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Film: How can museums respond to alternative facts

Adrienne Lalli Hills,
Senior Interpretive Planner, 
The Nelson-Atkins Museum

All right. Facts have had a tough year and so have journalists, public officials, scientists, NFL players and museums. The events of the last two years have led us to consider, as folks who collect, curate and interpret facts, the phenomenon that fake news strikes at the heart of our work. It’s an existential threat and that’s led me to ask, and a lot of you guys as well, how can museums respond to alternative facts? This has been the focus of several presentations and I’d like to share a small experiment that I’ve cooked up at my institution with my colleagues this year.

In July, we opened Pollock and Motherwell: Legends of Abstract Expressionism. A quick overview. Pollock and Motherwell are two of the most celebrated American painters from the mid-20th Century and this exhibition emphasises the radical innovation of abstract and expressionism in mainstream American art by featuring two monumental paintings, Mural, to the right, and Elegy to the Spanish Republic, No. 126, to the left. As our team was considering the interpretive possibilities for this exhibition, they saw the opportunity to push back on alternative facts through metanarrative which I’m defining here as the interrogation of storytelling itself within a story. Myth making and hyperbole were common fears of these artists, their friends and some enabling art historians and a lot of what we, even as museum folks, think we know about these artists and abstract expressionism, really doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.

So, we thought the subject matter would be a really great opportunity to explore how our historical knowledge is constructed, who does that construction and how it has changed over time. Now, this is nothing new for science centres and National History Museums, but the process of scientific enquiry is often itself the subject of exploration within exhibitions, but for us, an art museum, that was kind of a big leap and very scary. This interpretive angle is classified into two major visitor algorithms. And, a quick note about these. You’ll notice that they emphasise the how, not the what of knowledge and I think that’s an important distinction here. Personally, I would love to see more art museums focus on building visitors’ curiosity and enquiry skills to the same degree that we fret about in knowledge transmission and as we heard earlier, Columbus is doing some really cool stuff.

So, in our [intertext] we framed our interpretive angle. We really leaned into that legend double entendre, our director was really excited about that, and alluded to the factually questionable myths that we address in a second entitled Gleaning Fact from Fiction. Here we looked at PolitiFact’s Truth-O-Meter for inspiration. We described common misconceptions or tall tales and flat-out untruths about the artists, their paintings and abstract expressionism in a series of flip panels, but more importantly, we identified the ways in which art historians and conservators had proven these claims to be true, false or somewhere in-between. That really points to this adage that it’s not just demonstrating the fact, it’s also showing the process behind it.

In this panel, we presented a famous claim that was definitively refuted during a major conservation campaign of Pollock’s Mural in 2012. Pretty black and white. But, we also chose to include claims outside of binary true false frame and this panel is thought to shed light on how scholarship and attitudes can change over time. We also included an element that provided in-depth exploration for visitors to learn about conservation science. Really going at his hard and looking at it as a forensic mode of knowing.

We’re currently performing visitor interviews to determine the impact of those exhibitions’ interpretive focus as well as the use of metanarrative. These findings, in addition to now having established a precedent within the gallery, that’s a big deal for us art museums, will empower us to continue to expose our sources, thanks [unintelligible 00:04:19] wherever you are, and demonstrate how we know and what we know and we hope to be writing about this later.

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