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“Think With Me:” David Carr’s Enduring Invitation

Beverly Sheppard, Marsha Semmel, and Carol Bossert

David Wildon Carr (1945–2016) was recognized in the international cultural community as a scholar and instigator whose critical thinking challenged museum practitioners to reflect on the purpose and responsibility of their work. In his recent papers and lectures, he argued that those discussing museum experiences are late to enter into a dialogue already in progress—a dialogue which carefully considers the whole person in a community, and wherein thinking with a museum is an enterprise embedded in the learner’s experience.

This forum, written by three museum professionals in response to his recent untimely death, is intended to capture personal impressions of Carr’s contribution to the continuing work of museums. Each author quotes from Carr’s writings, since his words have such enduring strength—a strength that will continue to resonate long into the future. Each also offers readers some personal background on his work as a teacher.

David Wildon Carr (1945–2016) was recognized in the international cultural community as a scholar and instigator whose critical thinking challenged museum practitioners to reflect on the purpose and responsibility of their work. In his recent papers and lectures, he argued for a museum’s careful consideration of the whole person in every dimension of the museum experience, to realize that those discussing and creating museum experiences are entering into a dialogue already in progress. He described learners as thinking with a museum— rather than learning from a museum.

Carr passed away January 31st, 2016. This was before he could complete his 2017 keynote address: “Museums and Their Publics in Sites of Conflicted History,” for an international conference planned by the POLIN Museum in Warsaw, Poland. At the time, he was also completing a series of essays entitled: The Kind of Dream This Is: Museum Notebooks. This article stands in appreciation of Carr and his work. It offers readers an overview of his work and its impact on the theoretical and applied study of cultural institutions, it encourages reflection on his writings, and it draws attention to the contributions of his lifework to the cultural sector, especially in libraries and museums.

This forum is the result of a conversation among three museum professionals in the wake of his passing. It is intended to capture personal impressions of Carr’s contribution to the work of museums. The authors quote from Carr’s writings, since his words have such enduring strength—a strength that will continue to resonate long into the future. They also offer some background on his work as a teacher. Carr’s legacy should be the subject of an in-depth assessment that awaits a cultural historian, philosopher or educator. We would be honored to publish it.

To honor Carr’s legacy is to read his words and hear his call to action. To acknowledge the importance of this work, the publishers have agreed to offer Carr’s writing for the journal as open access from April 15th, 2016—July 15th, 2016. We encourage readers to offer their thoughts on Carr’s work to the journal’s website: Curatorjournal.org.

—THE EDITORS

The week following news of David Carr’s recent and untimely death, Marsha (Semmel) opened her thick “David Carr” file. The first document in it was one of the bookmarks he made as gifts for those of us lucky enough to call him a friend. “Think with me,” it invites. Any reader who took David up on that invitation was rarely disappointed.

David Wildon Carr assumed many roles in his long and productive career. He was by training a librarian and, for more than thirty years, a teacher of librarians at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, as well as the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He described himself as a reader and a “reader’s advisor,” an advocate for cultural institutions, a writer, a museum observer, and, always, a learner.

In reading his contributions to museum thought, he considered museums and libraries to be necessary parts of the human enterprise and often as a single sector with common purposes. As he wrote in the introduction to his first book, The Promise of Our Cultural Institutions (2003):

My intention has been to address both institutions with one vocabulary, recognizing in them an identity of common motives and values.

Carr wrote profoundly and spoke provocatively. In particular, it is relevant in this appreciation to draw attention to his keynote address that launched the opening forum of Museums, Libraries and the 21st Century Learner, a signature project for the Institute of Museum and Library Services. His eloquent words that first evening redefined what it meant to be a learner, and articulated why great cultural institutions needed to consider themselves collaborators in the quest for learning. At a time when “No Child Left Behind” was defining education so narrowly, Carr’s words transformed the essence of what it meant to learn. Carr reshaped that address into the final chapter in his first book, The Promise of Cultural Institutions (2003), where it continues to prod all of us in the cultural enterprise to expand our definitions of what creates a learning environment.

Carr’s writing and speaking have become part of the experience and thinking of so many museum and library professionals; it challenges us to consider the most essential responsibilities of our work. A thread of emails that followed word of his passing includes numerous reflections on the impact of his life. In one, Jason Yoon, Director of Education at Queens Museum referred to Carr’s enduring faith and optimism in the simplicity and power of people coming together, experiencing new things together, talking and thinking about them together, in settings rich with art, ideas, culture and knowledge, while being supported by caring and curious people.

When Beverly (Sheppard) read those words, she knew David would have been humbled by, and proud of, this recognition of his constant encouragement for libraries and museums to host and stimulate such important conversations.

Carr defined libraries and museums as places that must encourage us to explore the unfinished nature of our lives and beliefs, and to generate more questions. Libraries and museums, he wrote, must become places that assist the mind’s unfolding—they must recognize knowledge as a process, not a thing. He frequently described both institutions as being about what they make possible, not what they contain, presenting their collections as springboards to deeper thought and courageous questions. One of Beverly’s favorite descriptions in Carr’s writing is that of the museum and library being “incendiary institutions,” feeding the flames that “illuminate the human capacity to imagine the possible” (2000).

Beverly reread Carr’s three museum books before developing her contributions to this appreciation. She was astonished at the numerous layers of inquiry he brought to these books’ core themes. Concepts like “unfinished lives,” “purposeful users,” and “fearless change,” and words like community, memory, trust, knowledge and learning, take on multiple dimensions and complexities. He returned to these concepts repeatedly, exploring their place in our cultural institutions. His advice was never formulaic, his thinking never traditional. He recognized the need for structure, frameworks, tools and authoritative information in museums and libraries—not as ends in themselves, but as means to establishing a context in which users initiate their own journeys. He suggested, however, that museums more than libraries need to learn more ways to assist learners— perhaps most successfully by posing provocative questions and inviting open-ended inquiry. This remains important guidance for museum professionals.

Carr’s use of the word “user” is very much a librarian’s word, long in place to describe the purposeful nature of a library visit. Beverly has frequently contrasted “user” with the museum’s counterpart word “visitor.” There is so much to be considered in the difference between the two, reflective perhaps of the museum’s long history as the expert, arranging and defining what its visitors would see and learn. Beverly, as someone who works with both museums and libraries, loves the fact that “user” was Carr’s word both in the museum and the library setting. To her, this is an additional acknowledgement that both environments should be open and supportive of individual inquiry. This use underscores the personal and individual nature of every museum experience.

Marsha brought to this reflection on Carr’s life’s work his participation in planning a traveling exhibition based on the Women of the West Museum’s Expanded Visions project. Expanded Visions featured original works of art by four contemporary women artists of color. These works interpreted, from their personal perspectives, the artists’ diverse cultural and aesthetic traditions and challenged traditional assumptions about women in the history of the American West. Carr urged the team working with Marsha to use these works (and others) in the exhibition to build personal connections with, and among, their intended audiences. He described the artworks not as artifacts alone, but as “conversation starters” that would invite visitors to share and explore their own memories, traditions, and stories—particularly those around women’s roles in families and communities. Indeed, the exhibition was to feature a studio space where visitors could make their own original prints inspired by the artworks on display.

Marsha thought of David’s work as championing an exhibition’s relationship-building potential. As she noted from her “Carr” file: “Strands: Continuities and Possibilities of One Life,” prepared on August 4th, 2010—a work he finally published through Visitor Studies (Carr, 2011a)—was a detailed exploration of human development that parsed human experiences throughout a lifespan according to such dimensions as belief, education and learning, biology, family, self, society and civic life, and knowledge. In his preliminary work that he shared with valued colleagues, he wrote:

The continuities of one life are simultaneous, interconnected, and likely to be invisible even to the living person.

What does that chart suggest for museums and libraries? Carr always strove to heighten our awareness of the complexities of museum visitors. He counseled greater sensitivity to their life stages, personal situations, fears, questions,and hopes. As he stated alongside the publication of his matrix (2011a)

The function of all cultural institutions is to help us to live more fully within our lives and move them forward, toward something we have not yet seen or language we have not yet spoken; toward breaking through, the deepening, the burning of the mind, the transformation of the imagined into the possible.

Carr described (2014) the museum mandate to be “environments of possibility” in service to the “unfinished, open lives of all people.” Championing museums and libraries as trusted pillars of democracy, Carr exhorted those of us who work in cultural institutions to live up to that trust through our programs, exhibitions, and collections, as well as through our openness to conversation and reflection, and through showing courage and vulnerability. Carr raised the bar on the centrality and significance of our museums. He charted new horizons for us to reach. He made those horizons not only possible, but a requirement in a world of heightened economic inequality, vast demographic shifts, and political polarity.

Increasingly, Carr had been writing about our cultural institutions as essential instruments of democracy. He described museums and libraries as places where we could become something together, sharing our questions and uncertainties amidst the evidence of other times and other lives that struggled as well. He urged museums and libraries to assert their roles as safe places where people were unafraid to speak and to share discoveries and reflections. If we were to accomplish this, he wrote (2011a, xxiii),

If we teach ourselves to speak, listen, and think together, our places… will open us to ourselves…and move us toward the possibilities of self-rescue that every civilization needs.

Carr was a generous and gracious man in all that he did. He was a teacher of the finest kind, one who sought to construct the situations in which we form our most important questions. Carr was an avid reader who often urged his students to read outside their fields as well as within. His books are filled with references to other writers: poets, philosophers, historians, psychologists—even the occasional politician. His book Open Conversations gives the reader an entire chapter of what he called Provocative Texts, and his first book The Promise of Cultural Institutions includes a full appendix of reading recommendations, personally annotated by Carr. In the latter, Carr urged his readers to give these selected texts full and continuous attention. These inclusions are the gifts of a master teacher.

In recent years, Carr invited his readers and students to “Think with me,” an incitement that became his motto. What respect he was giving to other learners, asking them to join him in the process of inquiry and investigation! Carr’s books were filled with questions we might ask ourselves on such learning journeys. At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he introduced library and information science students to museums by challenging them with questions to help them take the first step toward an intentional use of a museum. One such question that has helped Beverly in her work with museums was, simply, “What should happen here?”

Carr’s teaching and mentoring was not limited to his students. Carol (Bossert) notes that the importance of having a mentor wasn’t emphasized when she began her museum career, but she knew she needed a group of friends, people who supported and inspired her. Carr became her friend when they met at The Newark Museum while Carr was teaching at Rutgers University. She notes that their conversations were sparked by a shared love of learning, debating, and interpreting John Cotton Dana. When Carol was new to the museum profession and Newark was her first “real job,” she was eager to learn everything she could about museum work. And in that space, Carr stepped in as her guide. Carol said, “I had a good grasp of the mechanics of my job, but David taught me about my purpose.” “The purpose of a museum is to attract, entertain, arouse curiosity and thus promote learning.” This quote from John Cotton Dana (1917) is indelibly etched in Carol’s mind. She used it in every speech, funding proposal and presentation for almost ten years. She confessed that she loved reading Dana’s words, but Carr helped interpret that meaning and give it shape for the end of the millennium. Through Carr, Carol came to appreciate that museums are more than the sum of their collections, exhibitions, and programs. Carr posited that museums are essential waystations on our individual journeys, what he called our unfinished lives.

[A]ll cultural institutions, all structures of common memory, all situations constructed for the crafting of truth by ordinary people—all share one living genius. They are about the human thing, the being a human being, the living a life that wants, that abrades itself with questions and heals itself by learning (Carr, 2004).

Beverly reminded us that as the postscript to his email account called “carr.conversations,” Carr wrote the following:

My work is to assist educators and leaders to interpret what cultural institutions mean to their users, to build collaborative possibilities, and to advocate for the value of a nourished public imagination in a democracy. Every library and museum needs to invite its users to come to the edge of their experiences and then step beyond.”

This statement is a remarkable description of a gifted mind and a purposeful life.

PERSONAL TRIBUTES

I am deeply grateful to David Carr for many things—for his friendship, for his deep understanding of museums and libraries as nurturing environments, his faith in potential of a learning society, his generosity in sharing ideas and insights with students of all kinds and all ages, and for his insistent invitation to think with him and relentlessly pose the essential questions that enable our capacity to grow and learn.

—BEVERLY SHEPPARD

The reverse of David’s bookmark promises (and advocates for) “open conversations, active engagements, mutual encounters, purposeful experiences, and promising unknowns.” David never failed to live up to those promises.

—MARSHA SEMMEL

Reading David’s essays or listening to him speak was like a metaphorical soft blanket (David loved metaphor) that protected my jagged edges during times in my career where the busyness of my job blocked out satisfaction in my accomplishments.

David’s words reminded me why my work mattered.

He gave me courage to express my ideas and led me to new questions. He was one of my first guests on The Museum Life and continued to send me ideas for new guests and promote the show until near his passing. With David’s passing, his rule speaks to me louder than ever: “Rescue the user. Every learner needs an advocate, needs to hear and trust a nearby voice.” David was such an advocate. May I honor his memory by being one too.

—CAROL BOSSERT

David Carr’s Contributions to Curator:

Carr, David. 2003. “Observing Collaborations between Libraries and Museums.” Curator: The Museum Journal 46(2): 123–29.

Carr, David. 2008. “Confluence.” Curator: The Museum Journal 51(3): 241–51.

Carr, David. 2005. “Five Thoughtful Exercises.” Curator: The Museum Journal 48(3): 237–45.

Carr, David. 2001. “MAKING MUSEUMS MATTER: By Stephen E. Weil. Washington.” Curator: The Museum Journal 44(3): 314–18.

Carr, David. 2010. “An Aspect of the Infinite: New Zealand Talks.” Curator: The Museum Journal 53(1): 51–70.

Carr, David. 2014. “Review: Capital Culture: J. Carter Brown, the National Gallery of Art, and the Reinvention of the Museum Experience by Neil Harris. ” Curator: The Museum Journal 57(3): 381–86.

Smith, Jeffrey K., and David Carr. 2001. “In Byzantium.” Curator: The Museum Journal 44(4): 335–54.