Representing Minorities in Exhibits

Graph of Incarceration

I visited the Eastern State Penitentiary Museum in Philly during the summer of 2014 (twice), and the site quickly became one of my new favorite museums. I explored multiple corridors with Steve Buscemi in my ear, and almost had the opportunity to try the unappetizing nutriloaf. Why is this a favorite museum? The curators are not afraid to unearth the voices of minorities, and visitors must grapple with the realities of the racially and gendered imbalanced U.S. prison system.

My graduate school readings commonly point to the lack of minority voices in exhibits and collections; however, the curators are working with artists to ensure minorities are represented historically. I am blogging about this museum to encourage my cohort of emerging museum professionals that minority representation is possible and necessary. If we represent the voices of the community, then we must recognize other communities exist outside of the white majority. As I approach my own career, I constantly try to imagine different outreach methods for different communities but it takes more than a theoretical approach to manage this successfully.

The Beware the Lily Law video exhibit and a 3D graph of world wide incarceration rates were two of my favorite exhibits. The videos portray several transgendered prisoners forced to occupy prisons of their original gender. The following quote is from the exhibit panel:

“Today, transgendered female prisoners (male to female) are incarcerated in male prisons, and transgendered male prisoners (female to male) are incarcerated in female prisons. They are often placed in ‘protective’ or ‘administrative’ custody. The resulting confinement, while safer for the inmates, is effectively a form of solitary confinement.”

What I admire about this exhibit, is the museum’s willingness to include transgender voices typically silenced by other narratives. The Lily Law videos transpose images of actors on the crumbling wall, and the effect is gut wrenching. Visitors can hear the prospective of a prisoner who is trapped in a system that denies their gender identity.  I read Lauren Jae Gutterman’s article “OutHistory.org: An Experiment in LGBTQ Community History-Making,” where she proclaimed “the gay past is typically ignored in public schools and neglected in major museums.” Eastern State is systematically breaking this trend. How many other museums can arise to the occasion? A better question is, how many times have you as a museum professional created a meeting with the LGBTQ community to ask what they would like to see in an exhibit? Now take that idea and apply it to other communities.

The 3D graph on world incarceration rates was an exhibit I had to visit twice. The exhibit compares incarceration rates world wide, and surprise! the US is at the top. The presentation and facts are stark and straight forward. Visitors can contemplate what it means to live in nation where minorities are the highest population in prisons, and ponder if there alternatives to imprisonment. President Obama’s recent investigation into the racial imbalance of our prison system is hopefully reverberating deeply with visitors as they go to the site. After his speech, I would love to visit Eastern State and talk to the curators and docents to see if visitors have made connections between President Obama’s actions and this graph. Are visitors vocalizing their feelings about imbalanced imprisonment rates of African Americans?

The curators have clearly thought about silenced narratives, and the collaboration with various artists allows visitors to hear the voices of the prisoners, to see the faces of their victims, and contemplate material representations. For example, William Cromer’s GTMO exhibit addresses the cells holding “enemy combatants,” but there are no quotes (which is unsurprising) just material representations of the prisoners. Female prisoners are included in the narrative through an exhibit panel and audio. The curators and the invited artists successfully collaborate and bring awareness to the reality of prison life for all genders, races, classes, and religious preference based on what material culture and oral histories were available. As an emerging museum professional, I would love to utilize artists in the way that Eastern State does. Do you consider this use a type of community outreach?

Please share your thoughts and feelings!

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