Missing Landfills

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #3 in September 2006]

Missing Landfills: Conflicts of Interest and Museums

While working at a local museum, a label in an exhibit I developed was censored by the museum’s director. She objected to a quote I included as a caption to a photo of an environmental activist working on toxic waste clean-up in one low income community. The activist, a woman with a history of noted accomplishments, many awards and an international reputation, had said that all of Chicago’s landfills were located in the communities of black and brown people, primarily African American and Mexican American. She called on citizens of the city to pay attention to this problem and take action; she called it environmental racism and said that we should all be seeking environmental justice. I used her statement along with a photograph in which she was standing in front of her organization’s office, in an exhibit about garbage, landfills, and recycling. The exhibit, including this element, which was a small but important part of the overall message about taking action to clean up our communities, had been completely installed and was ready to open the next day.

When I arrived for work the following morning, however, the label had been reworked. The activist’s quote no longer included any of the details about Chicago, or her own commitment to justice. It now said something like: We all need clean communities— let’s work hard to keep them that way. In fact, it wasn’t really her quote anymore, though it was still presented that way. When I asked the director about the label change, which she had ordered, she said that there was no proof to back up the activist’s claim about the location of landfills, and anyway, didn’t the change really just clarify the activist’s main point? I was angry, but because I thought the original label was packed with important information, I dug up the proof—a map of the city showing racial and ethnic populations, paired with a map of the landfills—and brought it to the director. She refused to allow the unedited label to be re-hung. Proof wasn’t the point.

The exhibit opened that evening, and when the activist saw that her words had been altered and edited, she just shook her head and said she wasn’t surprised. The final form of the exhibit confirmed what she suspected about mainstream institutions, or those organized and operated by and for white, wealthy, and welleducated communities, including museums— they weren’t advocates for justice, they weren’t committed to the struggles of people of color for clean and safe communities, and they wouldn’t let her true voice be heard.

The subtext to this and many stories about cultural institutions is funding—the garbage and recycling exhibit was financially supported by a prominent waste removal company, one with actual ties to Chicago’s mayoral administration, suspected ties to organized crime and a track record that includes both no-bid contracts and illegal activities.

debating excellence

This experience was in my mind years later when I participated in an exhibitor’s group as it worked together to define excellence in museum exhibitions. The concept of excellence, paired with standards and criteria, has been used by United States’ museum organizations, such as the American Association of Museums (AAM), to guide the development of exhibits and the awarding of prizes. In 1992 AAM published a report, Excellence and Equity: Education and the Public Dimension of Museums, that offered a rationale for excellence, and this was followed by the organization’s Standards for Museum Exhibitions and Indicators of Excellence in 2001. These standards were organized around six categories with questions and indicators (see http://www.aam-us.org for these documents).

The group, comprised of museum workers with experience and interests in exhibition, met regularly to discuss and describe our own experiences of wonderful, and sometimes notso- wonderful, exhibits, as a way to contribute to the earlier definitions developed by the profession. I had already worked in Chicago museums for several years as an exhibit developer and with a local independent evaluator of museum exhibits, and was, during my time with the exhibitor’s group, back in school studying curricula.

As an employee of cultural institutions I frequently wondered about the way content found its way into exhibits, and just as often, how it was left out of them. But it was the story of the censored label that came to my mind when thinking about how to define excellence. With this experience in my thoughts, as the exhibitor’s group debated what to include as criteria for excellence, I advocated for three specific things. First, that exhibits reveal funders; second, that they cite sources for content, as academics are required to in their writings; and third, that exhibits present multiple attributed views and voices. I argued that without these elements, an exhibition is always lessthan- excellent. These still seem like a good starting place.

Some aspects of these views made their way into the framework that has been published and is available, along with examples of how it can be used, in the recently published book, Judging Excellence: A Framework for Assessing Excellence in Exhibitions from a Visitor- Centered Perspective (Left Coast Press, 2006). In particular, the first criterion, comfort, includes a section about authorship and biases, and another about welcoming people from different groups and classes. But I’m not satisfied at stopping with these factors—“comfort” is too weak a label to encompass everything from racism and bias, to exclusion of disabled people— and I still think that knowing who paid for an exhibit can change how I make sense of its messages, though this criterion didn’t make the final cut. What is absolutely left out of the Framework is recognition that power shapes knowledge and that knowledge is always political. An excellent exhibit would always help its users to see how this works, on the ground.

defining excellence further

I am a teacher and one of my “regular” classes is called, “The Museum as Critical Curriculum.” Last spring the graduate students in the class used the Excellent Judges Framework to evaluate an art exhibit at a large Chicago museum. They then developed their own “counter-criteria” in an attempt to address what the Framework doesn’t—using the focus of the class-critical, or power-sensitive, attention—as a guide. The criteria they developed follow:
critical standard for museum exhibitions
1. Accessibility—Sensitivity to diverse learning styles, cultures, abilities and interests
2. Transparency—Of views, process, sources, funding (conflicts of interest revealed)
3. Relevance/Purpose—Context that makes the content’s value clear and connected to the lives of the viewers
4. Inclusivity—Diverse views are considered during exhibition development and are apparent in the exhibition; viewers’ voices are valued
5. Empowerment/Follow-up—Action and opportunities to continue the learning experiences are built into the exhibit, and are available before and after it

—Developed by Elisheba Fowlkes, Jenay Gordon, Glennda Jensen, Janelle Stephens, Spring 2005

Donna Haraway says, “meanings make claims on other people’s lives” 1. An excellent exhibit enables visitors to look closely at what those meanings are, where they’ve come from, and how they affect the way we and others are able to live. In contrast to this ideal is the director who censored a woman’s true and meaningfilled words; she might have claimed that she wanted the museum visitors to feel comfortable (and the Excellent Judges Framework could have supported that idea), but discomfort would have been more likely to spark change. I think the example of Critical Criteria moves in the direction of deeper meanings and richer experiences for visitors, experiences that are charged with connections to daily life (including to each other) and to calls for change. But they are not final or complete. For instance, in the Critical Criteria I’d have included some definitions and specifics, and maybe some additional requirements. For example, I want to know: What does sensitivity mean? How transparent are we talking? What kind of action—letterwriting, civil disobedience, monkey-wrenching?

I also think that, as a matter of respect for labor, a good exhibit will name all of the people who worked on the project, from research and labelwriting, to mount-making and installation, and today I would include a listing of workers among criteria for excellence. What would you like to see included? Please email me with your ideas.

Critical Criteria, if made public within museums as a way to inform visitors about what guided exhibit development decisions, could do two things: help museum educators and exhibitors remember that content decisions have social ramifications, and teach visitors more keenly critical ways of understanding their cultural institutions. And this is important.

All good teaching, no matter where it happens— a classroom or an exhibit hall—is connected to the bigger social aims of human enlightenment, fulfillment and freedom. All museums contain the cultural heritage of humanity, they are all indebted to the public, and those that are specifically called public are largely if not solely funded by taxes, or public dollars, and must be more fully open and responsive. (The only exception to this might be museums and exhibits that are corporate-sponsored, namebranded, and basically advertisements—I think these should just be protested and in other ways disrupted.) More specifically, exhibit developers and curators in these institutions must remember to whom and what they ultimately owe allegiance—not missions, but ethics-in-context; not directors or boards of directors, but aunties and mothers; not funders, but citizens seeking … Solidarities? Yes, chosen with open hearts, but carefully.

This essay is dedicated to Hazel Johnson, the visionary environmental justice activist and founder of People for Community Recovery.


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