Sunday, December 11, 2016

Westworld, Museum Collecting, and the 2016 Election

In this guest post, 2016 Uncataloged Museum mentee Amanda Guzman contemplates the election and her current binge-watching fav Westworld for a look at the future of museum objects and the interpretation thereof.

In HBO’s Westworld, robotic, humanoid hosts – which (un)knowingly serve as too often tragic props in various narratives for the entertainment of guests in a futuristic park –  are periodically questioned on whether or not they have retained memories of their character’s loops in past storylines. The statement by one host, Dolores (pictured above) - “Doesn’t look like anything to me” - is a fascinating assertion then to make in this context. In the show, as in life, knowledge is power; the writers (“programmers”), administrators, and host techs (“butchers”) that manage the fictional Westworld park maintain order and their respective authority positions by the careful curation of knowledge. 

Why start a blog post about contemporary museum collecting practices and the 2016 election with this Westworld allusion?

Well, I began by musing on my current TV binge favorite because it relates to a question I have about how future museum visitors would and should approach, interpret, and mobilize past election material in developing their understandings of American history and their role within that narrative. To put it another way, I wondered how future audiences would come to perceive the election material of yesterday and today. Would they too say, “Doesn’t look like anything to me.”? 

As a bit of background, during the presidential election season, I noticed different museums highlighting and asserting the value of the continued collection of election material (particularly that of more traditional campaign memorabilia including buttons and signs) in the digital age.

To put it simply, election material not only publicly declares one’s partisan inclinations and preferred candidate but also (and perhaps more importantly) suggests a heightened level of pride in expressing those convictions.

To put it mildly, the 2016 presidential election – regardless of one’s political orientation – has been inarguably characterized by extreme levels of division and emotion. This has been widely commented on.

So, how might museums move forward with exhibition content in 2017? One answer is to acknowledge emotion (which can fall in the category of traumatic and dangerously crippling) and to mobilize it into larger social engagement with the important issues facing the country today – thereby transforming our publics from spectators to agential stakeholders.

Especially, in light of a noted increase in hate crimes and discriminatory rhetoric (some of which have targeted museums such as the San Diego Museum and Manhattan’s Tenement Museum), museums have a clear responsibility (and opportunity) to employ the facts of the past (and present) in projecting visions of the future – which include thoughtful, more inclusive conversations about ever-changing demographics.

The irony of this post was that I didn’t anticipate the emotion that I would have while writing, but here it is. To my chagrin, 2016 did very much look like something to me.

“Hooray for Politics!” Exhibit, National Museum of American History, Photo taken Fall 2016

1 comment:

Brittany Liscord said...

Amanda, thank you for shedding light on how museums fit into the current political climate, and their role as both arbitrators of truth and critical thought. I especially enjoyed your link to Rebecca Herz's article on "What responsibility do museums have for shaping the public’s relationship with facts?," which delves into how museums can promote critical thinking. I totally support her ideas and would even go one step further and remind museum educators and curators to also reflect on "how do I know what I know" to ensure that critical thinking is shaping the interpretations, exhibits and programs that are presented to the public.