The other day when I chose to express my ambivalence about a variety of things by randomly mentioning intersectionality, I felt it was flip in the moment, but did it anyway. That was a mistake. It’s a terrible paragraph is many respects and I regret writing it.
Got called out on Twitter for standing on white privilege and dismissing the theory. I admit to both charges, even if my contexts don’t really support the second one. My real sin in that regard is that I simply have a shallow understanding of the concept and how it applies to museum practice. Not understanding a thing is the first step to dismissiveness… and, well, didn’t I just carry on a few weeks ago about history and understanding?
So I spent some time today and turned to Nicole Robert’s “Getting Intersectional in Museums,” in Museums and Social Issues, Vol. 9, No. 1. (April 2014): 24-33. This brief article lays out the basics of intersectional theory and offers examples of its employment in the critique of existing assumptions and power dynamics “within daily choices and accepted practices” that recreate exclusion in museums.
The theory, as I understand it, is that individuals possess multiple intersecting identities, and that identity-based exhibits and programming risk—by not grappling with that—continue practices of marginalization. Further, it is a critical stance that interrogates structures of power—temporality, success (in multiple ways), authority, and opaqueness—that govern the operation of most museums.
One of my weaknesses is that I often don’t see how critical theory operates in the places I am interested in—small museums and historic sites. So Robert’s article, with its clear and brisk introduction of theory and application is a great help. Really, I need to see more like this.
What strikes me are the similarities between the critical approach that she describes and the work I am currently attempting. For instance, organizational and interpretive systems of exclusion too often permit—on logistical grounds—the prioritization of topics that end up being white men. In a post coming up, I’m going to talk about the necessity of Civil War sites to deprioritize the Confederate military experience in living history programming and center the experience of black and white civilians. It is a rather different lens into the Civil War experience in the south.
Definitions of success in exhibit production, Robert offers, depend entirely on the impact of the final product, and does not value the critical reflection that should be built into the process. That is actually happening in my current class project, but in my other work, I am currently advocating for the deprioritization of large visitor rich special events in favor of smaller programming that may not produce much revenue, but in the process of collaboration, may develop relationships of trust between the institution and varieties of communities—no matter the “success” of the end product.
In the matter of exhibit labels and other text and framing language, I am also exploring ways to change the very way we talk about the Civil War in our museums. That’s aspirational, but it is a thing we need to do. And certainly, self-reflexive consciousness on the part of the curator/collaborator and transparency about how decisions are made are baked into my own systems (you should have seen me in graduate school the first time), but need to be more widely practiced.
That, there…the critical self-evaluation, is a thing that doesn’t really exist in the museums I think about, but really needs to be part of the cultural change in organizations and interpretation. Robert says, “when we realize how exclusion is created in our daily choices, we can effectively strategize new choices that move our work towards inclusion.” Yes.
So… I don’t want to be glib here and pretend that I’ve done the necessary work to make myself whole. In fact, I’m nervous about posting this because of how naive it sounds. But as I mentioned in a previous post, I’m learning, and in the process I will at times appear oblivious. I appreciate being pushed on this. Keep on pushing.