Interview with Lisa Yun Lee of the National Public Housing Museum


Dr. Lisa Yun Lee is one of  Chicago’s guiding giant minds and hearts. She is the Director of the National Public Housing Museum (NPHM), which is working to renovate and transform the last building of the 1938 Jane Addams Homes—public housing that stood near the current site of University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). Her wide-ranging contributions to radical scholarship include her book Dialectics of the Body: Corporeality in the Philosophy of Theodor Adorno (Routledge, 2004).

Prior to working with the NPHM she was the Director of Jane Addams Hull House Museum, and then Director of UIC’s School of Art and Art History. Nick Wylie had the bashful honor of interviewing one of his heroes about her next big heroic undertaking.

“The National Public Housing Museum is the only cultural institution devoted to telling the story of public housing in the United States. Its mission is to preserve, promote, and propel the right of all people to a place where they can live and prosper—a place to call home.”

    This mission is so compelling, but it’s impossible to squeeze everything about such a grand project in to a short, comprehensive couple of phrases. When you read the National Public Housing Museum (NPHM) mission today, what do you feel compelled to add?

I love the bold, urgent, and insistent nature of the Museum’s mission, but honestly, the missions of all non-profit organizations are all stupidly narrow! It’s important to understand that the 501(c)3 rule requiring non-profits to have precise missions is about a tax code, and not about vision, values, or social transformation. The requirement that non-profit organizations express clear and discrete missions has its roots in efforts to stem the wide-reaching freedom dreams and ambitions of civil rights organizations in the late 60’s. This happened just at the point when people had started to truly build movements—and institutions to support those movements—that were making critical links between militarism, white supremacy and capitalism1. For this reason, missions too often create barriers between institutions and individuals who are working to achieve social justice, and make it harder to make the necessary connections that we need to make in order to actually solve social problems. And so, while the mission of NPHM is on point, it is important to remember that it is impossible to work for housing justice without paying close attention and becoming engaged in what is happening in public schools, policing, public transportation, environmental justice and public health.

I loved the mission that Jane Addams embraced for the Hull-House Settlement in 1898: “Solidarity with the human race.” I mean how wonderful is that? It is what allowed that organization to effect such far-reaching and critical social transformation, because they were doing their work on so many different fronts in as many spaces with the widest group of people possible.
But now to really answer your question, one thing that our current missing doesn’t capture is the work that the National Public Housing Museum is doing to put the public back into “public policy.” We are finding creative ways to bridge arts and culture and innovative public policy through storytelling and the arts, which opens up policy in exciting ways. Our newest installation that opens January 8th, 2019 called How to be a Housing Justice Voter, which we created in collaboration with the captivating Chicago artist William Estrada, engages in this work in really exciting ways.

Prior to working with the NPHH, you were the Director of Jane Addams Hull House Museum, and then Director of University of Illinois at Chicago’s School of Art and Art History. The museum is to be housed at the last building standing from the 1938 Jane Addams Homes. How might contemporary art and the legacy of the Jane Addams’ work be in conversation the new museum?

Well obviously, I can’t go five minutes without quoting Jane Addams or referring to that history! There are infinite ways in which the history of the Hull-House infuses everything I do and how I see the world. But maybe I will just share three ways. All of these also intersect with the role of art in the NPHM as well.

First of all, the NPHM passionately believes in the importance of the arts and culture to change the world. The work of collectively re-making this world, demands art and artists to help provoke, challenge and unleash our radical imaginations!

Secondly, while one might think a museum about “public housing” is primarily about housing, but it is equally committed to embracing, holding up and  understanding the idea of the “public.” The importance of fighting for a public sphere worthy of its name is something that I learned from Hull-House history and Hull-House’s work to create a radical participatory democracy, and from my years at UIC, an urban public university committed to the creation of knowledge for the public good.

And third, this might sound a little strange, but one of the most useful and powerful ways of understanding social change is to conceive of it as a sort of durational performance art. This is something that I really got from Shannon Jackson, the Associate Vice Chancellor for the Arts + Design at UC Berkeley where she is also the Cyrus and Michelle Hadidi Professor of Rhetoric and of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies. Shannon is a brilliant scholar of performance studies, but also  an institution-builder, she wrote her dissertation  and published a book about it, called Lines of Activity: Performance, Historiography, and Hull-House Domesticity (2000).

The insights of this book have given me a permission to blur the lines between how museums have traditionally treated art vs. artifacts, the work of the artist and the work of historians, and what is considered the domain and work of art museums and of history museums. I have always wished art museums would be more ambitious in the histories they tell and the social change they believe they can effect, and I have also wished history museums could be more artful and creative in the ways that they engage with past and the ways they make the issues they address relevant to people’s contemporary lives. The NPHM has been a thrilling space to do this work.

The NPHM is a one of ‘site of conscience’—historic sites, museums and memory initiatives that connect past struggles to today’s movements for human rights including fights for transitional justice. Why is it important that the museum be a site of conscience, and what transitional justice struggles do you see today in confronting the history and future of public housing in Chicago and beyond?

To be a site of conscience, and to align ourselves in a coalition along with some of the most important historic sites in the world, including places such as District 6 Museum in South Africa, the Gulag Museum in Russia, and the Tenement Museum in NYC, is to be a part of a collective call to activate the power of place, and to use memory as an act of resistance. We live in a society that suffers from historical amnesia, and so in order to preserve history, there need to be connections made between history and the contemporary issues that people face in their everyday lives. For the NPHM, this means that in addition to telling the history of public housing in the United States, we address issues around housing insecurity, one of the most critical issues facing the vast majority of people in these times. We need to become astute students of history and ask questions like: how did it get this way, and how might it be otherwise? While we honor the commitment to local space and people, the Museum is also about more than a particular physical space and place. It is a wake-up call to build a more capacious and inclusive foundation for our nation’s shared histories. It is also a wake-up call to include stories that bear witness to an American history that is both brilliantly ambitious and deeply troubled and includes on the one hand a commitment to the common good, and on the other hand a history of dreams deferred for too many people.

A big part of the museum’s identity seems to include telling the joyful stories of individuals who lived in public housing. Can you talk about balancing these important narratives with the site of conscience work—the recognitions of oppressions, disinvestment, and evictions that public housing residents have perennially faced?

As a social justice museum, we are committed to challenging the most notorious and nefarious stories about poverty and public housing, which are symptoms of racist, sexist and classist views of people and of history. This means including stories of joy, excellence, resilience, and overcoming. However, as one of our board members Crystal Palmer, who grew up in Henry Horner Homes always says, “This Museum needs to also be about the good, bad and the ugly of public housing.” Francine Washington, another board member who lived at Stateway Gardens and has been one of the most vocal activists around housing put it another way “This museum needs to include the stories of our in-laws and our out-laws.” We need to be truthful about the reasons people were forced to be so resilient, and the obstacles that people faced and often did not overcome.

I recently learned (rather late) that Jane Addams was queer and that you had a hand in bringing that history to light at Hull House, displaying the long-hidden portrait of Addams’ “wife” Mary Rozet Smith, along with a visitor-engaging didactic system to see how people would like to see this queer history discussed. Thank you for that. Can you reflect on that moment now that we’re 10 years out? Are there similar hidden histories that you want to investigate and uncover with the NPHM?

Thanks for acknowledging the work of the Museum as one small part of the the work of a generation of scholars and activists committed to excavate and tell the queer history of Hull-House and Jane Addams! I am fond of quoting John Berger and his declaration: “Never again will a single story be told as if it is the only one.” The history of public housing includes so many compelling stories that have been left out of the mainstream narrative about public housing.

First and foremost, I am excited about the vernacular and quotidien stories the Museum will excavate and tell. Too often, people who are forced into the margins of history, including women, people of color, queer people, and people living in poverty, by forces of power and privilege (aka white heteronormative history), are relegated to stories of exceptionalism or stories of tragedy. Everyday history is something I want to reclaim.

We have started to do this with everyday objects and by inviting public housing residents to write their own labels. You can see some of this work at our temporary exhibition site at 625 North Kingsbury. They are the best museum labels you will ever read!

And finally, I want to mention the work that Associate Director Robert Smith is doing with our Entrepreneurship Hub that is inspired by stories of resilience and the significant history of innovative entrepreneurship and alternative economies in public housing communities, from unlicensed barbershops to beauty salons to candy ladies. For example, in 1944, residents of Altgeld Gardens built a cooperative store, which, by 1949 returned several hundred thousand dollars to customers and stockholders! It was the largest coop in the US. We will have a museum store that functions as a groundbreaking cooperative business co-owned and run with a core group of residents. The Hub will also include a Social Justice Business School, offering a curriculum of classes on economic development, and something we are calling Open Hours, drop-in pro-bono business services for residents provided by designers, architects, and small business owners with expertise to offer new entrepreneurs. We plan to serve up to 60 small businesses per year.

When can people look forward to being able to check out the museum? How can they help support your work to open it?

All the architectural plans are ready to be submitted for zoning, and we are almost done curating most of the museum, including the restoration and interpretation of the beautiful Edgar Miller WPA sculptures will go back into the courtyard of the building, and planning for the first contemporary art exhibition with the extraordinary painter Nathaniel Mary Quinn that will be in our rotating gallery space. We are actively raising the last 12 million dollars for this project and we hope to be open within a year and a half. I have never been more hopeful and excited about a project, and we are looking for all sorts of capital-social, intellectual, cultural and financial!! As the great Margaret Mead has said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

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