to identify with that type of discomfort, and learn from it.

My discomfort in the movie was more closely related to the discomfort people seem to come across in Museums… the feeling of not being sure how you feel. Art can be controversial, it can be shocking, it performs all sorts of roles and functions. And it can be really uncomfortable not to know what it means, or how you’re supposed to feel about it.

I see that particular kind of discomfort when students look at artifacts from other cultures, or non-representational art for the first time. This discomfort illustrates a gap in our knowledge. It forces us to ask, “What does this mean?” So the discomfort really comes from a place of vulnerability. Not knowing, and not wanting to make a mistake.

During this movie, I sat there, wondering how to feel. Which is not exactly a fun experience, but certainly not a bad one. It forced me to wade around in my own thoughts. To dig through the files in my brain, and to swirl around the puddle of feelings to see if there was any sense I could make. This process, has led me to interesting conversations with my partner and friends. It’s let me to engage with ideas in my own mind, and with others. It’s helped me to grow.

Sometimes it’s alright to be uncomfortable, to let some silence hang in the air if no one seems to have the answer. To let kids grapple. To leave a question unanswered for a while. To put ourselves in positions that we’d be more comfortable avoiding. Ultimately, a little discomfort can lead to… lots of important things.

What to write…

Lately when I have been sitting down with the intention to write a blog post I write a few sentences, then I get stuck. Then I stop. Then I add “write a blog post” to the back of my to-do list and go do something else.

It’s been awhile, so I thought I should devote some energy to really thinking about why it’s been hard for me to write. After much more procrastination, three snack breaks, a walk, and two changes of scenery, I think I’m starting to make a little headway.

I think it’s the same reason I don’t like to make art, or write songs, or draft a book… (I’ve rarely/never done these things, I just have an enormous faith in my creative ability – it’s a generational thing)…  It’s because I don’t really think I have anything important to add.

There’s already a million stories, songs, paintings, sculptures, and blog posts. If I’m not confident that whatever I’m putting out there is enriching and unique, what’s the point?

I am eternally baffled with all the pictures and posts on social media, clearly people feel the need to share – and I wonder, do they think the picture of their breakfast has value? What type of value? To whom?

This new world of sharing our ideas and opinions is both fascinating and terrifying at the same time. I love that I can stay connected to friends around the world doing interesting things, or ask someone far away for advice and get feedback immediately. In the museum today I sat in on a class about Blackfoot culture, the presenter Blaire Russell, showed a picture of Deerfoot a runner or message taker – who would run from community to community to share news – my, how things have changed.

But I also think that this new medium is having complex impacts on our culture, and the ways in which we relate to each other. I work a lot with youth, and the high levels of social anxiety they are feeling astound me. At the same time, they communicate freely over the internet, saying and doing things online that they would never dream of saying or doing IRL.

I’ve also noticed that online at least, we’re all becoming quite quick to judge and slow to have sympathy. In some ways I wonder if this is a natural consequence of social justice, and if marginalized folks are finding a voice and using it with a vengeance (fantastic!) But I also notice many of the judgments serve the interests of the status quo. Seeing the internet pounce on people is a terrifying thing, and intuitively I feel that it’s less of an “anonymous” thing with careful critical thought behind it, and more like a knee jerk reaction.

The proliferation of sharing, combined with the threat of enraging the cyber community, makes me extra reluctant to put anything out into the world. Firstly, who am I to think that anything I say or think is important enough for others to read?  Secondly, given that, as well as the threat of millions of haters, why bother?

I subscribe to the idea that art is a passion that is burning to get out of you. I don’t have much of that. Mostly I have “meh.. I guess I could make that.” And I’d rather not fill the world with my mediocre ideas. But I do have some passion, and some types of expertise… as all of us do. I’m in love with the idea that we can share those things with others – maybe blog posts are useful for that, but I’m sure there’s other ways too (I’ve always got the concept of the salon floating around on the back burner in my mind as a viable modern institution).

So I’ll keep posting here – when I feel like I’ve got something to share that I’m passionate about, or that I have an inkling is useful to you, given my particular expertise.

Otherwise I’ll keep my mouth shut and my photos of my breakfast to myself.

Keep posting yours though!

They fascinate me, and I do think they have some type of value and consequence… when I figure that out, I’ll write a blog post about it.