“Exhibitions for Social Justice:” An Appreciation from Chicago to Providence

March 17, 2020

The discussion of the wallpaper at the JNBC, the subject of a recent post in this blog by Susan Smulyan, is a perfect example of the thoughtful type of work that goes into using exhibitions to advocate for social justice: the equitable distribution of risks and rewards in society. The wallpaper in the house, Vues d’Amérique du Nord, was a troubling and intriguing topic among public humanities students when I first began my masters in 2008, and it’s thrilling to see it being treated in ways that have worked well and resonated in some of the 20+ institutions I recently wrote about in my book, Exhibitions for Social Justice.

There are 80,000 museums in the world (more than all of the Starbuck's and McDonald's stores combined).[1] In the contemporary socio-political climate, we need these institutions to work to their fullest potential to help our societies become more hospitable, equitable, and sustainable. Exhibitions for Social Justice assesses the state of curatorial work for social justice today in the Americas and Europe. In it, I analyze and examine best practices with the goal of supporting all of the people who work on and study exhibitions. I look at the history, present, and future of inclusion, welcoming, sharing authority, and participation, and I offer some tools to help museums to live up to their responsibilities to all of their stakeholders. But the primary focus is curatorial work, including all of the many different types of work by educators and designers, that goes into the visitor’s experience in the gallery. In particular, the book delves deeply into exploring how curatorial practices can make the most of the natural tendencies of our bodies and brains to support goals for social justice. For example, if we’re interested in visitors being moved to take action or work for change after their visits, then several conditions must be met first:

The visitor must feel a kinship with others and wish to explore that feeling in the world beyond the exhibition in order to move the curatorial work beyond the gallery. So, I offer ideas for building empathy and then moving visitors from empathy to solidarity. One of those strategies is engaging visitors with stories of other individuals, since humans bond with other individual humans.

The installation at the JNBC offers an excellent opportunity to engage visitors directly with those real stories that connect the wallpaper and the house itself. For example, visitors be more inclined to read the pamphlet, “Enslaved Labor and the Making of the Nightingale-Brown House,” which is available to all visitors but which they might miss without the highly visible connector of the wallpaper. In addition, the visitor must also have a memorable experience. So, I examine the ways in which we can use exhibitions to create deep, long-lasting memories.

A visit to the JNBC can offer such a memorable experience. I certainly recall my first time inside over a dozen years ago. The house is perhaps the most beautiful one on campus. This quality rests, at least in part, precisely on the disturbing and unusual wallpaper. The wallpaper is beautiful and ugly at the same time. Its visual appeal does not excuse the racist content of the imagery. However, the racist images provide an opportunity for discussion.

The wallpaper is a work of art and, by virtue of its installation on the first and second floors, it functions as an immersive artwork that the visitor inhabits as she moves through the house. Immersive art installations are precisely one of the tactics I discuss as a good tool for entering challenging topics. While Naomi Stead had contemporary art in mind when she originally wrote about that topic, the contemporary interpretation and use of this historical artwork certainly applies.[2] Other strategies that improve the quality and longevity of visitors’ memories are also in play in the new interpretation of the wallpaper: rehearsal and questioning. As John Falk and Lynn Dierking discussed in The Museum Experience, visitors build better memories when they discuss or “rehearse” the visit before, during, or after it occurs.[3] The interactive component at the JNBC enables visitors to rehearse on the spot, and takeaways, such as a postcard the JNBC created to accompany the installation and the pamphlet mentioned above, encourage rehearsal with others after the visit. Furthermore, asking visitors questions can help them to form better memories, especially when they record an answer. The installation at the JNBC is a potential vehicle for this as well as visitors respond to the prompts for discussion.

If there are opportunities to act within the exhibition, shortly before or after visiting, or even long afterward, and those opportunities are properly scaffolded for the visitor, they will have the greatest success. Perhaps the visitor will even engage further within a given area of interest.

Since many students were involved in the planning and creation of the content and interpretation that surround the wallpaper now, there has been a great deal of action before the visit. Professor Smulyan brings up the example of students taking classes such as Digital Storytelling that have, in turn, engaged them in a critical conversation about the wallpaper and racism. The JNBC prompts visitors to act during their visits, by responding on the comment walls and taking postcards, and with the possibility of new insights occurring in the future. These can include visiting next fall the exhibition at the Bell Gallery by the Maori artist, Lisa Reihana, whose work addresses the intersections of colonialism with race and gender through another colonial wallpaper.

I’m proud of all of the work that has gone into using Vues to keep a conversation about racial equity in the front hall, as it should be in the public humanities, where exhibitions for social justice are an important vehicle for scholarship, engagement, and action.



Falk, John H., and Lynn D. Dierking. The Museum Experience Revisited. 1 edition. Walnut Creek, Calif: Routledge, 2012.

Gonzales, Elena. Exhibitions for Social Justice. London: Routledge, 2019.

Lord, Gail Dexter, and Ngaire Blankenberg. Cities, Museums and Soft Power. Washington, D.C: American Alliance Of Museums, 2015.

Stead, Naomi. “On the Object of the Museum and Its Architecture.” Dissertation. University of Queensland, 2004.

Elena Gonzales, Ph.D., is an independent scholar and curator focusing on curatorial work for social justice and museums’ roles in society today. She is the author of Exhibitions for Social Justice from Routledge’s Museum Meanings Series (2019).



[1] Gail Dexter Lord and Ngaire Blankenberg, Cities, Museums and Soft Power (Washington, D.C: American Alliance Of Museums, 2015).

[2] Naomi Stead, “On the Object of the Museum and Its Architecture” (Dissertation, University of Queensland, 2004).

[3] John H. Falk and Lynn D. Dierking, The Museum Experience Revisited, 1 edition (Walnut Creek, Calif: Routledge, 2012).