We are hardly ever asked in a museum, or given the time, to express our responses to the objects. Historically, a museum is set up to either meditate on an object or learn from it. I wonder what an African-American would paint after viewing a slave deed. What colors would s/he use? What shape would the deed become? Still, the shape of a box? Or, would it curl, explode? Would other shapes and lines be added around it to tell a story of destruction? How would a European-American express his/her reaction? What would the painting look like if an immigrant migrant worker of today were to create his/her response? And, if these artistic reactions were displayed to the greater community, what additional responses would arise? Through this process, would it not be possible to discover more interpretations of our history?
This is the basis for the camp “Art for Voice” that is taking place this summer at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa. The Museum’s mission includes interpreting the traditional cultures past and present at the archeological site where the Museum is located. My intention is to offer children ages 7 to 17 the opportunity to view some of the objects in the collection and respond artistically to them. We will then hold an exhibition of the work, selected by the artists themselves, to share with the community. The Art For Voice Camp is a new type of program for the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa. As an artist beginning a career as a museum professional, I find the idea of engaging the museum’s community with the objects in a way that empowers them to voice their inner reactions is an exciting risk.
I acknowledge several factors which contribute to the envisioning of this summer project and its potential success and continuation. First, the leadership of the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa, values the community that the Museum serves. The staff is actively open to new ideas in order to create a strong, active relationship with the people who live near the Museum. The leadership is there and is not so much invested in the concrete results of numbers, but in the continuation of risks, assessment, and consistency of follow-through on the Museum’s part.
Second, the Museum gives attention to the perceived needs of the community. As a single mom who struggles financially for childcare and someone who has always perceived museums as elitist institutions, I used this lens to create a program that would serve the parents/guardians and their children in multiple ways. We made the camp free so that cost would not be a barrier for parents if they wanted their children to come. We are giving the children all the materials to take home so they may continue to use them. The participants will view objects in the museum; taking them out of the context of “for knowledge only” and allowing them to respond individually. In this way, the museum does not stay a place of power and definition but a place of multiple interpretations.
Third, as an artist, I decided to use artistic sketchbooks so that the children could see their efforts as a process – a story – and not feel the pressure to create “works of art” to hang on the wall; but, rather, to create a keepsake of self-expression. The framework of the classes will be on listening to their ideas of what a line tells them; on what different shapes make them feel; on the emotional connection each camper feels when looking at yellow, for example. I am introducing them to the elements of creating a painting and letting them use these frameworks to bolster their own stories and artistic sensibilities.
And, lastly, we will host an exhibition for all the campers, their families, their friends, and the greater community. This is where the children can learn that their intentions may not always be seen as artists; those that view their work may, again, interpret through their own lenses, the object, the artistic responses, and then the conversation goes on and on. The voices they strengthen through expression; the power and excitement of entering a museum and being allowed to respond and share this response is, hopefully, a life skill they will continue to develop. They may leave camp feeling confident that there is no “right way” but rather happiness in slowly appreciating their own way of creating art and responding to the objects we save that tell the stories of our shared past.
Penny Dodds is the instructor and coordinator for the Art For Voice Camp at the C.H. Nash Museum. She is also a student in the Museum Studies Graduate Certificate Program at the University of Memphis. She can be contacted at pdodds(a)memphis.edu