“This is the very threshold of revelation sometimes.”

Rereading Angels in America, a scene I had never noticed before really stuck out to me. In Act 1, Scene 7, Prior and Harper meet in one of Prior’s feverish dreams. The experiences they share, namely their lovers’ betrayal and their sicknesses, enable them to recognize each other without having every met. Harper and Prior also find truth in this scene about their main conflicts, Joe’s sexual orientation and Prior’s crippling AIDS infection. Shared experiences that lead to self-revelation are a theme in many of the stories in this class. Museums can use shared experiences as a tool to encourage self-revelation in visitors.

The scene opens with Prior “at a fantastic makeup table, having a dream, applying the face,” and talking about his disease. Harper walks into Prior’s dream in a “pill-induced hallucination.” Harper remarks that the dreams and hallucinations Harper and Prior experience throughout the play are an escape from “the unbearable ordinariness and, well, untruthfulness” of their lives. She insists that Prior should not appear in her hallucinations because “nothing unknown is knowable.” Of course, Prior and Harper have not met, but their experiences throughout the play are very much intertwined.

When Harper senses that Prior is sick, she explains that their altered state, “is the very threshold of revelation.” Harper asks Prior to tell her something about herself, and Prior replies, “your husband’s a homo.” At that moment, Harper’s menagerie falls apart and she faces her reality. Before she leaves Prior she tells him that though he is sick, the inner most part of him is “free from disease.”

Tony Kushner, the playwright, utilizes scenes like this to emphasize the play’s fantastical themes. These fanciful scenes also show the ways that Prior and Harper, different as can be, share similar experiences. Harper and Prior can see each other in their hallucinations and dreams because of these experiences. Their lovers betray them (for each other no less). They also share the experiences of sickness, a theme throughout the play. Harper’s sickness, her addiction to Valium, allows her to cope with her anxiety over her sham marriage. AIDS is quickly ravishing Prior’s body and mind, but the vivid dreams his sickness brings allows him to escape his sad reality. In their altered state, they recognize the experiences they share and are enlightened to truth.

Since the beginning of the semester, we have discussed the importance of connecting with shared experiences in various struggles for equality. The shared experiences of African American women influenced Bessie Smith and Billy Holiday’s music. Gay men living in New York City before World War II created a unique identity through the shared ways they lived and loved. Kitchen Conversations at the Tenement Museum connect visitor’s shared experiences with contemporary issues over immigration and poverty. Museum objects and images connect people’s shared experiences because everyone uses objects. In my experience, once you recognize yourself in another, your empathy for that person grows. Museums can take that empathy a step further and use shared experiences to advocate for social reform. What ways have you seen museums use shared experiences to inspire action?

14 thoughts on ““This is the very threshold of revelation sometimes.”

  1. The Museum at Bethel Woods (http://www.bethelwoodscenter.org/the-museum) focuses on the Woodstock Music Festival and the 1960s as a whole. In 2010, the museum welcomed the “Wall of Healing” to the museum grounds. This wall welcomes Vietnam veterans or their families to come to see the names of their fallen friends and families. (http://www.vvmf.org/twth). Apparently the turnout to the museum’s grounds was fantastic and many veterans reported a sense of healing and relief and many visitors supported one another during their period of grief. While it did not really inspire action I think the shared experience of the Wall of Healing I think it was a program that reached out to the community and tackled a tough, sensitive issue.

    1. Maybe in a sense this “Wall of Healing” did triggered an internal action that enabled veterans to experience healing and acknowledgement. Does the action always have to be a social/external one? I’m not sure, but with Michelle’s example, I think that the wall offered and inspired a personal opportunity for veterans to deal with a difficult and painful issue.

  2. “Segregation is wrong.”
    “Why? Explain to me why.”
    When the first years saw the Greensboro diner chairs at the Smithsoninan we managed to catch a live event where an actor interacted with an audience. He encouraged the crowd to engage with his character in conversation regarding the issue of segregated seating in diners. The people in the audience knew it was wrong, but when he asked them to clarify how or why it was wrong, the audience struggled to provide a logical answer. By the time the actor was done we were able to articulate exactly how and why segregation needed to end–aside from the usual comments “segregation is wrong.” It may not have inspired action, but I feel that everyone in the audience was empowered. They were given the vocabulary needed to cover the topic at hand, and I think it could lead to active steps in eradicating racism still going on today.

    1. Stephenie (and Michelle), your post makes me wonder whether museums are failing at providing a call to action. These examples seem that museums hope that their exhibits or programs will inspire change by opening people minds… but they don’t necessarily come out and say what their stance is, what needs to be done now, and how you can do that. I wonder if this is a good or bad thing. A museum should be space where people of varying opinions should feel free to come and be represented and heard. At the same time, shouldn’t there be some scaffolding to show visitors how to advocate for social reform?

      1. I think that museums might fail to create a significant call to action if visitors either feel like outsiders to the discussion or they feel like they lack the tools or knowledge needed to become an advocate for change. For instance, some visitors to the Tenement Museum’s “Kitchen Conversations” discussions may come with a strong per-conceived understanding of immigration which is hard to change in the course of one discussion, even if they discover that immigrants may face similar struggles that they do. However, many visitors might be inspired by such discussions and try to talk more often to people they meet who have recently immigrated. This is a way of following a call to action, but it often occurs on a smaller personal level that is hard to evaluate. I think that larger calls to action appear to be disregarded because a visitor feels like they are sympathetic, yet ultimately removed from the issue being discussed. I think others may really take an issue to heart, but feel that the issue is so big that they cannot make a change beyond the personal level. Museums can be more successful by not only introducing an issue, but actively introducing visitors to programs or organizations that they can participate in often (without feeling that they need to change their everyday activities to do so).

      2. I think that museums are not necessarily the place for overt calls to action. I wouldn’t want a museum telling me to do something but rather providing me with enough information to form my own opinion. Part of that information could be ways of taking action but I don’t know if a museum should be telling people to act.

      3. I agree with Caitlin on this one. Unless the museum is advocating something like anti-human trafficking, which has a really broad basis for support, I don’t know if they should advocate anything. People have a lot of reasons why they’ll pick one side or another in a controversy. If a museum takes a clear (usually liberal) stance on something, then it will isolate anyone who disagrees. I know a few conservatives who would have some great input or questions on hot-button issues, but don’t think anyone is open enough to listen to them. They expect that they’d instead get very hostile reactions from people who’d assume a lot about them based on an trigger that probably was taken out of context. If I lived in a different area, it might be liberals I know who’d be left out.

        This may be a limit to shared experiences. Some of us have not had shared experiences–we’ve had oppositional ones. A woman who experienced extreme depression and guilt because of an abortion has had a very different experience from a woman who was severely traumatized and economically disadvantaged because she could not get one. If either of these women is asked to talk about her shared experience for the sake of reform, then the other will not only feel left out–she could easily feel like she was made into the enemy because the museum took a stance. It might be better for the people in this example to talk about the pain they’ve both had, and how their experiences differed. That way there can be a bridging of differences.

      4. This is why I’m a huge fan of Sites of Conscience’s work. Dialogue, in their mind, IS a course of action. So while we might worry about a museum taking a particular stance and alienating people, we could just as soon invite people to the metaphorical table to discuss their points of view.

      5. I think museums should be more willing to take a stance on various social issues, however they may be unwilling to do so in case they offend certain visitors. Also, some museums traditionally were apathetic.

  3. I think you both raise valid points, Emily and Keith. I’m thinking of the museums I’ve been to that have a social justice mission. The Museum of the New South, NC and the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center use their temporary exhibition space for exhibits that are meant to inspire social change. I think many museums are good at providing a call to action or creating empathy but they often fail in doing both. The Freedom Center recently had an exhibit about the modern worker and sex slave industry with a call to action to get involved with organizations that fight against it. The Museum of the New South had an exhibit about segregated schools in South Carolina that did a great job of inspiring empathy and relating it to how schools are still segregated, though not legally, today but did not provide steps or ideas for working towards equality. Hitting that perfect mix is difficult and I think more museums can balance the two for real social change.

  4. My first thought actually went to the German Emigration Center in Bremerhaven, Germany. http://www.dah-bremerhaven.de/english.php. Strange choice, I know, but being in a foreign country it felt very free of the modern social pressure put on museums in the United States. This is not to say it was free of social pressures, just not the same ones. The museum has a huge American target audience, for those who are looking back at their heritage. It wasn’t a museum for German Americans, however. The “Emigrant experience,” which we so rarely investigate here in the United States, included EVERYONE. The oral histories, journals, pictures…emigrants from all over the world and from all walks of life shared their stories. I could look specifically for my great grandmother who left from the Bremerhaven port, but I could also look for a woodworker, or an escaped noble, or an ex-slave. The Angels in America scene here has a personal connection between people most would expect to never occur. I found those connections at the Emigration museum–I just had to look for them. Maybe just presenting some of these unlikely connections has a social message of its own. The recognition of humanity all leveled out helps us to understand that it is possible to connect with anyone. Only our brains stand in the way of those opportunities.

    1. Thanks, Patrick. I think you make an excellent point when you write, “Maybe just presenting some of these unlikely connections has a social message of its own.” Whether it is between objects, stories, or social issues, museums should be making connections. What better way than to showcase how two seemingly unlike things actually relate, appealing to two separate groups, and helping them understand how they can recognize each others’ humanity, as you have put it.

  5. Recently on our NYC field trip, I went to the Museum of the City of New York. They had an exhibit on activism in New York entitled ‘Activist New York’ where they spoke about different diverse issues where New Yorkers have come together to protest. Some of these issues include historic preservation, civil rights, wages, sexual orientation, and religious freedom. The exhibit gives a full story about activism in all five of NYC’s boroughs. Very subtly, the exhibit encourages people to have a stance on something and to fight for what they believe in. Along with the exhibit, the museum has a blog, blog.activistnewyork.mcny.org, which encourages people to upload images of New Yorkers who are “currently involved in our city, its communities, and the larger world, whether through volunteering, organizing, lobbying, petitioning, protesting, making art, or otherwise taking action or speaking out.” I think it is clever of them to talk about activism and the process on how people start up various protests and groups in a way to get people to examine modern day issues, and to also have a blog that coincides with the exhibit where people can contribute examples of modern acts of activism and protests.

  6. I think “Dialogue in the Dark” is a good case study of empathy’s connection to social reform. Early in his career, Andreas Heinecke (the exhibition’s creator) worked with a visually-impaired colleague. Before working with him, Heinecke understood blindness as strictly a disability. After this experience, however, Heinecke realized that his perception of disability was completely at odds with the way his colleague’s ability to successfully perform on the job. Years later, Heinecke created the exhibition in an effort to foster understanding about living with a visual impairment; also, he hoped that it would be an impetus for pushing employment discrimination against people with disabilities.

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