Risky Business

Sally Wagner   Our guest blogger:  Sally Roesch Wagner, Ph.D.

When our museum decided to take on the issue of reproductive rights as our first public dialogue, some colleagues shook their heads in disbelief. “That topic is way too risky,” they said, “We could never do it.”

For us at the Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation, the decision was a no-brainer.  It followed logically from our mission and the development of the museum.

We were acquiring the home of a radical (meaning getting to the root cause of oppression) human rights activist, who considered it “impudent questions” when newspaper reporters asked about her husband and her family, her personal life.  “This is my work,” Gage responded.  Following her lead, instead of restoring a dining room, kitchen and bedrooms, we created a historic home dedicated to her work.  Each room in the house contains, not period furnishings but one of her social justice issues: women’s rights (she was the third member of the National Woman Suffrage Association leadership triumvirate with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton); African-American rights (she offered her home as a station on the Underground Railroad and exposed sex trafficking in the U.S.) and Religious Freedom (she was written out of history for her uncompromising stand against religious orthodoxy and their attempt to destroy the wall of separation between church and state.)  The first room is the Haudenosaunee, symbolizing the influence this egalitarian society had on her vision of transformation.  The only room resembling its original furnishings is the Oz Parlor, where Oz author L. Frank Baum married Gage’s youngest daughter Maud, now rehabilitated to match the photo Baum took of the room when they lived in the house during 1887.

The most important lesson of her life, Gage said, was ‘‘to think for myself.’’ Accept no idea, she counseled, unless you have thought it through, not because it’s popularly accepted or an authority figure has told you to believe it. Visitors are invited to sit on the furniture, examine the artifacts, take photos and write on the walls – all “no’s” in a traditional museum. They are, however, asked to abide by two rules:  ‘‘Check your dogma at the door’’ and ‘‘Think for yourself.’’             While Gage’s challenging ideas fill the walls of each room, her practice required that we set up a process for people to share their divergent views with each other in a respectful manner.  With the assistance of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience (ICSC), we came up with a dialogue process. After conducting test dialogues on economic justice, marriage equality and reproductive rights (all Gage issues) the board unanimously chose to lead with “Who Chooses Whether or not a Woman Births?”  Discussing whether the topic was too controversial, one board member suggested, ‘‘let’s start with the toughest issue. After that, everything will be easy.’’ With a grant from the ICSC, we hired a trainer who led a group of volunteers through a year of preparation: developing educational materials for participants, learning to facilitate, creating an Arc of Dialogue and testing the four-session dialogue.

The results were overwhelmingly positive. Every participant wanted to continue the dialogue; Congress should use this process to resolve their differences, they suggested. The groups came together as the sharing of their personal experiences trumped their differences.

Far from hurting us, this controversial dialogue actually strengthened the Gage Foundation, bringing new allies, credibility among supporters, and additional funding to expand the program. While others described us as a museum with “guts”, we saw ourselves as promoting the foundation of democracy, an informed citizenry engaging each other on the pressing issues of the day.

Did we take a risk?  My friend/colleague Mark Nerenhausen, founding director and professor of practice of the Janklow Arts Leadership Program at Syracuse University, believes that, in fact, we did the opposite. Community dialogues on reproductive justice were a conservative move on our part, as they emerged organically and logically as we proceeded in the direction that we were moving. Risk-taking would be to move backward, to become one more “dusty museum”.  As visitors increasingly demand interactive and relevant programming of substance, perhaps risk-taking is the new playing it safe.

Sally Roesch Wagner is the founding director of the Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation. She received the Katherine Coffey Award from the Mid-Atlantic Association of Museums for outstanding service to museology in 2012.  This guest blog is adapted from “Safe Containers for Dangerous Memories”, an article she co-authored with Sarah Pharaon, Barbara Lau, and Marı´a Jose´  Bolan˜ a Caballero, which will appear in the upcoming issue of The Public Historian.

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