7 November 2018

EXPLORING YOUR DISCOMFORT ZONE

She’s My Muse | Kathleen Lew


From October 24-26 I attended my first museum conference, the Ontario Museum Association’s Collaborating for Impact: Not Business as Usual. My nerves about attending a professional conference became relatively minor amidst a larger conversation about the value of discomfort in museums. “Not Business as Usual” means questioning existing assumptions about museum practices and acting to change them to better serve audiences. Difficult conversations of self-criticism are uncomfortable, but worth having. This is why “discomfort”—as a feeling and a practice, is an important ‘muse’ to consider.

OMA's conference "Collaborating for Impact: Not Business as Usual" in Toronto, ON.
Photo courtesy of Selin Kahramanoglu.


Who is already uncomfortable?

There are many people who do not want to visit, or feel unsafe visiting, museums because of their elitism and relationship to colonialism and power. As museum professionals, we must sacrifice our privileges of comfort for communities to feel welcome and engaged in the museum space.

Dr. Deborah L. Mack from the National Museum of African American History and Culture (Smithsonian Institution) expressed similar sentiments in her keynote “The Work You Do, The Person You Are.” She stated that people need to feel heard before you can start a dialogue. Mack spoke about how African American communities have felt historically unwelcome at the Smithsonian, highlighting the importance of going out to communities rather than expecting them to come to the museum.

Source.

Who does discomfort benefit?

There is violence in not engaging with discomfort consciously, or not preparing for the potential consequences of discomfort.

Wendy Ng, J’net Ayayqwayaksheelth, and Sarah Chu from the Royal Ontario Museum emphasized in their talk “In a Good Way…Prioritizing Indigenous Education and Learning” that we need to address legacies of historical grief that persist without tokenizing Indigenous peoples. Our discomfort does not benefit communities if we are speaking for others or relying on western academic frameworks. Ally is a verb, not a noun— there needs to be action and we need to hold each other accountable.

As an emerging professional, I hope to become increasingly comfortable at conferences and increasingly uncomfortable when challenging my existing perceptions of museum work.

What does discomfort look like at your institution?

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