Former AAMI President Swarupa Anila shared these remarks during the 2019 AAMI Annual Convening at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Interpretation happens in that space between a work of art and visitors. You work inside of that space – of facilitating meaning-making. That space is a site of becoming – visitors become, art becomes, museums become.

Swarupa Anila, AAMI President (2018-2023)

Good morning AAMI!

I can’t quite express how incredible it feels to welcome this group of colleagues to this museum and play in the world of interpretation. 

Thank you for being here at the Detroit Institute of Arts. 

I’d first like to take a moment to situate us where we are—here in Detroit, here at the DIA—and talk about the idea of seeing and envisioning needs before most others. That is, finding barriers and figuring out how to see a future beyond them. 

I’ve been puzzling through this for a while, so when I was watching the movie Moneyball the other day, I was captivated by the line, “The first one through the wall always gets bloody.” I pictured determined people who pounded against walls, over and again, broke their noses—bloodied themselves—to break through to a path no one else around them could see. Like art museum interpretation. 

Over the past few years of this convening, we’ve learned that interpretation lives in different areas of museums—sometimes under marketing, or exhibitions, or curatorial. But the vast majority comes out of education and learning. That’s the case here.

In 2013, the DIA became the first American art museum to create a department of interpretation with a director-level position and staff dedicated to the work of interpretation. Today, there are nearly a dozen across the country. Who brought us to where we are? What did that path look like here at the DIA? 

Most American art museums began structuring Education departments in earnest in the 1950s. 

When did the DIA’s education department form? I’ll share a bit from the minutes of an Arts Commission board meeting:

“As pointed out last year, one of the crying needs is a department of museum instruction, to interpret the collections to the public, to take charge of teachers and classes from the schools, and to guide them in the understanding the treasures of the Museum, to assist the art student, designer, artisan and manufacturer by placing at their disposal the objects in the collection of use to them and to generally devote themselves to building up in Detroit an appreciation of art and its significance in the everyday life of the people.”

This was written in 1919 on the formation of the Education department at the DIA, a full 100 years ago.

In your institutions, when was the first position designed to be dedicated to the work of interpretation and interpretive planning? 

When did it happen here at the DIA? Let me take you to another time. 

  • The top song on the pop charts was “Don’t Speak” by No Doubt.
  • An African American woman named Keshia Williams got national attention when she used her body to shield a Nazi sympathizer from attack by counter protesters at a KKK rally. 
  • A never-before recorded cyclone formed over Lake Huron.
  • And the pop culty movie favorite Jerry Maguire knocked audiences out with the line, “You complete me.”

Almost as if on cue Nancy Jones, DIA Director of Education looked around the then-department of education to see what would complete us. On seeing a new need emerging here and in the field, she re-shaped one of the educator position responsibilities to specialize in interpretation and hired Jennifer Czajkowski.

The year was 1996—23 years ago. 

Because she’s here, I want to recognize Nancy Jones, for being a first. For many broken noses, for breaking down walls so we can be here today. She has influenced your work—whether you have been aware of it or not.

So began the then-radical work of bringing visitor needs into the planning processes for installations and systematizing visitor-centeredness as our practice.

This informed the 2007 reinstallation of the majority of the DIA’s collections and galleries. Jennifer Czajkowski—another incomparable visionary—led a team of us in developing interpretive plans and new interpretive engagements for the permanent collection based in

  • Narrativizing structures through the use of big ideas and visitor outcomes
  • Relevancy through humanized themes that punctuate art historical ones
  • Proximity through thoughtful placement and design
    • There was period of the early 2000s when there were great efforts to raise funds for education and interactivity in “Learning Centers” separate from the art. Nancy Jones stated firmly, “The art is the center for learning.”
  • Accessibility and complexity through labels that present complex ideas labels through simple, straightforward language
  • Engagement through head-, hearts-, minds-, and—yes—hands-on encounters with art in the galleries
  • Visitor voice through visitor evaluation and opportunities for visitor participation and expression. 
  • Multiplicity of meaning though interdisciplinarity and multiple voice and perspectives

All are underpinned by reciprocity—looped learning that meant we recognized that visitors learn from us but that we also learn from them (as we know, intellectuals come with and without degrees). We acknowledge the power of their meaning-making repertoires to inform new constructions of knowledge and that that depends—fundamentally—on our work to make space for their participation in their museum.

Over the years after 2007, we stretched ourselves. What comes after visitor-centeredness, what lies beyond, what comes next? We took our visitor-centered practices further to develop community-engaged interpretive planning. New walls, new bloody noses, new breakthroughs. 

Most recently with the reinstallation of the Asian galleries in 2018—and for the first time—we co-created by including 11 members of the community directly on the concept team. Through the course of interpretive planning and development we engaged more than 70 people in focus groups, almost 50 through community consultations. Altogether more than 150 people outside of the museum, and most from Asian communities, participated in the making of the new Asian galleries. This makes the Detroit Institute of Arts the first American encyclopedic museum to engage community to such a profound degree and scope for its permanent collection galleries. Our community members made the galleries theirs; the galleries are theirs.

Performing this critical practice means deconstruction, constantly breaking through the walls of our own perceptions and notions of what art museums are, in order to re-envision what they can be. These exercises come out of a very specific place. Scholar and cultural critic Gayatri Spivak comments:,

That’s what de-construction is about, right? It’s not just destruction. It’s also construction. It’s critical intimacy, not critical distance. So you actually speak from inside. That’s deconstruction.  My teacher Paul de Man once said to another very great critic, Fredric Jameson, “Fred, you can only deconstruct what you love.” Because you are doing it from the inside, with real intimacy. You’re kind of turning it around. It’s that kind of critique.

Critique comes from a space of radical love. 

So today and tomorrow. As you go through the museum, you will see the “things”—labels, videos, flip label quizzes, Eye-spies, etc. with the art. You won’t see the system of thinking that puts those things into a framework of engaged discovery and learning—the interpretive plan that looks holistically at visitor experiences. But you’ll see when an experience comes together and when it doesn’t. You may notice that we are uneven. 

You all know that there are often many more projects than interpretive planners to work on them, so like all of you, we try to be strategic about where, when, and how we apply this valuable resource. We’ve developed some rough descriptors/rubrics to help us with this consideration. You’ll see spaces that are

  • visitor-accessible—curatorial or art historical ideas are translated, made understandable
  • visitor-friendly—we use our best professional knowledge to structure interpretive plans and engagements
  • visitor-centered—we sought relevancy using evaluation, and with visitors
  • visitor-centered, community-engaged—installations are fully formed with visitors and audiences

You’ll see the spectrum here. 

We are visitor-centered and sharpen our learning through reflective practice. So we welcome feedback, comments, questions, challenge from visitors—and you, our colleagues. We invite the radical love of critique.

One final note. Interpretation happens in that space between a work of art and visitors. You work inside of that space—of facilitating meaning-making. That space is a site of becoming—visitors become, art becomes, museums become. 

Not surprisingly, the creation of that space is among the most contested—and therefore among the most meaningful—kinds of museum work there is. Understanding, researching, shaping, and contributing to a discipline around the creation of that space is why we are here. 

In terms of that broader sightline—of seeing a need, seeing a future and building for it—I couldn’t be more thrilled at the formation of AAMI. You’re part of this, we’re a part of this. I’ll look forward to seeing where you take AAMI in these 2 days, in the next year, and in the next decades.

Thank you for being here. I’m excited to learn with and from you in this great network of collaborators.

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