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Cutting the Gordian Knot — Michael Peter Edson, We Are Museums 2019

Transcript of talk for We Are Museums, Muzeum Ślaskie, Katowice #wam19

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Cutting the Gordian Knot — Michael Peter Edson, We Are Museums 2019

  1. 1. Page 1 of 34 2019-05-27 Michael Peter Edson, We Are Museums 2019 5/27/19, 10:17 AM Cutting the Gordian Knot 2019-05-27 Script for We Are Museums 2019 https://www.wearemuseums.com/wam19/ (15 minute talk) Michael Peter Edson Co-founder and Associate Director Museum for the United Nations — UN Live @mpedson / @unlivemuseum ——————————————————————————————————————— —————— Intros & note - I’m not an employee or spokesperson of the United Nations. - We’re an independent, startup NGO, close to, but not part of the UN. [Slide: Two Thousand Years Ago]
  2. 2. Page 2 of 34 2019-05-27 Michael Peter Edson, We Are Museums 2019 5/27/19, 10:17 AM Imagine you are living two-thousand years ago. You have been outdoors, walking with your army, back and forth across the deserts of Persia for longer than you can remember, fighting one bloody battle after another, burying your dead and walking on. [Slide: Chariot of Gordius] Then one day you enter the city of Gordium. You are taken to the famous
  3. 3. Page 3 of 34 2019-05-27 Michael Peter Edson, We Are Museums 2019 5/27/19, 10:17 AM ancient chariot of Gordius, founder of the city, son of King Midas. The chariot is lashed together, tied, with a knot so intricate, so strong that no- one can untie it. A knot so impossible, so magical that an oracle once declared that it could only be untied by a demigod destined to rule all of Asia. You stand there exhausted, dirty, thirsty. Your mouth is full of dust. You look at the people gathered around you. For some, you can see in their eyes a calculation happening, the wheels are turning. They are, in their minds, probing the knot, looking for the opening, to find the ends and loosen them with their fingers to claim their destiny. [slide: “working the problem”] They are “working the problem” as we would say today. And some may actually give it a try. But in their hearts, they know before they even begin that, while they may put on a good show, they will fail, like all who have tried before. That path of half-hearted effort and happy failure is not for you. You stare at the knot.
  4. 4. Page 4 of 34 2019-05-27 Michael Peter Edson, We Are Museums 2019 5/27/19, 10:17 AM You are so tired. But you make up your mind. And with a shrug you step forward, draw your sword, and cut the knot in half with a single stroke. The crowd falls silent. Shocked. You sheathe your sword, still ringing from the blow, and walk away. [Slides] You are Alexander the Great. You are 23 years old. You have cut the famous Gordian knot. [slide: Jean-Simon Berthélemy: Alexander cuts the Gordian Knot, 1767, École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts, https:// commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Alexander_cuts_the_Gordian_Knot.jpg, Public Domain]
  5. 5. Page 5 of 34 2019-05-27 Michael Peter Edson, We Are Museums 2019 5/27/19, 10:17 AM I am sure that this is exactly how you pictured the scene ;) * * * * * * * * * * [slide: Cutting the knot]
  6. 6. Page 6 of 34 2019-05-27 Michael Peter Edson, We Are Museums 2019 5/27/19, 10:17 AM Cutting the Gordian knot is, of course, a metaphor. A metaphor for solving difficult problems through direct and decisive action. [Slide sequence: this way] It is a metaphor we think about every day as we are creating a new global
  7. 7. Page 7 of 34 2019-05-27 Michael Peter Edson, We Are Museums 2019 5/27/19, 10:17 AM museum, The Museum for the United Nations — UN Live. We are all about action. Doers, and doing. Cutting the knot. Not with recklessness or haste, hubris or ego, but by trying to find a direct approach whenever possible, to connect problems with the people and actions most likely to solve them. [Slide: SDGs] Because we face now, on Earth, some very difficult problems that would seem to require direct and decisive action — and likely very unconventional action, by millions or billions of unconventional everyday people. I’m thinking specifically about the Sustainable Development Goals, the SDGs, 17 global goals to be achieved by 2030. [Slide]
  8. 8. Page 8 of 34 2019-05-27 Michael Peter Edson, We Are Museums 2019 5/27/19, 10:17 AM These goals, No Poverty, Zero Hunger, Gender Equality, Climate Action, represent knots that we humans have tied ourselves. Knots that affect us all, that will bind our lives to happiness or sorrow, And it may take all of us, working together, to break them. But how can we get “all of us”, working together, taking action, on these things that matter so dearly? After almost 30 years working in museums I think for the most part that we, in the museum field, have a pretty big sword in our hands that we…could… use to attack these problems. [Slide: Sequence]
  9. 9. Page 9 of 34 2019-05-27 Michael Peter Edson, We Are Museums 2019 5/27/19, 10:17 AM We have institutions, with their stamina and force. We have, in many parts of the world, Reputation. Trust (perhaps). Physical infrastructure Networks Convening power And we have, most importantly, the ability to use a broad spectrum of techniques, media, and platforms through which we can invite the world to work together. [Slide: Crown Fountain at Night Jackman Chiu, CC-BY-NC, https://flic.kr/p/ aaAwhV ]
  10. 10. Page 10 of 34 2019-05-27 Michael Peter Edson, We Are Museums 2019 5/27/19, 10:17 AM Music, the visual arts, poetry, literature, exhibition, performance, the spoken word. The world of the intellect, emotion, dialogue, doing, making, know-how, action and community. Museums and cultural institutions can, with and from their communities, speak, and act, with a broad and powerful vocabulary. The grammar of our lives. [Slide: http://www.ourrelationshipwithnature.com/wp-content/uploads/ 2016/03/museum.jpg]
  11. 11. Page 11 of 34 2019-05-27 Michael Peter Edson, We Are Museums 2019 5/27/19, 10:17 AM (And I do want to acknowledge here that I know that museums are not universally loved. But through our research and fieldwork at my museum we feel that we have found some ways to overcome this by working in the service of local communities. My colleague Nikolaj Moeller, who is with you at the conference today, will talk about our work on global-local action at “eye level” with neighborhoods and communities.) Museums have these tools within reach, these swords, in theory…but in practice we rarely use them, with conviction and force, to achieve civic goals, even though civic outcomes central to many of our missions. We seem to be afraid to use these tools. We prefer, instead, to play a safe, cautious, and indirect role in solving the problems that matter most. And I would argue that time has run out to play only the safe and cautious game. I think that museums, in this day and age, are held back by three major defects in our practice. [Slide: 3 defects in practice] The first is a defect is that we are too cautious. Trust, to us, is something to have, but not to spend.
  12. 12. Page 12 of 34 2019-05-27 Michael Peter Edson, We Are Museums 2019 5/27/19, 10:17 AM [Slide: the end of the world] In the aftermath of America’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord in 2017, I could not find a single museum that took action or asked their communities to become involved. [Slide]
  13. 13. Page 13 of 34 2019-05-27 Michael Peter Edson, We Are Museums 2019 5/27/19, 10:17 AM A couple of museum directors wrote blog posts including one that vowed, weakly, to “continue in its mission of documenting and preserving nature’s wonders…” Weak medicine. The same director, in an April 2019 article titled [Slide] How Museums are Responding to an Era of Alternative Facts, was quoted as saying that if a visitor believed that “2 + 2 = 5” (which was used as a proxy for belief in non-scientific ideas, such as “the world is flat”) we couldn’t correct them because, “the moment you do that you fall into the partisan divide……We have this huge obligation, because the public trusts us. We’ve got to really be careful to maintain that trust.” But to me, you earn trust so that you can spend it on things that matter, like taking a strong stand for the truth. [slide]
  14. 14. Page 14 of 34 2019-05-27 Michael Peter Edson, We Are Museums 2019 5/27/19, 10:17 AM Do you know what platforms were active, vocal, and energetic in the days after America’s withdrawal from the Paris Accord? Teen Vogue and The Weather Channel. Here they are, right on top of the American Museum of Natural History, (advertising “MUMMIES”), and the Natural History Museum in London, (“Sensational Butterflies”), at the peak of public and media attention a few days after the Paris withdrawal. I do understand that many museum directors feel constrained by their funding and charters to be “non-political” and “non-partisan”. I feel these pressures myself. But I think that the equation, the calculation, for where to draw the line between civic responsibility — moral, ethical, and professional responsibility — and so-called partisanship is wildly out of balance at a time when we need the clarity and catalytic potential of museums to be functioning at full force. [slide]
  15. 15. Page 15 of 34 2019-05-27 Michael Peter Edson, We Are Museums 2019 5/27/19, 10:17 AM The second is that we overestimate the importance of indirect paths to action. [slide: https://politiken.dk/live/livepodcast/art6012380/Hvad-er-museets- rolle-i-en-br%C3%A6ndende-verden] At an event in Copenhagen in June 2017, titled The Role of Museums in a World On Fire, the Directors of 4 cultural institutions, including the Tate
  16. 16. Page 16 of 34 2019-05-27 Michael Peter Edson, We Are Museums 2019 5/27/19, 10:17 AM Modern, and the National Gallery of Denmark, universally stated their agreement that we are in a world on fire and that their institutions were rising to the task; but none could state a direct and plausible cause and effect between the programs and exhibitions of their institutions and outcomes that could address or ameliorate problems the problems they invoked, such as the rise of extremism, inequality, mass migration, or climate change. Frances Morris, Director of the Tate Modern, stated that her institution was being… [slide] “truly activist” by having “galleries are full of artists from many places across the world” and having “a level of diversity in relation to gender and race and ethnicity and age.” [Note: transcribed from podcast of the event at https://www.podbean.com/ media/share/pb-vgxd2-6c55ed. The Frances Morris’ full remarks are below.] [slide: the knot]
  17. 17. Page 17 of 34 2019-05-27 Michael Peter Edson, We Are Museums 2019 5/27/19, 10:17 AM Museums often presume that forces and actors outside the institution will somehow take the enlightenment and good example being shown at our leading institutions and convert them into action social innovation significant enough to move the dial on enormous societal issues — Gordian knots. Many institutions make this leap of faith, that someone else will complete their missions, but stories of this happening are extremely hard to find. Many times in talking with museum professionals I see great faith being placed in what social scientists call “information deficit model” of behavior change: If we give people the right knowledge, they will change. But again, stories of this actually happening are hard to find, and social science tells us that the opposite is often true: if you present people with facts that contradict their mental model of the way the world works they are most likely to reject the new knowledge and be more sure of their original ideas. In addition, the link between “knowing” something and acting rationally with that knowledge is often weak. American liberals know more about climate science than almost any group on Earth, yet they are politically passive and disengaged on the issue. Danish teenagers are taught, in gruesome detail, about the dangers of cigarette smoking, and yet they still smoke.
  18. 18. Page 18 of 34 2019-05-27 Michael Peter Edson, We Are Museums 2019 5/27/19, 10:17 AM But don’t get me wrong. I love museums. I love these institutions and my museum brothers and sisters around the world. I think museums, even the most passive, inward-looking institutions, can play crucial roles in society. But I do think that museums and all civic institutions — all institutions, period — need to work harder, much much harder, and more directly, if they really want to lead the way into a difficult and uncertain tomorrow. I just do not think they — we — are getting the job done with their current methods and practices. [Slide] The third defect in our practice is that we are too slow. [slide: https://www.rollingstone.com/politics/politics-news/bill-mckibben- winning-slowly-is-the-same-as-losing-198205/ ]
  19. 19. Page 19 of 34 2019-05-27 Michael Peter Edson, We Are Museums 2019 5/27/19, 10:17 AM “Winning Slowly Is the Same as Losing” is the title of environmentalist Bill McKibben’s 2017 article about Climate Change in Rolling Stone magazine, which begins, “If we don’t win very quickly on climate change then we will never win. That’s the core truth about global warming. It’s what makes it different from every other problem our political systems have faced.” [slide: https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/when-its-too-late-to- stop-fascism-according-to-stefan-zweig ]
  20. 20. Page 20 of 34 2019-05-27 Michael Peter Edson, We Are Museums 2019 5/27/19, 10:17 AM I am also thinking of an Stefan Zweig’s “The World of Yesterday,” written in 1941 as the world was descending into madness. [slide] George Pronchnik wrote in the New Yorker, “'The excruciating power of Zweig’s memoir lies in the pain of looking back and seeing that there was a
  21. 21. Page 21 of 34 2019-05-27 Michael Peter Edson, We Are Museums 2019 5/27/19, 10:17 AM small window in which it was possible to act, and then discovering how suddenly and irrevocably that window can be slammed shut.” [From: “When It’s Too Late to Stop Fascism, According to Stefan Zweig” George Prochnik, New Yorker, February 6, 2017] [Slide: https://www.un.org/press/en/2019/ga12131.doc.htm ] The United Nations just reported that we have 11 years to take decisive action on the climate crisis or we will face catastrophic consequences. In climate, civics, extremism, poverty, health, and many other burning issues there is indeed a small window in which it is possible to act. [Slide]
  22. 22. Page 22 of 34 2019-05-27 Michael Peter Edson, We Are Museums 2019 5/27/19, 10:17 AM * * * * * * * * * * [slide: homepage, http://unlivemuseum.org]
  23. 23. Page 23 of 34 2019-05-27 Michael Peter Edson, We Are Museums 2019 5/27/19, 10:17 AM So how do these ideas relate to my museum, the Museum for the United Nations — UN Live? How are we attempting to cut the Gordian knot? I encourage you to look at the content strategy, published on our Homepage, to talk to Nikolaj Moeller, who you will meet on stage later this morning, [slide: https://youtu.be/SQHrmMH45Sk | https://youtu.be/JFo75nnMTcA ]
  24. 24. Page 24 of 34 2019-05-27 Michael Peter Edson, We Are Museums 2019 5/27/19, 10:17 AM And I encourage you to view these longer, more detailed talks about our strategy and execution. [slide] We are a startup NGO, close to, but not part of the United Nations. We are designed this way for the sake of speed: to have the agility and the mandate to act and take risks.
  25. 25. Page 25 of 34 2019-05-27 Michael Peter Edson, We Are Museums 2019 5/27/19, 10:17 AM [slide] We included in our mission a statement that we would “catalyze global action” because we wanted to hold ourselves accountable for achieving concrete outcomes. Either the SDGs are accomplished, or they are not. [slide]
  26. 26. Page 26 of 34 2019-05-27 Michael Peter Edson, We Are Museums 2019 5/27/19, 10:17 AM We have a dream, to dramatically increase the number of people in the world who directly tackle the world’s most difficult challenges, because we feel that a massive, global sense of ownership for the Sustainable Development Goals has the best chance of unlocking new kinds of thinking, and doing, at an acceptable speed and scale. This is perhaps the biggest Gordian knot of all, the one we take the closest to heart: to do everything we can to directly involve and support millions, or billions, of so-called “ordinary” people in the work of solving, accomplishing, the Sustainable Development Goals and the other great challenges we face. To paraphrase Clay Shirky, the only people who can think of everything, and do everything possible, is…everyone. UN Live will borrow many of the conventions of traditional museums, especially those that are experiential and interactive in nature. World class architecture, exhibitions, and educational public programs are a given, as is a world class staff. At the same time, UN Live will challenge our expectations of what a museum is and what its visitors can accomplish. [slide]
  27. 27. Page 27 of 34 2019-05-27 Michael Peter Edson, We Are Museums 2019 5/27/19, 10:17 AM UN Live will not have a permanent collection; rather, the museum’s collection can be thought of as the stories, knowledge, and creative, problem-solving capacity of individuals and communities around the world. [Slide]
  28. 28. Page 28 of 34 2019-05-27 Michael Peter Edson, We Are Museums 2019 5/27/19, 10:17 AM Whereas most museums provide information “from the top- down” to mostly passive viewers, UN Live works “from the bottom-up”, encouraging participants to be innovators and problem solvers through a learning model that emphasizes experiential learning, collaboration, and play. [slide] We will be a museum on three platforms TOGETHER: a museum, civic space and headquarters — gathering place, a lab, a hub, a creative place space, and a civic classroom first in Copenhagen, Denmark and then in many locations around the world. Because we know that to catalyze action we need to bring people physically together in their own communities. We will be a global digital presence, free and open to everyone — because we know that digital is our best hope to connect, support, and listen to millions, or billions, of “ordinary”, extraordinary people. And a network of partner institutions and public venues throughout the world, because, my goodness, we have no desire to reinvent the wheel; rather we want to support and help scale the success of others.
  29. 29. Page 29 of 34 2019-05-27 Michael Peter Edson, We Are Museums 2019 5/27/19, 10:17 AM I think, 100 years from now, if we are successful as an institution., it will be this network, this community, above all else, that will have made the difference. Tech pioneer Gina Tripani once said that “your community is your best feature.” I want to leave you with some words spoken by Greta Thunberg at Davos this year. [Slide: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/jan/25/our-house-is- on-fire-greta-thunberg16-urges-leaders-to-act-on-climate ] She said, [Slide]
  30. 30. Page 30 of 34 2019-05-27 Michael Peter Edson, We Are Museums 2019 5/27/19, 10:17 AM “We are at a time in history where everyone with any insight of the climate crisis that threatens our civilisation – and the entire biosphere – must speak out in clear language, no matter how uncomfortable and unprofitable that may be…I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day…” [Slide]
  31. 31. Page 31 of 34 2019-05-27 Michael Peter Edson, We Are Museums 2019 5/27/19, 10:17 AM “…And then I want you to act.” Everything we are doing as a young, startup institution is animated by these words. We want to cut the knot of passivity, caution, and inaction, for everyone, everywhere. Thank you. // Note: Remarks of three speakers, including Tate Modern director Frances Morris from The Role of Museums in a World On Fire, transcribed from podcast of the event at https://www.podbean.com/media/ share/pb-vgxd2-6c55ed About the event: https://politiken.dk/live/livepodcast/art6012380/Hvad-er- museets-rolle-i-en-br%C3%A6ndende-verden Event was 2017-06-21 Frances Morris, Director, Tate Modern. This year in London in particular, with Brexit and the terror attacks in the context of austerity and world uncertainty in which the world operates is really tangible evidence that this is a moment for the museum to think, do we participate or do we withdraw? The reality for Tate, which is at national museum, what we call a non- departmental public body, is that effectively with our support from the government comes a commitment not to assume a political position even though, 100%, 90%, or whatever of the employees of the institution might think one thing I don't like minded, we're actually duty-bound not to be an activist institution. But I think we do have an incredibly important role…. One is that we are a platform for artistic activism. We are a platform where artists take risks, where they say radical provocative and important things, had along side that we have to be a platform for public debate. It's
  32. 32. Page 32 of 34 2019-05-27 Michael Peter Edson, We Are Museums 2019 5/27/19, 10:17 AM incredibly important that we, that our messages, our beliefs, are enshrined in our activities. And I thought the actions of the Museum of modern Art in introducing works into their collection who would be affected by the ban on immigration was a really powerful gesture. But what it underlined to be was the absence of those artists from the walls of the museum in normal times. And what I think we are trying to do at Tate modern, that I think speaks louder than any manifesto, or any action, is that our galleries are full of artists from many places across the world, and that there is a level of diversity in relation to gender and race and ethnic city and age. So I think that kind of commitment personal attacks from hate speech from breaches of confidentiality, that's the way that the museum can be truly activist at this point in time. Thank you so much. /Tone Olaf Nielsen, Director of CAMP and Kultorisk Aktion. Our world is currently facing a series of catastrophic crises that the international community has been unable to tackle. Climate change, unequal wealth distribution, extremism, terrorism, and mass migration to name some of them. In such a world on fire I believe it is the duty of all public institutions, political, social, cultural, to provide space for the generating of platforms where these crises as can be unpacked and discussed a cross boundaries of differences so that civil society, majority as well as minority communities are included in these discussions on how to address them so that we can collectively begin to discuss how to solve them. I've been fortunate enough to be part of initiating to such platforms. The first is the trembling house, a self organized independent refugee justice community center in Copenhagen, established in 2010, where I work as a program and woman's counseling coordinator. The second is camp, center for art and migration politics, a nonprofit exhibition venue for art, discussing issues of displacement, migration, immigration, and asylum, that I opened inside trampoline house in 2015, together with curator and co-director Fred Rica Henson. The center is small and we only produce two exhibitions annually, but we do it with renowned international artists as well as less established practitioners and we prioritize artists with refugee or migrant experience. Our objective is to
  33. 33. Page 33 of 34 2019-05-27 Michael Peter Edson, We Are Museums 2019 5/27/19, 10:17 AM stimulate a greater understanding between displaced people and to stimulate new visions for more inclusive and equitable migration, refugee and asylum policy. In my view we need state, public, and private art institutions to have the courage to open up their programs and collections for artists and other cultural producers who have taken it on themselves to unpack our contemporary crises, and we have to do it from the perspective of those who are hit the hardest by them. In other words we need museums to make room for artworks that deconstruct white privilege and structural racism so that community members who feel marginalized and silenced or suddenly feeling heard and seen. In short we need our institutions to generate shared spaces. Spaces that we inhabit and develop together across the boundaries of privilege and inequality. This requires museums to make an ongoing, long-term commitment to address global urgencies. A single exhibition about displacement or climate change or extremism is not sufficient. That only turns such crises into spectacles that will distance audiences even further from a sense of being able to contribute to solving them. / Mikkel Bogh As head of a National Gallery of Art I can of course, to a very large extent, relate to what Francis said [Frances Morris, Director of Tate Modern] we do have some of the same implications as a public service institution and also that as a national art gallery we have an obligation to give voice to, in principle and ideally, the whole of Denmark. And that is not only the privileged parts, over 40% of our visitors, and probably most of you sitting here, represent the highly educated part of the Danish population, but there are many many people not visiting museums. But museum activism is for me contemporary burning issues at stake in the context of your collection. And it is not a given how you do that. A museum director or a curator or anybody working at a museum can make powerful political statements in a burning world saying that we are against this, or we support that, and I think support programs are indeed very important to have. But researching and representing your collection is in the most general sense the most powerful way of being activist as a museum, even though I acknowledge and recognize that there are more immediate ways like making statements and things like that. But the statement that comes from the collection is
  34. 34. Page 34 of 34 2019-05-27 Michael Peter Edson, We Are Museums 2019 5/27/19, 10:17 AM really powerful.

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