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The Role of Museums in Uncertain Times

In the Forum Gallery at Carnegie Museum of Art, there’s an installation called The Stories You Tell. A collaboration between our curatorial and education departments, it includes 14 figurative (i.e., readably naturalistic) works. There are no wall labels identifying or explaining the art. Rather, visitors are invited to create and post their own interpretations in the form of six-word stories or collaborative narratives.

After the presidential election, some took the opportunity to express their feelings about the state of the country. Amid humorous observations and carefully constructed visual analyses of the works are comments that seem to have nothing to do with the art, or that consider it through an anxious frame emblematic of this moment. Near a large 2003 print by Egyptian photographer Rana El Nemr of a pensive young woman on a subway someone wrote, “Trump won? Is this real life?” By Joe Zucker’s painting of dinosaurs, Triassic Jurassic (1977), there are notes saying, “The election was rigged” and “It’s inevitable, we’ll go extinct, too.” Someone else read a deconstructed self-portrait by LA photographer Paul Mpagi Sepuya as, “Broken bits of me defying gravity.” Mary Cassatt’s pastel of a woman holding a child elicited, “rough times bring true feelings out,” and by Romare Bearden’s Pittsburgh Memories (1984) was, “Money and people give me power.” Next to Teenie Harris’s ca. 1942 portrait of what appears to be a biracial couple someone posted, “This is what America looks like.”

Photograph by Teenie Harris with visitor comments
Visitor responses to a photograph by Charles "Teenie" Harris in The Stories You Tell. (Bryan Conley/Carnegie Museum of Art)

It was both unplanned and valuable that we had this installation in our most visible gallery after an election that shook the country to its core. Responses underline the potential that museums have to be safe spaces for the exchange of ideas. It is notable, however, that the majority of contributions that address our current political climate, whether directly or obliquely, are unhappy with the results of the election. Maybe Democrats, upset by the outcome, are more vociferous. Or, perhaps a disproportionate number of our visitors voted for Hillary Clinton. In a recent Artnet essay, critic Ben Davis noted that lack of education was the biggest determinate for Trump voters, while “educational attainment” is the largest determinate of museum attendance. At CMOA, we know from surveys that 60–70% of our visitors have college or graduate degrees. This is not to say that Trump voters are uneducated, of course, but to highlight that many may not be visiting our museum to voice their opinions in a participatory exhibition like The Stories You Tell.

Many citizens of this country have reason to be angry about growing economic inequality. Education—for 21st-century jobs or for personal enrichment—is one way to attack that problem. As institutions created to promote both academic and emotional learning, art museums already play a significant role in advancing education throughout our country. We can do much more. The great Pittsburgh educator and television pioneer Fred Rogers wrote about the basic necessities for learning: “1) a sense of self-worth, 2) a sense of trust, 3) curiosity, 4) the capacity to look and listen carefully, 5) the capacity to play, 6) times of solitude.”1  Rogers was talking about children, but what he says applies to all of us.

So, visitors must bring a degree of curiosity and self-worth to the museum, but museums must meet them more than halfway to enhance their desire to learn. Institutions like CMOA have many constituencies, and we must try to reach everyone who needs what we offer. Museums all over the country are striving to do that.

Editor’s note: This essay has been updated to clarify the correlation between museum attendance and politically minded responses in The Stories You Tell exhibition.

Inside the Museum is Carnegie Museum of Art director Lynn Zelevansky’s blog about the local and global impacts of the museum and the art world.


Endnotes

  1. Fred Rogers, You Are Special: Words of Wisdom for All Ages from a Beloved Neighbor (New York: Penguin Books, 1995), 85.