April 12 2017 12:20 AM

New MSU Museum director Mark Auslander has stories to tell

Mark Auslander juggles cultural, artistic and scientific interests as the director of Central Washington University's Museum of Culture and the Environment. In July, he will leave that post to take over as director of the MSU Museum.
Photo by Ellen Schattschneider

In spite of all the talk about a post-truth society, Mark Auslander insists that he “is not willing to give up on the truth thing.” But the truth is often unsettled and unsettling.

In July, Auslander, 56, takes over as director of the MSU Museum. He comes to campus with the truth wriggling in his portfolio like a slippery eel.

“How do we create exhibitions around the toughest stuff?” Auslander asked. “How do you create an exhibition around lynching?”

Auslander helped to do just that at Emory University in 2002, in the heart of Georgia, where he worked with the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site on an emotionally wrenching exhibit of lynching postcards, “Without Sanctuary.”

Before that, he was on the team that overhauled the Smithsonian Institution’s old African exhibit, widely decried as a racist relic of great-white-hunter times. The new exhibit, “African Voices,” became a prototype for a community-based museum model he plans to bring to MSU.

On a recent visit to MSU, Auslander talked about museum culture’s big shift from lecturing to listening, from ”voice of God” authority to a flexible fusion of academic expertise and old-fashioned story-telling — a shift he helped to bring about.

Slow release capsule

Picture a stereotypical museum curator, fussing over flint arrows and farmstead furniture, organizing baskets and bones, and you are as far from Auslander’s career profile as you can be.

For Auslander and a whole new cohort of museum directors, the key to doing a controversial exhibit is opening the process up to the community the museum serves.

Recent exhibits at Central Washington University’s Museum of Culture and the Environment, where Auslander is wrapping up his tenure as director, have not shied from controversy.

When wolves were re-introduced into the state of Washington, curators organized listening circles at the museum where ranchers, cowboys and hunters sat across from scientists and environmental activists and debated the issue.

“Everybody had misconceptions about the folks sitting across from them,” Auslander said. “But by the end of it, everybody acknowledged they were decent people and maybe we all had something to learn.”

Auslander prizes open-ended inquiry rather than received truth — a sneaky way to get to bigger truths. “Welcome to the Kuiper Belt,” a current CWU Museum exhibit on new findings on Pluto from the New Horizons probe, ends with a carefully chosen image of the scientists at the moment they see the first pictures of Pluto coming across the screen.

“They realize everything they’ve ever known about Pluto was wrong,” Auslander said. “They’re laughing and they’re hugging each other and crying, and the third graders who visit the exhibit say, ‘Wait a minute. Science isn’t just about memorizing a bunch of stuff?’”

Auslander knows that a lot of the kids who visit the museum are home schooled or come from conservative academies “where they’re not hearing much about Charles Darwin.”

“But in a sense, I don’t care whether or not they leave believing in evolution or not,” he said. “We have injected something in there, a sort of slow release capsule of critical thinking. And they’re going to wake up a few years from now and start questioning all kinds of things.”

“Liberty Denied: Immigration, Detention, Deportation,” a winter 2016 exhibit at CWU Museum, included a detailed a look at the grim lives of two detainees at the 1,500- bed Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, run by the for-profit GEO Corporation under a contract with the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“We’ve done a few exhibitions on immigration and migration,” Auslander said. “We don’t try to tell anybody what to think, but we certainly make sure that in addition to the official line you can get on TV, there are a lot of other voices out there.”

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