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In Defense of a Cyborg Museum

Museum Professionals Seminar

Three people on Zoom
Zoë Rayn Evans
Olivia Harrison
Maya Thompson

 

To work at the intersection of arts, culture, and community is to fully adopt a humanist and empathetic understanding of society. But it could be productive to consider the notion of a cyborg to access the human aspect of this work. This seems paradoxical, as it is not uncommon for art and aesthetics to be thought of as the antithesis of science and mechanism but these categories are not mutually exclusive.

Museums are constructs that can bridge these worlds. In the gallery space, the white cube meets color, while labels give descriptive yet succinct verbiage to the poetics of form. In this way, museums begin to arrive upon feminist scholar Donna Haraway’s cyborg, “a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction.” But even as it brings opposing concepts together, the museum strives for purity. Large institutions are designed to be flawless. Visitors are required to observe art at a distance and at low volumes. Most importantly, however, in the large institutions, everyone on the staff has a clear role. The curator is separate from the education department, who are separate from security, which is separate from the public, and so on. This facade of perfection, grounded in division, is an expression of the museum’s historical coloniality. In contrast, Haraway’s vision of the cyborg emphasizes the dissolution of various boundaries and binaries, “a way out of the maze of dualisms in which we have explained our bodies and our tools to ourselves.” The museum feigns perfection while Haraway’s cyborg rejects it in favor of amalgamation.

Through the work of authentic, community-driven engagement, museums can achieve the emancipatory boundarylessness of the cyborg. Community engagement calls on the museum to interface with the “public,” as they are separate from the people of these cultural institutions, as if museum staff are not also members of a broader community seeking paths to connect with ideas, art, and one another. Like a machine, we are seen as mechanisms in a unidirectional flow of information, from institution to audience. But what if we were to disrupt the flow? What if we were to consider the community engagement worker as a cyborg, not placed beneath the curator or above the audience, but in deep connection to both? Such a reconception of our work and our relation to others calls for new mappings and new definitions that reject division and perfection, and embrace alternative concepts of intimacy, community, and knowledge as they relate to museums.

This can occur only by recognizing the expertise among museum workers that is lived experience. Our individual and collective human experiences can inform not just evaluation reports, but also a truth that textbooks and guest lecturers could never impart. This truth eliminates the idea that certain groups simply “don’t like art,” that some communities are best served only by DEIA (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Access) initiatives. This disruption can only begin with the unwavering willingness to abandon what we have, up to this moment in time, considered community.