Rethinking

During a recent trip to the Minneapolis Institute of Art (MIA), I was surprised by a curator’s note about a sculpture in the Native American art gallery.

She said she’d reconsidered what she’d written about the sculpture years before. I’d just begun to read the note when a friend called me away, so I don’t know the exact points the curator made. 

To me, the actual content of her note didn’t matter as much as the phenomenon it represented. I was struck by her admission—that an institution like a museum would acknowledge the need to reassess. I also appreciated her basic statement—she sees things differently now.

Since the late 1970s when I became an adult, many Americans’ views have evolved regarding race, gender identity, sexual harassment, and so much more. Marijuana use was flat-out illegal in the 1970s, but now recreational use is legal in 18 states, and a number of other states permit medical marijuana. Until 2015, same sex marriage was illegal in many states. 

A lot of widely held views from 40, 30, 20, and 10 years ago have caused immeasurable harm. 

Pain caused by ignorance is real even if the person or institution didn’t intend to be hurtful, but that’s a different category of wrong from meanness or a stubborn refusal to learn as new insights become available. Intention matters. 

Historical context also matters. I’ve abandoned many views that seemed mainstream years ago. I know better now. 

This is a small personal example, but when our sons were babies more than 30 years ago, we had bumper pads on the crib and covered the boys with blankets. They also had stuffed animals in the crib to keep them company. I wouldn’t do it now, given what we’ve learned about babies smothering and sudden infant death syndrome. I didn’t know better then, but I’ve learned and changed.

Sometime in the last 10 years I read that commenting on someone’s non-European name was ‘othering’. Until it was pointed out, I had no idea. I thought my remarks would be seen as taking an interest in the person. Now I understand those comments are offensive and I no longer say them.

I don’t know what the MIA curator learned—if her perspective about artistic merit broadened or if she gained an enhanced cultural awareness. I’m grateful she acknowledged the change and hope museum-goers don’t judge her on her past views without considering her evolved views.

People do learn, regret, try to improve, and change. I certainly have. I also realize what seems right and appropriate today may very well be judged harshly forty years from now.