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Visitors read narratives and listen to audio clips at the In|Dignity exhibition at the CSUSB Anthropology Museum Photo Credit: CSUSB

An exhibition on difference and dignity bridges Inland Empire communities

One of the first projects funded through our Humanities for All Project Grant program launched in 2017, In|Dignity, is an interpretive exhibit organized by the California State University, San Bernardino Anthropology Museum. In|Dignity  incorporates photo portraits and stories contributed by Inland Empire residents who have experienced marginalization as a result of being categorized, in various ways, outside the social “norm.” California Humanities recently talked with the co-curators, Assistant Professor in Anthropology and Museum Director Arianna Huhn, and Assistant Professor in Sociology Annika Anderson, about their hopes for the project and what they have accomplished to date.

California Humanities: What is your project?

Arianna Huhn and Annika Anderson: In|Dignity is a community-based museum exhibition at that Cal State San Bernardino (CSUSB) Anthropology Museum. We (Arianna Huhn and Annika Anderson) co-curated the show, which opened in January of this year. The exhibition aims to create a space to harness the power of storytelling to promote empathy, support, and acceptance for individuals whose identities, experiences, and appearances fall outside of societal norms. We do this by sharing first-person narratives and personal mementos of 43 Inland Empire residents, alongside documentary photography by CSUSB art professor Thomas McGovern. Audio clips from the interviews on which the narratives are based are also available, along with eight “concept cards” that provide a self-guided tour of the exhibition in line with various popular topics, such as criminal injustice, immigration, and #MeToo. The highlights of this exhibition include: bringing stories to the center that are often at the margins of our consideration; adding dimensionality to portraits of diversity by laying bare the intersectionality of individual identities along with the range of perspectives and experiences amongst members of groups often portrayed as monolithic; and evoking through these stories the common shared humanity of us all.

CH: Why did you do this project and what did you hope to accomplish?

AH: Cal State San Bernardino’s Strategic Plan highlights the importance of community engagement and service learning as high impact teaching practices. To this aim, the campus Office of Community Engagement provides a lot of support for faculty to undertake projects that bring students out into the community, and that bring our community to the campus.

From left to right, Thomas McGovern (project photographer), Arianna Huhn (project co-curator and Director of the Anthropology Museum), and Annika Anderson (project co-curator). Photo Credit: CSUSB

When I was hired as the Director of the Anthropology Museum in 2015, I immediately began working to bring this mission to bear on my work—opening a narrative-based exhibition exploring memories of childhood in 2016. The exhibition’s unconventional pairing of first-person narrative and personal objects unexpectedly evoked a strong emotional response from visitors.

With In|Dignity, I aimed to use the same techniques to take on a weightier topic. I was inspired by hearing the word “indignity” in the context of a conversation about racial injustice, and began to play with the double-entendre that emerged by splitting the word with a bar into “in|dignity.” I asked Annika to help with designing interview questions for the project, based on her research acumen on topics related to diversity and inequality. When it became clear that the project was developing into something bigger than we’d initially anticipated, the two of us decided to partner as co-curators for the show, aiming to use the museum venue and our voices as professional social scientists to share with others the beauty that we see in the human experience.

CH: What have been the results? What has been the impact on participants, visitors, the broader community, and the campus? 

AH: One of the greatest accomplishments of In|Dignity has been student participation at every step, from concept development, to participant recruitment, to interviewing, to data coding, to curation, to installation. We have also had instructors from departments including English, Sociology, Anthropology, Social Work, and Education incorporate the exhibition into student coursework. Our Department of Theatre Arts has been using the exhibition to inspire a performance that will debut in December.

In|Dignity visitor posing for a friend’s camera at the In|Dignity selfie station. Blindfolds are provided to allow individuals to mimic the exhibition advertisement, where black rectangles cover the eyes of exhibition participants. The pictures are accompanied by the words “Look me in the Eyes, See Beyond the Stereotype, Embrace my Humanity
Photo Credit: Arianna Huhn

CH: How many people has the exhibition reached?

AH: All in all, we estimate that over 400 students have been directly involved with the exhibition in one way or another. What has been most inspiring for me in this experience has been overseeing an introductory anthropology class of 220 students who piloted project interview questions by recording a guided conversation with a family member, friend, or stranger. So many reported to me that the experience was life-changing, as they had never before taken the time to understand a person’s perspectives and experiences at that level.

CH: What has been the impact on participants, visitors, the broader community, and the campus? 

AH & AA: The reach of In|Dignity has gone far beyond the campus community, as well. We have received tour groups from across the region, and individual visitors from across the country, as logged in our visitor comment book. Among the most common phrases recorded in visitor comments are “powerful,” “emotional,” and “inspiring.” Many visitors left comments that make clear the impact that the exhibition had on them.

One visitor from Riverside wrote, “As a young Latino wanting to join the military, it pains me to learn and read about military members before me experiencing the oppression because of our heritage. Thank you for the exhibition, I’m deeply moved.”

A visitor from Los Angeles recorded these thoughts: “Beautiful exhibition. As someone who works at a museum I find it captivating the way everyone featured embodies their story and the impact they had on me as I read them was just amazing.”

Many visitors also left comments of appreciation for the stories reflecting and reverberating their own experiences. A visitor from Vietnam, by way of Louisville, Kentucky, offered, “I really appreciate having an exhibition that portrays these thought-provoking stories. I could identify with a lot of these. Thank you.”

A visitor from Banning touchingly wrote, “Thank you to all who have made this for what it is. I’ve been coming here for the past three weeks and if it has made me realize just one thing, it’s that I am not alone.”

In|Dignity Catalog cover, designed by CSUSB graphic design student Tony Estrada.

CH: What are your plans for the future? Do you plan to continue or extend the project?

AH & AA: Graduating CSUSB student Tony Estrada recently finished the project of crafting an exhibition catalog for In|Dignity, through which the powerful stories from the exhibition will continue their impact, even though the exhibition will soon close on December 15. We are preparing a book proposal based on the catalog, which we hope to publish as an open access reader for high school and undergraduate college students. We are, in fact, in the process of finalizing a partnership with the San Bernardino County Unified School District to develop a mobile version of the exhibition to tour to area high schools beginning in the 2019-2020 academic year. We are collaborating with the county to develop an accompanying curriculum, and we hope to curate an “In|Dignity 2.0” based on student-written narratives modeled after the original show. We are looking for academics who would be interested in partnering with us to measure curriculum impact on student empathy, school bullying, and self-esteem.

In the more immediate future, we are hosting closing events for the exhibition on December 14 and 15. We are thrilled that the Department of Theatre Arts will be performing their devised piece based on the exhibition at 7 p.m. on Friday, December 14, and again at 11 a.m. on  Saturday, December 15. Both shows are immediately followed by a reception in the Anthropology Museum. The reception on December 15 will officially close the exhibition, and many community participants featured in the exhibition will be present. Exhibition catalogs will be on sale both days for $25. Tickets for each performance are free.

In|Dignity remains open Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. until the show closes on December 15. The Anthropology Museum is located on the third floor of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences on the CSUSB Campus. The museum is free and open to the public. CSUSB parking is $6/vehicle on weekdays, and $3/vehicle on weekends.

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