Next in our series of interviews about our research trip to Chicago and Washington DC, Guenievre Jacobucci (Volunteer Coordinator, National Science and Media Museum) reflects on how the ideas around activism, social justice and racial politics she encountered related to her practice as a volunteer coordinator in a national museum and challenged her thinking.
In November a group of us connected to the Bradford’s National Museum Project went to Chicago with the aim of exploring the cutting-edge participatory, co-creative and community engagement work going on in the City. Some of us also travelled on to Washington DC to exchange ideas with the Smithsonian Institution about the specific issues facing ‘national museums, libraries and archives’ aiming to do place-based work in their local area. In this series of interviews participants share with me (Lynn Wray) how their experiences on the trip have impacted on their own working practice in Bradford.
LW: Did you have any research questions in mind that you wanted to explore in Chicago and Washington? Did they change?
GJ: Before I set off I did quite a lot of reading around activism and grassroots politics in Chicago. On recommendation I read ‘Rules for Radicals’ by Saul Alinsky. This got me thinking further about the idea of volunteerism as activism. What are the implications of thinking of volunteering in this way? How does it impact on how the state/ government functions? For example, how does the DiY approach to volunteering actually impact on governments’ services and its accountability to the public?
LW: Did any one moment stand out to you from the trip?
GJ: There wasn’t really one moment, more a series of moments that linked together helpfully to enable me to think gradually more politically about my own practice and what volunteering can or can’t offer in terms of making change happen.
I was really struck by the work being done at the Read/Write Library in Chicago and in particular how they structure their volunteering work in order to build an active community of volunteers. I was also inspired by how Regin Igloria (who I also met at the library as he has a studio in the basement of their building in Humboldt Pak) who runs North Branch Projects used teaching a technique like binding, to enable people to create their own Neighbourhood archives. Seeing their work helped me to think about how volunteering can function as a form of community building.
I learnt so much about social reform in the City and beyond from speaking to Jennifer Scott at Jane Addams Hull-House Museum and going on the guided tour at the museum. We also attended a workshop there run by the Asociación de Arte Util ( Arte Util Case Studies from the Chicago Area ) where we participated in a process of assessing whether or not examples of community engaged art projects should become part of the archive or not. Being part of this process was such a great way to learn about what kinds of activism are happening in the city now and hear different perspectives on this.Everything felt very political in an exciting and empowering way. I felt ready to act.
In Washington, I found the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) really inspiring and engaging. It fore fronted histories and legacies of injustice that I’d up until then been able to shy away and not engage with. The museum really helped me confront legacies of our European history which we vary rarely confront – it had a deep emotional and reflective impact on me. Among many other reflections, it also made me very aware of the importance of telling stories focused on the lived experiences of diverse communities.
Visiting the Anacostia Community Museum afterwards, and exploring all of the amazing stories about self-organising in the City afterwards, left me feeling empowered and part of a bigger community of organisers.
All of these venues in different ways brought home to me the clear understanding that heritage is not a dead thing… that heritage is a crucial part of our sense of our own agency and our ability to build community in the present and future.
LW: Did anything you experienced in Chicago or Washington DC make you think differently about your practice in Bradford?
GJ: In some respects I felt that the experiences there highlighted the importance of context to practice. I had hoped to find some inspiring examples of good practice in volunteering programmes that I could adapt or utilise in Bradford at the NSMM, but the political, funding and organisational structures are so different in the US it was hard to see clear models that could be easily transferred.
Seeing how, because of the lack of Welfare state, volunteering seemed to have very different connotations in the US, did however make me reflect on the idea of volunteerism more generally and my position as Volunteer Coordinator at NSMM and the structures I operate in. It was particularly interesting, for example, speaking with Vanessa from the fantastic Yollo Calli (The Youth Initiative of the National Museum of Mexican Art) about this and their policy of paying the young people who participate in their programmes as this is extremely rare in the UK. Vanessa explained how without paying the young people there would be no way they could really participate. Their motivation initially in taking part might be to help contribute to family income or to have some money of their own, rather than their interest in mural-making or radio production, but this doesn’t really matter as long as they are gaining something from being part of the process. As well as their main work facilitating young people’s involvement in radio, journalism and cultural production, the initiative was also in reality standing in for the Welfare State, providing a financial safety net for the young people and their families. Not having a welfare state model, changes what volunteering means… it can only really exist in the way we tend to understand it in the UK because of the welfare state model. In terms of volunteering as activism I also began to think about the fact that working in a large institution with lots of set structure and a relationship with central government can actually provide an opportunity to influence these structures. We have more agency sometimes than we realise when we work within institutional structures to make change happen.
Visiting the Museum of Science and Industry, on the other hand, the relevance was immediately obvious as they were going through a very similar process of organisational change as NSMM is. It gave me a certain amount of confidence because I could use this as a mirror to see the value in what we are doing, but also to understand it as a necessarily slow process. It showed the need for patience when thinking about whole organisational change and good communication when working cross-departmentally.
Being present in black spaces, such as Stony Island Arts Bank, the NAAMHC and the Anacostia Community Museum as a white woman, and taking the time to explore black histories and cultures was a hugely important opportunity for me to reflect on how my practice relates to racial politics. All of these spaces opened up conversations where I was constructively challenged. For example, having a conversation at Stony Island Arts Bank about why they didn’t allow people to touch the individual books in the Johnson Publishing Archive was incredibly illuminating and also challenging coming from a museum perspective where we are thinking about opening up access. It made me think differently about the power of library and archives to affirm agency. Reflecting with the group following visiting NAAMHC, also opened up useful conversations, as I was struggling with how different the context of racial politics in the US seemed to be. I was shocked by how visible and visceral the legacies of segregation still were in the US compared to my experience of Europe. However, having an open conversation about this brought home to me how fully these histories have everything to do with us, and the legacies of the British Empire.
Better understanding the relevance, urgency and necessity of talking about racial politics in our own context, and getting used to having more challenging and critical conversations about racial politics and activism in a different setting has made me feel empowered to talk more politically about race, class and gender at work. I have been thinking back a lot to when we had a brilliant placement student at NSMM and one of the first thing she said to me was ‘Why are the staff all so white’. We really need to do more to address this and recognise it as a problem.
LW: How will you take forward the learning from the trip?
GJ: I have been doing as much reading as I can about racial politics. I have tried to read a lot specifically about the Black British experience. I have been sharing the material I have found useful with colleagues through the different channels I have. Now understanding the power of just keeping talking and building up a vocabulary and ability to talk confidently about race, I have tried to continue the conversations we were having in the US alive in the staff group. I have also set up a reading group for museum staff which is not solely focussed on race but provides a space for critical conversation where we can learn together about anything relevant to the museums practice.
I have also begun reflecting a lot on how we can increase the diversity of our volunteer pool. I haven’t the answers yet, but I am committed to exploring and working towards this goal.
I also want to explore further the idea of using archives and libraries as a political act and how they can function as a political statement. How could volunteering/ism play a role in this?