Dr. Mike Murawski, Former Director of Education and Public Programs, Portland Art Museum

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.

10 Comments Add yours

  1. hohathaway says:

    Hi Alycia, Stephanie here. I really enjoyed this interview, and I loved to hear about Object Stories. I especially appreciated your comment about how “…..it is important to remember the storytelling core of the project.” This concept is something that is repeated over and over — that in the end, it is indeed all about the story! Also, I just wanted to mention that we used the “Object Story” process in the Intro to Museum Education class. Each student had to present an object that was important to her, and explain why she chose it — all on Voicethread! This kind of exercise was really valuable because it helped expand my perspective of any object, to where I understood that anything is meaningful if there is a story behind it. From Murawski’s comments, I especially appreciated his advice “to just go for it,” and that it’s always “better to ask for forgiveness than permission.”

  2. Sarah Freda says:

    Alycia – what an enjoyable interview! From our peer group meetings, I’m so happy you were able to interview someone from “Object Stories.” It’s such an important project that encourages collaboration with the community. Looking back on my prior courses, the focus always comes back to the visitor; however, many institutions are stuck in their ways. As Mike says, “Museums have their way of doing things.” But once you test your idea with visitors and share their voices, I think that’s when you make change. As you and Mike discuss towards the end, you can’t wait for that perfect moment to get the ball rolling: “If museums wait for that, then they’re missing the boat.”

  3. kclink1 says:

    Hi Alycia,
    While listening to your interview I couldn’t help but compare the object stories to Reenactors and how they can tell a story like no other. While I think objects can tell a lot more about a specific ritual or place, reenactors could be a great pairing with objects to share about cultures in a more sensitive way. Reenactors do have the limitations of not wanting to cross cultural boundaries where objects are unable to.

    Overall, I really enjoyed that conversation because what Mike described about the Object Stories is really what I look for when it comes to historic objects. I want the object to paint a picture for me to understand what it was used for, how it was used, why it was used, when it was used, etc.

  4. Deena Deutsch says:

    As someone facinated with Object-Based Learning, I really enjoyed our interview with Dr. Murawski, Alycia! I was particulary taken with his interest in using OBL across the museum field, and his ability to use objects for storytelling about objects not included in their collections for educational purposes. I am always surprised at the intital resistance to this idea, since it is so intrinsic to the work museums and curators are supposed to be doing. Yet, as he notes, once curators experience the power of OBL to form personal relevancies through narrative — they become its biggest supporters.

    I love his multisensory approach to communicate stories that trace the ‘life of the object’ — and the way he encourages visitors to add their voice to the conversation through digital archive. What a wonderful way to perpetuate the conversation and allow it to ‘evolve’ over time.

  5. Mary Trosin says:

    I recently did a case study on PAM for another course so it was cool to hear from someone on the inside, the transformation they made over the past few decades has been really impressive. I absolutely love the Object Stories project and I think it works as a great proof of concept for collaboration and crowdsourcing. Museums are such collaborative organizations that do the best work when everyone is supporting a project, we know this to be especially true with digital initiatives and your interview helped to really back up that idea. After the pandemic I think there will be so many interesting stories to tell which are linked to objects as well, lots of potential to think about.

  6. Jenna Kimberlin says:

    I really enjoyed the Native American Youth and Family Association partnership project! Creating Object Stories from indigenous objects in their existing collection not only increased engagement with the community but especially young people who aren’t always heard. Interpretation is so much more powerful when tribal community voices are involved in their own exhibit. Wouldn’t it be great to have Han Dynasty Chinese porcelain vase makers describing their art firsthand?
    Mike speaks of how many curators would be opposed or hesitant to the idea and I think it is so absurd to not want such an opportunity. It is an important step in decolonizing museum collections and I would really like to see and hear tribal voices interpreting their own artifacts more often. Thanks for the interview Alycia, well done.

  7. Hey Alycia,
    This interview was so interesting! I think it was cool that during the interview, you focused on the projects that Murawski has been involved with throughout his career. I think it is amazing that he was a producer on the #MuseumsAreNotNeutral campaign. I also really enjoyed the description of Object Stories. I have heard of the unique exhibition in the past but it was interesting to hear about it from someone who was involved in creating it. Dr. Murawski seems to be a very accomplished professional and I can’t wait to see what else he does in his career.

  8. Carissa Johnson says:

    So this is a probably a completely biased observation and maybe a little unfounded, but I am not surprised that an art museum environment gave push back to start an object story project. The reason I say it is unfounded is because I have never been to an art museum, and I am a person who classify themselves as an art novice, and I don’t particularly get into art at all. Anyway, all this to say, I find that Dr. Murawski fought the good fight to get this object story exhibition moving, and it sounds like he is pretty proud to be able to talk about it today.

  9. Madison Ney says:

    Hi Alycia, the Object Stories project is so simple yet so effective. It’s an easy way to get your community involved without having it cost an arm and a leg. I do not find it shocking that they pushed back on this idea; art is held on such a high pedestal and many museums are still stuck in the days where their facilities were meant for scholars and intellects only. Normalizing that anyone and everyone can appreciate and criticize art starts with getting your community comfortable with doing so.

  10. Kristina Zapfe says:

    I love the progressivity of the #museumsarenotneutral project Dr. Murawski opened with, as well as the connection between museums and environmental learning. Object Stories is a great idea to flip the understanding of objects in our everyday lives and make art museum more accessible to visitors. Great questions, Alycia!

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