The annual American Alliance of Museums (AAM) conference (an experience to be shared in a future post) hosted in DC this year, was accompanied by a number of happenings during the Memorial Day weekend; and the timing is not without significance. CrossLines: A Culture Lab on Intersectionality was of one of those occurrences in the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building (formerly the U.S. National Museum) and coordinated through the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center (APAC). This event occurs at a critical moment, as museums are fervently learning and finding their way through dialogues on race and identity, as they are both influenced by and inform history and culture.
CrossLines (here) was a movement through this dialogue.
The Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building was transformed after a century of transition and over a decade of renovation. The two-day weekend event was free and open to the public beginning at 10 a.m. Saturday, May 28th, to 9 p.m. Sunday, May 29th. The event featured a number of artists, performers, activists, educators, and facilitators across varying mediums and messages (visit the site to learn more about who all was involved). The culture lab was textured by the richness of such exhibits and performances to unfold throughout the day for visitors as they could move around freely or join in on a complimentary tour.
I took my time on Sunday stopping at each exhibit, taking a tour and sitting in on performances throughout the day. I enjoyed what could be both a solitary experience, and as a group when later joining friends. However, I was particularly struck by the wealth of radical tradition and truth that empowered the space, and made for a communal environment among all walks of life, and all of it under the banner of the Smithsonian name bears great importance. Here at BGMB, we have been thinking a lot about the language of “diversity and inclusion” and on greater pathways to intersectional thought and practice within our art and cultural institutions. Museums, like other institutions and corporations, are grappling with data that proves that their staff and audiences are not diverse enough, however, this information is certainly not new. And the usual quick fix is the diversity hire, or the diversity committee composed of all the people of color or the sole person of color doing all the programming for the “diversity” events.
But, as Kimberlé Crenshaw gives us in “Mapping the Margins” (1989), intersectionality has always been about forces of power upon particular persons in our society. Diversity without this understanding of intersectionality ignores the barriers to the workplace, psychological pressures within, or why certain narratives are not reflective of a universal experience. What made CrossLines successful was that it presented divergent narratives, it was experiential, and did not begin or end in one place. It did not force visitors to come to one conclusion or settle into one story, rather it gave way to various ways of knowing and being that were all welcome in the space. I think it is important to consider how CrossLines can be used to model a culture of inclusion for historical and cultural institutions to follow.
Our work at BGMB is always one that is curious from outside of the traditions of the museum field, and we bring with us our personal experience and academic pursuits. My beliefs in the museum space are not without critiques of geography, language, and ways of learning that vary by community. I followed Adriel (Curator of Digital and Emerging Media, APAC) as he led a group of us to several of the artists’ plots, each with an opportunity to hear from the artists themselves. The geography of the space was arranged just so, so that the distance between transformative stories was lessened. Stories of art, history and culture at the intersections of race, sexuality and citizenship were not secluded from one another.
On our tour, Adriel led us to a tipi, with a white female dressed in native costume there to welcome us inside (pictured above). She and I locked eyes, and I couldn’t tell if she was uncomfortable or if I was more uncomfortable for her. Inside the tipi we were offered a seat on the floor and to listen. The performance and artistry presented by Gregg Deal was part of his work “The Indian Voice Removal Act 1879 to 2016.” He shared with us the purpose of his work, to show the ways in which native voices are stripped of their power to speak, whether explicitly by his accompanying cultural interpreter who completely disregarded Deal’s words or cloaked in a Washington “Redskins” jersey. However, Deal did not speak with hostility, or target his words toward anyone specifically among us.
This is the part where I tell you I hate tours, always have. I’ve always felt put on the spot, or like everyone was thinking “she already knows this stuff because she’s black and has a better understanding for that reason.” We were a mixed group in terms of age ranges but we were not a rainbow coalition in terms of race of who was sitting inside. However, we all could appreciate that this was a truth within a larger narrative. We all had an opportunity to learn, and for once I did not feel the burden of responsibility was on me, i.e. because I’m black.
Who tells the story? How the story is told? What stories do we tell? These are all important questions to ask of yourself and your cultural institution, and probably seem like an obvious “duh.” But so many history and cultural museums are tethered to the same narratives of race and identity embedded in a Western historical canon. We so often say to our audiences, which then becomes reflective of our staff, “because you are x, you must interested in y.”
APAC could have chosen to wholly spotlight works among Asian and Asian diaspora artists, and rightfully so considering the name of the center and even with the event in May, being Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. However what they accomplished with this dynamic group of creatives was an acknowledgement of a range of experiences that do not belong to any one specific set of persons, and not without their historicity or cultural implications, but don’t exclude those other hybrid and hyphenated identities. The moment we are in is expressive of black lives matter, indigeneity, afro-asian and latinx peoples that make up the fabric of our communities. Our personal geographies navigate how we move through those identities as American, as woman, as heterosexual, etc.
The American story is contradictory, conflicting, but just because something is complex, different or new, doesn’t make it negative. It is about creating the space so that there is equal value in the exchange.
I wandered throughout CrossLines for quite a bit of time after my tour but I found I spent much of it holding a conversation, inviting someone to sit or reminiscing with the folks around the People’s Kitchen Collective. The quickest way to someone’s history and heritage is across the kitchen table. The People’s Kitchen Collective is a group out of Oakland, California that specializes in diaspora dinners and kitchen remedies. I was quite cozy among the fruit and veggies that adorned the table, surrounded by beautiful prints and patterns, and shelves dedicated to their food pharmacy (pictured below).
The founders explained the process of filling out a prescription (pictured below) for either the flu, a stomach ache or white supremacy; the list goes on. Once the form was completed, you turn in the slip in exchange for another prescription filled out by someone else anonymously. My remedy for the flu paid homage to my grandmother’s hearty homemade chicken soup with rice and veggies and the chicken that stewed for hours. And if I was feeling achy, the tea she would give me with fresh lemon and honey, and the cough drop sunk to the bottom to diffuse in my drink; something so simple suddenly seemed like a science experience. I thought of things I hadn’t remembered in years, and remembered how these simple remedies were filled with the love and the little bit we had, which was always enough.
I completed my form and shared what I wrote, and suddenly felt my story wasn’t special enough, not original enough. I received my prescription and said I would read it when I got home.
A couple days after CrossLines concluded I was cleaning up the piles of memorabilia laid across my room, and there it was. The small brown paper bag with the People’s Kitchen Collective stamped on it. Opening it in my room, I started to tear up. The first thing I read was “Cliché, I know, but…”
Robert, a U.S./3rd generation Jewish immigrant had shared his remedy for fever and sore throat: chicken soup.
In that moment of filling out my prescription I called upon generational memory and cultural practices I didn’t realize were important to me, and was drawn to how that memory took shape in someone else’s life. I think about the work of Kosher/Soul culinary historian Michael Twitty:
Identity cooking isn’t about fusion; rather it’s how we construct complex identities and then express them through how we eat.
If we think about intersectionality in this way we realize we can’t discount any aspect of one’s experience. Intersectionality does not assume a shared experience (to borrow from Ariana Curtis, Latino Studies curator at the Anacostia Community Museum) but rather we must explore multiple pathways of knowing; they both intersect and diverge.
Moving Forward (and in various directions)
I hold on to these two seemingly disparate installations––Gregg Deal’s performance piece and the People’s Kitchen Collective––from CrossLines because they are exemplary of what I hope for in the future of museums.
During a Memorial Day weekend in our nation’s capital, among the several museums and activities simultaneously occurring on the National Mall, droves of people came into the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building, and confronted were with numerous critiques and commentary on politics, patriotism, racism, colonialism…
The Smithsonian could have opted for one singular American story but it chose to tell many, and that’s a true American story.
We often get caught up in who is not coming into our museum in the sense of statistics, but what would the museum look like if we were to consider those who are coming as bringing texture and richness to the stories we already tell? When we set ourselves up for closed minds, we close ourselves to the possibility of greater inclusionary practices. The name of the event, “CrossLines”, is both what we need to do and the directions in which we should follow our work. I often think of art museums as having the flexibility to be nomadic, but what if our historical and cultural institutions were too? What could our pasts tell us that we hadn’t given attention to before? What cultural practices have we overlooked? Museums are only as empowered by the stories they can tell. Those are our stories.
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