Telling stories while avoiding objectification

Jon Sleigh, Issue 119/09, 02.09.2019
Think before you ask one person to speak on behalf of a marginalised group
One of the key questions we have to think about with audience engagement and developing programmes is how to tell stories without objectifying people. “You’re gay, can I just ask you about this?” is a question I have on occasion encountered in my professional practice.

It is mostly well-meaning, without prejudice and for a practical purpose. I’ve decided to start saying no and to explain why, with kindness. Objectification starts in the meeting rooms that our industry inhabits. Tea in hand, we explore powerful and complex narratives within collections.

Life experience is the key to both individual pieces and conversations. We, the institutions, become custodians of works that are incredibly powerful to communities and yet we can lack the context to explore the stories within.

Professional teams look to each other for support as fast-paced deadlines and event schedules hammer at the door. It’s an understandable reaction to reach to a trusted colleague who is open to sharing, to ask the questions that can get exhibition thinking started. It is easy and comfortable, but I believe it’s the wrong thing to do.

By putting pressure on individuals, we objectify that practitioner by asking them to speak with and on behalf of vast swathes of people. Consider the queer community. Vibrant, multi-faceted, as diverse as the nation and intersectional. I can just about represent myself and my lived experience, never mind the lives of others in the community I’ve not had the privilege to have shared.

Objectification is painful. If we do it to ourselves, how can we not fail to do so with the communities we serve? And objectification isn’t just a state of mind or bias, it’s a choice we make by omission.

I’ve built my professional practice on looking at gaps in representation within collections and highlighting those positively with communities as opportunities for engagement, activism and art creation.

Rather than seeking to harmonise those within a community, I look to represent the underrepresented narratives as islands of activism. There is truly nothing more moving than bringing those with lived experience to a piece who can share their story, reinterpret the work and use it for their own advocacy.

If you are worried about discussing something, stand back and consult with those who can talk about the subject. The institution learns from them and a conversation is ongoing – great exhibitions use question marks and avoid full stops.

Next time someone says “can I just ask you about this?” consider the power instead of asking “who can we ask about this?”

Jon Sleigh is an arts educator, learning officer and learning curator