I wish that I hadn’t chickened out… We were at the amazing Museum of Contemporary Native Arts in Santa Fe, ambling through the final exhibit. Holly Wilson’s exhibit, “Breaking Ground,” had already inspired a revision of one of our sculptures in process, and we’d both been moved by the “Without Boundaries: Visual Conversations” exhibit that features Indigenous leaders and contemporary artists whose work encourages social action. The North Gallery offered “Art & Activism: Selections from the Harjo Family Collection.” Suzan Shown Harjo was an important American Indian activist, lobbyist, and policy maker whose family amassed a collection of significant contemporary Native American art in varied media.
We whispered respectfully as we toured the Harjo exhibit; reverent near-silence seemed fitting. It didn’t last. Three young women erupted into the room, loud and ebullient. Certainly they were in high spirits, but they may have been high on recreational substances. We smiled wistfully at each other but said nothing. Then one of them started handling the 2D hanging art, ignoring the “Do Not Touch” sign. I looked at her, but she ignored me. I contemplated saying something, but the racial and age gaps seemed substantial and I feared any comment from me might only escalate her behavior. What to do? In my classroom I would have spoken up immediately about behavior that crossed a line like that. I think I would have spoken up in the hallway with students I didn’t know. Here felt somehow different. I was spared the need to act when she and her friends settled down, leaving the works alone.
This encounter felt wrong to me. I’ve been reading the remarkable book, The Good News About Bad Behavior, by Katherine Reynolds Lewis [more about that in a future blog]. The author describes the inability of young people to self-regulate and the root causes of that inability. Not having reached her chapters that offer solutions, I felt inadequate and ineffective. Behavior that doesn’t respect common boundaries seems more and more common. As a civilian out in the world, rather than an educator in the classroom, what is my role? My responsibility? What might have worked? Should we have said something to the museum staff? I truly don’t know.
I do know that days later, when we were at Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs, I did choose to speak up. Someone had taken down the chain across the entrance to the mud baths that marked them closed and gone in anyway. Worse, they’d left the sign and chain stretched out across the entrance on the ground, inviting an accidental fall by someone else. We quietly told the staff, and they went out to rectify the situation. That move was easy. But my visceral reaction to someone’s touching art and my uncertainty about how to respond still make me squirm. What is our responsibility – as parents, educators, citizens – to counter behavior that violates rules and social norms? If we do nothing, are we not culpable, too?