Museums should become safe spaces for unsafe ideas*
*Often credited to Elaine Heumann Gurian, but she says it didn’t come from her. Either way, it deserves to be said often.
I love the idea that museums can (and should) be safe spaces, but until recently I always thought about that concept in terms of the visitor. What did I need to do to create safe spaces for visitors?
Now I’m thinking about what I need to do to create safe spaces for me. I’m currently working on a series of upcoming exhibits that deal with some emotionally wrenching topics, including massacre, internment camps, and racism. But instead of anticipating, prototyping, and preparing for how our visitors will react and engage with those stories, this time I’m behind the scenes, alone in a room unpacking all the objects that will tell those stories. And sometimes it’s heartbreaking.
I unfold a little boy’s jacket. He was wearing it when soldiers killed him.
I hang up a KKK robe and hood. The empty eye holes stare back at me.
I unroll a Nazi Party flag taller than I am. The colors haven’t faded.
In museums, we have protocol for staff physical safety: bend at the knees, avoid the pointy ends of swords, don’t drink the formaldehyde, but we don’t have protocol for ensuring our emotional safety. And on some days, it’s my emotions that are exposed to the hazards of history and humanity.
As I’ve talked to coworkers, their experiences and suggestions vary. Some have never thought about it. Some say not to think about it. And some nod in understanding, knowing exactly what it’s like to be unable to stop thinking about it.
There’s no easy, 5-step plan for emotional safety when working in a museum, because the realm of emotion is so individual. But it’s important to acknowledge the affect that objects – and the stories they carry – can have on the people who work with them.
For me, here’s what helps:
- Planning my schedule. Emotionally, some days are better than others to work with certain objects. And if I can arrange my schedule to tackle the harder pieces on the good days, I do.
- Taking breaks. The longer I work with emotionally-charged pieces, the more emotionally-charged I become. Taking breaks, even for five minutes to change my surroundings and clear my head, goes a long way towards keeping me focused.
- Doing my homework. It may seem counter-productive to research the history of upsetting objects, but the more I know about a piece’s past, the more mindful I am when working with it.
- Remembering the big picture. These objects are all here for a reason. Their stories may be uncomfortable, upsetting, or even horrifying, but there’s a goal behind sharing them.
- Talking to the objects. Definitely not for everyone. It’s not a conversation, and often I don’t even open my mouth. But as I work with objects that are heavy with emotion, I acknowledge their histories, the roles they and I are now playing, and I send love towards them.
What about you? Have you ever felt emotionally exposed when working with collections or exhibits or programming? How have you handled those feelings?
Image from the Nevada Northern Railway Museum