Radical Storytelling in the Museum: Curation, Folk Art, and Social Justice

By Ricky Shear, HI Graduate Research Assistant

Dr. Suzanne Seriff, Senior Lecturer in the UT Department of Anthropology, and independent museum curator, led the February 28th meeting of the Humanities Institute’s Faculty Fellows Seminar. Seriff discussed her career guest curating exhibitions for art and history museums that focus on timely social justice issues such as immigration, natural disaster, women’s empowerment, etc, as expressed through the words and works of global folk artists working toward social change. Examples from her exhibitions featuring folk arts made from recycled industrial materials, or made in response to natural disasters included such “unlikely” innovations as a toy helicopter from Liberia made out of “flip-flops” and traditional applique quilts made by women in flood relief camps in Pakistan from donated but impractical clothing from relief agencies around the world. Seriff described her desire to explore how museums design exhibits to “visually” narrate stories of folk art that are inherently difficult to tell because they attempt to convey the significance of creative acts that are often rooted in local cultural practices but are performed within the complex contexts of globalism, capitalism, social injustice, loss, and tragedy.

Much of Seriff’s presentation addressed the challenges of curating exhibits of cultural objects with rich significance while navigating the various interests of the entities involved in the creation, attainment, and display of those objects. Seriff explained that every exhibit necessarily includes frequently competing narratives of “transformation and desire” between the  folk artists whose work is on display, the frequently Western collectors who purchase and preserve the work, and the museum curators who display and interpret the pieces for a public audience. When discussing her first exhibition for the Museum of International Folk Art (MoIFA) in Santa Fe, New Mexico, titled “Recycled, Re-seen: Folk Art from the Global Scrap Heap,” and her co-edited book by the same name Seriff provided an example of this narrative competition by explaining that both collectors (in this case the museum’s leadership) and museum patrons tended to prefer “feel-good” narratives of early American crafts such as rag rugs and flour sack quilts made in the name of thrift  over those more “political” or unfamiliar pieces from around the world which were designed to speak out against a social injustice or might represent a ritual practice which was unfamiliar to the largely elite patrons.

Seriff also discussed her more recent work between 2010 and 2017 as guest curator and director of MoIFA’s innovative “Gallery of Conscience” which she describes as “an experimental space designed to catalyze important conversations about human rights and social justice issues through the works and words of contemporary folk artists” (in her essay “Designing for Outrage: Inviting Disruption and Contested Truth in Museum Exhibitions,” co-written with Barbara Lau and Jennifer Scott). During her tenure as Director of the Gallery of Conscience, Seriff worked with a team of museum prototypers, community engagement coordinators, curators, educators, designers and community partners to explore ways in which the Gallery might more directly engage and respond to visitor and community input, collaboration and interest. A large part of this work involved a prototype-based design method which invited maximum engagement by remaining intentionally unfinished and unpolished so that community partners, artists and visitors would be  encouraged to contribute to the exhibit’s ongoing narrative their own stories, art and ideas. Seriff explained that her team’s “radical” approach to storytelling in the Gallery of Conscience was meant to explore how pushing the boundaries of the communication of meaning by museums changed visitors’ experiences. Seriff found that some visitors and community members valued the opportunity to express themselves in the exhibit, but others, most prominently museum staff, administrators, docents, and long-time patrons, expressed doubts about whether such experimentation belonged in an “art museum.” Though Seriff’s radically prototype-based technique was eventually replaced with one that embraced a more traditional museum approach to curation and design, Seriff indicated that her belief in museums’ capacity for radical storytelling and communal dialogue persists.

Faculty Fellows engaged Seriff in a discussion that focused in part on whether telling radically inclusive and collaborative narratives in museums is a necessary contradiction, given the Western museum’s long history as an institution of nation-building and cultural control which tend to reinforce dominant narratives of progress and hegemony. Seriff indicated that despite their historical role as elite spaces she sees museums as powerful tools for social change with the ability to encourage issue-based dialogue and promote social justice. Faculty Fellows also reflected on how best to teach a subject or work in a space associated with oppressive social relations, and suggested that instructors in this position might emphasize how these institutions’ hierarchical roles are socially constructed and openly discuss their complicated histories.

Learn more about Dr. Seriff’s award winning work in the MoIFA’s “Gallery of Conscience” here.

See the Humanities Institute’s website for more information about the Faculty Fellows Seminar and the 2018-2020 class of Faculty Fellows.

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