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Episode 19: The State of Love and Trust

Don’t call this a comeback! After an almost three-year hiatus, Museopunks returns to explore progressive museum practice. How much has changed since the ‘Punks last hit the airwaves? Does Jeffrey have any new tattoos? Has Suse lost her Australian accent?

In this first episode of season two, the ‘Punks unpack the trials and tribulations of trust with Dr. fari nzinga and Adriel Luis. Report after report indicates that public trust in institutions is plummeting. The 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer, which surveys more than 33,000 people across 28 countries, showed the largest-ever drop in trust across the institutions of government, business, media and NGOs. Meanwhile, the Economist’s Intelligence Unit downgraded the US to a “flawed democracy” in its 2016 Democracy Index, due to erosion of trust in government and elected officials.

Museums have traditionally appeared to be cushioned against drops in trust. The American Alliance of Museum reports that museums are considered the most trustworthy source of information in America. Yet a 2013 UK study on public trust in museums showed that although museums are highly trusted, there was “a strong sense that if they started “telling people what to think” or became spaces for controversial debate, this might damage their integrity.” What does this mean for our institutions at a time when there is increasing pressure on public institutions to promote social justice, and intervene in political and social discourse? Join us to unpack these questions and more.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah, let’s, let’s do this whole bit.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah. Yeah.

Suse Anderson:                    Let’s start that again.

(Singing)

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Suse.

Suse Anderson:                    Jeffrey.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      It’s 2017.

Suse Anderson:                    How did that happen.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      I don’t know, but it feels good to be back.

Suse Anderson:                    (Laughs) It really does.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      How are you?

Suse Anderson:                    Good day. I’m (laughs) doing well. How are you?

Jeffrey Inscho:                      I’m doing, I’m doing okay. Yeah, it’s, it’s, uh, it’s like they say it’s like riding a bike and it, it is.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah. Who would have thought that podcasting would be the exact sort of thing that you can, uh, drop for a little while, a bit of a hiatus and pick up and still feel really at [harmon 00:00:48].

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah, a little bit of a hiatus. How long, what was it, three years?

Suse Anderson:                    Three years.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Wow.

Suse Anderson:                    A lot’s changed.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      A lot has changed in three years.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Um, what’s new with you?

Suse Anderson:                    Oh, um, just about everything. I think (laughs) last time we had spoke I had just arrived in Baltimore to work at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Suse Anderson:                    And that ta-, ti-, time just about everything in my life has changed. I am no longer at the BMA, although I am still in Baltimore. I am now an assistant professor in the museum studies program at George Washington University, which is-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Nice.

Suse Anderson:                    … fantastic. I am really loving teaching on museums and technology, but also museums and visitor experience, which is really lovely.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Cool.

Suse Anderson:                    Uh, still in Baltimore, though, so I guess that hasn’t changed, but, uh, married. There’s a, there’s a little, uh, kid on the way later this year.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      What?

Suse Anderson:                    So, I, yeah, the, uh, the world-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Holy cow.

Suse Anderson:                    … has definitely changed.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Wow, a lot has gone on with you in the last three years. That’s all awesome stuff, though.

Suse Anderson:                    Absolutely. Yeah, it’s all very exciting stuff. What about you? Tell me what’s been happening?

Jeffrey Inscho:                      What’s been happening with me? Uh, professionally I’m still in Pittsburgh. I am, uh, I’m running the studio here at Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, which is kind of like the design, development, and workflow laboratory for our four museums. It’s really, um, inspiring, creative, uh, fascinating work. Um, yeah, so I think we’re, I mean, personally the kids are getting bigger, you know?

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Playing some rock and roll again, which is good.

Suse Anderson:                    Excellent.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      But, yeah, I know, but I’m super stocked to be, um, talking with you again. It’s, uh, something that I did miss over the years and, and looking forward to, uh, getting back into the swing of things and, and, and, and exploring, um, some really interesting ideas here in Season Two of Museopunks.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah, you and me both. So how did we get back together? Tell me a little bit as to why people are hearing our voices again.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      So, yeah, it was, um, you know, it was, it was one of those things where we were, uh, we were doing our things for a couple years and got a really great email from, uh, from Liz Neely at AAM, uh, and, uh, she basically asked us, you know, would we ever think about doing version 2.0 of Museopunks. And, uh, I think we both kind of jumped at the chance, right?

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah, absolutely. It’s so exciting to be back doing the podcast again and also doing a podcast that this time around is presented by the American Alliance of Museums. I think if you were to ask me about aspirations for this podcast when we’d started, I just hoped that someone would listen. I never-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah.

Suse Anderson:                    … imagined that this would actually become something that may live on a professional body [inaudible 00:03:43] as well as, as well as doing something that we just both get to love and explore what it means to be a progressive museum or a progressive museum practitioner.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah, so-

Suse Anderson:                    Do you think that’s something that’s changed for you over the last couple of years? How different do you think what you’re thinking about now is from when we last did this?

Jeffrey Inscho:                      I, uh, you know, I think a lot has changed in the sector, um, when it comes to thinking about, um, progressive ideas. You know, when we started this in 2013, um, you know, progressivism, at least for the focus of this podcast, was, was squarely rooted in kind of digital at this point.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      You know? A lot of our, our first 18 episodes were really focused on, on digital pro-, progressivism in the sector, and I think over the years, um, and, you know, some call it post digital, some call it, um, other things, but I think the, the holistic nature of progressivism is permeating through areas of the museum, um, you know, outside of digital into education, obviously, and, and curatorial and it’s all kind of mingling together with these really forward-thinking ideas. And so, you know, in my opinion I think that’s really where, where I’m interested in, in, in exploring. I don’t know, what do you think?

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah, I agree. It’s sort of been funny. Th-, the time away, sort of this maturation period has also been my time living in a different country and-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Suse Anderson:                    … in a country that’s really been going through a lot. I mean, I think internationally, the world has been going through some really interesting times and interesting conversations lately, but we have … I think the conversations now that we are having and that we need to be having are very different from the ones that I would have said were, was important three years ago. I think technology, uh, while still hugely important for being a catalyst for a lot of these decisions, I think my emphasis on it and my thinking about it, I started to get a very different relationship to where I think technology fits within, um, sort of, within the complexity of these discussions.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah. You know, I think, um, Season One is, is … will serve as a nice snapshot of, of, of where thinking was at a point in time for the museum sector-

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      And hopefully Season Two, um, you know, you know, five years down the road you’re looking back at Season Two and, hopefully, you know, it was serve as that, as that snapshot in time. Speaking of snapshots in time, Suse-

Suse Anderson:                    Yes.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Uh, and doing some research for this first episode, um, uh, I, I noticed that our last episode was published on September 29th, 2014.

Suse Anderson:                    Uh-huh (affirmative).

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Do you know … I, I did some triv-, let’s do some trivia. Do you know, uh, what the number one song in the United States was?

Suse Anderson:                    (Laughs)

Jeffrey Inscho:                      On September 29th, 2014?

Suse Anderson:                    I really don’t, but I’m going to … Ooh, had, had T. Swift’s album dropped by that stage?

Jeffrey Inscho:                      It was right before T. Swift.

Suse Anderson:                    Oh, okay. I, I don’t know. I, I will say I went and saw her live in concert, and that was pretty amazing.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah.

Suse Anderson:                    But, uh, okay. Tell me, what was, what was the number one song?

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Okay, it’s just starting it’s eight-week reign at number one. It was “All About That Bass.”

Suse Anderson:                    (Laughs)

Jeffrey Inscho:                      (Laughs) You know, Star Wars had not been rebooted yet.

Suse Anderson:                    Uh.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      We were still six months away from the launch of the Cooper Hewitt pen.

Suse Anderson:                    (Gasp)

Jeffrey Inscho:                      And Donald Trump was still a wealthy real estate developed in New York City. So a lot has changed.

Suse Anderson:                    (Laughs) A lot has changed. I had not even experienced my, uh, my first Halloween living in America by that stage.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      (Laughs) Right, right, yeah.

Suse Anderson:                    Or my first Thanksgiving. There have been many changes (laughs). Wow.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah, well, it’s good to be back, and so what, what are we, uh, what this epis-, first episode, what are we going to be talking about?

Suse Anderson:                    So one of the things that I’ve been thinking about a lot is, you know, we’re talking about some political changes, as you just mentioned. Uh, last time we were on, there was a very different political, uh, space in terms of the President, et cetera, here in the US. And the last couple of months I’ve been noticing report after report after report which is really looking at how public trust in institutions has been plummeting in recent years.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Suse Anderson:                    And, you know, that’s often thinking about government and business, but it’s also reaching out to, um, non-profits, non-governmental organizations. In fact, in 2016, late 2016, um, there was even one particular scale that dropped America to the level of a floored democracy given the erosion of trust in government and elected officials. Now, museums have often been, um, I think saved from drops in trust, but I really wanted to talk to you and, and, and some guests-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah.

Suse Anderson:                    … to, to think about what these huge institutional shifts in trust mean for institutions. Are museums still trusted? What does the nature of trust look like? And how does this, how does the new political environment start to create different shifts for us as organizations?

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah, I mean, it’s such an important fundamental topic for, uh, for museums to really think about. Um, and so we’re (clears throat), we’re very, um, fortunate to, to have some … A couple really great guests this episode. Um, we’re going to talk with Dr. fari nzinga, who is doing some interesting, uh, writing on the topic of public trust and art museums. And we’re, we’re also going to talk to, to Adriel Luis, um, from, uh, the, uh, Asian Pacific American Center, uh, in DC.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Who, who is thinking a lot about how, uh, and, and whether museums, in fact, trust their public. So two sides of a very interesting, um, issue there.

Suse Anderson:                    Absolutely, so why don’t we get into those conversations now?

(Music)

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Fari nzinga was born and raised in Boston, Massachusetts, and graduated with a BA from Oberlin College in 2005. Fari earned both her MA and her PhD in cultural anthropology from Duke University. Having lived in New Orleans since 2009, her dissertation explored black-led, community-based institutions using art and culture to help achieve their social justice missions as well as the political economic landscape in which they operate. For two years she worked as the public policy officer at the New Orleans Museum of Art where she attempted to facilitate institutional transformation around issues of transparency, access, inclusion, and equity. Currently, fari is an adjunct professor of museum studies at Southern University at New Orleans, one of only two historically black colleges and universities to house a masters level museum studies program in the United States. Fari, thanks so much for, uh, talking with us on Museopunks.

fari nzinga:                              Thanks so much for having me.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Oh, our pleasure. Um, so I think Suse and I both discovered your work at MCN last year, uh, in New Orleans where you gave a talk called public trust and art museums. Um, and to the thesis of that talk really hinges on the nuanced differences between trust and public trust. Can you explain how these are different for our listeners?

fari nzinga:                              Sure. Um, I think that trust in interpersonal relationships is a two-way street and the way that public trust has been defined has largely been from within the art museum sector itself and hasn’t really taken to … into account, um, all of the contributions that audiences and other stakeholders are willing to make or wanting to make. So it seems to me like public trust in the art museum context is, is really, is really a, a way of thinking thoughtfully about why they’re doing what they’re doing on behalf of the public that they’re serving. Um, and so sometimes it can be a bit aspirational and sometimes it can act like a justification, um, but I think that for art museums in particular, or museums that have collections in particular, um, public trust is really about understanding the time scale in a way. Like everything we’re doing isn’t just for the now and isn’t just for today, but is really about preserving things so that the next generation or however many generations down the line people will still be able to look at these objects and interpret this information.

Suse Anderson:                    That’s a really interesting idea that public trust was defined for the public and not with the public, whereas you took that sort of interpersonal trust as being a two-way street. Do you think these ideas are mutually exclusive? Do we need to have, um, an inter-, sort of interpersonal trust in order to have public trust? Or are they such different ideas?

fari nzinga:                              Well, I do think there’s overlap and I … especially in museums that have a very close relationship with the communities that they serve. Um, and I do think that public trust should take into account the, um, the ways in which the public wants to interact with and engage with museums. So I see that museums over time are opening themselves more and more to understanding the visitor experience and to, um, really having conversations that try to move their practice forward, whether that’s, um, curatorial practice or whether that’s, you know, a new innovation in terms of exhibition design or technology, um, that helps, you know, make things accessible to people. I really do think that, hopefully, you know, we’ve been in a kind of 30-year period of conversation, so hopefully 30-something is the charm-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      (Laughs)

fari nzinga:                              … and, you know, we (laughs) can really start to put some of these ideas into action.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      You know, wi-

fari nzinga:                              And some of the best museums out there are already doing that.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah, most definitely. Um, you know, when I think of the term public, I think, you know, um, it’s so broad, right? And I, I come from kind of a communication background where there’s a general saying that there’s no general public. So, you know, what, what do you think museums can do to start to learn more about their public, um, and the communities and, and the, the people, um, and really start to identify who it is they’re, they’re serving?

fari nzinga:                              Well, one thing that I learned when I was at NOMO wh- … Our offices were in the basement of the museum and all the fun stuff happens on the first, second, and third floors. So what I had to do, even though, you know, I felt tethered to my desk on so many occasions, was really create reasons to go outside of my, um, office-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah.

fari nzinga:                              … and to get out of the basement and to see with my own eyes the visitors coming in and the field trips and how people are interacting with the space. Um, how people are interacting with each other in the space. And even going outside of the museum wholly and, um, talking to folks who don’t necessarily frequent the museum, but who are very much involved with arts and culture in the city or in the town where the museum is located. So I really do think that museums have so much, um, fertile ground that’s been … that hasn’t been tilled just yet in terms of going outside of their own walls to meet people where they’re at and to understand, you know, what it is that they want and how they would like to engage.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah, it’s interesting that you say that. I mean, you’re, you’re also just talking about people going inside their own walls and really spending time watching their visitors, talking to their visitors, and being with them, which it shouldn’t be a rare practice, but in some ways it actually is that notion of getting away from your desk to go and spend time with visitors often seems to be quite a rare one. But, I guess that also then brings up this idea that part of what we’re talking about when we’re talking about things like public trust is an element of access and access can be, uh, right across the museum. We can talk about the physical space to digital collections. What do you think are some of the key areas of access that when we really open them up can impact how museums serve their public and serve the public trust?

fari nzinga:                              One of my favorite quotes is by a woman named Anna Julia Cooper and Anna Julia Cooper was a black American woman who was born, um, enslaved, and who over the course of her lifetime eventually saw freedom. Her mother was enslaved to her father, in fact. And, um, Anna Julia Cooper would go on to graduate from Oberlin College, my alma mater, um, and write books and attend international, um, conferences around issues of Pan Africanism around women’s rights and she said, “When and where I enter the whole race enters with me.”

Suse Anderson:                    Mmm.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Mmm.

fari nzinga:                              And she was talking about the ways in which when you offer a seat at the table to a black woman, she’s not just going to represent her own interests, but she’s also going to represent the interests of the young people and the children in her community, the men of her community, as well as the women of her community. Um, and I think that that quote for me is so powerful because it rings so true. And she wrote this in 1892, by the way.

Suse Anderson:                    Mmm.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Mmm.

fari nzinga:                              Right? And it’s 2017 and I see, um, and I see museums as a place that can greatly benefit some people having access to go into that space on an equal footing, not just as visitors, but behind the scenes-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Right.

fari nzinga:                              … in order to make some decisions, in order to contribute to the conversation being had about art and culture, about civic engagement, you know, about some of the great Democratic values of our time, if you will.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      (Laughs)

fari nzinga:                              Uh, which I think that a lot of times museums love to tout themselves as these kinds of citadels where this heady intellectual, you know, thing is going on in the background even if they’re trying to make it accessible to the everyday person by not using language that could, you know, be confusing or exclusionary or what have you. Um, so all that to say that I think issues of access really … We do them a disservice when we speak only of, A, the physical plant, or, um, B, the visitors who are able to, you know, be in the physical space because a museum is a physical space, but it’s also the ideas that animate that physical space. And so when you don’t have people at the table behind the scenes-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Mm-hmm (affirmative).

fari nzinga:                              … constructing those ideas, deconstructing those ideas, representing those ideas, engaging with them, interpreting them, and so forth, then you really get a very monotone narrative that puts people off, and in turn, makes visitors feel as though that’s not for me. And that’s where you start to see issues of access really jamming up the works, you know?

Suse Anderson:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

fari nzinga:                              But it starts at the root, not at the level of the diversity of your visitorship. That’s really just a symptom.

Suse Anderson:                    Fari, I think it’s really interesting to hear you talk about that. One of the things … One of the lines that really stood out to me, uh, in the piece that you wrote about public trust and art museums was this line that, “The trust of the public is earned when an art museum is seen as an authority on matters of artistic excellence.” But then when we talk about inviting people into the door and not just into the building, but actually behind the scenes, I sometimes worry, or not worry, but I’m, I’m curious about how those different ideas relate to one another. Do we … Is the museum still seen as the authority at that point when you’re, um, when you’re sort of handing over that authority? How does that work?

fari nzinga:                              Well, I think that’s a really interesting conundrum, but as a, as a professor when I am talking with my students, they always remark to me, you know, it’s so interesting that just by virtue of being in a museum an object becomes more valuable. An artist becomes more valuable, an idea becomes more valuable, right? And, and, you know, we may not have any idea what that object was because guess what? We might not have anybody who is culturally competent enough to judge whether this object is of artistic excellence, right?

So I think the anxiety that people, uh, have around, you know, if we let more people in, will we be lowering the quality, is really, um, it’s the wrong question to be asking, you know? I mean, you know someone smart when you see them. You’re not just inviting any old person into the space and say, “Here, have access to all of the treasures and the resources that we have.” You’re making a, a judgment and you’re going out and you’re trying to look for people who are going to have something to contribute, who are going to, um, also believe in the value of excellence, right? I mean, some people don’t believe in excellence. Some people don’t believe in perfection, right? It’s just a question of, you know, good enough.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Right.

fari nzinga:                              And then some people really strive and always want to push themselves, and those are the people that you try to find and those are the people that you try to partner with, and every community has that.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Mm-hmm (affirmative).

fari nzinga:                              Unfortunately, that is not reflected in the museum sector, but that doesn’t mean that (laughs) they don’t exist. And I, I think that I speak for myself and for many other people when I say, “I’m tired of hearing museum workers, and especially people in leadership in museums say, we just don’t know where to find these people. Well, where are they? Are there qualified people out there who can do this?” Right, it’s like hello, yes (laughs), yes there are people of every race, of every sexuality, in every geographic region who are smart and interesting and have something to contribute. And if you can’t find them, then that really says something more about your skillset …

Suse Anderson:                    Mmm.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah, for sure-

Suse Anderson:                    … than it does, you know, about their lack of numbers or their existence or nonexistence.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah, and to, you know, speaking, you know, to your point of what is included or enveloped within the museum or within the organization as, as conveying meaning or value, if you look at what is not, right? I mean, um, there’s, there’s definitely, um, work to be, work to be done there, um, at, at, kind of analyzing the semiotics and meaning around, um, a lot of that. And speaking of, of, um, 2017 and the, you know, the status of things as it is at this point in time, you know, I look back at your MCN talk and realize that that was given mere days prior to the presidential election here in the-

fari nzinga:                              Yes.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      … United States.

fari nzinga:                              It sure was.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      And we, we all know how that turned out. Um, but how does this heightened level of polarization or uncertainty that we’re experiencing, um, you know, throughout the fabric of our society impact, um, the public’s ability to trust institutions in a way, you know, be it government or be it museums? Like, how is, how is the s-, the situation that were, that were living in impacting things in your opinion?

fari nzinga:                              In my opinion, everyone’s on edge (laughs).

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah.

fari nzinga:                              Everyone’s suspicious. That’s what polarization does, you know, it’s like, well, if you’re not on this end of the pole, then I have to be suspicious of you because I don’t necessarily believe in the spectrum. Um, and so the spectrum becomes unintelligible and I don’t know what to make of anything that’s not, you know, what I understand it to be, my position. I think that in this time museums have a tremendous amount of power that they can wield if they choose to. It’s the same amount of power that they had before Trump was elected, but this can add some urgency to it. Um, people want to know that institutions are indeed thinking of the public’s best interests. And one of the things that I think is a little bit upsetting is that, um, there … People want to kind of stake out this neutral territory and I think that’s very dangerous. And I think that that has gotten the museum sector into the jam that it’s in now, quite frankly. It’s so neutral that for scores of people who would be natural, you know, members, supporters, visitors, um, what … Not stakeholders, but what’s the word?

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Mmm.

fari nzinga:                              Board members, right?

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Sure.

fari nzinga:                              People who would naturally because they’re into the arts they’re upwardly mobile. They have a certain class status, a certain educational background, right?

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Mm-hmm (affirmative).

fari nzinga:                              I mean, that’s what we’re talking about when we talk about the museum community or the museum sector.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah.

Fari nzinga:                             Well, every race has this, every sexuality has this, every ethnicity has this, and every geographical region has this, right?

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Mm-hmm (affirmative).

fari nzinga:                              Um, however, the public always is assumed to be neutral and that neutrality always takes on a racial, uh, understanding, right?

Jeffrey Inscho:                      (Laughs)

fari nzinga:                              I don’t have to tell you what it is, but I bet you can guess it when we’re talking about the public, what does that mean and who then begin to envision in your mind as your every person.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Right. So, you know, looking back at this MCN talk, you, you know, you, you really astutely point out that, that libraries have been making great strides and kind of earning higher, higher levels of credibility by championing the rights and civil liberties of those they serve. And I, I might even go further and say that I think this is, this progress is really due to the fact that libraries have kind of successfully transitioned into a, into a service model, right, with a-

fari nzinga:                              Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jeffrey Inscho:                      … a primary focus on providing access to knowledge for everybody.

fari nzinga:                              Yes.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Um, and so do you think, you know, A, do you think museums might learn from this, uh, transition to a service-

fari nzinga:                              I sure hope they will.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      And ho-, how? I mean, uh, you know, is there, are there things we can look to and point to and say, um, yes, this, this is where we need to pivot and this is where we should be, um, working toward, you know?

fari nzinga:                              Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Um, uh-

fari nzinga:                              Yes. So one thing is, um, when museums talk about diversity and inclusion, or they talk about cultural equity, or they talk about, you know, expanding their publics, um, you know, it’s, it’s not enough to just talk about it, but, um, you have to actually make those audiences aware of the fact that, A, you would like them to be, you know, at your table.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Mm-hmm (affirmative).

fari nzinga:                              And then you have to court them just like you would court anybody because nobody’s going to give you the time of day just because, right?

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah.

fari nzinga:                              No free lunch in this capitalist society we live in, right? Rule number one, econ. Uh, but I do think that, for example, when I was doing the research for this paper, I interviewed Arnold Lehman at the Brooklyn Museum of Art.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah.

fari nzinga:                              And he said, “You know, we have been so tremendously successful because we took an activist stance. We said Brooklyn is a multi-dimensional, multi-faceted, multi-cultural, multi-lingual community and we’re going to make sure that in every facet of our operation in, in our institution we’re going to reflect that. And we’re not going to settle for, oh, well, this is just how the cards fell, right? We’re going to go out there and if people aren’t coming to us, then we’re going to go to them and we’re going to find out why they’re not coming to us and what can we do differently?

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Right.

fari nzinga:                              “And we’re going to be aggressive about it and we’re going to pursue,” you know, be not perseverant, but, uh-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Determined and, yeah.

fari nzinga:                              Yeah, determined or even-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Dedicated, right, like … yeah.

fari nzinga:                              … a little bit pesky, you know what I’m saying?

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Right, yeah.

fari nzinga:                              Like he … Persistent is the word-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      (Laughs)

fari nzinga:                              … (Laughs) I was trying to say (laughs), yes, you know. Um, and so I think that libraries are kind of … They have an easier sell because there’s a ton of books there and there’s computers that people can use and there’s already stuff that people want. And in museums with collections, a lot of times that is the case, but a lot of times you have to tell people why they should want that stuff in the first place.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Right.

fari nzinga:                              And you really have to be active and you really have to be deliberate, um, and you, you can’t take anything personally and you can’t be willing to take no for an answer, you know?

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah.

Suse Anderson:                    Fari, one of things that I think is really interesting coming out of this discussion is you’re sort of talking a lot about, um, neutrality and taking almost an activist stance. There was a 2013 study in the UK which was around public trust in museums and when the museum association in the UK wrote about it, they noted that it, it suggested that museums are highly admired because of their apolitical stance. And there was a strong sense and again, this was a few years ago and it was in the UK, but there was a strong sense that if museums started telling people what to think or became spaces for controversial debate, it might damage their integrity. In fact, the museums association in the UK went so far as to say, “Attempting to shape values even in a transparent way could be seen by the public as betraying a museum’s essential purpose of conveying factual information.”

But I think particularly because of the current political climate and even just in general, it really feels like there’s a lot of pressure from within our sector to be political and I think a lot of it actually comes from the people working within our sector see themselves, um, as seeking to make change. So I’m curious as to what you think about this tension and how we sort of resolve this idea, this gap, between almost a, a notion that public trust may relate to neutrality or, or does it? I mean, I’m really curious to unpack those ideas.

fari nzinga:                              Well, I guess what I would want to know more about were the kinds of methods behind the survey. Who was surveyed? Who were amongst the surveyors, you know? Uh, because one of the things I was put onto when I got MCN was the visitor of color project by Nikhil Tivedi and who is the other person that was with him on that?

Suse Anderson:                    Is, is it Porchia who does that? There’s Porchia [crosstalk 00:33:50].

Jeffrey Inscho:                      I believe it is Porchia, yeah.

fari nzinga:                              Yeah, Porchia[crosstalk 00:33:52]. Um, and I think it’s brilliant and fantastic and it is so needed and so necessary because until visitors of color tell museums look, we’re tired of the same hack-kneed narrative that you keep serving us.

Suse Anderson:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

fari nzinga:                              And we’re tired of your interpretation of our history and of our culture and of our contributions to science innovation or what have you, right? When will you … And this goes back to the question of excellence, right? So who gets to judge and who gets to interpret what from our rich history and artistic traditions is excellent and what is not excellent?

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Mm-hmm (affirmative).

fari nzinga:                              And why? And how … And what makes you the authority on that, right? And so, um, when I teach their, uh, entries in my class, a lot of times my students who also, you know, SUNO is as you said in the introduction, a historically black university. So my students are African-American for the most part, and when I, you know, expose them to this, they’re like, “Oh, yeah. I can relate to that. I can definitely relate to that. Let me tell you about the last time I went to such-and-such museum,” you know?

Suse Anderson:                    Mmm.

fari nzinga:                              And everyone had stories. Everyone has stories and some of them are recent, and some of them are like, “I don’t even go to museums because when I was in fourth grade this thing happened and it just turned me off completely.”

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah.

fari nzinga:                              You know? So I really do have to … I think that we all should question like you were saying, Jeffrey, this public, who is the public-

Suse Anderson:                    Mmm.

fari nzinga:                              … that gets to say, you know, this is what museums should do or should be?

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Right, hmm.

fari nzinga:                              How, I mean, how can we say that attempting to shape values is at odds with, um, disseminating factual information? Are those two things not in alignment?

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Mmm.

fari nzinga:                              Are those two things automatically contrary to one another? I don’t think so.

Suse Anderson:                    Mmm.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Big stuff.

fari nzinga:                              Yeah.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Um, before we let you go, fari, I … There’s, uh, uh, I’m just, I’m personally curious. I notice that when you, you write your name you use lower case letters. Why is that?

fari nzinga:                              Um, it’s kind of an homage to Bell Hooks who is a feminist, theorist, and also a writer and, um, a social critic, cultural critic. And that’s not her given name, but she writes under the name Bell Hooks because she is herself paying homage to her grandmother.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      (Laughs)

fari nzinga:                              And I love the way that she doesn’t capitalize it and I love the way that she takes her grandmother’s name because she is representing for everybody’s grandmother. She’s representing for all of those black women who, you know, had a contribution to this society that whose names we don’t remember and who we might not capitalize (laughs)-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Right.

fari nzinga:                              … because they aren’t seen as important.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Hmm.

fari nzinga:                              Um, in addition, she also doesn’t capitalize it because she’s like, “I want you to talk about my ideas, not my name.” And so I really, I really want people to engage with the scholarship. I want them to engage with the analysis. I want them to engage with the critique, with the level of imagination, you know? Um, and it’s not really supposed to be about a [inaudible 00:37:31] of personality.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Right.

fari nzinga:                              So that’s … Those are some of the things I’ve borrowed from, from her.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Very cool. So if listeners to the podcast, uh, want to stay in touch with your scholarship and with your ideas, um, where might they be able to do that?

fari nzinga:                              Um, actually, I’m on the editorial board of Createquity.com and so people can check out some of the work that I am helping to do research and writing on. Um, and until then I guess they’ll have to follow me on Twitter, @fari_nzinga.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Cool, and we’ll put links to all this stuff in, in the show notes so that listeners can, uh, can definitely stay in touch and, and stay up to date with, uh, the amazing thinking and, and work and, uh, scholarship that, that, that you’re doing. It’s, it’s, it’s fantastic stuff, so fari, thanks so much for, uh, being a part of, of Museopunks.

fari nzinga:                              Thank you so much for having me. It’s been an honor and really, really fun.

(Music)

Suse Anderson:                    Adriel Luis is a self-taught musician, poet, curator, coder, and visual artist who believes that imagination is key to transforming cultural paradigms. As the curator of digital and emerging media at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, he’s focused on exploring intersectional identities in the US and contemporary Asian diasporic art. He’s also part of the illiteracy art collective and sometimes moonlights on design projects with various artists and non-profits. Adriel frequently travels to different parts of Asian with particular interest in how digital space shapes global communities and how varying levels of freedom of expression channel artistic political imagination. Adriel can be found across online platforms as at Drzzl, D-r-z-z-l. Adriel, welcome to the show.

Adriel Luis:                             Hello, hello.

Suse Anderson:                    It’s so wonderful to have you joining us here on our first season back of Museopunks.

Adriel Luis:                             Ah, so excited.

Suse Anderson:                    We have just given you a, a sort of grand introduction with your full bio and I really want to drill down a little bit into the Asian Pacific American Center and the work that you do there. Can you tell us a little bit more about it? I’m not sure everyone, of our listeners, would be familiar with what, uh, one of the centers is at the Smithsonian and a little bit more about your job?

Adriel Luis:                             Okay, cool, cool. So, um, the Smithsonian is the institution that essentially presents the, the national museums of the United States, uh, so we are a complex that includes a bunch of museums and research centers and a zoo and observatories. Um, we are part of a center that, uh, or we are the center that focuses on Asian Pacific American history and culture, but we’re not a traditional museum in that we don’t have a brick and mortar building. We don’t have, uh, traditional kind of collection. And a lot of the work that we’ve been doing because of those circumstances have been I think a lot more along the lines of, uh, tackling topics that we hear our communities, um, you know, uh, who, who are interested in talking about these things. And, and so because we don’t have a collection, we, we do have a community and, and that’s kind of the way that we look at it.

Um, we … Our flagship project recently has been, uh, what we, what we call culture labs which are basically museum happenings that like museums feature art and, um, and historic objects and, uh, you know, are places of learning and realization. But they’re developed from start to finish using community organizing practices as opposed to, as opposed to going straight to sort of the traditional museum handbooks for putting this together. Um, and so we really kind of see, for example, as opposed to lineups for group shows, we’re developing arts collectives, um, artist collectives out of the people who are, who are developing the work instead of the curators telling the answers, the curators are asking the questions. And, and we see the work that we, that we curate as prompts for, for things that, uh, that our visitors can come in and actually engage with directly and on site with both the artists and the curators.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Nice, so, uh, one of the recent, um, culture labs was, uh, was called CrossLines and, um, you know, it was kind of, uh, pitched or talked about as a culture lab on the intersectionality and it featured, you know, more than 40 artists and scholars, right? Can … How did this particular … Was this the first culture lab that you did?

Adriel Luis:                             Yeah, yeah, that was the first culture lab. Um, it took place at, uh, the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Cool.

Adriel Luis:                             … which used to be the US National Museum. So before any of the other Smithsonian museums opened, this was the kind of where we showed off our stuff-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah.

Adriel Luis:                             … Um, back in the late 1800s.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Walk us through the process of how that, that particular culture lab took shape. I mean, how do you, um, how do you start talking with participants and, and, and that sort of thing?

Adriel Luis:                             Um, so I guess that all kind of starts with, like, when I, when I started at the Smithsonian, um, I had come fully from a background as a full-time artist, um, you know, who was also doing, you know, web and graphic design, um, on a freelance basis. And so going from that into becoming a federal employee of like the largest institution of the world was like yeah, definitely a big ice bucket of water.

Suse Anderson:                    (Laughs)

Jeffrey Inscho:                      (Laughs) Really?

Adriel Luis:                             Right (laughs). I was, like, why is it so hard to buy a pencil [crosstalk 00:43:37]?

Jeffrey Inscho:                      (Laughs)

Suse Anderson:                    (Laughs)

Adriel Luis:                             But, um, you know, I think it also just gave me a lot of, um, of avenues to think about things in, in just, like, in a kind of a scale that, that I, I just really couldn’t imagine when I was just kind of working, working on, on, on my own thing.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah.

Adriel Luis:                             Which I really appreciate and I think, um, you know, that, that’s where I kind of came to console myself whenever I was, like, going through crazy bureaucracy was, like, the fact that it’s, like, okay well, you know, at … what … at some points this was just an idea and, you know, there’s all these checks and balances now, but you know, like, you can actually be creative in the way that you navigate that stuff. Um, you know, that, that kind of goes into, um, you know, uh, when you’re reading my bio and I was talking about kind of different levels of freedom of expression, you know, like, we think about that in different societies, but in each setting you go into, you walk into a bar, you walk into a museum, you work in a museum, you’re constantly navigating what you can and can’t say and that’s kind of, like, you know, uh, a creative exercise in its own.

And so the culture lab was basically, uh, you know, what we came up with after, I think, several years of just learning the ropes of what it means to work in the Smithsonian, and, and how can we still have difficult conversations, um, but in ways that, that still, I think, are digestible to people who are, um, are used to kind of traditional exhibitions and stuff like that.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah, fantastic. In terms of the subject matter, CrossLines was an exploration of intersectionality.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Suse Anderson:                    We’re talking today a lot about trust and public trust. How important is intersectionality to this trust dynamic between museums and the public?

Adriel Luis:                             Sure, so intersectionality is a term that was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw,um, and it is essentially the understanding that, I think, past concepts of, like, diversity and things like that have still kind of segmented people into groups that are very, uh, one dimensional. And so diversity is often times, like, allocated to just race or to just gender and things like that. And intersectionality is, is really, um, recognizing that, that, uh, the ways that we as people, um, interact with each other and with the world is this really messy, complicated, um, smorgasbord of all the different things that, um, that, that encompass us. Um, you know, like the ways that, that my race and my sexuality and my gender collides is really how, uh, how my experience with the world is formed as opposed to, you know, like, me going through one situation and being, like, “This happened to me because of my Asian-ness.” You know, and so-

Suse Anderson:                    Right.

Adriel Luis:                             … Um, for, for me growing up in California in a very diverse neighborhood, um, and, and city and environment, intersectionality, you know, like, even though the word was relatively new to me, the, the concept was, um, you know, very organically understood. But, um-

Suse Anderson:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Adriel Luis:                             … When we started talking about at the Smithsonian, um, you know, some of the reactions that we got within the institution was that, oh, this term is very academic, um, you know, can you use a different word to promote this event because, um, the visitors might not understand it? And, you know, I saw that as actually an opportunity to do what the Smithsonian does best, which is take concepts that are foreign and abstract and make them, uh, accessible, family-friendly, even fun, you know, and it’s like-

Suse Anderson:                    Hmm.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah.

Adriel Luis:                             … if you can, if you can, kind of, kind of what I say a lot is, you know, if the Air and Space Museum can explain rocket science, then surely we can explain how someone can be gay and a woman and black at the same time.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      So, uh, CrossLines and culture labs, they, um, you know, from the distance that I’m, I’m viewing them from, uh, seem to be really making some strides and achieving the goal of kind of growing trust between a, a museum and, and its, and its public. And in some ways, uh, and in interesting ways I think it, it kind of blurs the line between the two in, in fundamental ways. How has this idea, this progressive idea of cultural labs, how is it being received internally and particularly among your curatorial colleagues?

Adriel Luis:                             Mmm. Well, specifically within our center, we’re super-duper small, and so we’re, we operate like a grassroots organization on a day-to-day basis because we have, like, a staff of, like, seven or eight.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Okay.

Adriel Luis:                             And, uh, and, and so, you know, whether you’re a curator or an admin or education, um, when you have an idea it, it’s heard and it’s processed. And, um, you know, this whole idea of community organizing based museum practice isn’t just me. Um, most of the people on my staff come from sort of non-traditional backgrounds or backgrounds that are outside of museum scopes, and we all kind of bring that to the table. So, like, one of, uh, you know, one of my co-curators, um, [Kuluva Korea 00:49:02] is like based in the big island of Hawaii. He has done everything from, you know, like marine research to like farming his own land, and so he brings that to the table in ways that me, as digital and emerging media curator, you know, it’s very new to me, but I think that the, the idea of just kind of, like, trusting, trusting what’s around you and especially for museums. If, if you are to be a reflection of the society that you are contextualizing, then, then where can you loosen the grasp? Like, where can you kind of as a curator be the person or the group of people who are actually, uh, taking, taking down barriers, uh, as opposed to kind of putting up guidelines and, and, and, um, you know, rules and things like that.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah, it sounds like there’s a, there’s a really strong element of cross-disciplinarity or transdisciplinarity there that, um, really helps to enable these type of things.

Adriel Luis:                             Yeah, and I think it’s, it’s kind of scary for, for people who are coming from more traditional museum backgrounds, um, and I get it because you’re operating from a status quo of, like, the … your average visitor is going to come into a space expecting answers because that’s what, that’s what they’ve been raised, right? They’ve been raised with this certain kind of didactic, um, you know, with a certain kind of pedagogy that, um, you know, could be its own lesson in itself, you know? But, but that’s kind of where we I draw from my experience as an artist because I started off as a spoken word artist and so your, you know, a lot of the job is going into a space and saying I’m going to do poetry and then, and then proceeding to dismantle what people think is poetry by presenting something different, right? And then so that’s kind of what we’re doing with these culture labs is, like, we’re a museum. We’re going to do this museum happening now in real time while we do this amazing show. Let us also, um, complicate the ways that you, um, are used to interacting with museums.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah, I think that’s really interesting. In your curatorial practice you’ve champi-, championed this idea of sort of the democratic shine of information and how that gets unlocked by digital space. Can you talk to us a little bit more about how this concept comes together because it seems really, um, aligned with what you’re talking about and I’m, I’m curious how, how much of this has been formed by your world not just then in sort of, uh, spoken word spaces and artistic spaces, but also in digital spaces.

Adriel Luis:                             Mm-hmm (affirmative), um, yeah. You know, like, I, I didn’t think I was going to get the job when I applied for it-

Suse Anderson:                    (Laughs)

Jeffrey Inscho:                      (Laughs)

Adriel Luis:                             … and, you know, like, I didn’t know anybody at the Smithsonian. Someone forwarded me the job application and I just filled it out, like, like it was a, you know, like I was filling out an application for, like, Top Shop or something, I don’t know.

Suse Anderson:                    (Laughs)

Jeffrey Inscho:                      (Laughs)

Adriel Luis:                             Uh, and then and, and I didn’t really get, I didn’t really know what a curator was, um, and googling it didn’t help.

Suse Anderson:                    (Laughs)

Adriel Luis:                             Um, but what I do like to say is that I am one of the early results of the, the fact that to be a curator has become a more democratic concept. Um, you know, to the dismay of some curators who I think, you know, worked really hard and like to, to, to get that title. You know, by the same time it’s, again, it’s the same thing as like poets who, um, have their MFAs and are [inaudible 00:52:34] at like 13-year-olds who are, you know, like on, on the microphone and also calling themselves poets, right? Um, and, and that’s, that’s kind of tension I think is not necessarily to be resolved, but rather to be a case study for kind of how we as people just kind of, you know, decide how we’re going to move forward in, in the ways that we, that we communicate and share knowledge. Um, but, you know, a lot of how I’ve been able to excel has been specifically from people that I’ve encountered who’ve just trusted me.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah.

Adriel Luis:                             You know, like, despite the fact that I don’t have a traditional museum background or despite the fact that I’m new, um, you know, and, and that value, the fact that my questioning and my, um, my wandering around, uh, had the potential to make something better, because you’re able to ask questions that you can’t if you’ve been in the museum world for, for however long, right? And so, you know, I’m, I’m approaching my fourth year, um, in the museum would and I’m feeling that kind of, uh, unfamiliarity fade.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah.

Adriel Luis:                             I’m starting to get used to things and starting to assume stuff and, and you know it when you start referring to people or artists by just the last name and like just mo-, continuing forward without explaining things and, you know, using acronyms and stuff like that and, and living in DC, working at the Smithsonian, like, I am oh so susceptible to that, right?

Suse Anderson:                    (Laughs)

Adriel Luis:                             And so, um, you know, like, when I started realizing that that was happening, um, you know, which was happening the more and more I was being invited to speak at, um, you know, on podcasts and events and things like that and started, started being looked at as, like, sort of an expert, um, you know, which, which was also just kind of weird just because I am still very new to the museum world. Um, I found that, like, a solution is to hand off certain responsibilities to people who do not have the kind of, I would say, overexposure of, of museum, uh, manner-, mannerisms, right? And then so, you know, it began with, like, first making sure that I was just hanging out with enough artists and, and, and activists and organizers and people who completely don’t know the museum world, because then when I refer to certain things they can be like, what, what, what the hell are you talking about, right?

But then uh, also seeing well how can I actually rope these people into the work that I do? You know, like, how do, how do we make sure that we’re not just working with artists who have been through the museum circuit before? How do we make sure that we’re constantly also including organizers and, and, um, you know, people from other fields who can ask the questions that, that, you know, might seem like no-brainers to, um, to those of us who have kind of, like, just, you know, dri-, driven, driven in, you know, driven around the block en-, enough times already.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah, and, and, you know, thinking about this idea, um, of, uh, democratic sharing of information and, and doing research and … on, on this episode and, um, you know, kind of internet stalking you to learn about (laughs) your work-

Adriel Luis:                             (Laughs)

Jeffrey Inscho:                      … Um, I kind of, uh, you know, I kind of realized that you could potentially be taking cues from like peer-to-peer software and, you know, and that got me thinking of, you know, what, what is your take on this idea of museum as a node, rather than museum as a gatekeeper, right? Is that kind of what we’re thinking about and what we’re talking about here?

Adriel Luis:                             Yeah, yeah. Like, I grew up, I grew up, you know, stealing so much music via the internet (laughs)

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah, that [crosstalk 00:56:11].

Suse Anderson:                    (Laughs)

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Everybody did.

Adriel Luis:                             You know, um, and, um, you learn so much when you kind of stare at this progress bar on like [inaudible 00:56:19] or like BitTorrent, right? And, you know, peer-to-peer is a great example, right? The more, the more seeds, the more peers, the faster the download, right?

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Right.

Adriel Luis:                             You want, uh, you know, and, and you’re literally, you know, trying to access a story. Let’s say you’re downloading a movie. You want to access a story. You’re, you’re going to choose, you’re going to choose the link that has the most peers because you know that you’re, you’re pulling information from a bunch of different sources as opposed to one person. Um, and if you have … If you’re trying to download a movie and you have one, and you have one seed, if that person decides that they just want to log off or kick you off, then you’re done, right? But if you have, like, you know, 300 seeds, then it doesn’t matter, you know, like who logs off, there, there’s always going to be someone else to kind of, like, pick up, pick it up, right?

And I think that that’s kind of, you know, where, uh, as a, as a, as a curator of digital, that’s, that’s where I, I’m really interested in stuff, um, because that can manifest in, in person-to-person situations that have nothing to do with pixels or, or touchscreens or, you know, like, uh, all those things that look really nice on like digital, digital program brochures at museums, but-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Right.

Suse Anderson:                    (Laughs)

Adriel Luis:                             … But, um, you know, like-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah, yeah.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah.

Adriel Luis:                             … don’t really speak to kind of the potential of, of digital culture.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      For sure.

Adriel Luis:                             You know, I think we set, we set the bar so low when we think digital and it’s just like, you know, when people ask, like, but what’s, what’s the digital component of this project? It kind of irks me because it’s, like, you just really want to see a picture of seven-year-old with their finger on a touchscreen, you know, I can give that to you if that’s what you want, you know?

Suse Anderson:                    (Laughs)

Adriel Luis:                             But there’s so much more, there’s so much more, and so yeah. Democratic understandings of, of information is exactly why now people on Pinterest and Tumblr and, and Instagram and all that are calling themselves curators, and that’s empowerment, and, and I think that, um, you know, the more people who feel like they can be curators, like, the better because that’s just more seeds for these stories.

Suse Anderson:                    So, Adriel, one thing that I’ve been really thinking about and I can’t figure it out. So this is something that I’ve been stuck on for a little while. Lately there have been a lot of studies coming out showing that the public’s trust in the institutions, and that means government and financial institutions like banks, is dropping.

Adriel Luis:                             Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Suse Anderson:                    But even institutions like science, the, the public’s trust is eroding and, in fact, it’s dropping to pretty unprecedented levels. And one of the things I’ve been trying to make sense of work out is whether there’s a relationship between this rise of the kind of peer-to-peer citizen curation where we trust, uh, we trust the person who happens to have the file we’re after.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Suse Anderson:                    But we don’t necessarily trust the institution because that nature of authority is shifting. And I’m wondering if you think there is that relationship whereby we’re much more likely to trust someone we can connect to directly rather than someone through an institution? And if so, how that starts to have an impact for museums?

Adriel Luis:                             Yeah. Um, I think that, uh, you know, like sometimes I feel like museums, often I feel like museums are asking the wrong question, right? So-

Suse Anderson:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Adriel Luis:                             … Um, you know, people are, are trusting institutions less and less and so the institutions then ask well, how do we get people to trust us again, right? And, and I think that that’s, that’s not necessarily the best way to, to tackle that issue, um, because I don’t think it’s about getting people to trust you again like the way that they did in the ’70s or whatever. Um, it’s about how do we understand the shifting nature of what trust means, right? And, um, you know, again using, like, uh, you know, an analogy of like social media, like, part of what makes social media social media is, you know, at least among, among individuals, it’s like on Instagram, I’ll like your post more if I see that you’re liking my posts more, right? Like, that’s kind of how it works, um, because there’s, there’s a presence and a conversation, right? It’s like, oh, this person is interested in what, in, in what I’m saying. Um, if this person’s interested in what I’m saying, I’m going to be interested in why they’re interested in what I’m saying and so, therefore, I’m interested in what they’re saying, right? Um, and, and, and that’s different than just kind of, you know, going to a well of information and just drawing from it, you know-

Suse Anderson:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Adriel Luis:                             … and, uh, and, and then, and then having to, like, then evaluate without conversing with that source, um, you know, what it is that I can trust and what it is that I, that I, that I can’t, right? If I question something, um, there, like, where, where’s the room for me to process that, you know, like, uh, in the museum space? And I think that that’s, that’s hard to find, and then so people, you know, even if they’re getting their information from institutions, they’re processing it with their, with their friends and eventually, they’re just kind of, like, oh, well, I can just ask my friends in the first place because they’ll, they’ll talk back.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, so Adriel, I mean do you ever think about or envision what it would like to the sector if museums put complete trust into their publics, and, and, and never think about, like, how the museum practice would change if that were the case?

Adriel Luis:                             Um, yeah, they’re like culture labs.

Suse Anderson:                    (Laughs)

Adriel Luis:                             I mean, but, but here’s the thing, though. I don’t, I don’t … I’m not trying to replace anything. I think that that like people generally, you know, that’s the fear with digital, you know, like, people are worried that, like, well if, if you do a digital exhibition then, you know, no one’s ever going to look at a thing again. And it’s, like, no, we’re just looking at more options, right? And so right now, um, exhibitions have the monopoly on how people experience objects and art, um, and so we’re just kind of thinking, you know, and I think that there’s def-, you know, it’s not like I go into museums and every exhibition I go to I’m, like, this would have been better if it was a culture lab. I wish I could draw on this right now, you know? It’s, like, it’s not necessarily like that. You know, like I think there’s-

Suse Anderson:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Adriel Luis:                             … There’s definitely a lot to be said about exhibitions. They are important, important formats that I think, um, you know, it is good in many circumstances to have someone who has thoroughly researched something and is providing, um, you know, their opinion even if framed as fact. Like, I, I see the value in it. I’m not trying to kill that, so I just want to make that clear, but um, I, I, I do think that there is something to be said about offering another way, you know, and, and when I was in Hong Kong, uh, in 2014 for the, uh, for the uprising, um, that was one of the, the first situations that I encountered where I was, like, wow, this is really … What organic, you know, curating with trust is. Because there was no chief curator of this occupation, but there were installations everywhere. There were sculptures, there were, um, posters, um, you know, people were making art live. There, there was, you know, there were workshops happening and all of it was, um, telling a story in a very concise and tight way, right?

And, um, and, and because nobody was trying to say that this was a great exhibition or that this is something that, you know, like museums should do, like that, just that, that, the, the limitations that you get once you bring that into the, into the, um, mind space just wasn’t there. But I got everything that I w-, all I ever wanted to get from all the other past times I had gone to Hong Kong and and left museums unsatisfied, I found there was local art. I had a sense of, like, what society there wanted to be. I had a sense of what society had been and, and is. You know, I was, I was entertained. I was, you know, there, there were certain things amazed me. I had moments where I was, like, how did they do that? You know, like all that stuff. And, and, and, and I also got a very accurate understanding of at least how society sees itself, you know, which is very different from-

Suse Anderson:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Adriel Luis:                             … you know, and I, I would argue is no less accurate than how the state or, or whatever, whatever kind of institution sees, um, you know, the, the subject matter as.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah, just, I’m just curious. How, how do you refer to the non-APA entities that are involved with culture lab? Is it public? Is it audience? Is it community? Is it … Do you, do you, do you have some type of ethos when, when dealing with, non, uh, museum or center, um, participants?

Adriel Luis:                             Um, not really.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Okay.

Adriel Luis:                             Um, I mean, I think that’s actually been something that I been kind of wrestling with.

Suse Anderson:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Adriel Luis:                             Like right now we’re writing our manifesto for the culture labs because eventually we’re going to, uh, we, we want this to be a model that, that other museums and organizations feel empowered to adopt-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah.

Adriel Luis:                             … um, at any scale. Like, we work with over 40-50 artists, but you could do a culture lab with three artists as long as you pay them and there’s local representation and you’re thinking intersectionally, you know, and so.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Right.

Adriel Luis:                             It’s like, um, you know, I’m … But we’re writing this manifesto and, and there’s certain segments where we’re thinking about, like, the institution, um, the artists, the art-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Adriel Luis:                             … um, you know, the other kinds of participants that are, like, curated. But then when it comes to, like, the people who come into the space and engage with the stuff, like, sometimes I’ll call them users. Sometimes I’ll call them visitors. Sometimes I’ll call them the public. Um, I’m not really happy with any of those terms quite yet. Um, and so that’s something that I’m still kind of figuring out.

Suse Anderson:                    Well, I mean, in some ways you always made a term that crosses the intersectionality of their roles as well. You know, I mean, this is that people aren’t just one role even when they come into the museum, not just at a personal level, but even, you know, if we’re talking about someone who comes as a visitor but then becomes a participant, you know, throughout, there is also, I, I think that’s one of the things that we do in museums is we often have ways of thinking about our audiences or publics or visitors and even that do not themselves … They relegate them to one role whereas they’re not actually one thing even within one visit, and even at the same time within that visit. So even sort of the way the museum thinks about who its publics or participants are, there’s a, there’s a narrowing or a blanking of how we think, like, we think that down as opposed to broadening that out.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah, yeah.

Suse Anderson:                    Adriel, this has been fantastic. Thank you so much for coming onto Museopunks and sharing with us the work that you do.

Adriel Luis:                             Yeah, this was super fun to talk about, and I know we’re just scratching the surface, and so I’m so excited just to hear who else you have on this series. Um, I’ll definitely be, be tuning in.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Awesome, and so, Adriel, if, um, if the listeners want to stay in touch, um, uh, follow your work with culture labs, um, where can they do that on the internet?

Adriel Luis:                             Um, so, um, I would say that the dashboard would be SmithsonianAPA.org. Um, and that’s also Smithsonian APA is also our, our user name on, um, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram. Um, and then for myself personally, it’s Drzzl with no vowels, so D-r-z-z-l. Um, it’s Drzzl.com for the website, and then I’m on, um, I’m, I’m on Twitter and Instagram kind of, um, I’ve been, I’ve been getting, like, worse at social, but, you know, I’m, I’m still around, um-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      (Laughs) It’s all good. It’s all good. Uh, thanks so much, Adriel, uh, for, for, uh, speaking with us today. It was, it was awesome.

Adriel Luis:                             Great, thank you. Thank you so much.

(Music)

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Okay, Suse, uh, a lot to digest there in, uh, from those guests.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah, a huge amount to digest. It feels so nice to be doing this show again and I have just remembered how stimulating these conversations are. Uh, you sort of forget, I think, uh, when you’ve had some time away from it just how interesting and how meaty these subjects are and how great it is to talk with really thoughtful people-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah.

Suse Anderson:                    … about them.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Uh, you know, I really feel like Fari and Adriel kind of hit all, all sides of this issue, um, kind of balanced sides really, um, kind of strong inquiry into, into this concept of trust and how museums can, um, can start to operate in, in, in this, in this space. So, um, yeah, and I’m going to be, like you, I’m going to be thinking about this quite a bit over the next couple weeks.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah, I’d also really love to keep talking to people about it. I know that I will be reaching our to Adriel and to Fari online. They’ve both given their Twitter handles and will obviously drop those into the show notes as well. But if people want to find us on the internet so that they can continue talking to us about this issue, where can they do it?

Jeffrey Inscho:                      All the show notes for this episode can be found at Museopunks.org and you can tweet at us at Museopunks. Um, I think we both want to also send out a really big thank you to the American Alliance of Museums for, um, lighting the fire again.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah, absolutely. We are now officially presented by the American Alliance of Museums and it is such a great pleasure to be back on the, uh, digital airways so to speak. But I think also within that, we should give a special thanks to Liz Neely and Rob Stein for helping make this new season of Museopunks happen.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah, definitely, and with a new season comes a new graphic design for, uh, for, for Twitter and the website and, um, really just another shout-out to, um, Selena Robleto for, uh, the, the amazing graphic work she did for, for the, uh, reboot of Season Two. Uh, so definitely thank you.

Suse Anderson:                    Absolutely. I’m really excited. I’m hoping we can get T-shirts or something so that I can be wearing this logo everywhere.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah, sounds good. Well, Suse, this is the first episode of Season Two in the can and I, uh, I really look forward to, to, to next, uh, next episode.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah, me too, Jeffrey. It has been so much fun and I can’t wait to speak to you for the next episode of Museopunks.

Guests

Dr. fari nzinga
fari nzinga was born and raised in Boston, MA and graduated with a B.A. from Oberlin College in 2005. Fari earned both her M.A. and Ph.D in Cultural Anthropology from Duke University. Having lived in New Orleans since 2009, her dissertation explored Black-led, community-based institutions using art and culture to help achieve their social justice missions, as well as the political-economic landscape in which they operate. For two years she worked as the Public Policy Officer at the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA), where she attempted to facilitate institutional transformation around issues of transparency, access, inclusion and equity. Currently, fari is an Adjunct Professor of Museum Studies at Southern University at New Orleans (SUNO) — one of only 2 Historically Black Colleges and Universities to house a masters-level Museum Studies program in the U.S. fari tweets @fari_nzinga.
Read fari’s thoughts on public trust and art museums

Adriel Luis
Adriel Luis is a self-taught musician, poet, curator, coder, and visual artist who believes imagination is key to transforming cultural paradigms. As the Curator of Digital and Emerging Media at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, he is focused on exploring intersectional identities in the U.S. and contemporary Asian diasporic art. He is also a part of the iLL-Literacy arts collective, and sometimes moonlights on design projects with various artists and non-profits. Adriel frequently travels to different parts of Asia with particular interest in how digital space shapes global communities, and how varying levels of freedom of expression.

Show Notes

Public Trust and Art Museums | The Incluseum
https://incluseum.com/2016/11/29/public-trust-and-art-museums/

Anna Julia Cooper | Wikipedia
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anna_J._Cooper

Visitors of Color
http://visitorsofcolor.tumblr.com/

bell hooks | Wikipedia
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bell_hooks

Createquity
http://createquity.com/

Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center
http://smithsonianapa.org/

Crosslines: A Culture Lab on Intersectionality
http://smithsonianapa.org/crosslines/

The public puts great trust in museums, and now it’s time museums trust the public | Smithsonian.com
http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/public-puts-great-trust-museums-and-now-its-time-museums-trust-public-180959237/

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Museopunks is a podcast for the progressive museum. Every month, co-hosts Jeffrey Inscho and Suse Anderson investigate the fascinating work and personalities in and around the museum sector. The pair explore some of the sector’s most stimulating questions, institutions, and practices, with a focus on emergent, boundary-pushing work and ideas.

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Museopunks is presented by the American Alliance of Museums.

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The ‘Punks

Jeffrey Inscho. Photo by Joshua FranzosJeffrey Inscho
Jeffrey is a museopunk and cultural hacktivist based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA. His work plays thoughtfully at the intersection of digital culture, mindfulness, strategic subversion and DIY.

Jeffrey currently runs the Studio, a nexus of design, development and workflow at Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh. He has previously held positions at The Andy Warhol Museum, Carnegie Mellon University and the Mattress Factory. Jeffrey tweets @jinscho.

Suse Cairns Anderson HeadshotSuse Anderson
For close to a decade, Suse has explored the intersection of technology and culture, with a focus on the impact of digital technologies on the museum. She is currently Assistant Professor, Museum Studies at The George Washington University, where she teaches courses on museums and digital technology, social media, and visitor experience. She holds a PhD (Creative Arts) and a BFA (Hons – 1st class, Faculty Medal), both from The University of Newcastle, Australia, and a BArts (Comms – Journalism) from Charles Sturt University.

Since moving from Australia to Baltimore in 2014, Suse has fallen in love with the city she now calls home. You should visit her there one day, or connect with her on Twitter.