By Lea St-Arnaud-Boffa
(MA in Art History, concentration in Museum Education)
Social justice… what does it mean? As a CCNY graduate student, we talk often about issues of social justice and how they can relate to the field of art education. However, it was not until I started my first art museum internship in New York that I heard about social justice. During the summer of 2013, I interned at the International Center of Photography in their Continuing Education Department. The institution is rooted in social change, founded with the desire of preserving Robert Capa’s legacy of concerned photography. It opened my eyes to a new world that I had not known before. Having interned at ICP that summer and later on working in the same department for over 4 years, I understood issues of social justice as inherent to the future of art and museums. I later started thinking about applying to graduate school and wanted to use art as a way to access social issues prevalent in today’s society, including, but not limited to, identity and community, race and racism, nationality and citizenship, sexuality and gender, or capitalism and consumer society.
Flashforward to a few years later and I am currently working towards my final (!!!) paper for the completion of my Masters in Art History, with a concentration in Museum Education. For the museum education component, I am exploring the idea of social justice in museums from a very basic perspective – how it is defined. As I’ve learned throughout my studies, intentionality and defining your terms is imperative, to ensure that you, as an educator, know exactly the reasons for what you are practicing and what it means to you and others. The idea of social justice in museums has increasingly become a buzzword (whether that is positive or negative is another story!), but are we all on the same page about what the term actually means? Those who are already interested in social justice get excited that its becoming more normalized in institutional discourse, whereas others may get incapacitated, scared, or discouraged that social justice is not for them. But social justice can take on many forms and means something very different to a variety of people, especially as a result of our intersectional identities.
I started researching this topic last spring in my Museum Education II class and am developing it further for my qualifying paper. My research question asks: How do museum professionals and educators at the International Center of Photography and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art define social justice? Through interviews with museum educators, a curator, a program director, and museum administrators, I am collecting data about how social justice is defined by various people in the museum, how social justice informs their practice, and how their definition might have changed overtime based on where they work. At this point in my research, I have found that social justice in the arts is more about asking questions than providing answers. It is about opening up challenging dialogues, difficult truths, and topics that might be difficult for some people to understand or talk about openly. For example, the art object in gallery teaching is primarily a vehicle for those conversations. It can also simply be about visibility in the museum sphere or about educating groups of the types of (free!) resources that are available to them, like Teen Night – Teens Take The Met. The museum has historically been a colonial space, but slowly, it is becoming a public square in which important dialogues can take place.