We Don’t Have All the Answers
The MCA poses questions to visitors so that they can draw their own connections.
I think the authorial voice of the museum has become destabilized over time. I think more and more museums are understanding that when a visitor walks through the door, their life experiences, as we say, their subjectivity, is core to their learning, is core to their understanding, and core to their experience. We’re no longer—we have expertise, of course, as our visitors have expertise. Our expertise is in art. Their expertise might be in something else, but we’re no longer the authority. We no longer set the knowledge down and it’s the only knowledge which should be bestowed upon our visitors.
I think museums have shifted very much and very dramatically through an understanding that the world is a much more democratic place, knowledge is much more accessible, people are readily— not so readily able to take ideas—or what am I trying to say? People are not so quick to take the word of an authority for the only single meaning, or the only single bit of knowledge. So I think museums are shifting more and more to: how do we create kind of inquiry? How do we take the curiosity of our visitors and approach them with questions, approach them with points to connect, or points of connection, where they can ask questions and we can answer them, but those questions are as valid and those questions generate different kinds of knowledge?
So the Kerry James Marshall exhibition is a prime example of that. We don’t necessarily hold all of the answers to what that imagery means or what it could mean and what it can mean for our visitors coming in the door. And their life experience around living in Chicago, around race, around politics is as important as our understanding of those paintings, and that shared knowledge, that shared content that can be generated in the gallery I think is where museums are going. It's these places where knowledge is being generated, and through iterative processes.
We had a group of young people in the galleries. They were aged between 11 and 15, and it was in front of a work where there was an image of men in a barber shop. The young people began to talk about what it means in their neighborhood to have a barbershop, what happens in a barbershop. As they were having a conversation about their own lived experience, there were other members of the public who were just pausing, and stopping, and it meant they were listening to these stories that were being revealed or uncovered in a way that created new meaning for the work, but it also allowed them to kind of connect with different visitors in the gallery. So it became this kind of social conversation where some people in the audience, who had joined, said, “Oh, but are there many barbershops in your neighborhood? How many do you go to? Do you always go to the same one?” These 11- to 15-year-olds were answering these questions as if they were guides in the gallery talking about a lived experience. So for me that’s a kind of moment where the visitor had much more insight or experience to something particular than perhaps many of the people who worked in the gallery; that was a moment which we created, which was just sharing amongst our public.