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Six questions with Dr. David Carr

david_carrOn February 26th, the Smithsonian Libraries will host a free lecture with Dr. David Carr, “Questions for an Open Cultural Institution: Thinking Together in Provocative Places”.  To get to know Dr. Carr a bit better, we asked him a few questions and his insightful answers are below. We hope that you enjoy learning more about Dr. Carr and that you have the opportunity to join us (either in person or online) for his talk on the 26th!

Do you think the role of cultural institutions has changed since you began researching and writing on the topic? If so, how?

The role of libraries has been steady, but I believe that the role of museums has evolved from the decorative to the essential.  Regardless of their differences, they are equally challenged by the same mix of elements in cultures everywhere:  fear and mistrust of intellect and difference, discouragement as an unintended consequence of schooling, pervasive oversimplification of the complex, an inability to listen with compassion, and a widespread desire to be entertained.  People are hesitant to engage in difficult conversations and that is what cultural institutions exist to offer in an array of forms.  As a result, I might say with hope that the role of cultural institutions is evolving to include ways to excite public courage to engage deeply with our lives, experiences and aspirations.  We still require an open place for contemporary thinking, the best thinking people are capable of doing, with all the slowness and deliberation we need, and with all the magnificent information and depth great cultural institutions can bring to the conversation.  So, from the Smithsonian Institution to the public library in Ferguson, Missouri, libraries and museums share an idea to address:  the need to stimulate the capacity of public thought.  If each of us is required to craft truths for ourselves, it is the fearless mind that moves with greatest success.  That kind of courage is part of the democratic motive as well.  There is an unspoken link between curiosity and courage, as many lives of discovery can demonstrate.   We need to speak about this link.


What do you read?

Slowly, I am reading all the fiction of Colm Toibin (most recent, The Blackwater Lightship), Colum McCann (TransAtlantic), Richard Ford (Let Me Be Frank with You), and Anthony Doerr (All the Light We Cannot See).  Also the short story masters, Alice Munro and William Trevor, and an endless list of essayists.  My larger reading passion is crime fiction, and I have recently rediscovered an Irish writer, Stuart Neville; with the Lewis novels of Peter May, and the Troy novels of John Lawton, the voices are incomparable.  Here are three nonfiction books waiting for me:  The Risk of Reading by Robert P. Waxler, Creating Capabilities by Martha C. Nussbaum, and The Heart of Everything That Is by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin.  There are hundreds more, hundreds.  (Sighing now …  )


What books would you recommend to folks currently working in cultural institutions, for insight or inspiration?

An appendix in my first book, The Promise of Cultural Institutions, offers a list of the works that satisfied me most as I began to think and teach in earnest, emphasizing psychology and educational theory.  And here are two recent books by people I admire, grounded, smart, and widely experienced teachers and museum thinkers:  The Museum Effect:  How Museums, Libraries, and Cultural Institutions Educate and Civilize Society by Jeffrey K. Smith, and Teaching in the Art Museum:  Interpretation as Experience by Rika Burnham and Elliott Kai-Kee.  It’s not a book with a museum focus, but I recently found The Book of Trees:  Visualizing Branches of Knowledge by Manuel Lima, and I think every museum professional should read it.  (See also:  a very promising new series, The Best American Infographics.)

I always told my students that reading outside their field of study matters most.  (Librarians and museum professionals are beautifully prepared for an interdisciplinary reading life.) Consequently, in place of most professional literature, I encourage people to find books and essays that offer insights to different situations of life and growth. Here are two examples that ought to offer many moments to reflect:  A Paradise Built in Hell by Rebecca Solnit, Handing One Another Along:  Literature and Social Reflection by Robert Coles.  Sherry Turkle has also written a set of books worth talking about:  Alone Together:  Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other; Evocative Objects:  Things We Think With; and The Inner History of DevicesThe Smithsonian bookshops ought to be fully stocked with the small volumes of the Oxford University Press series of Very Short Introductions.  In anticipation of my talk on February 26, I am using the little volumes on Thought, Information, Knowledge and – the longest one – Nothing, to prepare myself.  And still two more:  Our Common Wealth, a small book by Jonathan Rowe, and George Johnson’s Fire in the Mind:  Science, Faith, and the Search for Order

Let the reading groups convene!


You’ve worn many hats – from teacher, librarian, author. What have been the most rewarding moments in your career?

As Mae West, the icon of lascivious movie behavior in the early part of the last century, said, “I used to be Snow White, but I drifted.”  In the same way, I am a teacher who drifted to libraries, and then to museums, and who still drifts among them.  Your question causes me to realize that I have never left any of those roles (or hats) behind, and that I am fortunate to have lived (and worn) them all.  You could add “museum observer,” “reader’s advisor,” and “cultural institution advocate” to the list.  All of them have informed my professional work for nearly fifty years, and each has given me unanticipated rewards and hopes.  Two roles have lasted and prevailed:  reader and advocate.  The most rewarding moments have come from placing books (and the promise of reading) in the hands and minds of my students and other reading adults.  In North Carolina, I often traveled the state to lead book discussions for the state Humanities Council, speaking as one of its “road scholars.”  Apart from admiration for individual titles, my advocacy was for the value of the reader’s informed imagination, especially shaped by the insights drawn from reading fiction and speaking together afterward.  Even now, the readers I meet confirm how I have spent my life.  I now like to say that I am an advocate for the value of a nourished public imagination in a democracy.  But “teacher” will fit best on my virtual tombstone.   


What advice would you give to aspiring professionals in cultural institutions (librarians, archivists, curators, educators, etc.)?

I think I am most qualified to speak to those who aspire to be librarians, but I would say the same to all who want to serve the living minds of the nation.  We need to provide tools for the intellect, and with them, the trust that it is possible to navigate the course of one life in a complex world.  The greatest professional satisfaction is likely to be found in work with the common lived experiences of users:  the questions they carry with them and those they discover as they go.  I mean the large questions about ethics and choices; the ones that don’t go away.  Each person has a capacity for memory and knowledge, the potential to discover continuities with others, an openness to surprise and astonishment, and a fundamental vocabulary for having a conversation about public ideas.  When I was just starting out as a school teacher, John W. Gardner wrote that our society needed to learn how to renew itself, to recognize its issues and address them, improvising to deal with problems we could not anticipate, brought about by change we could not fully understand.  Five decades later, self renewal is still a useful concept.  In 1968 we created many more lasting problems than we resolved and it often surprises me that they remain. But Gardner wrote that, even in the presence of the insoluble, a “Driving, creative effort … is the breath of life, for a civilization or an individual.” (No Easy Victories, p. 30) Reading this not long after it was written caused me to wonder how to inspire that “driving, creative effort” in such a way that we might sustain that breath of life.  Still worth some work, and welcome to it.


What are you working on now? What is your next project?

I am half done writing a book that once seemed obvious to write but has proven to be difficult.  It’s a tracing of thoughts through the journals I have kept and other unpublished writing I have done since becoming a museum observer in 1983.  What did I think then, as I asked my guiding questions about collections, interpretations, and knowledge as I found it?  What did I observe?  How do those old journal observations look now?  The half I have written is about my intentions and preparations, far more detailed than I had intended it to be.  The half to be written will be based on several hundred pages of naïve and simple thinking.  The second half may not be worth writing, but perhaps it will become something else. 

 The very first pages of my observations drew on a visit to the Smithsonian.  Here is a little passage from three decades ago:  “Here and nearby, I found myself writing many notes in natural history collections dedicated to unfamiliar themes and specimens, not because I wanted to capture everything I saw, but because I wanted to understand the structure of what I was seeing.  In this case, I saw the presentation of a process that was by definition abstract in the museum, but deeply physical in nature.  What I found absorbing was the transfer of my attention from singular examples (crickets, toads, birds) to an undeniable universal.  This universal idea, a process with variations and examples, could then become an explanatory tool in other parts of the museum.  With its clear and demonstrable logics, this part of the museum could serve as its conceptual center.”  However, I think this book may remain unfinished, so I can read more literary and crime fiction.

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