HOW TO TALK ABOUT CLIMATE ACTIVIST PROTESTS IN ART MUSEUMS

Summary Sheet for Episode 73 – Resources for talking about contentious issues

 

Today’s episode follows on from some popular posts I shared on social media recently about how to talk about the recent activist protests in art museums with your participants.  I wanted to take the opportunity to explore the subject in a bit more detail here.

Art has been hitting the headlines recently with numerous climate activist protests targeting famous paintings in museums – from throwing soup over Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’ in the National Gallery in London, to smearing mashed potato on Monet’s ‘Haystacks’ in Potsdam and protestors glueing themselves to Vermeer’s ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ in the Mauritshuis in The Hague.

Now, whatever your views about these attacks – and I’m acknowledging here that there are very passionate views on all sides – as educators, how we respond is equally important.

Whether you’re working with groups in the museum or with students in a classroom, people will mention recent events and will want to talk about it. They may even ask you for your opinions

So, in today’s episode we’ll explore how these events are an opportunity to engage in perspective-taking and discussion with visitors, rather than voicing our own opinions. 

It means listening to a range of perspectives and keeping an open mind, creating discussion with visitors and inviting them to explore and even understand the different perspectives involved.

But, importantly, you have to feel comfortable creating conversations about contentious issues such as these and know that you will be able to facilitate objectively.

So, first I’ll talk about the kinds of discussions you could facilitate around this subject and will share a range of thinking routines and questions that you can use to create conversations. 

And secondly, I’ll take you through a super-useful exercise that will help you to get to know yourself and your feelings better – this is an exercise that will ultimately help you to facilitate subjects around all kinds of sensitive and contentious topics.

There are lots of resources associated with today’s episode too, including a free PDF summary sheet – and I’ve shared all the helpful links below. 

LINKS

Support the Show

Join the Slow Looking Club Community on Facebook

6 thinking routines for perspective-taking (free PDF)

Episode 11 Step Inside: Thinking Routines to Foster Perspective-Taking

Episode 43 Tips for facilitating meaningful discussions around sensitive subjects

ENGAGING IN PERSPECTIVE-TAKING 

So, first let’s look at how we can engage in perspective-taking around this subject. I’ve talked about perspective-taking in previous episodes – so do go back and listen to Episode 11 if you get a chance as I explore what perspective-taking is, why it matters and introduce you to 4 thinking routines that you can use to foster the disposition of perspective-taking – either as an individual or with groups.

Perspective-taking is essentially about examining things from different perspectives to develop a more balanced take on issues, ideas and events. 

 

Empathy – which is our ability to recognise, feel, and respond to the needs and suffering of other people – is often the result of perspective-taking

 

There are many perspective-taking thinking routines out there that can help you to structure these types of conversations with visitors – for example, Step Inside, Step In Step Out Step Back, Circle of Viewpoints amongst others. 

These thinking routines essentially ask you to identify a viewpoint or various ‘actors’ in the situation.  If you’re in a group together, it’s a good idea for the group to identify all the stakeholders or different perspectives that are involved

One of the good things about thinking routines like Circle of Viewpoints is that you often identify viewpoints that you hadn’t really thought about before.

In the case of the recent attacks on famous artworks, you can ask people to list what perspectives they think might be involved here: firstly, there’s the perspective of the activists, but who else is involved?

There’s the museum itself, museum staff – including Front of House Staff, curators, conservators and educators and guides like yourself. Some people might even want to bring in the perspective of the artist too. 

You then might want to choose a couple of viewpoints to explore by asking: ‘How might  they feel, think or act?’ ‘What might they know, perceive, care about?’ 

And the word ‘might’ is key here too. You are asking people to imagine how they might, think, feel or act. 

You can then follow this up with asking why they might think that way. This asks you to explore their reasoning. 

Are there any social relations, cultural values or personal views that may shape their perspective in the situation here? So, what factors shape the perspective of the activists, the museum, the curator and others?

You may want to then consider what else you might need to find out – basically assessing the limits of your own interpretation and acknowledging that we may not have all the answers or indeed all the facts at our disposal. 

This could lead on to a discussion about why these attacks have garnered so much attention – What makes an artwork famous? What makes art a target for attack? Is art worth more than the planet?⁠ 

Alternatively you could use a thinking routine like the 3 Y’s which asks you to think about the significance of these actions. It has 3 questions:  

  1. Why might this [topic, question] matter to me? 

  2. Why might it matter to people around me [family, friends, city, nation]? 

  3. Why might it matter to the world?

If you want to look into this in more detail and the questions I mention here, I recommend downloading the free resource Thinking Routines for Perspective-Taking which has 6 cheatsheets for a variety of ways to use 6 different perspective-taking thinking routines. 

AN EXERCISE IN SELF-AWARENESS

So let’s move on to discussing how to facilitate discussions like this with sensitivity and tact. 

Discussions like these require more advanced facilitation techniques – techniques that I cover in full in the final modules of my VTMO course. I also offer training in this on my team training courses in museums. 

Essentially, with these sorts of discussions around contentious issues and hot topics, it’s important to be aware of our own biases, personal beliefs and values first. ⁠

So, I’m going to share with you a great exercise to do before any discussion that you are due to have with a group when you are going to be facilitating discussions about specific themes or ideas, and any dialogues that include difficult or sensitive subjects. 

 

This is an exercise in self-awareness. It’s about knowing yourself and how you feel about a certain subject. It helps you to consider whether you know the topic, how you feel about it and whether you can assume an “objective” role. 

 

We all have emotional triggers and hot buttons. This is when we have an emotional response to something – we  can become upset, stressed, thrown off balance, and irrational. Sometimes we have a fight or flight response. 

 

The process of being more aware of our triggers and getting to know and understand them can help us to better manage our responses. 

 

So, this exercise will help you to understand how you feel about the recent art attacks and will help you to make an informed decision about whether you feel comfortable having an objective discussion with visitors, participants or students about it. 

 

Know yourself before you begin – Ask yourself these 5 questions

  1. What are my personal beliefs, values and stereotypes about the issue?

  2. Can I assume an objective role in the discussion?

  3. Will I feel comfortable discussing a range of perspectives around this?

  4. Can I tactfully mediate?

  5. And the ultimate question, will I feel comfortable facilitating a group discussion on this issue?

Asking yourself these 5 questions will help you to gain clarity, and to know yourself better. 

 

EXAMPLE – THE DUTCH GOLDEN AGE?

I’ve used this exercise many times in the past in training sessions. 

For example during a training back in 2020, I asked participants to answer these questions and more about the decision by a major Amsterdam museum to no longer use the term Golden Age in its exhibits. The museum argued that the term Golden Age perpetuated a view that the Dutch 17th Century was a period of uninterrupted peace, prosperity and intellectual flourishing.

The term Golden Age has been used by historians in the Netherlands for decades to describe the period in the 17th Century when the Dutch Republic became hugely influential. This was a period of expanding international trade and thriving visual culture – the age of the Dutch East India Company as well as artists like Rembrandt and Vermeer.

 

However, the term has been scrutinised for focusing on the prosperity of the period, ignoring the role that international slavery, forced labour, war, poverty and the violence of the Dutch empire, all played in shaping the century.

 

The decision by the museum to stop using the term ‘Golden Age’ was a contentious one with strong opinions for and against it voiced in the press, on TV and radio and online. The debate was even picked up worldwide. 

 

I asked the group to consider their thoughts about this topic. They were a team from a local city museum outside of Amsterdam and all used the term Golden Age in their guided tours. Were they going to stop using the term? What did they feel about this decision by the Amsterdam museum? What if members of the public asked them about what they thought about it? And so on…

 

They answered the questions and then shared their thoughts with each other and then with the group as a whole. It was very interesting to find some hesitation in the group as to whether they thought they could be objective about such a highly charged subject. 

 

Everyone in the team found it illuminating to think hard about their own feelings on this contentious subject – and there were a range of feelings within the group – and thought it would be a useful exercise to repeat in the future too. 

 

Writing down how you feel about facilitating discussions around certain subjects is a very illuminating and useful exercise.

 

Especially for issues that provoke strong opinions on all sides – like the recent attacks on art by climate activists. This exercise will help you to gain clarity and know yourself (and your triggers better). 

 

Ultimately understanding the perspectives of others helps us to develop a deeper understanding of events, issues and people.