The permanent and official blog of the University of Leicester's School of Museum Studies PhD student conferences and special events.

6 November 2013

Transmutation #19 - Beyond binaries: a history of the Kitchen Conversations program at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum

Emily Pinkowitz is Deputy Director of Public Programs, Education and Community Engagement at Friends of the High Line and New York. Today, she talks about her previous work at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.

This area has been home to wave after wave of immigrants since the late 1800s. The mission of the Museum, house in an old tenement block, was to produce integration, awareness and tolerance of communities; and in 2004, it launched the Kitchen Conversations Project. Four years later, this was seen as a model for other museum programs seeking to promote engagement and tolerance. But it too needed development; and so it changed from one hour long program to a two hour long tour.

How were these shifts motivated? Pinkowitz argues that it was through subtle shifts in thinking within the museum, and reflects the fallacies of the binary between museums and people, and the singular nature of the visitor. This sits within a wider critical dialogue that has existed throughout the history of museums.

The Tenement Museum was created in 1988, using the stories of real immigrants throughout history and from all over the world. They wanted to build connections between visitors and the immigrants of the past in the hope that this would build connections in the future. But by 1998, they realised that this model was not working. Visitors were coming to the museum seeking affirmation of their romantic views of the past.

So they complicated history, deromanticizing stories of the past in ways which were often less flattering to the historic people they represented. But that didn't work either. They came to the conclusion that the best way of challenging history was to challenge the museum itself.

And this resulted in Kitchen Conversations; a project which allowed for dialogue, discussion and remembrance. The Conversations occured directly after the standard tour given by education staff, but they were a deliberately separate thing; the physical space was different, and the people chosen to lead the dialogues were employed from a completely different source than the tour leaders.

This stemmed from the beleif that the rhetoric of the museum and the hierarchy of educator and visitor limited the role and authority of the visitor. This binary is akin to the difference between the museum as temple and the museum as forum. Duncan suggested that not only is the temple contaminated by the insertion of a forum, but the forum contaminated by its housing within the temple. Hence the way the Conversations were run.

But people weren't engaging with the program - staying for the snacks and then having the gall to leave. So by 2005, bridges began to be built between the tour and Conversations programs. Staff were put in dialogue, shared experiences, training and knowledge, and the spaces were styled in more comparative ways. By giving the leaders of each projects knowledge about the other, more satisfying connections could be made. As a result, visitor participation increased. By 2007, the programs were so integrated as to be almost two halves of the same thing. And by 2009, visitor numbers had increased exponentially. In the same year, the program was fully integrated into a two hour dialogue, not a separate tour and conversation.

It is clear that people wished to have conversations; but the types of conversations and the way in which they were run had a significant impact upon their satisfaction. Was the final result impacting visitors in the way the original Kitchen Conversations had been intended to? Yes, says Pinkowitz.

Cameron's model of spaces of authority and spaces of questioning has seen much discussion in the museum world. But this model creates a false dichotomy, assuming that the identity of the visitor is not fixed throughout the visit. So the museum is not a space of either authority or questioning, either temple or forum, but an identityscape in which we exist as complex and overlapping constructs. The Museum should facilitate this liquidity to legitimate a variety of perspectives. For it has an identityscape of its own; in my opinion a museum is, as much as its visitors, a liquid entity itself.

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