Dr. Mike Murawski is currently an independent consultant, author, nature-lover, and change leader. He is a co-producer of #MuseumsAreNotNeutral, a global advocacy campaign calling for equity-based transformation across museums and arts & culture non-profits. He has also worked since 2011 as the Founding Editor of ArtMuseumTeaching.com, a forum dedicated to reflecting on critical issues facing arts&culture and museums.
With this being said, I became interested in Murawski and his work during his time as the Director of Education and Public Programs at the Portland Art Museum (PAM), where he worked on their famous Object Stories project. Launched in 2010, Object Stories is a storytelling project and exhibition series by the museum, where participants are invited to – literally- tell stories about their favorite objects, either personal or on display at the museum. The project has grown and expanded over the years, but it is important to remember the storytelling core of the project. Object Stories was the first iteration of its kind, pushing beyond the well-known authoritative voice commonly experienced in museums and their stories. The project instead called for a multi-directional exchange between the museum and Portland’s surrounding communities. Over the years, Object Stories has worked to continuously address questions of shared authority, meaning making in museums, and who among us have typically not had our stories heard.
I learned a lot in this interview, not just about how Object Stories came to be in its current configuration, but how an institution was able to become more community-centered and lend museum space to accomplish it. It all started with the idea that objects had stories to tell, stories that were meaningful; and if the museum was able to get people to create and exploring the meanings behind their own objects, that they then would be able to do so with museum objects and perceive the museum as a place for stories. This level of trust in the community – that they would be able to derive meaning and significance from these objects and then convey that through storytelling in their own way was not widespread at the start of the project. But, with the support of individuals who saw the value in the project, across departments, organizations, and groups, the bounds of collaboration previously thought possible could be pushed further. “Anything goes,” was how Murawski described the core of the design process in Object Stories, where the stories left the recording booth and were allowed to unfold however they did, wherever they did.
In this interview, I ask Murawski about the design process and implementation of Object Stories, like their work with Native students to produce an exhibition on their stories about the Native objects in PAM’s collection. We discuss how public-generated content and working with community partners worked to challenge their assumptions about collaboration and decision-making in the museum. I ask him about the challenges of getting a project like this off the ground, the fight for museum education to gain gallery space, and how other institutions can work to incorporate a poly-vocal approach to their own storytelling.
My conversation with Mike (as he preferred I call him) worked to expand my thinking around how collaboration in the museum can happen. There was no institutional initiative to get this off the ground, but instead a dedication to what; the storytelling. Its value was seen by others working in the museum, community partners, and onward. This is not me romanticizing the incredibly hard, ongoing work that those involved have put in, but does reiterate what we heard from Sina Bahram about letting the idea of perfect be the enemy of good, where we fear not having everything together to the point of not starting and thus not doing the good thing that is needed. I personally think that Object Stories continues to do the good things that are needed right now.
I hope you will enjoy this interview as much as I did facilitating it.