High Culture for Everyone, or Why “Hands-On” Isn’t a Dirty Word

First, a quick few thoughts on “Why I am Not a Maker”:

I stumbled across Why I am Not A Maker during the first week of the semester after reading another article for class. I posted the link on the general discussion board and it inspired some really interesting conversation. Chachra’s perspective is one that surprised me at first (not a maker, what?!) and then deeply resonated with me (her discussion of how maker culture is “deeply rooted in the social history or who makes things– and who doesn’t”). She talks about gender, especially how we have traditionally affirmed and celebrated things made by men as “real things” and things made by women as “women’s work” (she uses the example of caregiving). Chachra discusses how maker culture today is still heavily “informed by the gendered history of who made things, and in particular, who made things that were shared with the world, not merely for hearth and home.” I’m fascinated by the conclusion she draws: this sort of culture tells us that artifacts are important, and people are not.

I do think that when you address gender stereotypes, you are at risk of sounding like you’re perpetuating them. She talks about equating caregiving with women and making with men — not women who code or men who are caregivers, although these are most likely less common roles, statistically speaking. To be sort of reductive: yes, I’ve seen “teach girls to code! ” programs at the library and no, I’ve never seen a “teach boys how be good at caregiving!” type of program. The bigger point she’s trying to make is one to carefully consider, however: how people are assigned value based on whether or not what they make is assigned value.

A second round of thoughts:

After reading High Culture Goes Hands-On, my initial reaction was “please no! This is the antithesis of everything I believe and hold dear!” but it did get me thinking. In the article, Judith Dobrzynski examines what she describes a dangerous “multitasking” of cultural institutions (specifically art museums here), in terms of generating more participatory experiences that are “shedding the very characteristics that made them so special”; in other words, those elusive elements that make art museums “speak to the universal.” She uses the supposedly universal example of the “thrill of standing before art” — which yes, can be a thrill and no, not everyone has had the opportunity to experience in an art museum — and then lists a few famous artists who are all (wait for it) white men.

To me, this sort of language evokes an assumed cultural attitude or expected standard for a certain type of respectable experience: an elevated, contemplative, “pre-approved”, “high culture” one, perhaps one that requires you to be mostly quiet and think fancy, complicated thoughts and then spend $17 on a panini in the museum cafe.

Honestly — I’m just not that interested in this type of experience. Or, for that matter, in continuing to perpetuate the assumption that this type of experience automatically trumps any others that do not match this supposed standard.

Why can’t participatory experiences be elevated? Contemplative? I think they can be and they are.

Dobrzynski (disdainfully, in my opinion) discusses trends in some museums to focus more and more on participation and inclusion, including inviting people to have some input into the collections, exhibits, etc. She writes: “Shouldn’t those decisions be left to the experts? If not, what do they do? Why study art history?”

Isn’t that another way of saying to the general public: Don’t think — let us tell you what to think or at least frame your thinking in a particular way? I mean, goodness. Yes, of course it’s important and valuable to respect expertise and knowledge in a particular subject area. But to me this gets a little too close to the line of: you can’t let someone who doesn’t have an art history degree actually have an opinion about art.

Remember Chachra’s point about culture where artifacts are important, and people are not?

I just don’t think the way to secure the future of museums and other cultural institutions is going to be the $17-panini-complicated-silent-thoughts experience.

I think it’s going to be the what-do-you-think-and-what-do-you-want experience.

I love this section from a post by Nina Simon on her Museum 2.0 blog where she addresses (white) privilege and museums:

“The ‘temple for contemplation’ construct is the most damaging myth about museums in existence today. It doesn’t match actual visitor behavior (most people visit museums in groups and self-report that their social experience is one of the top three reasons for their enjoyment of the museum). It doesn’t match visitor motivation (John Falk’s extensive visitor identity research has shown that ‘spiritual pilgrimage’ fits a small minority of visit motivations). It doesn’t match arts engagement preferences for active, social experiences. And yet it looms in the popular culture, preventing would-be participants of all backgrounds from discovering the ways that a museum visit can fulfill other identity-related needs.”

Some people will identify with Dobrzynski’s perspective on the future of museums; some people will agree with Simon and the perspectives discussed in The Participatory Museum (I’m definitely the latter, probably obviously). I think what connects stakeholders (regardless of our views) is that we want to support the cultural institution itself. For various reasons, we think it’s important and we want it to continue to survive and thrive. I think the best way to do this is to hold on to whatever we recognize of ourselves in that place and celebrate it, stretch it out, make it last, preserve it, offer that same opportunity for others to do the same. For some of us, this is easy as we already see ourselves reflected there in that space (e.g., member of the dominant culture or group); for some of us, this is a challenge due to cultural and social circumstances we didn’t create. What is a cultural institution if not a place where culture is shared? Yet too often it seems to be a defining divisive factor in terms of representation, inclusion, and availability of participatory opportunities. In order to survive and thrive, cultural institutions need to embrace every warm body that walks in through that door. We need to think about who has been explicitly (and implicitly) invited in and who hasn’t — and what we allow (or invite!) people to do once they’re here.

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