Remember Ralph Nader? Yes, that guy in politics. Yes, that guy who ran for president. And no, he wasn’t a democrat. Close guess, though. He ran as a Green Party nominee in 1996 and 2000, then as an independent candidate in 2004 and 2008. He was recently a key speaker at the annual American Alliance for Museums conference. Wait, what? An almost-president at a museum conference? I know.
Let’s start from the beginning. The American Alliance for Museums (AAM) takes pride in being the only organization that represents the entire scope of the broad museum community. This means everything from the museums themselves to the companies that service museums: audio guide companies, exhibit designers, mounting experts… the list goes on. And actually AAM represents not just museums but all kinds of cultural organizations–the National Geographic Museum to the National Botanic Garden. AAM is the place to see and be seen (for the museum industry, that is).
As such, their keynote speakers are usually satisfyingly thought provoking. Enter Ralph Nader. This time though, he seemed to be a bit of an “out of left field” choice.
His speech started off a little rocky. A lot of throat clearing and a monotone tonality pervaded. The room was aesthetically curious–a nouveau riche, Art Deco molding punctuated the architecture. Nader began speaking about tort law. That was my cue: time to go. But his voice soon picked up a bit, and some real passion began to eek through. He started dropping phrases like, “Museums are filling the gap created by the corporate control of public airways” and “Museums are very much about our ability to communicate freely to our fellow human beings.” He was connecting art and the act of displaying it to our first amendment right, our right to free speech and our right to democratized information. It made one feel both patriotic and universally human. Creating a museum, or a gallery for that matter, meant creating the space to learn and educate a public. This learning would authentically impact their perception of their lived environment. As Nader mentioned, it could change something as simple their definition of “ugly” or as potentially complex, creating a deeper understanding of a specific topic, such as a legal system. He personally was after the latter, founding the American Museums of Tort Law.
Nader comes from a law background. He has written quite a few books and did the whole run-for-president thing. His law expertise is in consumer protection and humanitarianism. He began to take particular interest in tort law, the law which makes an individual who causes unfair suffering, or harm (physically, emotionally, economically) to another, legally liable for that suffering or harm. Nader spent much, if not all, of his career raising civil awareness about this law. People needed to use it more in order to have a larger hand in shaping society, shaping who has what responsibility in a society, communal happiness, and shaping right and wrong (can you see the humanitarianism coming in here?). He looked to public engagement methods: lectures, workshops, courses. The results were only mediocre. The tort law concept didn’t spread like he had envisioned. His next thought? Create a museum about it. And so, the American Museum of Tort Law in Winstead, CT was born.
I imagine this is the part where AAM got really interested.
Nader pointed out the power of a museum to captivate news sources and gain widespread attention. What was it about a new museum that secured articles from The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal? Not that this is the gold seal which confirms that an arts initiative “made it,” but it is, however, a statement from an influential power on the public that proclaims, “We care.” Why do they care? Because they are involved. Nader stated that museums are not spectator spaces; they are educational spaces. They put things in front of an individual in such a way that that individual discovers new curiosities, new nooks and crannies of the world. Museums prod our desire for experiencing other expressions; they entice us with the Promised Land of new, attainable knowledge. The mix of reading, looking and walking while being guided through a space is a satisfyingly sweet concoction for the innately curious (as we humans are). Whether it’s tort law, Jeff Koons or a Greek vase, they all get to live in equal freedom in a museum. And as Nader pointed out, all of this is simultaneously a testament to freedom itself. Turns out the seemingly random politician, groggy voice and all, found some real truth through art. Points to AAM for the wild card invite.
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