Museum Studies at Tufts University

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The Case for Narrative Art: George Lucas Style

On March 14, 2018, the George Lucas Museum of Narrative Art broke ground in Los Angeles. The museum states that it will offer a one of a kind museum experience, when it opens in 2021, focusing on narrative and celebrating storytelling through art.

Narrative Art involves telling stories through various works and mediums such as classical paintings, comics, film, theater, etc, with a focus on how artists capture these stories.

The concept of narrative art  has roots as far back as hieroglyphics, and in all honesty, it shouldn’t be a novel concept in museums. Storytelling is essential to audience engagement with objects and material. Everything from tours to educational programs, to labels, should have a bit of a narrative thread that effectively engages the audience through the stories they tell.

Narratives in museums may come from artistic expression or intent in a piece, visitor interpretation (such as VTS), or interpretive lenses that might draw upon many contexts that are social, political, religious, etc. Whichever form a story may come in, it is the power of narratives that help the visitor connect to the content.

Narratives must involve a structure, from the rising action, there must be a climax, or an “aha” moment, and some type of resolution or conclusion. In museums, the climax, or “aha” moment is a primary goal of interpretation. It is an important aim to have the visitors reach a moment  of realization, connection, provocation, or if we’re really lucky, a transformation in their frame of thinking.

According to the website of the soon-to-be Lucas Museum, the collection will consist of paintings, illustrations, comics, and films, which provides an abundant platform of media to act as various entry points into narratives for diverse audiences. Perhaps this museum will act as a resource and a means to inspire more museums with various media to engage with narrative art in their interpretation practices.

What Museums Can Learn From Hollywood

For anyone aware of the news, it’s clear that Hollywood has had a big year.

Between box office hits, conversations on diversity and representation, and the #MeToo movement, the movie industry has been the center of entertainment news for reasons both good and bad.

Museums can learn a lot of great storytelling techniques through movies and music. They can embrace diverse art forms by embracing the entertainment industry. And examining the way the public interacts with the industry could reveal something about how the public interacts, or will interact, with museums.

But as much as museums can learn from Hollywood’s successes, they can learn even more from its failures. While it’s tempting to just skim the tabloids and go back to the office, diving into the messiness of the entertainment industry can be essential to museums’ continuing relevance and popularity.

Two recent examples stick out – the representations of women and non-Western art. Two big topics on women in Hollywood are the recent #MeToo movement and the Bechdel Test. To read more thoughts on museums and #MeToo, read our previous post here.

For those unfamiliar with the Bechdel Test, it is a way to measure movies based on how they represent women. To pass, a film must contain at least two female characters – who talk with each other about something other than men. Seems simple, right? Pay attention to the next few films you watch – you may think again.

The Jaffer-Humphreys Test, created by two British museum professionals, takes this to museum galleries. To pass, a gallery must contain works by or related to two women, and they must not be presented for a relationship to a man (for example: a woman’s glove, included because she’s married to the man who the room is really about, doesn’t pass). To read more about the Jaffer-Humphreys Test, click here.

The second example comes from the movie “Black Panther,” in which one scene blatantly confronts a museum’s colonial roots and failure to accurately interpret non-Western objects. One of the most uncomfortable aspects of this scene is that it doesn’t actually feel much out of the ordinary. A white, female curator describes to a black, male visitor where some of the African collection objects are from. He calls her out on misinformation and makes a comment about leaving with the object. She responds by saying it’s not for sale. In a mic-drop moment, he then asks if the museum had paid for it when they received it. And this is all done without any other sense that the conversation is critical – no dramatic music, shouting voices, or detailed camera work.

What is somewhat worrisome is that the normalcy of the scene demonstrates a public perception of museums as discriminatory colonizers. What is more worrisome is that this perception is not always wrong. The up-front nature of the scene calls on museums to examine and change unethical and discriminatory practices.

To read a more in-depth commentary on how museums should respond to the scene, click here.

Through mass movements such as #MeToo, unofficial tests of representation, and accountability to museums’ role in cultural oppression, Hollywood has much to give to museums. The industry’s mistakes should inform our work just as their successes do. Next time you see a major entertainment industry discussion, look a little closer. What does it imply for museums?

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Museums Amidst the “Me Too”

Women have played the role of artistic muse for millennia, serving as the objects of desire, lust, and love in paintings that offer depictions ranging from fully clothed to stark naked portrayals of the female persona.

Did these women pose willingly? Maybe. One cannot be sure.

Did some women suffer sexual assault or harassment from male artists who wished to portray their figures? Undoubtedly.

In the midst of the #MeToo movement which has spread an awareness of the magnitude of sexual assault and harassment via social media, museums must ask themselves how they fit into such a movement.

Most recently, Chuck Close has been accused of predatory behaviors toward his female subjects, but these accusations also stem back to ancient Greek pottery and painting, Manet, and even Picasso.

So how do we, as museums, deal with the uncomfortable imbalance of power that so often occurred between artist and subject throughout history?

Some might say remove the art- as protesters against Balthus’ work at the Met did, but censoring the exploitation of female subjects, would be censoring a lot of classical work, from Roman murals to the Renaissance to Impressionism, and in a sense would be censoring a large part of human history.

The artwork themselves are not a crime, but the stories behind the inspiration and the relationships between artist and subject may have been,

Museums should acknowledge these heinous acts within their actual context, and discuss the difficult history that surrounds such works. If there is a problematic story surrounding a work, tell it. Celebrate and honor the subjects and the humanity of the works, not the illicit artist.

Furthermore, to throw the buzzword relevance into the mix, museums would do well to tie these past examples of exploitation to current movements against oppression, gender inequality, racism and misogyny. There must be a learning dichotomy for these works that contextualizes the political, social, and racial scenes of these paintings, the problems with the scenes, and a call to action about what we can do today to eliminate these types of power structures in modern day history .

Therefore in addition to social media, #MeToo should be able to find another platform within museums through which difficult topics can be discussed within context, and the stories of those subjected to the acts of corrupt and debauched artists can give voice to those who have been oppressed and silenced by such acts.

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