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Representation Matters: What D. Watkins helped me understand about museums

Posted on May 7th, 2020 by

A blog post by Deputy Director Tracie Guy-Decker. Read more posts from Tracie by clicking HERE.


I am often working my way through more than one book at a time. Especially right now in the midst of quarantine, I have been turning to the page as my way out of the house. While I was reading D. Watkins’ We Speak for Ourselves: A Word from Forgotten Black America, I have also been making my way through Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience by John H Falk.

As often happens, I found that these two titles, seemingly completely unrelated, had some resonances with one another. Well, more precisely, reading them at the same time led me to have new insight.

I have written about Watkins before. A fellow Baltimorean, I’ve been following his career not-quite from the beginning. In my mind, what sticks out about D. Watkins is his authenticity. He makes me believe he knows who he is and is sharing that person–without pretense or posturing–on the page.

When I wrote about him three years ago, I was struck by “Watkins’ ability to introduce us to characters with seemingly perfect empathy. His descriptions of the people who inhabit his world paint pictures of fully human individuals. This is remarkable because the humanity of the people he depicts is so consistently denied in most of the media that those of us in the room usually consume. Drug dealers and addicts, prostitutes and felons, all receive their full humanity from D. Watkins’ pen. His empathy for them is contagious.”

Though my use of the word “contagious” sticks out as I re-read it from quarantine, I find the persuasive force of Watkins’ empathy, and, more importantly, his affection for the friends and acquaintances he introduces us to, remains in full force in this latest work. I feel I am a slightly better person for having allowed myself to be carried along by the affection for the full humanity of characters like Big Wop, Dub, Turk, and O.G.

As with my reading of Lawrence Lanahan, it is an interesting experience to read another’s recollections and interpretations of moments I lived through. I read Watkins’ essays on the Uprising and the schande of Baltimore’s Gun Trace Task Force with a speed and an emotional and physiological reaction I can only describe as validating. (As an aside, as I read this book, I began to wonder about the experience of Watkins’ and Lanahan’s readers from outside of Baltimore. It is hard for me to imagine the experience of reading about the Uprising and after without my prior knowledge of it.)

But the connection Watkins’ work made for me in 2020 actually had to do with his description of how addictive and positive reading can be–when you start with the right material. In an essay near the end of We Speak for Ourselves, Watkins writes about finding reading. While in the hospital, a nurse loaned him The Coldest Winter Ever by Sister Souljah. He writes: “I read it in under two days. She was right. It was the fastest I’d ever read a book in my life. Who knew you could write books about the streets? I would’ve read this book ten times if it was assigned to me in high school.

The Coldest Winter Ever opened up my mind and led me to consume more and more books. My thoughts changed. I developed new ideas. I was forever transformed. Within months I went from being a guy who solved problems by breaking a bottle over someone’s forehead to using solution-based thinking when resolving issues. It was as if reading instantly civilized me. It also made me acknowledge the need for culturally relevant material. Familiar information is less intimidating. And if it worked for me, I believe it can work for anybody.” (pp 156 – 157)

The memory of this experience led Watkins to work to get his own writing into the hands of Baltimore’s students. Through grants and his own money, Watkins donated copies of his books to city schools in Baltimore and Washington, DC. “The deal was for me to make classroom visits and teach workshops to every class that received the books and the students would get to keep the books because they were being stolen from schools.” (p 162)

Watkins goes on to relay how despite successful outcomes in the classrooms he visited, in 2017 he learned from one of the classroom teachers who’d been using Watkins’ titles “they passed on your book…They decided to double down on Shakespeare.” (p 163)

Watkins brought me with him through the disappointment of that moment. It stayed with me. It stayed with me so much so it surfaced again, unbidden, as I was reading Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience. One of Falk’s key hypotheses in this book is that the outcomes of a museum visit are highly predicted by the ways in which the museum visitor thinks about themself as they enter the museum, but that’s not actually what connected for me.

Falk is among the researchers who have found that one of the most predictive behaviors of museum visitation is museum visitation (in other words, the likelihood of you visiting any given museum in the next 6 to 12 months is highly correlated to whether or not you have visited any other museum in the past 6 to 12 months). Further, adults who visit museums are likely to have visited as children. I was thinking about those statistics and about the session I attended at the American Alliance of Museums conference last year where I heard that at the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), from day one, they were seeing dwell times (i.e. the length of a museum visit) that doubled and even tripled the industry average (6 hours at NMAAHC vs. 1.75 – 2 hours for the national average). I haven’t seen the data, but I wonder how many of those long-dwelling visitors to the NMAAHC are visiting their first museum in the past 12 or 24 months, or longer?

In Identity and the Museum Visitor, Falk is more interested in what he calls “small i” identity than in big I identity. In other words, he’s looking at whether a person thinks of themselves as curious or spiritual or a good parent rather than whether they are black or white or Asian or how old they are or their gender identity. Falk makes a compelling case, and has the data to back it up. In fact, Falk conducted a study of African American museum-going. Of it, he writes: “The overwhelming conclusion of my research was that, overall, African American leisure behavior was very similar to European American leisure behavior, while tremendous differences existed within and across the African American community. Where black-white differences existed, race/ethnicity did not emerge as the best variable to explain these differences.” (p 29)

I believe Falk’s data did suggest those outcomes. I also know the study was done in 1993, more than two decades before the NMAAHC was a reality. I wonder what a study of African American NMAAHC visitors would find. More than that, I would like to know of the visitors to NMAAHC who were infrequent museum goers prior to their visit, how many visited another museum in the following 6 to 12 months? Can NMAAHC or the Reginald Lewis Museum in Baltimore or other African American museums or other heritage museums around the country do for a museum visitor what The Coldest Winter Ever did for D Watkins, the reader?

I can’t help but think the answer is ‘yes.’ I read this passage from Watkins, and translate it from ‘reading’ to ‘visiting museums,’ and it rings true for me:

“‘Reading is boring’ is a phrase I’ve been hearing at the beginning of each semester ever since I became an adjunct professor. I give them my soliloquy on why it was illegal for slaves to read and how easy it was for masters to control populations of people wiht limited thoughts–partially due to illiteracy. I would say, ‘Being smart and developing complex thoughts without reading is like trying to get The Rock’s muscles without working out.’

Then I assign cool books like Sister Souljah’s The Coldest Winter Ever, Jay-Z’s Decoded, Liza Jessie Peterson’s All Day, Jason Reynold’s Long Way Down, and essays by me and other writers I think they would like. I also scour the internet for articles that speak directly to them. I believe that everyone would enjoy reading if they had the right material. Obtaining material that speaks to them would not only provide the foundation for the basic critical thinking skills needed to function, but also spark a greater interest in literature outside the classroom.” (p155)

Right now, we are all starting to more fully grasp the exponential effect we can have as our lives intersect with others’. Luckily for human beings, COVID-19 isn’t the only thing that can spread exponentially. Reading, history, knowledge, skills, self-compassion and self-esteem can also be caught and passed on. That’s part of what I got out of Watkins’ continued return to the first book that showed him a different way.

We Speak for Ourselves is a collection of essays. I wouldn’t say that there is a central hypothesis, but there are certainly recurring themes. As you might expect from the title, one of them is that black folks have voices to speak for themselves, if they were ever given the chance. Watkins repeatedly declines that he is “the voice” of his people, insisting instead he is “a voice.”

It is a voice worth reading: clear, authentic, likable, insightful. One of the insights, for me, from this voice, is the power of people–especially young people–hearing voices they recognize as like their own speak from positions of perceived power and authority. In other words, representation matters. I am sure that John Falk is right that little i identities are more predictive of museum-goers’ meaning-making than big I identities. I’m also sure that if the big I identities of the visitor (or reader or viewer) are ignored, neglected, or, worse, denigrated, by a museum (or book or show) the lasting effect is hurt to us all.


This post was originally published at bmoreincremental.com.


 

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Studying Abroad: Where Museum Personalities Clash

Posted on August 2nd, 2017 by

By collections intern Amy Swartz. To read more posts from JMM interns, past and present, click here.

A few weeks ago we were tasked with reading pieces of John H Falk’s Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience. For our weekly blog post that week, I wrote a bit about my initial reactions to the piece. However, while reading parts of the book I was really struck by his museum visitor’s model as I myself have inhabited those many models at different points in my life. This past spring I studied abroad in Copenhagen, Denmark and had the amazing opportunity to visit many European countries. As someone who loves museums so much that I want to work in one for the rest of my life, all of my trips included some type of museum visit. During these museum visits, depending on which museum I visited and who I was with, my identity flipped and flopped.

Falk’s five identities are explorer, facilitator, experience seeker, professional/hobbyist, and recharger. I am most often an explorer. I go into museums seeking to discover, I pick and chose what I spend my time on, and I often have some background knowledge. When I am with my friends, who are often experience seekers but sometimes explorers, I often am in a semi-facilitator role. I want them to learn and enjoy their visit so that we can actively discuss it. However, while in Europe my identity was in flux. I found that in my experience there are two types of museum experience for those who are studying abroad and traveling: the explorer and the experience seeker.

A ship in the Viking Museum, Oslo, Norway

A ship in the Viking Museum, Oslo, Norway

The explorer traveler finds museums in new cities and decides that a museum visit would be a good way to learn about the city or country’s culture. They go simply because they think it would be a cool experience and are more likely to go to a museum that is either free or has a museum discount rather than an expensive museum. My time in Oslo fits this description. My sister and I did not know what to do in the city, especially since it was rather rainy our whole trip and the city is quite expensive. We bought a museum pass, which was a great purchase and visited the Fram Museum and the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo, among others. I approached each visit solely as an explorer. I came in without any expectations or assumptions and simply enjoyed myself and learned a lot.

One of Monet’s Water Lilies Paintings in the Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris

One of Monet’s Water Lilies Paintings in the Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris

The experience seeker finds themselves at museums while abroad for the great or well-known works housed inside. They often operate on a limited schedule and work to check certain things off their bucket list The best example of this was my time in Paris. While at the Louvre, my best friend and I saw a lot but we narrowed down our visit to the greats: the Mona Lisa (an obvious choice), the Nike of Samothrace, and the Venus de Milo. We quickly went to the Le Musée de l’Orangerie next, only glancing in some galleries in order to get to Monet’s Water Lilies.

Me and my host sisters in the Kusama exhibit at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Denmark

Me and my host sisters in the Kusama exhibit at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Denmark

Other museums I visited brought out both personalities. While in Denmark I visited the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art with my visiting host family. Majority of my time there I was an explorer, hungrily consuming information. The Louisiana has an amazing collection and while there I actually saw a lot of works I later learned about in my Women, Art, and Identity course. However, I was also an experience-seeker as there was a well-known exhibit by Yayoi Kusama called Gleaming Lights of the Souls. In that moment I had to see it just to see it and have that experience – it was worth a bit of a wait, which turned out to be nothing based on the wait at the Hirshhorn Museum which had hours long wait lines.

I’ve found that one’s identity at a museum is very dependent on the circumstances of the visit. That’s why it is always beneficial for a museum to cater to multiple identities – which JMM does very well through its various educational programs, exhibits, and lectures.

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Response: Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience

Posted on July 27th, 2016 by

Further thoughts on last week’s Intern Readings!

Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience by John H. Falk details the five types of museum visitors, facilitators, professionals/hobbyist, rechargers, explorers and experience seekers. I thought it was interesting to try and place myself in any of these categories and see how I fit in. I came to the conclusion that I am both an explorer and a professional/hobbyist depending on my mood.

As someone who has been a part of the art community for quite some time now, I tend to gravitate towards art museums. As an explorer, if the exhibit is too linear and too controlled I tend to get bored. Sometimes I feel like I have to read everything so when there is basic summaries before entering the exhibit I tend to get more out of it since I am able to apply what I just read to what I am seeing. I think Falk is correct in saying that explorers tend to arrive with a group, but then want to go off on their own, I feel I am the exact same way.

Being by myself in a museum allows for me to take my time and really appreciate what is in front of me, which leads me into how I fit into the Professional/ Hobbyist category. If I am in “art mode” then chances are I will want to stare at a piece of art for 10 minutes. I will want to jot down notes of random thoughts that pop into my mind about personal and symbolic associations that happen because of my connection with that piece. Moreover, I will more than likely want to sketch out what it is that I am seeing to better understand the piece, and I don’t think none-artists would like to stick around for that, so sometimes it is just easier to be alone. Being in art school has taught me the importance of discourse, which is why I enjoy discussing art more so with people who understand it.

With that being said, I also love talking about it with my non-artist friends, because they see things that I would’ve never seen. They make their own connections from their own knowledge base and it is always very interesting.

With that being said, I also love talking about it with my non-artist friends, because they see things that I would’ve never seen. They make their own connections from their own knowledge base and it is always very interesting.

Falk, has a good understanding of the different kinds of visitors that go to museums, and it was very interesting read about. I always thought that there was one way to visit a museum and that was to not read the labels and to just use your own interpretation and I think that stems from my traditional art school understanding, but I now see that there are many ways to enjoy an art museum, and you don’t have to be an artist to appreciate it.

06.06.2016 Interns (17)Blog post by Education and Programs Intern Rachel Morin. To read  more posts by and about interns click HERE.

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