Thursday, March 26, 2009

"Dialogue" on Controversial Topics in Museums

This is my interpretation of a presentation I have seen please do not consider this a definitive description of the workshop. If by the end of reading this you are interested in learning more please research the presenter Tammy Bormann an independent consultant for museums who has spent 18 years in the field of interracial and intercultural human relations.

Tonight I attended a workshop hosted by the Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) museum studies program. It dealt with a new set of methods to encourage experiential learning in the museum setting. The primary focus of these new methods are on dialogue, dialogue was defined by the facilitator as a learning experience brought about through conversation (that is not verbatim).

Essentially this works as a way to create a comfortable environment in which the participants can freely talk to one another about what they have seen or learned from the exhibit, while allowing them to incorporate outside experiences. The basic rules for facilitating this dialogue experience are:
1. the participants must be fully aware of what they will be involved in, this is key (according to the workshop facilitator) as it will establish an air of compliance and willingness to be part of the experience.
2. the museum official overseeing the dialogue only presents the questions and topics for discussion they do not involve themselves in the conversation unless some form of mediation between participants becomes required.
3. for rule 2 to work properly a set of ground rules must be established before the dialogue can commence commonly these rules consist of please speak freely, do not denigrate other participants or there viewpoints, remain open-minded do not state your opinion and then leave without hearing others, and any others that the museum or participants deem necessary for everyone to feel comfortable.

These three opening rules establish the basics of the dialogue experience. There is a great deal more that goes into the planning and development of the experience among which is the first step, after establishing the rules of the experience, is that the participants find a personal connection to the topic or exhibit. For example members of a tour on Ellis Island who are participating in a dialogue would be encouraged to think of there family genealogy and who in their family may have been immigrants or effected by immigration. After this would come an icebreaker where the participants would be encouraged to partner up and share there connection to someone else. After an allotted time the official would bring everyone back together and then ask volunteers to explain what they had talked about, after a few have done this the official will present a new question this time less personal and more general about immigration. The same pattern will be followed with this question at the end of which a more controversial question will be raised with a repeat of the previous pattern. At this time a longer group discussion will follow as this was the goal question and thought that wanted to be tackled. At the end of this discussion another more personal question will be asked to encourage self reflection. Again the pattern used during the first three questions will be used but after the group discussion everyone will be dismissed.

Now that is by no means a justified description but if I where to write a justified description I would lose most readers attention.

This method may seem simple and some may wonder why it isn't already being used. To put it bluntly this method is much harder to facilitate than one may think and takes time, training, and the proper subject to achieve the right kind of dialogue. This wouldn't be useful for all topics in museums but for tackling subjects often viewed as far more taboo by the current museum administrators than is comfortable to discuss (i.e. religion, racisim, politics) it could be a great method for the museum to act as educator without appearing as authoritative and definitive as to who or what is right.

My own personal interest in this is obviously in the interpretation of religion in museums and I think could be especially useful for an exhibit on mandaeans and there current crisis. Please remember this is not verbatim of what was said in the workshop it is my interpretation and very much shortened explanation of what I learned and how it can be applied.