How does cultural heritage provide us with the tools to shape what collective freedom looks, sounds, and feels like? This question and its political stakes has guided the life’s work of our guest today, Porchia Moore.
In episode 111 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast, host Cathy Hannabach interviews museum visionary and activist-scholar Porchia Moore about the radical librarians and museum workers who are making information and art institutions newly accessible in our new social distancing world, how race and class structure who feels at home in cultural institutions, and how reclaiming African Americans’ relationship to nature and green spaces is how Porchia imagines otherwise.
Guest: Porchia Moore
Porchia Moore is a museum visionary and activist-scholar who employs critical race theory to interrogate museums and other cultural heritage spaces.
Porchia is an assistant professor of museum studies in the School of Art and Art History at the University of Florida. In addition, she is part of the teaching faculty at Johns Hopkins University in the Museum Studies Program.
A contributing writer and project advisor for the Incluseum, Porchia’s writing and research is used as training and learning materials at museums across the United States. She is the co-creator of the Visitors of Color project, a national counternarrative project recognized by the American Alliance of Museums as a resource on DEIA (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Access) that highlights lived experiences, insights, and reflections on modern museums from marginalized people.
She has served as advisor to Museums as Site for Social Action, the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and Museums and Race. She has also been a consulting curator for the Columbia Museum of Art and a curator of the rotating African American art gallery Spoken.
Porchia is an avid outdoor enthusiast and cultivates healing hikes and other outdoor activities to connect African Americans with nature and green spaces. She brings her ethics of critical race theory and inclusion to the outdoors in a variety of projects and partnerships with outdoor and cultural heritage spaces.
We chatted about
- Porchia’s journey to museum education and scholarship (02:15)
- Bringing library and information science training to museum contexts (04:47)
- How COVID-19 is changing current operations in museums and libraries (07:04)
- The Visitors of Color project and building racial literacy in the museum industry (12:28)
- Approaching nature, green spaces, and the outdoors with a critical race theory lens (16:45)
- Imagining otherwise (22:43)
Cultural heritage as information
I approach museums differently because I think of cultural heritage as documentary evidence, evidence of the existence of humankind, and then I apply those information theories for how that information is interpreted, how it’s displayed, and how it’s critically analyzed….I see cultural heritage as an information source and a way to empower others.
COVID-19’s impact on and museums
The museum community is an amazing community. The cultural heritage sector is an amazing community. There’s been so much support and advocacy coming together to share ideas and resources and voices. Unfortunately with all of the closings, we are expected to have a 30 percent decline in museums that can reopen after the pandemic. I think one of the most important moments in time for museums is for us to really and truly finally get to the root of some of these age old questions that we’re constantly asking and grappling with: What is community? Who is community? How do we have impact and recognize and fellowship with community when our doors are closed? How do we reframe the notion of service?
Visitors of Color and racial literacy
Visitors of Color is a counterproject that I co-created with Nikhil Trivedi that centers the lived experiences of historically marginalized museum visitors of color and visitors from the LGBTQI+ community….It was our way to center those voices so that museum professionals could understand different disparities and understand that the museum is a powerful, transformative place. If we’re not addressing ways to create these beautiful, powerful experiences for people by not understanding the ways that bias and oppression hinder those experiences, then we’re losing something.
The racialized past, present, and future of the outdoors
I’ve always found a place of healing and respite in green spaces. We have a tradition in the deep South called seeking. I view myself as a seeker….But I believe that there needs to be a reconciliation and a reckoning in green spaces. There’s this perception still that Black people or people of color don’t hike or kayak or ski or camp. That is changing rapidly. Yet these spaces, like in our national parks and our local parks, often fail to acknowledge whose lands we’re on—not acknowledging our First Nation and Indigenous brothers and sisters or the labor and skills that enslaved Africans contributed to these green spaces.
I am working towards a world where the lines between cultural heritage institutions are more blurred. I want to be able to go into what we used to call in the field the “third space”—this combination of a building, a museum, a library, an archive. It is a living room, a lounge, a theater, an opera, a zoo. A place where there’s cultural heritage information but there’s also community, there’s also creativity. There’s a maker space. So what I’m looking for is a way to show up in my full totality, my full humanity to create such a place.
More from Porchia Moore
People and projects discussed
- Lourdes Santamaría-Wheeler
- Harriet Tubman’s freedom raid
- Combahee River
- Combahee River Collective
- Kayaking the Combahee River
- National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum
- Tim the security head’s tweets for the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum
- Adrienne Lalli Hills
- Aleia Brown
- Rose Paquet
- Aletheia Wittman
- The Body Keeps the Score (book)
- Nikhil Triveda
- David Carr
- Seema Rao
- Museum Computer Network
- Aboriginal walkabouts
- First Nations peoples
- Third space (or place)
About Imagine Otherwise
Imagine Otherwise is a podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice, and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining and creating more just worlds.
Imagine Otherwise is hosted by Cathy Hannabach and produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive, interdisciplinary scholars write and publish awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds.
Cathy Hannabach (00:03):
Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about the people and projects, bridging art, activism and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice and explore the nitty gritty work of imagining otherwise. I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach.
Cathy Hannabach (00:23):
How does cultural heritage provide us with the tools to shape what collective freedom looks, sounds and feels like? This question and its deep political stakes have guided the life’s work of my guest today, Porchia Moore. Porchia is a museum visionary and activist scholar who employs critical race theory to interrogate museums and other cultural heritage spaces. She’s an assistant professor of museum studies at the School of Art and Art History at the University of Florida as well as part of the teaching faculty at Johns Hopkins University in the Museum Studies Program. A contributing writer and project advisor for the Incluseum, Porchia’s writing and research is used as training and learning material at museums across the United States.
Cathy Hannabach (01:05):
She’s the co-creator of the Visitors of Color Project, a national counter narrative project that highlights lived experiences, insights, and reflections on modern museums from marginalized people. She’s served as an advisor to museums as site for social action, the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and Museums and Race. She’s also been a consulting curator for the Columbia Museum of Art as well as a curator for the rotating African American art gallery Spoken.
Cathy Hannabach (01:33):
Porchia is an avid outdoor enthusiast and brings her ethics of critical race theory and inclusion to the outdoors through healing hikes and other outdoor activities, fostering African Americans’ participation in nature.
Cathy Hannabach (01:46):
In our conversation, Porsche and I chat about the radical librarians and museum workers who are making information and art institutions newly accessible in our social distancing world, how race and class structure who feels at home and cultural institutions and how reclaiming African Americans’ relationship to nature and green spaces is how Porchia imagines otherwise.
Cathy Hannabach (02:09):
Thanks so much for being with us today, Porchia.
Porchia Moore (02:12):
Thank you so much, Cathy. I’m super excited.
Cathy Hannabach (02:15):
You’re a scholar and a professor of museum studies and your work across many years has advocated for the radical potential of curating. This is something, I’ve talked with several other guests on this show about as well, but you also point out that we still have a really long way to go towards making museums actually inclusive spaces of racial justice. I’m curious what drew you to museums. What are some of the formative experiences that you had with museums that made you want to take up this kind of work?
Porchia Moore (02:46):
That’s such a great question. My mother was a fourth-grade teacher. She was an educator for over 30 years, so she was largely in charge of organizing school field trips. I found myself going along with her on these school field trips. They were mostly at museums, but then also on the weekends my mother would take us to the park. She would also take us to many historic sites and house museums in South Carolina and other kids were like playing on the playground on the weekends. I was going along with my mom to civil war sites and historic museums and learning about silver and furniture because that was something that she was really interested in. So I arrived at this work through the love and passion of cultural heritage because my mother gave this to me as a gift.
Cathy Hannabach (03:45):
That’s a really interesting, one thing I want to talk with you about later is your interest in outdoor spaces, and that story you just told is such a great example of how those things come together for you.
Porchia Moore (03:58):
Yeah. I mean what the research actually tells us is that by and large, if you are an adult who regularly visits museums as part of your leisure time activity practice by and large you learn that from your family of origin. So someone in your life who is an adult, valued that leisure time activity. And so I am 100 percent one of these people who was introduced to cultural heritage and attending museums as a very valued leisure time activity in our family of origin. So it’s something that I don’t take for granted, but it’s also something that brought me a lot of joy growing up as a young Black girl in South Carolina.
Cathy Hannabach (04:47):
I know that one thing that sets you apart from a lot of other museums, studies scholars or museum professionals writ large, is your library training. So how do you approach museums and cultural heritage sites differently because of your library and information science background?
Porchia Moore (05:05):
Well, that’s another great question. I have a dear friend named Lourdes. She’s an amazing librarian here at the University of Florida and she calls herself a muserian which I love because her role at the library is to actually curate exhibitions. I call myself basically a strange bird or cross-pollinator. And what we both have is this really important library lens, but our focus is museums. My training as a librarian is really more complex than that because I would argue that I’m an information scientist or an information specialist. So my training is really about the structure of information, understanding what is a document, thinking about and looking at the mechanics of digital frameworks and how communities interface with them. So it’s really about thinking critically about the varying literacy. So media literacy, information literacy, visual literacy, all of these sorts of skill sets and lenses that museums and other cultural heritage sectors lump into this broad notion of education.
Porchia Moore (06:12):
So I approach museums differently because I think of cultural heritage as documentary evidence, evidence of the existence of humankind and applying those information theories for how that information is interpreted, how it’s displayed and how it’s critically analyzed. So I think that’s what makes me different is that I see cultural heritage as this information source. This way to empower others, everything from cultivating and strengthening personal identity to learning a skillset, but I view cultural heritage and museums as this power system to help to strengthen individual identity, if that makes sense.
Cathy Hannabach (07:04):
Yeah, definitely. We’re recording this in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and large-scale stay at home orders across most states in the US, and indeed many, many countries worldwide. And I know museums like many industries have been radically transformed in this new era that we’re living.
Porchia Moore (07:26):
Yeah, I mean this has been such a phenomenal blow to every profession, every aspect of life and museums and libraries have been no exception. But what I’ve seen first is that we are an amazing community. The museum community is an amazing community. The cultural heritage sector is an amazing community. There’s been so much support and advocacy coming together to share ideas and resources and voices. But unfortunately with all of the closings, we are expected to have a 30 percent decline in museums that can actually reopen after the pandemic. And so I think one of the most important moments in time for museums is for us to really and truly finally get to the root of some of these age old questions that we’re constantly asking and grappling with. Like, for example, what is community? And who is community? And how do we actually impact and still recognize and fellowship with community when our doors are closed? How do we think about and reframe the notion of service? What services do we actually provide?
Porchia Moore (08:42):
I’ve been thinking a lot about what is our messaging when we rely on social media, how are we actually utilizing social media to function as a means of assisting community members rather than just sharing about pieces in our collection? I’m currently teaching a special topics course called Social Justice, Race, and Intersectionality in Cultural Heritage Institutions. And one of the most critical conversations that continues to come up from my students, my radical bad-ass students who I love, especially at this time, is how can museums sort of, for lack of a better word or phraseology, be more like libraries? And what they’re talking about or speaking to is the fantastic ways in which libraries are so nimble and so quick to respond in times of crisis. And how museums are less so because they’re always tied to the building, the physicality of the building and the protection of the objects.
Porchia Moore (09:43):
And so a lot of my students continuously asked this question of how can museums exist for communities in ways that are less about the physical institution and more about providing services, particularly in times of crisis? Some of the strategies that I’ve seen museums adopt in this situation have been everything from amusing to really galvanizing. So I’ve seen one museum, I can’t remember the name, but it was something like the Western Cowboy Museum, but they basically allowed a custodian to take over the social media. And some of the, I think tweets and some of the social media interaction went viral. So that was I think, a fun, lighthearted way to continue conversation and continuity. We’ve also seen an increase in digital exhibition offerings online.
Porchia Moore (10:37):
My colleague Seema Rao has created #MuseumGames, which is a crossword puzzle initiative. I’ve been seeing a lot of activity around creating online gatherings within the museum workforce to try and address some of these issues. So what I’m seeing is just a lot of community work, a lot of engagement, a lot of communication about how to strengthen museums, but also how to pivot in this moment.
Cathy Hannabach (11:05):
It’s a tall task for sure. And I think you’re right. I’m seeing a lot of diverse approaches. On the one hand, the fact that there aren’t easy answers, there’s no like single playbook of here is what museums should be doing right now, can feel scary because nobody knows what they’re supposed to be doing. But it’s also, I’ve certainly seen it spur so much creativity in terms of varied approaches. Try this out, see what happens, see how people respond. If it doesn’t really seem to land then try something else. There seems to be a generosity of response in that.
Porchia Moore (11:43):
I will say, Cathy, I think that’s an excellent point because one of the challenges in the museum world is that we are often risk averse. We often stick to the tried and true. We want data, we want our research, and we want to not always willingly take risks because we have to answer to boards and we have to answer to funding sources. Sometimes our work is not necessarily built into risk taking. So I think that a lot of that creativity that we’re seeing is basically like, okay now we feel like we have the freedom to take some of the risks that we might not have been able to take previously.
Cathy Hannabach (12:28):
I would love to talk about how you’ve seen these kind of shifts affect one of the resources that you developed called Visitors of Color. And I know you co-founded this with Nikhil Trivedi and it’s such a fantastic resource for both museum professionals as well as audiences or people who go to museums. But before we get into some of the details, can you just give our listeners maybe who haven’t heard of this fantastic resource who will all turn to it in the next five seconds. What is Visitors of Color all about?
Porchia Moore (12:59):
Visitors of Color is a counterproject, a counternarrative project, that I co-create with Nikhil Trivedi, which centers the lived experiences of historically marginalized museum visitors of color and visitors from the LGBTQI+ community.
Cathy Hannabach (13:16):
I’ve noticed, at least in my experience, most of the advice on how to make museums more inclusive or more just spaces is largely aimed at museum professionals: staff, curators, directors, boards, those kinds of folks. But this is one of the very few projects I’ve seen that focuses on the role of visitors in transforming what we think of museums should be or could be. What made you two focus on visitors in particular?
Porchia Moore (13:43):
We were in Minneapolis at the Museum Computer Network Conference. It was myself and a colleague, Adrienne, who is the co-founder of the movement along with Dr. Leah Brown, #MuseumsRespondToFerguson, another amazing museum initiative. Adrienne and I were on this panel and we were talking about racial equity and inclusion and it was standing room only and it was lively, vibrant conversation. It was also a very difficult and challenging conversation. I think we were one of the few people of color in the room and it was a very challenging conversation because we were basically saying you cannot continue to in the field, we cannot continue to talk about diversity, equity, access, and inclusion and then recruit people of color to come into the field and then drop them down into these spaces that are sometimes toxic or traumatizing or racially violent. Because people lack racial literacy and do not understand equity and don’t understand how legacies of exclusion or oppression actually exists in our workforce, in our daily work practice.
Porchia Moore (15:03):
And so after that conversation that was so powerful and also emotionally draining, I was just hanging out in the lobby and Nikhil came up and he said, “I’ve been thinking about this project.” And I was like, “this is the same project that I’ve been trying to develop with my other collaborative partners, Rose and Aletheia of the Incluseum.” Nikhil and I basically merged these desires that we had to center the voices of the visitor because we talk a lot in the field about visitors, but we often rarely create spaces in which we can talk with visitors. And we developed the Visitors of Color project literally on site, on spot in that very moment in the lobby in a hotel in Minneapolis and it’s quickly grown to be a wonderful resource for the field.
Porchia Moore (15:57):
I know that a lot of institutions actually use it as part of their training material. It was just our way to basically center those voices so that museum professionals could understand these different disparities, understand that the museum is a powerful transformative place. If we’re not truly addressing ways to create these beautiful, powerful experiences for people by not understanding the ways that bias and oppression hinder those experiences, then we’re, we’re losing something.
Cathy Hannabach (16:34):
I’ve seen this project taken up in so many different ways in so many communities and it’s really energizing to see the kinds of conversations it’s spurred.
Porchia Moore (16:44):
Cathy Hannabach (16:45):
So at this point, I’d like to pivot a little bit to go back to something that you mentioned earlier, which is your participation and your advocacy for hiking, for outdoors activities and specifically for how race and history figure into these things. I know that you’re an avid hiker, outdoor enthusiast, but you also approach nature and green spaces through your critical race theory lens, specifically thinking quite a lot and writing quite a lot about what it means for African Americans in particular to participate in green space and in nature. What draws you to those kinds of outdoor practices? What gets you excited about thinking about these practices in this way?
Porchia Moore (17:35):
Ever since I’ve been a very young girl, like a little girl, I’ve always found myself, found a place of like healing and respite in green spaces. We have a tradition in the deep South called seeking. So I view myself as a seeker. It’s a spiritual tradition where you commune with nature almost like an Aboriginal walkabout tradition. But I believe that there needs to be a reconciliation and a reckoning in green spaces. There’s this perception still that Black people, or that people of color don’t hike or kayak or ski or camp. And that is changing rapidly. Yet these spaces, like in our national parks and our local parks, often fail to acknowledge whose lands we’re on. Not acknowledging our first nation, indigenous brothers and sisters and or the labor and skills that enslaved Africans contributed to these green spaces.
Porchia Moore (18:35):
So when we talk about plantations and historic sites, not acknowledging the creativity and the intellectual labor that enslaved Africans actually contributed. So everything from cultivating rice to actually building and constructing these plantations in historic sites to creating and taking care of these massive beautiful gardens and landscapes, that are actually marketed as historic gardens in places like Charleston but are really plantations. And these narratives told at many of these sites gloss over all of our histories and suppress them in ways that I actually find to be very violent.
Porchia Moore (19:16):
So access to land that was once public is now gated and I feel like it’s just really important for us to have an intentional reclamation of the joy of being out in nature while not being hunted by dogs or enslavers. By doing that, it returns my humanity and my dignity back to me, it increases my joy. It helps me to celebrate my own upbringing in the deep South where my family grew tobacco and owned land and what great outdoors people. So I want to be able to celebrate that heritage and let others know that land matters, that these places matter and that access matters.
Cathy Hannabach (19:58):
I saw a YouTube video of you where you were part of a group that kayaked the Combahee River in honor of Harriet Tubman’s freedom raid. That’s a great video and I’ll put a link to it in the show notes if folks want to check it out. One of the things that a lot of the folks you are with as well as you were talking about in the video is what it means to actually put one’s body in these spaces. So these kinds of cultural heritage tours that require you to physically go to a place and bodily participate in it in some way. I was just struck by how different that is from traditional museum experiences, at least in terms of the contrast between corporeally participating and physically going to a different place versus seeing visual art on museum wall.
Porchia Moore (20:47):
Oh I love that question. I think that’s such a powerful question. We do not speak about or consider the power of embodiment and cultural heritage enough. I also, as a tangent, I think we also don’t actively work enough to preserve intangible cultural heritage, which to me really speaks to this notion of like embodiment and culture and how preserving these things are so vitally important. I forgot the name of the author, but there’s this book called The Body Keeps the Score and I think when we participate and design activities like that, so like going out to the Combahee River to commemorate and celebrate Harriet Tubman’s freedom raid. The body then can both participate in a reconciliation and a healing in a way that is tangible that calls to mind healing and a joy. That particular experience felt very much like a commune with the ancestors. It felt good to be able to do that in community with others and fellowship just to honor and commemorate.
Porchia Moore (21:59):
So this notion of like being able to repeat and reenact this historical moment of freedom and liberation was just so powerful. And I still, whenever I see the pictures or if I ever see that video clip, I still recall and conjure up the feeling of that moment and how amazing it was. So I love that. That sort of, yeah, like I said, that corporal experience, I think we need more of that. And I think that’s why the work that I do in green spaces is so important for me because it’s a whole bodied total experience that connects me in ways that’s not just intellectual or academic but physical.
Cathy Hannabach (22:43):
So this brings me to my absolute favorite question that I get to talk with folks about and that is that version of a better world that you’re working towards, when you do all of these kinds of projects. When you do your museum projects, when you do your library projects, when you do your outdoor projects. So I will ask you this giant question that I think we don’t get enough opportunities to talk with each other about. So what kind of world are you working towards? What kind of world do you want?
Porchia Moore (23:12):
I am working towards a world where the lines between cultural heritage institutions are more blurred. So I want to be able to go into what we used to call in the field, the third space. So this combination of a building, perhaps somewhere that is all things. So it’s a museum, a library and archive. It is a living room, a lounge, a theater, an opera, a zoo. A place where there’s cultural heritage information, but there’s also community, there’s also creativity. There’s a maker space. So what I’m looking for is a way to show up in my full totality, my full humanity to create a place, whether it’s a pop up or again, a physical institution, but not even maybe, I don’t know, I even resist the term institution. But what I’m working towards is a place where those divisions, either professionally or ideologically, are vastly more blurred.
Porchia Moore (24:19):
And so what we get is basically a way for people, again, to have a more embodied experience, to be able to appreciate cultural heritage, but also to be able to create and innovate in that moment. So I think it’s all about illuminations and sharing and asking questions. One of the things that we talked about this week in class was David Carr’s work and how the museum provides the opportunity for the visitor to both be a question and to ask a question. So there’s this poetics built into our interactions with cultural heritage. And so I hope and I believe that I’m working towards a world where we can build a beautiful poetic within the world of cultural heritage.
Cathy Hannabach (25:11):
Well, thank you so much for being with us today and sharing all of these amazing ways that you imagine and create otherwise.
Porchia Moore (25:18):
Oh, thank you so much Cathy. It’s an honor.
Cathy Hannabach (25:25):
Thanks for listening to another episode of Imagine Otherwise. Imagine otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire, and this episode was created by Christopher Persaud and myself, Cathy Hannabach. Audio editing was provided by the awesome folks at Pro Podcast Solutions. You can check out the show notes and transcript for this episode on our website at ideasonfire.net where you can also read about our fabulous guests and find links to the people and projects we discussed on the show.