Sage Morgan-Hubbard is the Ford W. Bell Fellow in P-12 Education and Museums at the American Alliance of Museums.
I have been asking Alyssa Machida to share her brilliance with all of you since I met her last October at Mass Action MIA. I cannot imagine a better time to share her work and have us all begin to think more about the “dreamspace” and the possibilities.
Now is the time to acknowledge what is going on in our country and be reflective – to look deep, both within ourselves, and our multiple communities. Especially given the tragic events in Charlottesville this past weekend and the many tragic events happening each day around our world. We need to question what is our responsibility and role as museum workers and educators? This is what Alyssa does constantly with her ongoing research and toolkit.
To give some context to this interview, I used some of the Dreamspace toolkit questions to ask Alyssa about her own practice as a museum educator.
I strongly encourage you to learn more about Alyssa’s work on the Incluseum here: Dreamspace Blog Post 1 and Dreamspace Blog Post 2 and to listen to Alyssa talk through her work on the great new podcast Cultura Conscious here.
Sage Morgan-Hubbard (SMH): What was one of your first experiences with a museum?
Alyssa Machida (AM): I grew up in Los Angeles and my earliest memories of museums are mostly of school field trips. I remember there would be at least one museum field trip a year to LACMA, the Natural History Museum, the California Science Center, the Skirball … And I only have the vaguest memories of going to those places, none of which really pertain to anything I saw in the galleries.
I think as a kid I was way more excited about getting to sit next to my best friend on the bus and playing in the park at lunch afterwards. One of the first vivid experiences I do remember was when I was a youngster exploring the Getty with my mom. I was wandering through the galleries on my own and happened upon a room with different sculptural representations of Jesus Christ. Growing up non-religious, I hadn’t spent that much time around such imagery and I remember just walking into the room to see this man bloody, nailed to a cross, looking so pained. I fled the room fairly traumatized. That’s still my strongest childhood memory of a museum.
SMH: What brought you to Museum Education?
AM: My initial entry into museum education was really unexpected and unplanned; it was just the way things worked out. I didn’t have any particular experience with, or interest in, museums throughout my early life. When I arrived at UC Berkeley as an undergraduate, there were so many things I wanted to pursue. Eventually I found Art History and based on the discipline began thinking about a profession in the field.
Around junior and senior year, panic set in as I felt the pressure of needing a job to support myself and still not having any idea of what I wanted to do. After graduating in May 2013, I applied to a bunch of entry-level jobs and unpaid internships and finally landed a position as an Education Intern in School and Teacher Programs at the de Young Museum in San Francisco. It was there that I developed a real interest in, and passion for, learning and teaching in art museum settings. That curiosity led me to apply for a position as Kress Interpretive Fellow at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and the experiences I had there drove me to apply to graduate school … and here I am now.
SMH: Where has this path taken you? Which cities? What experiences?
AM: My learning in and about museums have taken me to Berkeley, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Boston, Cambridge, and Detroit. The things I saw in each city, at each institution, have all shaped my current perspectives. The experiences, concerns, and questions I had in each period of my life spurred my investigation and pursuit of new knowledges, spaces, approaches, and communities. It influenced the major shift I had from simply wanting to work in the field to where I’m now dedicated to the question of what it would look like to fundamentally transform how museum education is conceptualized and operates.
“Experience is the overcoming of perils. The word ‘experience’ shares a common root (per) with ‘experiment,’ ‘expert,’ and ‘perilous.’ To experience in the active sense requires that one venture forth into the unfamiliar and experiment with the elusive and the uncertain. To become an expert one must dare to confront the perils of the new” (Tuan, 1977, p. 9).
Ever since I was young I’ve been fascinated by maps. I loved finding the maps in the first pages of fantasy novels, drawing maps, and peering into old-school maps with mythical beasts guarding uncharted waters. I even had dreams of becoming a cartographer. As I grew older, my relationships with maps became complicated. They’re often inaccurate, tied to inequitable power distributions, and are conceived from problematic Western-centric perspectives. Traditional and existing maps became useless as I charted my migration alone across the country, leaving home and seeking home, losing and making memories, and coming to terms with my own identity as an unsettled wanderer, a diasporic QWOC. Where is my home? Where is my community? Where do I belong as one who defies labels and categorization (and takes pleasure in doing so) … as someone who isn’t allowed to fit-in, and doesn’t want to anyway … as someone who finds themselves in America, working in art museums, navigating white institutions while trying to resist and dismantle them as well.
These questions, and many more, fueled my need to create and cultivate an alternative space—one that welcomes in-betweenness, borderlands, ambiguity and nebulousness—one where things overlap and intersect, and people across spaces, disciplines, and boundaries can gather and build community to learn, share, gather, and heal.
“… the lifeblood of two worlds merging to form a third country–a border culture. Borders are set up to define the places that are safe and unsafe, to distinguish us from them. A border is a dividing line, a narrow strip along a steep edge. A borderland is a vague and undetermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary. It is in a constant state of transition. The prohibited and forbidden are its inhabitants” (Anzaldúa, 1999, p. 3).
Mapping is a fundamental strategy in the Dreamspace. I’m trying to create tools and frameworks for mapping the landscape of art museums, as well as turning inward to explore and better understand our selves.
SMH: What does education mean to you?
AM: The word education itself evokes many different things to me. My education has both ruined and saved my life. My K-12 education was a flawless representation of the banking model of schooling, socialization, and playing the game. It shaped me to be a flawed human being with unhealthy notions of self value and worth tied to problematic measures of “success.” Seeing these problems in my self, I was committed to pursuing a new path in my education as an undergraduate.
I always say it wasn’t until college that I really learned to read, write, and think for my self. But even as I was reshaping my relationship to education and learning, it was still within the constructs and system of a higher education institution. It took entering the “real world,” working in museums, and learning through experience over many years that I finally came to see education as an unfolding of the self, a lifelong process in pursuit of empowerment, liberation, and freedom.
SMH: What does learning mean to you?
AM: Similar to the way that education can mean many different things to different people in various contexts, learning is also multifaceted and people/context-based. For the purpose of this response, I’ll offer one perspective I’ve been ruminating on, which is learning as an act of resistance. In “I won’t learn from you,” Herb Kohl discusses learning, not-learning, and unlearning:
“Not-learning and unlearning are both central techniques that support changes of consciousness and help people develop positive ways of thinking and speaking in opposition to dominant forms of oppression” (Kohl, 1994, p. 23).
I think learning is meaningful when it’s self-aware, intentional, and purposeful. Otherwise, we learn thoughtlessly and senselessly, picking up the habits and thoughts intended by the oppressive systems within which we exist. A critical learner is one who then employs a combination of learning, not-learning, and unlearning to resist the oppressive structures we live in, in order to gain the knowledges, languages, and tools needed to dismantle and rebuild the fabric of society. This code-switching is required not only to resist the pressures of society, but also in order to navigate how to survive and thrive as a healthy, conscious individual in such a toxic environment.
SMH: What does teaching mean to you? What is your personal teaching style?
AM: I’m still processing what teaching means to me. Not coming from a traditional classroom teacher background or training, I’m deeply uncomfortable with considering myself a teacher, or even one who “teaches”. I think it’s the associations that those words hold in my mind in relation to schooling. I’m also still not totally comfortable with any notions of claiming authority, or being one who imparts knowledge. Such a notion is at odds with how I want to encourage education and learning to happen.
I identify as an educator so I spend more time trying to understand from that perspective — rather than a teacher teaching, I question: what is education and what does it mean to be an educator? The methods I can identify as fundamental to my practice include: gathering a community of learning, opening up and sharing space, challenging thinking, asking difficult questions, deep listening, being supportive and encouraging, and pushing critical consciousness.
In Education and the Significance of Life, Krishnamurti discusses the educator in a way that really speaks to the fundamental importance of engaging in “self work”:
“The right kind of education begins with the educator, who must understand himself and be free from established patterns of thought; for what he is, that he imparts. If he has not been rightly educated, what can he teach except the same mechanical knowledge on which he himself has been brought up? … To educate the educator—that is, to have him understand himself—is one of the most difficult undertakings, because most of us are already crystallized within a system of thought or a pattern of action; we have already given ourselves over to some ideology, to a religion, or to a particular standard of conduct. That is why we teach the child what to think and not how to think” (Krishnamurti, 1953, p. 99).
SMH: What is your personal learning style? Do you teach in a way that leans towards your personal learning style?
AM: I’m still trying to figure this out. Throughout the majority of my life I was being taught in particular ways in the K-12 and higher ed schooling system. I’ve devoted, and continue to spend, much of my learning energy into unlearning unproductive, ineffective, and harmful modes of playing the game instilled in me, and working to consciously establish ways for my self to engage in authentic, sustainable, impactful learning. The interpersonal element is very important to me. Connecting with another human being and developing trust is essential for my ability to learn.
I learn way more through one-on-one interactions and communications. I learn through my relationships with friends, colleagues, ancestors, writers, and artists. Every single thought I have is undoubtedly tied to the way other people and their work inspire me. I’m a fairly slow reader and thinker, I require a lot of time to process things so I’m not always the best in class or group learning situations; in these cases I’m engaging through deep observation. I learn through listening and being listened to. I learn through experience, which sometimes means I have to learn things the hard way. It’s not that I can’t anticipate or perceive risks, it’s just sometimes you don’t really know something for your self until you feel it and you know it in your bones.
Working on The Dreamspace Project is fun because it’s taking shape as I learn and unlearn about the world and my self. It’s providing me with the opportunity to consider what it means for me to be an educator, and for me to create from a perspective centered on what works for me. This is a reason why I’m so eager to get feedback and suggestions from folks because to make this a relevant resource I need it to have multiple points of access and encourage many modes of learning beyond my own. There’s no point in creating something that is difficult to use and doesn’t resonate with people!
SMH: What is your role in the art museum? How do you envision your role in the larger art museum/education landscape? How do you see your role in society, or in your community?
AM: My direct title is currently: Interpretive Specialist at the Detroit Institute of Arts. I work primarily on the reinstallation of their permanent collection of Asian art. I have a whole list of skills, expectations, and responsibilities required of me in relation to this position. As I transition from a background in teaching K-12 school groups in the galleries into Interpretation, I’m constantly molting in response to new learnings and challenges. This past year I’ve come to see my long-term role in art museums (regardless of title or institution), as that of fierce critic; committed to always be disappointed, impatient, and never satisfied.
It’s a difficult position, not validated by popularity or thanks. It usually makes me and everyone around me uncomfortable. It’s tense, painful, infuriating, maddening. I feel broken much of the time. I frequently lose sense of purpose. It’s full of questions and doubt. Most of the things I value as the essential components of “my work” are not part of my job description because institutions need their employees to support the functioning of the institution. As a major critic of the way our society and art museums in this country are fundamentally structured, I’m simultaneously trying to thrive in these spaces while chiseling new ways for my self and others to exist and create in these spaces. As I work to change the system from the inside out, my responsibility is to hold my self and my institution to rigorous accountability, continually fighting to dismantle white supremacist ableist cisheteronormative colonialist imperialist capitalist patriarchal systems that are foundational to our existence.
I always think about what James Baldwin writes in Notes of a Native Son:
“I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually. I think all theories are suspect, that the finest principles may have to be modified, or may even be pulverized by the demands of life, and that one must find, therefore, one’s own moral center and move through the world hoping that this center will guide one aright. I consider that I have many responsibilities, but none greater than this: to last, as Hemingway says, and get my work done. I want to be an honest man and a good writer” (1955, Baldwin, p. 9).
SMH: Where are you with the Project now and what is your vision for it? Who do you know has used it and have you received any feedback on it?
AM: I am currently in the midst of doing major revisions and creative production for the workbook. I’m working on a thought-piece analyzing issues of cultural appropriation/policing, their relevance to art museums, and why an emphasis on self-work and awareness is necessary to understanding them. I’m in the process of streamlining the workbook’s overall design and aesthetic in collaboration with my friend/artist Chelsea Brendle, including some overhaul of the first chapter. On top of that I need to finish up the second chapter and third blog post for the Incluseum, hopefully all done by the end of 2017! (*The newly designed first chapter and second chapter of the workbook, “Deconstruction,” will hopefully be published by the end of 2017!)
I am so humbled and grateful for the support and encouragement I’ve received for this project! I’m not sure that anyone is using the workbook officially/institutionally for educator trainings (yet) – at this point I think people are sharing and discussing with colleagues. The workbook is still young and raw so I’m happy to see people gathering and creating community around it even at such an early stage!
My next steps/goals for this workbook and project are as follows:
- write chapters 2 – 5
- set up a Dreamspace Project website
- continue reading/researching to improve all chapters
- clean up/streamline design and aesthetic of the workbook
- connect with education departments in museums across the country to see how this can be incorporated into institutional/educator trainings
- turn this into an actual book
I also totally acknowledge that I’m taking a lot of time to create this. I’m dealing with a fantastic but rather significant “problem” which is that I’m learning and growing as a person as I’m creating this. So my vision for it, and what I want it to include is constantly evolving—for the better! I’m really excited about it and the life that it’s taking on. However, every time I sit down to work on it, I have so much to process and account for. I’m learning that at a certain point, I just need to get something down and out into the public eye because this is essentially my life-work and I’m sure I’ll be editing and working on this as long as I’m alive. I was rereading one of my favorite books, Confronting Silence by Japanese composer and author Toru Takemitsu, and I found a passage that resonates with how I envision the life of the Dreamspace Project:
“My music is something like a signal sent to the unknown. Moreover, I imagine and believe that my signal meets another’s signal, and the resulting physical change creates a new harmony different from the original two. And this is a continuous, changing process. Therefore, my music will not be complete in the form of a score. Rather, it refuses completion” (Takemitsu, 1995, p. 142).
SMH: What do you envision for the Future of Museum Education?
AM: I think I need to take this moment to be clear and indicate how I see the current “future vision” art museums have as unstable and flawed. Let me emphasize that it is not the belief in inclusion, access, diversity, and equity that I find problematic. Rather, my concern is with the insincere rhetoric with which art museums employ this lexicon, giving false illusions of “progress” while still maintaining status quo operations under oppressive frameworks and mechanisms. Our continued pursuit of critical, thoughtful, and nuanced understandings of the problems we face are absolutely essential to how we work to solve them.
Looking strictly at the words coming out of museums, it would seem that their missions and mine are aligned. However I continue to be skeptical and critical of such messages because the core structures of the institutions remain unchanged. Such approaches can only perpetuate superficial results and point to one of our greatest challenges—that of interest convergence. This is a fundamental concept in critical race theory which argues that White people and institutions will only accommodate and advance the interests of people of color when those interests converge with, and can serve to promote, the self-interests of White people themselves. When people have shallow or flawed understandings of social justice issues, any actions they take will only continue to be tied to a numbers game of quotas, percentages, and measurable but heavily regulated growth.
We need to transform museums into becoming authentically public spaces. We need excluded, marginalized folks who are living within and navigating oppressive structures of society to be working in these spaces—not as occasional auditors, not as sporadic tokens or as performative icons of multiculturalism, but as empowered leaders making decisions shaping fundamental change from within these institutions. We need queer folks, People Of Color, and people of vastly varying abilities not just “included” but fundamentally a part of, thriving, and running these spaces. This is not a goal, this is merely the first step. My future vision of museum education cannot be enacted without this. Diversity cannot be our goal; otherwise we maintain this white supremacist ableist cisheteronormative colonialist imperialist capitalist patriarchal center, and all actions will simply serve to support this core.
“… White racists and White multiculturalists share in a conception of themselves as nationalists of the nation as a space structured around a White culture, where Aboriginal people and non-White ‘ethnics’ are merely national objects to be moved or removed according to a White national will. This White belief in one’s mastery over the nation, whether in the form of a White multiculturalism or in the form of a White racism, is what I have called the ‘White nation’ fantasy. It is a fantasy of a nation governed by White people, a fantasy of White supremacy.” (Hage, 2000, p. 18)
The future of museums needs to be conceived and built by diverse communities of people. The future must not, and cannot, be enacted by a majority of white folks, no matter how well-meaning, well-intentioned, or critical. This is the challenge we face to enact a better future.
SMH: Where do you see your self headed to next?
AM: That’s a fantastic question! I’m considering at some point within the next five-ish years entering into a doctoral program, possibly preceded by another masters program. While I fully believe that one doesn’t need to “attend” a school or university to engage in deep, authentic learning and study, it does provide you with opportunities to immerse yourself into a learning community and strengthen your theoretical core with access to resources, mentors, and time committed to reading and writing! I’m not exactly sure where or what program suits me best, and whether I’ll be able to work the Dreamspace Project into a dissertation, but that would be fantastic!
Having said that, I recently came to a very important realization. For the first six months after moving to Detroit and working at the DIA, I was so fixated on researching masters and doctoral programs. I felt unsettled and was focusing so much time and energy on where I was going next. It was making me uncomfortable and stressed. Then, I remembered that over the last five to six years, I’ve been jumping from various positions and programs, moving between four or five different cities in that time. That period of my life was so formative and provided invaluable life and professional experiences, but I’ve fallen in love with Detroit and really want to take time and be fully present here. I’m learning so much not only as a museum professional but as a human being; how to listen, how to share space, how to have fun, how to be a friend, how to be a supportive member of a community… I wouldn’t trade this for anything. So for one of the first times in my life, I’m okay with not knowing exactly what’s next. I have goals (and so much work to do!) but I’m focused foremost on cultivating my self and my dreamspace in Detroit.
About Alyssa Machida
Alyssa Machida is a writer, artist, and educator based in Detroit, MI. She is currently an Interpretive Specialist at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Working at the intersections of art, education, and social justice, she is dedicated to building critical pedagogy and anti-oppressive frameworks into museum practice. When not in the museum, she can be found biking across Detroit, reading a book on the riverfront, relearning piano, or catching a live jazz show. To connect with Alyssa, please email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Anzaldúa, G. (1999). Borderlands = La frontera (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books.
Baldwin, J. (1998). Collected essays (Library of America ; 98). New York: Library of America.
Hage, G. (2000). White nation : Fantasies of white supremacy in a multicultural society (Radical writing). New York, NY : b Routledge ; Annandale, NSW: Pluto Press ;.
Kohl, H. (1994). I won’t learn from you : And other thoughts on creative maladjustment. New York, NY: New Press : Distributed by W.W. Norton.
Krishnamurti, J. (1953). Education and the significance of life. New York: Harper.
Takemitsu, T., Kakudo, Yoshiko, & Glasow, Glenn. (1995). Confronting silence : Selected writings (Fallen Leaf monographs on contemporary composers ; 1). Berkeley, Calif.: Fallen Leaf Press.
Tuan, Y. (1977). Space and place : The perspective of experience. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.