The M Blog

The M Blog is an online space for us and for you — artists, museum staff and curators, guest writers, and community contributors — to discuss issues and ideas related to the many experiences of being American today.

The Power of Living Rooms

At the beginning of my fellowship, my first task was to transform the M’s Materials Lab into a Reading Room: a comfortable, living room space where people could spend time reflecting, processing, going deeper into the issues raised by the exhibit, Ken Gonzales-Day: Shadowlands, and responding to the artwork on view.

As I was putting together flats of Ikea furniture (a DIY activity I will never find easy to do myself), I was helped by a coworker who’s also new to the M. We chatted about where we went to undergrad, mutual friends, and what exactly our respective jobs at the museum would entail. Little by little, the furniture and bookshelves came together—assembled by woman-power, lively conversation, and a whole lot of help from an Allen wrench.

Living rooms play such an important role in our lives. We use them as a place to toss jackets and bags as we rush to the kitchen. They’re places to snuggle up with a blanket and binge-watch Grace and Frankie. But, most of all, the living room is a gathering space—communal, safe, comfortable. The M’s Reading Room, in particular, has been designed as a space dedicated to reflection, both individual and collective. This space offers couches, chairs, lamps, scratch paper, iPads, and books whose authors provide insight into the issues around race, and racial violence, in Minnesota, specifically.

Some of the gems I’ve paged through a handful of times in the Reading Room that have helped me process some of the themes in Gonzales-Day’s work include:

The Lyncher in Me, a memoir by Warren Read, traces the story of a 1920 lynching that happened in Duluth, Minnesota. Read’s story centers on his discovery that he is a descendant of one of the organizers of this mob. It is a true testament to self-reflection and the power of family legacy in shaping future generations.

Freedom is a Constant Struggle, by the always powerful Angela Davis, explores the foundations of political movements. She gives insight into what it means to be a good leader, what is happening around the “prison industrial complex,” and the powerful role of women in movements that have lasting impacts.

A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota is a book that should be on every Minnesotan’s shelf. Sun Yung Shin’s anthology collects the voices of 16 people of color, as they share their lived experience trying to navigate the whiteness of Minnesota. It’s an important lens through which to see the work of dismantling of racism in the land of 10,000 lakes.

Ken Gonzales-Day’s Lynchings in the West 1850-1935 allows for a deeper dive into the images on display in Shadowlands. His book illuminates previously disregarded layers in the known history of lynchings and violence toward African Americans, telling stories of similarly racially motivated violence towards Mexican Americans in California, and the West in general.

All of the Reading Room’s books were carefully curated with the help of Ken Gonzales-Day, Sun Yung Shin, and Jessica Lyman Lopez with help from faculty of the Chicano & Latino Studies at the University of Minnesota. These resources include fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, along with articles about current events.

These books offer a critical lens on race, police brutality, and the bystander’s gaze, all of which are important themes in Gonzales-Day’s work. (Scroll down for a full bibliography of the books available to you in the M’s Reading Room.)

This subject matter is challenging; it really hits you. In the Reading Room, there is a space for you to process those feelings.

This subject matter is challenging; it really hits you. The exhibit itself is hard to walk through. Gonzales-Day’s hauntingly beautiful images ask each person in their presence to rethink the histories we have been taught. More, they ask us to consider histories that have been purposely erased at the expense of previously unacknowledged dead men and women.

Walking through the show, I have shed a few tears. Seeing these images, sometimes I’ve been so angry that I have had to leave the gallery. And, at other times, I have walked through the exhibit and been re-energized by the power of story. In the Reading Room there is a space for you to process all those feelings. And there you’ll also find responses other people have left behind and, perhaps, leave some comments of your own to share your thoughts for others to see. The “response wall” allows you to critically think about what you have just experienced in the gallery. We offer some prompts to help you on the way to sharing what is on your mind:

Seeing______ made me think______.

Seeing ______ made me feel ______.

How can we learn from the past?

Reading through some of the responses people have place on the wall, I agreed with some. I disagreed with others. But more than that, seeing them, I feel connected in one of the central conversations of our time, hashing through these difficult nuances with people I have never met. And that is, on its own, a powerful thing.

Some samples from visitors to the show that I found on the “response wall:”

“How do we learn from the past? Don’t be dumb. [We learn] to use it and appreciate it. To grow like the tree.”

“Seeing all of it made me think of how grateful I am to those who came before me and fought.”

“How can we learn from the past? By not ignoring what actually happened for a false sense of pride.”

Will you come share your thoughts, too?

These past few months have been hard for all of us, to say the least. But living rooms have always been a critical space for bringing people together. I have had important conversations sitting on the family couch. I’ve cried there. I’ve yelled at the news, and I’ve watched Viola Davis take my breath away countless times in just one speech. I’ve laughed with people who understand who I am as a person; I’ve journaled. And I’ve cried again. But most importantly, in my living room, I’ve had real conversations about what is happening around us.

So, we are inviting you to come sit in our living room. Come and explore Shadowlands with us, and take time to reflect on the haunting images you experience there. Sit and read a book from the shelf, and dive into a different version of history, a version that needs to be known and shared. Let’s use this communal gathering space to articulate how we can learn from the past and to publicly process what the exhibit has made us think about – what it has made us feel.  Come alone. Come with friends. Our living room is your living room, not only to process the exhibit, but also what is going on in the wider world.

Let’s think it through together.

The Reading Room is related to the M’s ongoing exhibit, Ken Gonzales-Day: Shadowlands, on view through April 16, 2017. Both are free and open to the public during open gallery hours.

The exhibition and its related programming are supported by the National Endowment for the Arts, Minnesota State Arts Board, and the City of St. Paul’s Cultural STAR program.

Johnnay Leenay earned a BA in Communications and Journalism and Justice and Peace Studies from the University of St. Thomas.  Her interest in museum work stems from her time in the Art History department and the American Museum of Asmat Art at St. Thomas, where she quickly became passionate about the impact art can have contributing to critical conversations around social issues. Before joining the staff at the M, Johnnay worked at the Minnesota Humanities Center focusing on traveling exhibits and community engagement. She is the first Diversity in the Arts Curatorial Fellow at the M and is excited to learn how the narrative of the American experience can be shaped through the lens of accessibility and inclusion.