Speaker: Lisa Lee
Title: “Museums as ‘Dangerous’ Sites: Fostering Civic Engagement Through Radically Democratic Museum Pracices”
Commentary by: Laura Browarny, graduate student in the Seton Hall M.A. in Museum Professions Program; IME travel stipend recipient.
As director at the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum in Chicago, Lisa Lee has had her fair share of controversy; in fact, it seems that it is rooted within the very substance her biography. Jane Addams lived a highly controversial life; she aligned herself with political activists, some who were considered Socialists, and other feminists. Prior to hearing Lisa’s presentation, however, I was unaware of the more subversive side of Ms. Addams’ efforts. General references such as encyclopedia.com and of course wikipedia.org and all of the information provided on her focused entirely on her achievements as a activist for peace, her reception of the Nobel Peace Prize, and her establishment of the Hull-House settlement. These idealized and censored descriptions are precisely what Lisa Lee is attempting to move beyond at the Hull-House museum.
Many people view museums as neutral spaces, but what happens when a historic house or site commemorates an individual with very strong and often contested opinions? Lisa Lee has given herself a challenging task in creating programming and exhibitions at the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum that fully address all aspects of Ms. Addams’ life, even if the public may not be equally receptive to some of the details. She has used creative labeling, community involvement, and food preservation to address some issues that were prevalent at the time that Jane Addams lived at Hull-House and are still pertinent to museum visitors today.
Some topics that are discussed in the museum setting include sexual orientation, immigration, sustainability, and child labor. All of these were hot button topics around the Hull-House dining room tables, and Lisa Lee created an environment in the museum that allows for discourse on these issues that are still prevalent today in that same dining room next door. Lee considers herself to be an activist both within the museum and in her life outside of it. She believes that museums should strive to tell the whole story. But what are the risks to the museum itself if a line is crossed? The Hull-House museum is part of the University of Chicago; does this identity give it intellectual protection that other historic houses and sites might not enjoy? When is it necessary to cause a stir for social justice and when do museums put themselves in jeopardy by sparking controversy just for the sake of sensationalism. Lisa Lee spoke about how she is able to confront these issues diplomatically and successfully.