Exhibitions and Programming

Exhibitions and programs that demonstrate your commitment to restorative justice are a crucial step in developing a more diverse, inclusive, and equitable institution. This task also presents a distinct set of challenges: How can you ensure that your exhibitions and programs will be effective? How will you know which issues to address? And how can you ensure that all this is accomplished using the finite resources of your institution? This section will provide some basic information to help you get started.

Redefining Publics

How has your institution traditionally related to visitors? Who has your audience been in the past, and who would you like to involve in the future?

Just as we must begin to see museums as sites of historical and cultural interpretation–– places that tell many stories rather than repositories of fixed truth–– so too must we begin to see visitors as active participants in an equal conversation, rather than passive recipients of facts. Adopting these approaches will make your museum more engaging as well as more just.

Redefining the relationship between your museum and its publics starts by thinking about what stories you have been telling, how you have been telling them, and who has (and has not) been coming to engage with them. A thorough assessment of visitor data will allow you to identify those communities who have not engaged with your institution in the past, and to focus on serving their needs in the future.

Modes of Engagement

Whose stories has your institution traditionally told, and whose has it neglected? How can you design exhibitions and programming that will allow your institution to engage with your publics in a more just and equitable way?

Exhibitions

An exhibition can be many different things: an educational space, a site of contemplation, a place to connect. An exhibition may involve many objects or only a few, it may include sound, video, or interactive components. With so many options, how can you determine what kind of exhibition will be best suited to promoting restorative justice within your institution? It is important to consider both what your exhibition is communicating and how it is doing so.

One way to heighten restorative justice content is to think about whose histories have and have not been represented at your institution. As you begin to answer this question, consider contextualizing the objects in your collection in a way that challenges bias while also fostering curiosity and empathy. After all, even objects that have always been seen as representing one group may actually have connections to several. Remembering to actively seek input from diverse voices during the planning process can help ensure the multiple perspectives that enhance dialogue, heighten engagement, and encourage justice.

Carefully consider the language used in your exhibition. Who visits your museum, who do you want to visit your museum, and what languages do they speak? If your community has a large Latinx or other non-Anglophone population, consider multilingual offerings for any text or audio-visual materials. Additionally, what kind of terminology are you using to describe material in the exhibition? Many of the words we are accustomed to using on a daily basis are laced with implicit bias: such language may even be embedded in object files and catalogue records. Think critically about how you will describe objects in an exhibition, so as not to perpetuate existing prejudices and stereotypes.

In this panel discussion organized by the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, author Elena Gonzales presents ideas from her 2019 book Exhibitions for Social Justice in conversation with other museum professionals.

Programs

Planning thoughtful exhibitions will help you develop a more inclusive, equitable, and just institution. However, exhibitions have certain shortcomings: space and cost can be limiting factors, and the advance planning required can limit the timeliness of an exhibition. By contrast, programs are flexible and adjustable, can address specific issues, and can encourage visitors to practice empathy and think critically about their own biases. Program content can also be tailored to the concerns of a particular community, allowing you to engage with more diverse publics. Think creatively about program design while staying focused on content, and always assess afterwards whether your program has achieved its intended purpose.

Online Platforms

Social media is an important tool for communicating with your publics. Used effectively, it can make your institution more inclusive and transparent. Social media can also be a place to make statements about national movements, but keep in mind that a single comment is not enough: your social media presence should show your continued and active commitment to restorative justice. To exhibit this commitment, make sure your social media presence is sustainable: consider less frequent but more thoughtful posts. 

You might also consider engaging with visitors online through web-based exhibitions and programs. Online exhibitions can be a great way to broaden engagement with an existing physical exhibition, or to present new content that you may not have the opportunity to address within the space of the museum. The National Museum of African American History and Culture offers many examples of online exhibitions that document important histories while also highlighting specific collection objects. The Cleveland Museum of Art runs Desktop Dialogues, a series of online conversations with curators, educators, community leaders, and artists to discuss the museum’s collections and exhibitions in light of current restorative justice issues.

The Cleveland Museum of Art has launched an online series entitled Desktop Dialogues, which uses close looking and object-based learning as a means for the museum to engage with its publics about issues of restorative justice.

Community Involvement

What does restorative justice mean within the context of your particular community? Where do you see gaps in the issues your institution has addressed?

As you develop new exhibitions, programs, and online content, remember that your museum is a community space. Always think about new initiatives in terms of local communities, both those already involved with your institution as well as those you hope will become more involved in the future. 

A crucial step in promoting restorative justice at the local level is to directly involve communities from exhibition and program planning to marketing and assessment. Reach out to leaders from previously underrepresented or under-engaged communities to ask how they tell their own history, what they hope to gain from your museum, and what kind of involvement might be meaningful to them moving forward. Respectful communication and adequate compensation are imperative at every point in this process. 

Consider the Delaware Art Museum’s reinstallation of their American art collection galleries. In preparation for the reinstallation, the museum organized salons with different community groups to seek suggestions about gallery layout. Next, the museum developed prototyping workshops, during which mock-ups of new label text were added to the galleries and visitors were invited to leave written feedback. Museum staff asked staff at other museums about their own experiences re-envisioning their galleries. Throughout the process, the DAM carefully considered the history surrounding objects on view, focusing not only on refreshing the galleries visually but on recontextualizing the narrative presented. 

A Note About Engaging in Difficult Conversations

As you work towards creating a more just and equitable institution, it is possible that some visitors may become disappointed or upset when confronted with difficult stories. It is important to think about how you will navigate these interactions. Consider preparing docents and tour guides for such conversations, and encourage empathetic but truthful responses. However, it is also important not to make assumptions about how visitors will react. Consider the recent case of an exhibition at the Eastern State Penitentiary, which took a strong political stance with positive results. Think about techniques utilized by other institutions when presenting difficult subject matter, such as the Indiana State Museum’s exhibition on the opioid crisis, the Minneapolis Institute of Art’s exhibition about art as a tool for healing in the face of trauma and loss, or the ICA/Boston’s exhibition on migration in contemporary art. Think about your visitors as participants in a broader conversation, treat them with empathy and respect, and understand that while it takes time to shift perspectives, many visitors are eager and willing to engage in difficult conversations.

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