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Film: Museums Respond

Monica O. Montgomery
Museum of Impact

Hi, friends. I’m Monica Montgomery from the Museum of Impact. Nice to meet you.

So I want everyone to close their eyes for about five seconds. Forgive my voice; I’m getting a cold. I want you to think about who you really care about. Is it your spouse or your partner, your children, your best friend, your parents, another family member, maybe your pets, your co-worker, your Twitter followers? Keep your eyes closed. So you’ve thought of who you care about, you visualise them. Now, think how can you take that feeling, that care, that concern, and radiate it outward to the societies that we serve, to the communities that we serve. How do we bind ourselves to community with the same kind of care that we have for those close to us, to our loved ones? How do we make it that it’s not business as usual but that we allow our museums to respond? Open your eyes.

I want to congratulate you. We’ve just set a collective intention to centre communicate care; the kind of care we have for each other, for our loved ones, for these institutions that we love so much that we work at, and all the places that we serve]. I want you to know that, in the iconic words of President Barack Obama, yes, we can. Our museums can respond. We can be in solidarity with movements. We can be thoughtful. We can be mindful. We can be compassionate, and we will.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the horrors that have been coming in the new cycle; the tragedies that have been happening daily in cities and spaces. All the violence, all the terror, and it’s overwhelming. I’m sure you might feel that way too. But also thinking about what are the civic spaces where people feel cared for? Where do people go to gather? Where do people feel welcomed? Is it hospitals? It is libraries? It is churches? It is universities, mosques, streets? Why would they come there? It’s because they know they’ll be cared for in a myriad of ways, and I really want to add museums to this list. I want to see museums rise to the charge to transition to be spaces of community care.

You might be wondering, what is community care? The way I’m defining it is this: it’s an architecture of practice to honour our community, centring advocacy and empathy and social responsibility. I’m writing a book on this, so stay tuned, and I want to hear your thoughts as well. I think that we can use the resources we have as museum workers, as professionals, as leaders, as public intellectuals to care. Our walls, curation and exhibits, our partnerships, outreach, our programmes, our resources, our education, our staff, our hearts, all of those are spaces for caring.

I’d like to talk about the ways that my museum, the Museum of Impact, is centred on community care and that other museums can do so are doing so. So thinking about the first tenet of advocacy, what does that mean, to advocate? This is a photo from a series that we do called Upstander Love Letters, where we are advocating for upstanders that people regard [unintelligible 00:03:42]. Some people think an upstander as an activist or a teacher or someone else in their family. We ask people to sit down and write a physical love letter that they think highly of, as an upstander. An upstander, the way I’ve defined it, is someone that stands up and speaks up and acts up for what they believe in, for the social good, for public benefit. Writing this love letter helps people affirm and centre the advocacy that’s happening. When you ask people who’s doing good in this world, and I do this often with students, young students, and they say, Martin Luther King. And I’m like, great, but he’s deceased. Who’s currently doing the work? Who do we regard? President Barack Obama. Okay, good, yes. There’s one. Who else? Silence, [unintelligible 00:04:29]. And so it’s troubling to me that so often, we can’t even identify who’s doing good work, who is upstanding, who’s speaking, who’s taking action. And so writing these letters, as well as giving inspiration, helps us to do that.

With Upstander Love Letters, we’re definitely asking people to crowd source their ideas around social good and change-making, so we’re collecting the letters and travelling them to each location, and now, we’re at about 100-plus strong of this archive. Later this week, I’ll be [PNCA] doing an art-making activity with the letters that have written, creating a community quilt to further cement the community care and the advocacy that’s happening. I think that the good thing about this is this letter-writing experiment, if you will, has spun off into its own festival called Upstander’s Festival, which really centres the change-making and the social justice work of others and how we can intersect with movements ourselves, and I’m happy to say that this room you’re sitting in, the Portland Art Museum, has posted an Upstander Festival. I just want to clap for Mike and the staff here [unintelligible 00:05:29].

Ways that Museum of Impact is centring empathy. We have a project in the sprit of empathy where we are honouring sometimes those that are forgotten; the mothers and the family members of those affected by gun violence. And so often, when the new cycle shifts, when things move on, people forget they both have to live with that loss. People have to live with that tragedy, be it police brutality or inter-community gun violence, it still affects and it still stings all the same.

So we have put effort into loving [unintelligible 00:06:06] mothers, really focussing on this 13 … excuse me … the 13 women that are pictured in this mural are from history and contemporary; mothers of the movement. So who are the mothers of people that have been slain, that have been taken, that have been extinguished? Mamie Till, Emmett Till’s mom is one of these mothers. Sandra Bland’s mom is on here, Mike Brown’s mom is on here. And we partnered with the City of [New York] which is doing a lot to battle gun violence and other forms of violence as well as a local theatre projection group called [unintelligible 00:06:37] Arts, to come together to make this mural but really spinning this off into a movement.

It was painted by a renowned international activism artist, Sophia Dawson, and she identified mothers that she felt would be great for this, but we actually, sadly, left space on the mural to add more mothers as time goes on because the tragedy continues. But it wasn’t just the painting that made this special; we reached out to the Department of Health and Human Services in [New York] and identified local mothers who had experienced loss. We gathered a cohort of mothers, about 25 of them, and over the past year, worked with them just to do healing, healing work, aromatherapy, sound therapy, we bought in spa treatments, we did art therapy, creative writing, we frequently just treat them to dinner. On Mother’s Day, we had all sorts of special things for them; kids from local neighbouring schools write love letters for them. We didn’t want them to feel forgotten. And sharing their stories and attempting to bring healing and honour to their community, that’s how we really wanted to centre empathy.

Another project that we’ve done and past pop-ups with the Museum of Impact is we need social justice because. Just bring people, a marker and a piece of paper that says we need social justice because dot, dot, dot, and let them write out what do they want to seek social justice around? What are issues? This mother and daughter duo has also been affected by gun violence and they said, the less you think about your oppression, the more you tolerance for it grows. Our communities have such profound things to say when we care about them, when we give them a platform, when we show that concern, the advocacy and the empathy and the social responsibility.

Lastly, I’d like to show an image that I just saw this morning; I had to add it to my slide. I was so happy to see that there is social responsibility happening around the natural disasters that have just been plaguing us. MoMA PS1 in New York is doing a fundraiser tonight for Puerto Rico and hurricane relief. I think they’re using their privilege and their resource and their space in a way that helps others, and that’s one of the most thoughtful and easy things they could do. That is social responsibility; not ignoring society’s issues, tragedies, but really embracing communities that need that care, and I’m proud of them for that and we can do the same.

So thinking about what we originally were, meditating on who do we care about, how to radiate that care outwards. I’d like to offer a list of things that we could try to integrate into our museum spaces that are social justice movements that we can offer care around. Black Lives Matter, DACA and Dreamers, [unintelligible 00:09:16], LGBTQ [unintelligible 00:09:16] rights, general human rights, immigration and migration, fighting against genocide, fighting against sex trafficking, fighting against child abuse, the environment, climate change, eco stewardship, championing literacy, championing affordable housing, championing health care. Being in solidarity with Sierra Leone, [Flint], Mexico, Puerto Rico, New Orleans, Ferguson, Milwaukee, Chicago, Baltimore, Ferguson, so many spaces that need our care.

My journey to community care is ongoing. The work I do as a museum director, as a consultant, as a graduate professor leaves me exhausted but fulfilled every night. You can find me channelling community care around movements that are new and old. Radicalising students in museum studies programmes; that’s one of my favourite ways to set up community care. I want the next generation of workers that come into our institutions to do it differently than they did it before. Creating a museum’s respond exhibition at the Miller Gallery here, which will close tonight, that is going to be an ongoing enduring resource where I’m adding all of the interesting case studies of what you’ve been doing there so we can document this moment in time where museums are pivoting and shifting, not only a digital resource available December 1st, and an ongoing exhibit that’s doing to crowd source the brilliance of what you all are doing.

You can find me marching in the streets; you can find me speaking truth to directors in boardrooms; you can find me teaching students; you can find me on TEDx stages talking about how to be an upstander; you can find me with the people because I care about the people. And museums respond, the movement that we are creating together, is another place to document your stories of community care.

I’ll hope that you’ll join me on this journey. I hope that the touchy-feely-ness of closing your eyes didn’t turn you off from the real work that has to be done, and I hope that you always keep community care at the centre of your museum. Thank you.

You may also enjoy Monica Montgomery’s talk ‘Expanding Museum People Through Social Media Practice

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