The winter of 2016 was a busy time in central Iowa. It was caucus season. The presidential candidates and their campaign staffs and volunteers were busy getting messages out to voters and organizing events.
Museums were busy too. Some were hosting events for those campaigns*. Some museums were exhibiting about the caucus process and history.
The Science Center of Iowa was hosting a traveling exhibit that didn’t specifically address the caucus. Instead, RACE: Are We So Different? addresses what is perhaps the single most important issue in America’s political history.
I asked, and was glad to hear, that it was no coincidence that the Science Center decided to bring RACE to Des Moines during caucus season. The museum was actively trying to encourage exploration and discussion about race while Iowans were expressing their first-in-the-nation privilege of presidential preference.
During the run of RACE, the Science Center offered diversity training. In a good example of museums benefiting from the work of other museums, the staff of the botanical garden I was working for at the time participated in this training. We viewed the exhibition and then participated in a presentation and guided discussion.
The presentation included viewing “The Danger of the Single Story,” a TED talk by author Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche. It’s worth 18 minutes of your time if you haven’t seen it.
Adiche defines how to create a single story: “Show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again and that is what they become.”
She then goes on to mention that it is impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power. Adiche cites the Igbo word nkali, which means “to be greater than another.”
“Like our economic and political worlds, stories too are defined by the principle of nkali: How they are told, who tells them, when they’re told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power. Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person,” Adiche says.
Museums have the power to tell stories, and the power to tell definitive stories about people. There are, sadly, many examples of museums not using this power in a positive manner. There have been times where museums have omitted people from stories. Sometimes museums have told stories about a community without involving that community in writing the story.
In our society, we find ourselves with leaders and a media that too often tell a single story. As Adiche says, “The consequence of the single story is that it robs people of dignity.” She reminds us that single stories emphasize our differences rather than our similarities.
But Adiche is also quick to point out that stories can also be used for good.
In the 21st century, museums must use storytelling to create a more positive, just, and inclusive society.
I want to build, visit, and participate in museums that allow communities to tell their stories. I dream of museums that tell the complex stories about humans because human beings are complex. I want to see museums use objects to tell authentic stories about people.
Most of all, I want museums to build understanding and appreciation between people by telling full, complete, and inclusive stories about the American experience. I want museums to help us realize the similarities we have between each other, but that celebrate our diversity as well.
Will you join me?
*Including an event that brought a black eye to the museum I was working for at the time, but examining the issues surrounding a museum hosting political candidates would be a separate blog post.