Sharing the Struggle: ‘A Site of Struggle’ Comment Card Project

The Block Museum exhibition A Site of Struggle: American Art against Anti-Black Violence concluded its tour on November 6, 2022, closing its run at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts in Montgomery, Alabama. To mark the conclusion of this project we are honored to share an archive reflecting just a portion of the exhibition comments we received during the presentation of the exhibition at The Block from January 26 – July 10, 2022.

The decision to bring this major exhibition forward within our community was not taken lightly. We recognized that Northwestern University is and has been a site where Black students, faculty, and staff have sought visibility for their lived experience and fought for racial equity and where Evanston’s Black communities have experienced personal and systemic injustices. Through a variety of practices the museum sought to recognize the challenging nature of the material, the range of responses it might elicit, and the impact it carried for visitors whose identities and experiences intersect with the histories presented.  In addition to interventions such as a reflection room, controlled site lines, a Visitors Guide, a Care Guide, and a guided meditation the museum sought to connect with audience through a system of comment cards. These cards invited on-site reflection and feedback and allowed museum staff to directly reply to visitors questions and concerns during the run of the show.

In all, over 400 visitors to the exhibition
A Site of Struggle shared their reflections through comment cards.

All cards were archived as part of the legacy of the exhibition, and many visitors chose to allow their responses to be made public. The Block also worked with outside evaluation firm Lee Groves Associates to investigate the content, themes, and messages within the cards, in order to better understand the exhibition’s impact and audiences. The firm noted: A few words were used widely throughout the comments, including “powerful” (seen in 23% of comments), “important” (11%), and necessary (5%). More than a quarter of comments (25%) expressed their gratitude to the museum for putting on the exhibit (“thank you”), with a few explicitly empathizing with the curatorial challenge of delving deeply into such emotionally evocative works. 

Museum staff worked closely with these visitor responses throughout the exhibition, including Curatorial Research Associate Emily Faith Martin, who coded, scanned, and responded to cards as part of her work. “To see and help document the vulnerability people displayed in their comments was a hopeful and challenging process. I commend those that decided to share their personal stories, pain, fears, and anxieties in response to the exhibition and hope that that vulnerability about these things provides some kind of catharsis for others and the anonymous writers of these comments.” In all-staff meetings throughout the exhibition, the Block team read and reflected on visitor’s experience. Staff were grateful that the structures of care they endeavored to build into the exhibition, and the reflective atmosphere they hoped to cultivate was resonating with the audience.

“I was very moved by the support for the exhibition evidenced in the responses, and the care and concern that commenters sought to extend to the museum staff which mirrored the care we aimed to provide to visitors,” .

– Janet Dees, curator of A Site of Struggle

In reflection of this reciprocal gratitude we share a selection of comment card responses on the website Comments are loosely organized into themes such as; On Self-Reflection, in which visitors reflect on their own story and identity; On History, in which visitors noted the way the exhibition resonated with past events and the present moment; and On Gratitude, in which visitors voiced their thanks to exhibition organizers and curators for taking on this topic. Other topics include: On Emotion and Action, in which visitors generously shared their raw emotions, pain, and frustration in encountering the exhibition and On Education, in which visitors reflected on the gaps in their own education and in the need for this narrative to be centered in the schools. On Care Resources includes audience notes about the ways in which audience members encountered the exhibition’s intentional design.

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