Where Can We See Ourselves?
An educator visits and analyzes museums with a group of high school students, who respond to what they see — and what they don't see — by designing and building their own exhibit.
When people come to see our exhibit, we’ll make them wear a blindfold,” laughs Ramon, one of the students in my after-school museum class. Lydia watches him, twirling a brown curl around one finger.
Ramon, smoothing back his thick black hair, clarifies, “That’s kind of what it’s like at museums: you go there, but you can’t see what you want to. There’s nothing about YOU. About US.”
Ramon’s fellow students laugh and nod, and then we all talk about whether they want to incorporate this bit of “performance art” into their exhibit. After 20 minutes of discussion (they ultimately decide against the blindfolds and for an exhibit about the “US” of the class), another session of the weekly class ends.
I developed the “museum class” as a project two years ago during my doctoral studies in curriculum at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Before entering graduate school I had worked for a decade as an exhibit developer and evaluator for several of Chicago’s major museums.
Over time, I thought more critically about museums. For example, I remember once when a colleague whispered to me that he had stumbled across a box of bones in the museum storerooms, complete with a letter revealing that staff anthropologists had conspired with missionaries to steal them from the church graveyard in a Northwest Coast indigenous community. I learned that similar stories could be told about many, if not most, objects in museum collections.
I also began to question the decision-making about how to represent people and human activities in exhibits, and how the presences and absences of images and information about people can lead visitors to skewed impressions. I wondered, for example, why the stories of black and brown peoples were told in “natural history” museums, while information about Europeans filled science, history, children’s, and practically every other kind of museum?
And I began to question museum employment practices. I frequently heard museum administrators excuse the near-to-total whiteness of their staffs with the complaint that there were just “no qualified” people of color to hire.
I entered graduate school with a desire to explore both the problems and potential of museums. I also hoped to develop educational models that might both challenge museums to better serve adolescents, who are largely overlooked in exhibit and program planning, and to encourage schools to more frequently and innovatively use museums as educational resources.
The museum class was one attempt to address these goals.
I piloted the class at a charter high school that had a flexible Wednesday schedule so that we were able to leave the school at 2 p.m. The museum class was open to all students in the school but limited to five students (the car I borrowed each week to drive the group to museums could only accommodate five – barely).
The class soon filled up, although one of the students stopped coming after a few weeks. The remaining four students were all Latino (Mexican, Mexican American and Puerto Rican); only one was a girl.
I wanted the museum class to introduce students to Chicago’s museums; show students how to navigate museums (finding out which are free, which are open after school, which offer workshops, and so on); encourage students to explore job possibilities in museums; and, most important, stimulate students to ask critical questions about museums. In particular, I wanted to help inspire students to ask if the histories and images presented in museums are representative of many people’s lives and views, or mostly of the dominant groups.
Finally, I wanted the class to give students a chance to “try on” what I consider the most important work of museums – shaping the content of exhibits.
I had a lot of goals for the class. But as is usual, the class became its own small universe, and the students led it in wonderful and unexpected directions.
This is (some of) what we did together.
The Museum Class
Only three students came to the first class, and we talked about our experiences with museums. Lydia had sometimes volunteered at the Puerto Rican Museum near her house, and Ramon had interned at an art gallery near the school. All Rigoberto had to say was, “I never go to museums. Never.” He then clearly stated his agenda for the class: “When are we going to visit the Mexican Museum? That’s what I want to know about. These other museums don’t have anything about my history. And they don’t want us there, anyway. They see me, they think I’m a gang-banger and follow me around.”
After swapping stories, we discussed artists such as Fred Wilson and Danny Tisdale, who have called attention to the relationship of people of color to museums, and the work of the Guerrilla Girls, a New York-based feminist activist/artist group that critiques cultural manifestations of sexist and racist practices.
For our second class, we visited the art museum. Becoming familiar with using museums was one of the important activities for the class in those initial weeks. “I didn’t know that ‘Requested Donation’ meant I could pay whatever I wanted,” Miguel said, as he watched me pay a dollar for our whole group’s admission to the art museum. “I’m going to tell my brother – he really likes art, too.”
Before visiting the art museum, I passed out a sheet of questions for the students to keep in mind while they looked at the exhibits. A sample of the questions:
- What do you notice first in the exhibit?
- Who is telling the story?
- Are there voices and perspectives missing from the exhibit? Who is talked about, but never speaks? Who is absent?
- If you were responsible for making this exhibit, what would you have done differently?
The third week we visited a natural history museum, applying our list of questions to what even museum staffers sometimes called the “dead zoo” museum.
Rigoberto was his usual blunt self: “I wanna know how come in that whole huge building they only had one tiny thing about Mexican art. They had that thing about pottery that looked like it was real old – it was dusty, man – and then one thing about the Day of the Dead.”
Rigoberto’s observations were on the mark. At the natural history museum, we had seen many old and outdated cases full of artifacts and taxidermied animals, and one small but wonderful ofrenda, or altar, built as an exhibit about the Mexican holiday and memorializing the work of two Mexican muralists.
As we peered into the Plexiglas case covering paper marigolds, laughing skeletons holding paintbrushes, and wine-red candles, Rigoberto told our group all that he knew about muralists, which turned out to be quite a lot.
“See that?” he asked. “That is a picture of David Alfaro Siquieros, right? He was political, and they killed him when he was pretty young still. But he’s famous. Everybody in Mexico knows him. And that’s Diego Rivera. He’s maybe more famous here.”
During our class discussion of the visit, Rigoberto noted, “Most of what they [the museum] showed was about something old, right? There wasn’t anything about things happening right now.”
Ramon agreed. “That’s what makes it kind of boring,” he said. “It’s stale. It could be a lot more interesting.” And that was when he laughed and asked us to imagine blindfolding their exhibit’s visitors.
“Naw, man, I don’t think we can do that. But what are we gonna do?” Rigoberto asked.
I then posed a question to the group: “You were talking about the exhibits feeling out of date, and also about not seeing what you want to see in the museums. What do you want to see? What do you want to say?”
The group got quiet.
“What do we know about?” Ramon asked, his voice trailing off. “All of us, I mean. You know, we’re all different, and maybe we don’t know the same things.”
“What about doing an exhibit about who you all are?” I offered.
They weren’t impressed with the idea. Isabel responded, “There isn’t anything important about me.”
But a conversation began to bubble up around this proposal. The group started to share stories about their families and their origins – how they arrived in the United States, and what ideas their families brought with them. Ramon was born in Mexico. So was Rigoberto. Isabel was born in Humboldt Park to a Puerto Rican mother and Mexican father.
Hearing that, Ramon said, “It should be about Puerto Rico and Mexico. That’s our cultures right here – seventy-five percent Mexican, twenty-five percent Puerto Rican.”
Rigoberto, asked “So, it will be about Mexicans and Puerto Ricans, right? They get along, don’t they?” Lydia teased him, “We get along, don’t we?”
The discussion turned to design, and over the next few weeks the students hammered out plans to fill their gallery with objects and words not often present in mainstream museums, telling the stories of Mexican and Puerto Rican lives in Chicago.
Lydia wanted to describe her neighbors, the children of political prisoners, and their ongoing struggles for Puerto Rican independence. Ramon called for music and drama. Rigoberto said he wouldn’t perform, but wanted to hang posters of “Fidel and Che,” and asked me, “You know who that is?” Miguel quietly offered to display his file of newspaper clippings about the Zapatistas, and then the group moved on to “Fiestas!”
“Yeah, we have to have something about fiestas,” they decided. Words flowed about toys and food and family rituals, and the group wrote out short descriptions and explanations that they later turned into labels.
“Our Untold History”
The students titled their exhibit “Truth: Our Untold History.” They said they wanted to tell stories about their cultural groups and the similarities between them, and wrote an entrance label to explain their exhibit that said, in part:
“We are students from Good Education High School. We were born in Mexico and Chicago, and also represent Puerto Rican culture. We have noticed how alike Puerto Rico and Mexico are, from culture to political movements, and we wanted to show the connections between these cultures. We wanted to tell our story.”
The exhibit had three sections: Religion and Fiestas; Origin and Immigration Stories; and Political Movements. The students chose objects from their lives to interpret through labels, and took photographs of important places in their communities. For example, Rigoberto found a fast-food place named the “Neutron Zone” and explained that this meant it was a gang-free place for kids to hang out; since this was important to him, he wanted it in the exhibit.
Ramon found a neighborhood grocery with the sign “Puerto-Mexico”; the group decided that a photograph of the sign should be placed on the entrance label panel.
The section about religion and fiestas emphasized family traditions and activities. Rigoberto borrowed his family’s nativity scene to display, along with a wooden Day of the Dead skeleton that he had carved and painted with his father. This section also featured a statue of the Virgen de Guadalupe. Next to these he placed a short label about Mexican holidays and their connection to pre-Christian traditions, which he had learned about from his father.
Lydia provided the cross-cultural focus by contributing a small musical instrument called a giro, which she described as an “instrument that almost all Puerto Rican music groups use.”
The section about origins and immigration focused on how each student’s family got to the United States – short labels told the stories. Finally, the political movements section centered around a large photograph of Che Guevara (from a photograph of a mural), a display of t-shirts with Subcomandante Marcos’ masked face, made by Zapatista supporters in Chicago, and a small Puerto Rican flag with a label explaining its history and symbolism in both English and Spanish. (Each of these sections contained much more than I can list here, but these short descriptions give a sense, I hope, of the breadth and depth, and also the personal quality, of the students’ displays.)
I played a facilitator’s role most of the time: I purchased some objects that the group wanted for the display, like the large Mexican and Puerto Rican flags that covered the entrance walls, and a small statue of the Virgen, because no mother would loan hers to the exhibit. I also helped in other ways; I had film developed and some photos printed, and drove to museums, homes, and picture-shooting locations. But the students made the decisions about exhibit themes, design, and display elements.
Finally, after 10 weeks of meetings, the day of the exhibit opening and reception arrived.
We planned to meet after school that day, with artifacts, photos, and labels to construct and install the exhibit panels and objects in the four-hour period before the opening. But that afternoon I drove up to the school building and was met by three of the young exhibit developers, two without their materials. Ramon said he had forgotten all of the Zapatista and Subcomandante Marcos materials at home, and hadn’t written any labels; Lydia had everything for the exhibit including batches of wonderful long labels in English and Spanish, but no change of clothes for the opening; Rigoberto left everything for the exhibit in a box in his home’s hallway because it was too big for him to carry on public transportation. And Miguel simply hadn’t shown up.
It was horrible, and funny: they radiated apology and doubt and excitement, and I wondered about my role – had I explained enough, or too much? Should things have been structured differently?
But we didn’t have time to talk it through; we couldn’t do anything but drive from one house to the next, from Pilsen to Humboldt Park to Rogers Park and back again, a circuit that used up two of our precious four exhibit-building hours. While we drove they told me they had thought the exhibit wouldn’t really happen, it would be too hard to do, they didn’t understand how we could build it. And that’s why, really, they said, that Miguel ducked out – he didn’t want to see nothing work, and everything fail.
But we built and mounted the exhibit in two hours, in a gallery at the University of Illinois (the exhibit had been offered to the high school, but they had no space for it).
The students were proud of their work, and they beamed at the opening as visitors roamed the gallery.
In terms of my educational goals, I was pleased with the exhibit. It reflected the students’ critiques of mainstream museums, and was also a creative solution to the problems they identified there (outdated and irrelevant exhibits). The students chose the exhibit name and the objects to display; they wrote the labels and played music they taped for the opening (salsa and political songs in Spanish); they invited the friends, families, and the many teachers who came to see and praise it, and who wrote warm comments in their exhibit guest book.
Lydia’s mother said as the last guests left the opening party, “This is good. My daughter showed a part of herself here in this exhibit, that she doesn’t show in many places. That she can’t always show.” She pointed to the petition for the release of political prisoners that Lydia had included in the exhibit, along with artwork and poetry by some of the imprisoned activists.
Chronicling a rich range of interests, the exhibit became a way for the students to claim some space for counter-stories – histories, interests, and ideas not often on display in museums, or in schools. The class confirmed for me that probably any topic or discipline can be addressed through the lens of museums.
A quick example: during the ten weeks students wondered about how the collected objects got to the museums, and if museums ever gave them back, which led to discussions about the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, and war, and how winners get to tell the stories (even when those are false). I copied a poem for the group, written by American Indian writer Linda Yamane, in which she describes a view of “artifacts” that is very different from museums’ (“Like a song no longer sung, a basket untouched and un-used will die – its spirit will be gone”) which inspired more talk about the ways that different cultures name and value what they make (Is it art? Or a kitchen utensil? And why does that distinction matter?).
And of course, many of these discussions revolved around ideas about race and racism. Because we were usually in a hurry (to get to the museums before they closed, and to get back to school in time for buses or to reach jobs), most of our conversations happened as we drove. I came to think of that time as wonderfully “non-productive” – because we weren’t really “doing” anything, much was possible.
IMPORTANCE OF MUSEUMS
Museums are too elite, too exclusive, too white. But they are also important – not least because, as one African-American museum worker told me, “They have all of my people’s things, all of what we’ve made, everything that holds our histories.”
For that reason alone, they can’t be ignored or written off. But they do need to change – to be opened to new ways of thinking and new groups of people.
The museum class was an invitation to one group of youth: “Enter the dialogue between the ‘old’ museum and a ‘new’ museum that doesn’t yet exist. Participate in calling it forth. What will that museum look like? How will it work? Dream it up. Then, tell the world to use your creation – Truth: Our Untold History – as a model.”
For information on additional activities and discussions that were part of her museum class, visit www.rethinkingschools.org.
All names of students, museums, and schools used in this article are pseudonyms.
Books and Articles
Berger, M. (1990). “Are art museums racist?” Art in America: 68-76.
Bradford, P. and H. Blume (1992). Ota: The Pygmy in the Zoo. New York, St. Martin’s Press.
Kroeber, T. (1962). Ishi in Two Worlds: A Biography of the Last Wild Indian in North America. Berkeley, University of California Press.
Loewen, J. (1995). Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. New York, The New Press.
Loewen, J. (1999). Lies Across America: What Our National Monuments Get Wrong. New York, The New Press.
The Guerrilla Girls (1998). The Guerrilla Girls’ Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art. New York, Penguin Books.
Yamane, L. (1993). Baskets in Museum Collections. The Way We Lived: California Indian Reminiscences. M. Margolin. Berkeley, Heyday Books and the California Historical Society.
Check out www.guerrillagirls.com. This is the website of the Guerrilla Girls; their posters make great discussion starters.
See “Mining the Museum: An installation By Fred Wilson,” available at www.thenewpress.com and also his installation, “Guarded View,” which comments on the role of visible/invisible museum guards – who are often people of color – online at www.camh.org/cam_exhandprograms/cam_archive/outbound/wilsonexhibit.htm.
Check out the installation by Danny Tisdale, “The Black Museum” online at www.grandstreet.com/gs/gs55/tisdalegallery.html.