I’m going to make a suggestion, especially to anyone whose vocation, avocation, or general tendencies get them walking around out in public. If you have to assume something, assume this: It’s better to expect that everyone is everywhere, rather than expecting that there are those who are everywhere and those who are only somewhere.
It’s no secret that people sort themselves in space. One clique sits at this table; another at a second table, and so on. A cohesive and distinct group in the modern age almost always includes a claim to space or place as part of what they are. The connection between identity and location goes back as far as the written record itself, as does the use of one as a shorthand for the other. But these claims never match reality exactly. Or worse: maybe they never match at all.
We could try to know as much as we can about a space. (We’d have to set aside how you know where one space ends and another one begins, but that’s fine. One thing at a time.) Maybe if we could sort back through all the possible claims and how they relate to all that preceded them, maybe we could finally say: OK, here’s who belongs and who doesn’t.
Of course, that’s fantasy, too.
A lot of this comes out of my experience working in museums, and has been recently brought to the point of expression by one Nina Simon’s recent postings on Museum 2.0 (On White Privilege and Museums). Her work there touched on topics I’ve been thinking and writing about privately: building training and opportunities that support museum volunteers and docents. But it’s also been popping in and out of the background since I joined the workforce. Most of what I’ve done has been pretty close to the intersection of learning and public engagement. And in that experience, I’ll tell you: there are always more somebodies and kinds of somebodies around than you’ll recognize. And when they come onto your radar? Well, if you react in surprise, you’ve told them a lot about the way you see the world.
There will be a time to reflect more here about my museum work. The most important moment for my current purposes in this post is something that a docent asked me once in a training session. To paraphrase:
“I lead group tours at a major science and technology museum. I try to take people as they come. But one day, I showed up for my shift and discovered that my first tour group of the day was made up of a group of Amish families. I didn’t know what to do. What would you do?”
If one breaks this moment down into component parts, the one part that underlay it all was this: The docent would certainly never have consciously thought or said that Amish visitors shouldn’t come to a science and technology museum. The docent would not have agreed if it had been put to them that Amish visitors couldn’t come to a science and technology museum. But was there anything at the museum that the docent would have imagined that Amish visitors would find interesting enough to come in the first place? No.
Another docent’s response really cut to it, though: the Amish are not indifferent to all the technology created during and since the Industrial Revolution. Not at all. That they choose to remove themselves from the direct use of it, and as much as possible from any indirect use of it does not rule out a wide range of interest, curiosity, and even knowledge about it.
So when you’re surprised that the Amish want to hear about innovation, invention, discovery, and technology, you’re the one whose understanding of the world has been revealed as inadequate to that moment. You’re the one who would have said This place is open to all, but was also certain enough that only some people would be there in the first place.
Connecting location and identity is just one of the many shorthands, shortcuts, and work-arounds, by which we make the indigestible totality of existence into something we can actually move around in. These are our cognitive tools.
But quiet as it’s kept, when you come to use a tool so well that you forget it’s there, there will come a time when you’ll be startled to realize that you’ve been waving it around and that some of the folks on the receiving end don’t recognize your gesture in the way that you expect.