Museums exist for many purposes, including to entertain, to educate, and to preserve. With these objectives come certain responsibilities. So, when artists choose to tackle difficult subjects, it is the museum’s job to do the same. This semester, Florida State University’s Museum of Fine Arts highlighted the topic of climate change and natural disaster in their main exhibition, a topic that, though important, is often shied away from.
The exhibition, titled Rising Water was curated by MoFA’s Meredith Lynn, along with Jessica Ingram, an assistant professor in FSU’s Department of Art. Both knew of artists who had been directly affected by hurricanes in the southeast, and who had turned to art to process their experience while fueling their practice. Rising Water’s curatorial statement ends with the phrase, “the exhibition showcases artistic responses centering creativity and empathy as tools for navigating an increasingly storm-impacted future.” For the curators, this meant tackling some tough topics – the art itself centered on people whose whole lives were uprooted right in front of them, people who had to recover from the worst situations and still managed to find creativity in them. With this topic of weather and natural disaster though, comes the even more difficult topic of climate change, which, in their tour, the curators mentioned that they wanted to tackle head on.
The museum hosted multiple events and got visitors talking about topics they wouldn’t necessarily expect to find in a fine arts museum. First, was “Climate Conversation” on February 27th, a panel of experts who have experience dealing with climate change. People who work in engineering, environmental studies, and conservation shared their recent research, illustrating that science has a place in the art world. Next, was “The Space Around Us”, a collaboration with Miami based oboist Carly Gordon and FSU doctoral candidate and clarinetist Jessica Pollack. The performance guided patrons in meditation and invited them to think about activism and the role they could play in creating a better future. Along with the readings that were also used in this event, this music reminds us of our relationship with nature, and of how much it needs our help.
As a public institution, one must take into consideration that taking a stance on an issue is a risk that could hurt the business or alter visitors’ perceptions. But, as a museum and cultural center, there is a responsibility not to remain neutral. To push this position, #MuseumsAreNotNeutral, a movement started by La Tanya S. Autry and Mike Murawski, has been circulating around social media. Suse Anderson, an assistant professor at The George Washington University Corcoran School of Arts and Design, described it as “an initiative that exposes the fallacies of the neutrality claim and calls for an equity-based transformation of museums.” This means that a museum is required to acknowledge its bias and use its voice for advocacy and activism that will benefit the public, even if it may not benefit the institution. This semester, MoFA succeeded in doing this by presenting an exhibition that created space to explore the greater impact of climate change.
Harley Preston is a Literature, Media, and Culture major and Museum Studies minor, she is set to graduate from Florida State University in December of 2020. She currently interns at MoFA and was previously an editor for Tallahassee Community College’s art and literature magazine, where she graduated with her A.A. in 2018.