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Reflections on a Museum Mashup at a History Museum

Last month I did a Museum Mashup with education staff and interns at the history museum I work at. The basic premise of a Mashup is simple: small teams of educators are assigned a work of art/object in a gallery, then challenged to create an experience with that object for the rest of the educators in a short amount of time. The one rule is: you cannot do anything you’ve ever done before as an educator; it must be experimental.

I had participated in a couple of Mashups before, but they had always been at art museums. I was nervous about facilitating one at a history museum, particularly because I was unsure whether I would be able to find artifacts that allowed for the same level of creativity and freedom of interpretation as works of art. The two that were ultimately assigned to teams were a van that was crushed during the 2001 Nisqually earthquake, and a trunk that a Japanese American man used to ship his belongings home from the concentration camp he was imprisoned in following Executive Order 9066.

In reflecting on how the exercise went, one person noted that working with the trunk was challenging because of the importance of honoring the actual story behind the object, especially the pain and complexities it carries with it. To have played a game or do something silly with the trunk would have been insensitive, she noted. Truth be told I only felt comfortable putting that artifact in the hat because I knew and trusted the participants to recognize the nuances of telling such a story (or either of these objects’ stories, for that matter). Additionally, one of the benefits of doing this exercise with this particular group was that we all already knew the stories behind the objects I had chosen, which made it easier to jump in and start creating. We discussed how the importance of accuracy and authenticity is something that often guides and provides boundaries for the work that we do with students, a fact that was particularly evident with this exercise. Improvisation is about a world with no limits, but as historians we are bound by an obligation to truth-telling.

I bring up these points because in reflecting on the Mashup in the days that followed, I realized that we had been operating with certain assumptions about fundamental differences between the ways that one teaches with art versus historical objects, both during my planning process and the actual execution of the Mashup. Certainly, a common visual experience when visiting history museums is that of walking into an information explosion, whereas in art museums each piece is given as much breathing room as possible and interpretation reduced to scant, barely legible labels. It’s a difference between the primacy of information vs aesthetics. The idea that you can engage with a work of art without conversing with its context, however – use it as a background for an exercise or pay less attention to the facts that surround it – is to imply on some level that works of art are ahistorical or can be looked at solely from an aesthetic standpoint. But to separate a work of art from its historical moment is to lose out on a fuller, nuanced understanding of the work in question. Art is political, it is historical, and should be looked at as such. To not do so is an injustice to the learning process.

It was surprising to realize, as someone who is generally frustrated by the way museum educators tend to separate ourselves by discipline. Once you find “your type” of museum, you tend to stick there, sometimes by choice and sometimes because hiring managers pigeon-hole you. This seemingly fundamental divide between art & history shows up in museum ed literature, workshops, and the way we network and connect with each other as professionals. Yet I’ve always viewed my work as a museum educator as multi-disciplinary, regardless of the type of museum I work in. I’m a big advocate of using the arts as a way to engage with and understand history. In one sense, history is a documentation and investigation of human cultures across time, which includes art and the ways it reflects and impacts society. History is also a process that requires close observation, inquiry, critical thinking, and interpretation, those same skills that looking at art requires. For me, the strongest historical learning happens in spaces where the arts are used both as primary sources to be examined and looked at critically, and as a method for practicing interpretation. Perhaps it’s just been so long since working with students in an art exhibit that although I had maintained my vision of history education as multidisciplinary that I had lost some of my vision of arts education as multidisciplinary. But then again, when was the last time I saw an educator in an art museum pulling out historical documents, investigating the science behind a particular medium, or practicing measuring angles using a Sol LeWitt installation? I don’t think we should ignore or are even able to eliminate fundamental differences between the different subjects we teach, but I do think we could all benefit from stretching outside the box from time to time.