We are pleased to present our new publication, Innovation In Action: Three Case Studies from the Intersection of Arts & Social Justice in EmcArts’ Innovation Labs. In this blog post, we will explore the innovation story of the Jane Adams Hull-House Museum, one of the three organizations profiled in the publication. You can download their case study here.
The Jane Addams Hull-House Museum was accepted into Round 3 of the Innovation Lab for Museums in July 2013. Contrary to the general assumption that fast-paced cultural practices are always better, the Hull-House museum used the Innovation Lab to prototype a community engagement model based on “slowness.” Founded in 1889 by Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr, the Hull-House pioneered various core services for immigrants living in Chicago’s Near West Side. Drawing from its founding beliefs in human creativity and meaningful community relations, and inspired by the slow food movement, the Hull-House Museum launched The Porch Project through the Innovation Lab for Museums. This case study explores the Museum’s process of intentionally slowing down to create more organic social engagement in community life.
In 2012, EmcArts along with the American Alliance of Museums’ (AAM), Center for the Future of Museums (CFM), and MetLife Foundation launched the Innovation Lab for Museums, an initiative designed to enable selected museums to design, research and prototype innovations, testing novel approaches to field-wide challenges in a laboratory-like setting. To learn more about the structure and goals of the Innovation Lab process, click here.
In 2014, a team from the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum set out to question the assumption that more and faster actions in cultural practices are always better. They asked, instead: What would happen if a cultural institution and the cultural workers within embraced a different notion of community impact—one based on the assumption of “slowness? What would it mean for an institution already committed to raising awareness around social justice to redefine itself as a place where dialogue becomes actualized? What external and internal dynamics of art-making and cultural interpretation would this shift challenge? And what difference would it make toward the movement for social change?
In a society that assumes there is more success in speedy actions, it was a radical move for the Hull-House Museum to decide to slow down. Such a strategy was also at odds with the Museum’s style of “guerrilla” programming in the past. However, there were a few precedents in their own practice that helped usher in this new concept.
The thinking behind The Porch Project was heavily informed by the anti-fast food and communal eating tenets of the Slow Food Movement. Another project by the museum, the Alternative Labeling project, aided their journey in the Lab. After an artist re-wrote the wall text that accompanied Jane Addam’s travel medicine kit into a 40-page prose poem, visitors were invited to sit down and leisurely read the text while staff served them tea. A third source of inspiration came from several Hull-House Settlement movement pioneers’ theories of play and improvisational theater. Finally, a Restorative Justice movement training for the education staff inculcated in them the value of “slow healing” through painful conversations.
Such pre existing ideas led Hull-House museum’s innovation team to consider activating the building’s wrap-around porch. After their initial meetings at the start of the Lab, the staff’s unanimous desire was to challenge insularity, and the porch with it’s casual atmosphere offered a perfect start. The museum organized cookouts, poetry readings, yoga classes, painting workshops and musical concerts over the summer months of 2014, and saw more than 6,000 visitors and passersby participate. The goal with this project was to turn the museum inside-out, and generate multiple forms of public engagement.
Activating the porch around the Hull-House Museum turned out to be a revelation. “A porch, unlike a gallery inside a museum, allows for multiple types of public engagement,” said Isis Ferguson, Program Manager for the Porch Project. “Some activities were organic and some were planned. Scholars came by and sat with us, university staff stopped by for a cold drink… there’s something about sitting. The furniture attracted bodies. Some of the museum staff brought their laptops and sat at the picnic tables outside. It was rejuvenating.”
By launching the Porch Project and being more intentional and organic in their programming, the Hull-House museum took a bold step towards increasing reflexivity of it’s practices. The museum experimented with delivering its content differently and relinquished some of its curatorial decisions to recreation workers, who had much deeper connections with the communities they wanted to serve.
Instead of being caught in a tight loop of urgent analysis and rapid programming, the museum focused on slowing down to build sustainable relationships and utilized community participation as the epicenter for programming. One of the promising projects to have emerged from this process is the revival of Ella’s Daughters, a Chicago-based network of artists, scholars and writers working in the tradition of civil rights activist Ella Baker.
However, it was challenging for the museum to make itself vulnerable as an institution and foster free-flowing engagement but also moderate problematic voices that sometimes derailed conversations in the community. One of the biggest impacts after the Porch Project was the increased commitment of the staff to invite and share knowledge informally among non-experts engaged in open-ended conversation as a routine component of the museum’s programming. The museum also realized that incorporating positive engagement with the community into its practice could be sustainable only if its espoused values were in alignment with its external program delivery.