Museum Studies at Tufts University

Exploring ideas and engaging in conversation

How Should Museums Deal With Controversy?

In the wake of the “Leaving Neverland” documentary, chronicling the allegations of of sexual assault by Michael Jackson, the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis has decided to remove three Michael Jackson artifacts from display. The Museum’s decision was the result of their decision to be “very sensitive to our audience.” The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis made a swift decision when faced with controversy. However other museums, such as the Bundekunsthalle in Germany, have chosen different paths. The Bundekunsthalle has decided to continue with their plans to open Michael Jackson: On the Wall, an exhibition focusing on the musician’s influence on contemporary art. Museum organizers have decided to avoid discussing his biography in favor “examining his cultural impact” as a way to anticipate and avoid the allegation’s and controversy surrounding Jackson.

In both these cases the Museums have decided to remove or avoid objects or subjects as a means to evade controversy. Yet, as Willard L. Boyd wrote in his piece Museums as Centers of Controversymuseums should “consciously invite controversy” in order to inform and stimulate visitor learning. While Boyd speaks more to controversial ideas presented in the museum than to the more recently common controversial actions conducted by a museum, as more often than not centers of controversy, museums must learn how to deal with controversy.

So, how should museums deal with controversy? Museums can look to the National Coalition Against Censorship’s Best Practices for Managing Controversy as a good jumping off point. The best way to deal with controversy is to anticipate it, have a plan, be transparent, create an educational framework that can provide context to why a curatorial choice may be, or is, controversial. What I believe if missing from their “Best Practices” list is the importance of speaking with the communities involved or effected by the controversy. Museums are not neutral and generally have institutional biases that reflect Western colonial power imbalances, we must as museum practitioners acknowledge that fact and incorporate the voices of those that were historically silenced.

Overall, I am not quite sure how a museum should deal with controversy. Likely, there is not one definitive answer. But, as museums have been dealing with controversy for many years and will continue to in the future, as museum professionals we can take note of how museums have dealt with past controversies to help inform our decisions for the future.

Repatriating Roadblocks: The Case of the Kenyan Vigango Memorial Posts

In November of 2018, French President Emmanuel Macron made headlines (and shook the museum world) when he released a report detailing the restitution of “African cultural heritage to Africa” from French museums long known for their collections of sub-Saharan objects. He called for the swift return of twenty-six royal Dahomey works of art back to Benin, objects that were taken to France in the late nineteenth century as a result of colonial expeditions.

Conversations concerning such Benin objects have often dominated restitution debates focused on African culture – but what other countries from the continent are also seeking the return of their tangible heritage? One case study that has recently lost political steam is that of the vigango memorial posts from the Mijikenda peoples of Kenya. Considered Kenya’s cultural patrimony, vigango memorial posts are tall and narrow “spirit markers” made of wood that resemble an abstracted male body, often incised with repeating geometric patterns and painted.

Example of a kigango (the singular form of vigango)
Photo credit: Denver Museum of Nature and Science

Sometimes up to nine feet in height, vigango memorial posts represent deceased male members of the Gohu society, individuals who were known in their communities for both their wisdom and wealth. Once installed, vigango are never to be removed or disturbed, as they represent the “incarnation of the deceased” and continue to play a central role in Mijikenda communities, such as preventing misfortune.

Despite their communal importance and efficacy, vigango have long been subject to theft and exportation among art dealers and collectors abroad. In 2007, for instance, it was estimated that over four hundred vigango had entered the collections of some nineteen museums across the United States, with often questionable acquisition histories. The debate involving the repatriation of vigango is complicated, involving Mijikenda youth seeking a quick profit, unsigned UNESCO deals, and art market/museum ethics. A recent exposé in African Arts estimated that a kigango (the singular form of vigango) could fetch anywhere between $150,000-$250,000 if placed on auction today (in comparison to $5000 each at a 2012 Paris auction).

While the Denver Museum of Nature and Science recently tried to repatriate thirty of its vigango, the memorial posts never left the United States due to an unexpected and exorbitant tariff that would have been charged at Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (the tariff is equivalent to USD $47,000). Unfortunately for this costly reason, several vigango that were repatriated from California State University, Fullerton in 2014 currently sit in a crate in the airport’s customs’ shed. Although the vigango may be back in their country of origin, no institution involved in their return intend to pay the tariff fees. Until a solution is agreed upon, the vigango will remain in political limbo.


Weekly Jobs Roundup!

Hello job seekers! Here’s the national museum jobs round up for the week of March 10th!

Northeast

Exhibit Content & Experience Developer [MIT Museum/Boston, MA]

Museum Project Management Assistant [The Bostonian Society/Boston, MA]

Museum Teacher [USS Constitution Museum/Boston, MA]

Membership Engagement Officer, Development [New England Aquarium/Boston, MA]

Grants Manager [Wadsworth Atheneum/Hartford, CT]

Collections Preparator [The Newark Museum/Newark, NJ]

Coordinator of Museum Programs [Liberty Hall Museum/Newark, NJ]

Mid-Atlantic

Manager of Family Programs [New-York Historical Society/New York, NY]

Supervisory Museum Registrar [Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens/Washington D.C.]

Events Manager [American Museum of Natural History/New York, NY]

Curator [University of Buffalo Art Galleries/Buffalo, NY]

Betty Parsons Archivist [Alexander Gray Associates/New York, NY]

Southeast

Assistant Curator [Museum of the American Arts and Crafts Movement/Palm Harbor, FL]

Public Programs Manager [Vero Beach Museum of Art/Vero Beach, FL]

Assistant Registrar [Birmingham Museum of Art/Birmingham, AL]

Midwest

Education and Outreach Manager [Massillon Museum/Massillon, OH]

Associate Educator, Student and Teacher Learning [The Saint Louis Art Museum/St. Louis, MO]

Associate Curator of Education [Oklahoma State University Museum of Art/Stillwater, OK]

Collections Assistant [Judd Foundation/Marfa, TX]

West

Museum Registrar [Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco/San Francisco, CA]

Communication and Program Associate [Center for Cultural Innovation/San Francisco, CA]

Executive Director [Western Front Society/Vancouver, Canada]

Are Museums Clean if Their Donations Are Bloody?

(Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The spoon is massive, 800 pounds of steel, with a bent shaft that forms a handle and a blackened center suggesting prepared heroin. Built by artist, fabricator, and person in recovery, Patrick Lynch, this sculpture was recently given to Massachusetts Attorney General, Martha Healy, whose office has brought a lawsuit against Purdue Pharmaceuticals and members of the Sackler family who were involved in the marketing and selling of OxyContin, one of the drugs responsible for the current opioid epidemic. Members of the Sackler family are also named in a similar lawsuit brought by the City of New York. The Sacklers also own another opioid manufacturer, Rhodes Pharmaceuticals, which has also been targeted by the Opioid Spoon Project, which places the sculptures.

This is not the only piece of art-based protest produced around the crisis. Photographer Nan Goldin, who is in recovery from her almost fatal opioid addiction after being prescribed OxyContin, has founded P.A.I.N. Sackler, an organization that stages theatrical protests at museums that have accepted donations from the Sackler family foundation and Purdue Pharmaceuticals, including the Smithsonian Institute, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Brooklyn Museum. P.A.I.N. Sackler’s mission statement demands that these museums and other institutions “remove Sackler signage and publicly refuse future funding from the Sacklers,” as well as, “demand that these institutions publicly disavow the Sacklers, and apologize for having whitewashed the reputation of this criminal family.” (It is worth noting that this blog is affiliated with Tufts University, which has also received large donations from the Sackler family.) P.A.I.N. Sackler does not differentiate between the branches of the Sackler family tree, because the Sackler name cannot be parted from the impacts of Purdue and OxyContin.

In light of the recent legal and protest actions against the Sackler family, some institutions are beginning to reconsider their donation policies, including the Met, where a recent action by P.A.I.N. Sackler filled the eponymous gallery with prescription pill bottles. Massachusetts General Hospital removed the Sackler name from their Pain Center after the opioid crisis began. However, most arts organizations have not taken action, including the Smithsonian, which has a naming agreement in perpetuity for the Sackler Gallery of Asian Art. They have stated that they have no intention of changing the name, although their policy no longer permits perpetual naming agreements, meaning that if the Sacklers donated another wing to a Smithsonian, it would only carry their name for a generation.

Like divestment movements before it, which call for organizations to refrain from investing in industries that are harmful to people or the environment, refusing donations from pharmaceutical companies that profit from addiction and inappropriate medical care is a tool that humanities organizations can use to signal their concerns. Art and culture institutions ostensibly care about documenting and showcasing the human experience, and though that experience may include pain, organizations need not profit off the pain and allow the culprits to launder their names in the process. Elizabeth Sackler, the daughter of Arthur Sackler, and namesake of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum, has endorsed the actions of Goldin and P.A.I.N. Sackler while also distancing her father and her branch of the family from Purdue.

Although the family protests blaming Arthur Sackler’s Foundation for the impacts of OxyContin, which was created after he died, the matter is not so simple. Arthur Sackler was a pioneer in marketing drugs directly to doctors, creating the modern pharmaceuticals industry that his descendants profit from. Indeed, the pending lawsuit facing Purdue and Sackler family members in Massachusetts has turned up internal Purdue memos from Sackler family members that show individual Sacklers were directly responsible for encouraging prescriptions of OxyContin while knowing about the addictive qualities of the drug. Other memos discuss the need to paint addicts as the problem and plan to push OxyContin as a safe alternative to Tylenol. Arthur Sackler’s shares of Purdue were sold to his brothers after his death. Had Arthur lived, keeping his shares of Purdue, who can say if his family branch would be as equally implicated in OxyContin’s sales.

In a statement to the Washington Post, Sackler’s widow Jillian stated in part, “Arthur would be horrified to see how this drug has been misused and would be working to find solutions.” If that is true, perhaps the Sackler Foundation should be refocusing their efforts away from cultural organizations and toward harm reduction and recovery support. Maybe the donations they make should not come with named buildings and galleries to publicize and promote the Sackler name as pure philanthropic selflessness. Of course, they have the right to spend their money as they please, but perhaps museums and other cultural organizations should not help them side step more impactful charitable giving by accepting the donations.

Weekly Jobs Roundup!

Happy March! Spring is coming, it’s the perfect time to find a new job!

Northeast

Mid-Atlantic

Southeast

Midwest

West

« Older posts

Spam prevention powered by Akismet

Switch to our mobile site