Nicole Ivy is an assistant professor of American studies at The George Washington University and a professional futurist. She also formerly served as the director of inclusion for the American Alliance of Museums. Before participating in a Zócalo/Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County event, “Is the Digital Age Making Museums Obsolete?,” Ivy spoke with Zócalo in the green room about the museum she most admires, Philadelphia, and her most influential teachers.
What was the last book you read?
The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin. I don’t usually read books twice unless I have to, but this is a book that I have returned to. I’m such an Afro-Futurism geek.
What does it mean to be a futurist?
It means that you help people tell stories about the kinds of worlds they want. I think that’s a good short answer.
What do you miss most about Philadelphia?
The grittiness. The fact it has all the amenities of an urban place—it’s an urban place—but it hasn’t yet been completely shellacked by hipster polish in the way that New York has. It’s a city of neighborhoods. It’s an historic city, and it’s got so many creative people. It’s a dope place to be.
What was the first museum you ever visited?
I can’t answer that specifically. I can’t remember. I did not go to museums as child. My dad had a picture book of great artists of Western civilization, and so he used to make me identify Rodin and Van Gogh in the house. So, I got my historical foundation on the floor in my living room. I didn’t start going to museums really regularly until I got into graduate school. So, at Yale I started going to the Yale Center for British Art and the Peabody. That’s when I got more interested in museums.
What museum do you admire most?
Right now, the museum that I am most encouraged by is the BMA—the Baltimore Museum of Art. They’ve sold off—or the board has agreed to—sell works of art by Europeans artists to make space for artists of color. I admire that they are an art museum with an actual living artist on the board—Amy Sherald—and she is helping make decisions about the museum. But really, my favorite thing about the museum is it’s free and open to the public. Every time I go in, there are young, queer folk; there are elders; there are people of multiple abilities; there are trans folk on staff, visible. I am always welcome there. It is what I dream a museum can be. It is extremely welcoming and diverse in the most useful sense of the term.
If you turned on your TV now, what channel would most likely be on?
We vacillate between catching up on Steven Universe and Killer Eve. Sandra Oh is so good.
What was your greatest vacation?
In December of 2017 I went to Greece—it was my mom’s 70th birthday, so my mom came with me. And she has not been out of the country before, and she was super nervous. My mom is not extraverted, but she was everyone’s favorite. And so, we went to museums, we walked around. It was a working vacation for me, but my mom and I had never done a trip abroad before, and it was really great to see her there. We ate Greek salad and drank wine every day. It was kind of ridiculous but amazing.
What teacher changed your life?
I got two. I’m a product of a small Catholic school and a rigorous public school education. So, from sixth grade on I went to public school in Jacksonville, Florida. I came into an academic magnet school—James Weldon Johnson Middle School—the first year that magnet schools came to Jacksonville. And it was a big hubbub because Jacksonville is a pretty residentially segregated city and still is. In order to get parents to trust sending their kids to a middle school that was in a predominately stressed, black neighborhood—which was my home neighborhood—they said anyone who went to this middle school could get access to the academic magnet public high school—Stanton College Preparatory School—which, the year after I graduated, was the number one high school in the nation. So, the way that I learned to ask questions, the way that I learned to learn, I learned in public school.
And the two teachers in that process were Ms. Pfaff—not only was her name fun to say but she was my seventh-grade language arts teacher, and she pushed us. She made us read Steinbeck. She set her standards high, and we just met them.
And then the second one is Janet Hall who was my eleventh grade, AP English teacher. Ms. Hall and I are Facebook friends to this day. She and I used to sing Ethel Merman before class. She let me feel free to be a nerd, and she taught me what it was to love language. Shout out to Ms. Hall!
What question do your students ask you most often?
“Can we talk about Green Book?” was one I got yesterday. They ask a lot about why I came to academia from museums. I think they want to know most about what they can do to solve problems. I tell them, “That’s for you to figure out.” I don’t have the answers. I try to tell them to feel empowered to figure something out, to feel empowered to build something. So many of our institutions, the institutions that we inherited, we feel like we have to keep them going the same way they have always been, and so I try to tell my students—many of them are political science students, people who’ve come to D.C. and want to work on the Hill, who are thinking in really professional terms—I try to tell them that they can build something.
How did you get into trouble as a kid?
I was a relentless nerd. My sister used to call me Perfect Patty. I didn’t get into too much trouble as a kid. I think I was disgustingly mild mannered as a kid. The main thing I would get in trouble for, I guess, was talking in class. I was definitely a chatterbox—still am. And the teachers used to—I went to Catholic school K through fifth—so nuns would move you around. So, I’d have friends, and they’d move me to sit with the boys, thinking I wouldn’t talk to them, but then I would talk to them, too.