Museum Studies at Tufts University

Exploring ideas and engaging in conversation

Category: Museum Questions (page 1 of 3)

How Science Museums Can Talk About Race.

As people across the country fight back against police brutality and systemic racism, cultural institutions need to leverage their platform as trusted sources of information to educate the public about racism in the United States. Discussions about race are typically limited to art and history museums, while science museums tend to focus on the environment, health, and conservation. Science museums are not exempt, however, as racism intersects with both environmental science and health science. Moving forward, it’s critical that science museums start addressing systemic racism in order to better serve both their missions and their communities.

RACE: Are We So Different? debuted in 2007 and has visited over 40 institutions.

The American Anthropological Association and the Science Museum of Minnesota worked together to develop an exhibit entitled RACE: Are We So Different?  in 2007 to explore race and racism in the United States. The exhibit combines history, science, and lived experiences to challenge how we think about race. The exhibit has since travelled around the country to various science museums, with its most recent stop at the Durham Museum in Omaha, NE. A traveling exhibit that addresses race is great, but science museums have a responsibility to do more.

Many science museums focus on topics about the environment and sustainability, but from my experience, rarely talk about environmental racism. Environmental racism is the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards on people of color. For example, Black and Latinx Americans are more likely to live in areas with high air pollution leading to an array of health problems. Overall, people of color are on the front lines of the climate crisis and have fewer resources to deal with the consequences. In the U.S., the white upper middle class will be the last to feel the catastrophic effects of climate change. These are the same demographics that tend to visit museums. To both better serve communities of color and accurately deliver conservation messaging, science museums have a duty to address environmental racism head on through educational programming and activism.

Ending our reliance on fossil fuels is the key to reversing climate change and a fundamental part of environmental messaging. Non-renewable energy is also tightly linked with colonialism and the destruction of indigenous land and culture. In 2016, the Dakota Access Pipeline was rerouted to pass directly upstream from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation without understanding the environmental impacts. Only this year did the D.C. district court order a proper environmental review. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe is still fighting to shut down the DAPL. To divorce climate change and sustainability from human rights is a disservice to the indigenous communities that have led the environmental movement from the beginning.

From earthjustice.org

Health sciences and medicine also have a deeply racist history. Ethics and consent have evolved over time, but have taken advantage of people of color in particular. Jon Quier experimented with smallpox inoculation on enslaved peoples in Jamaica. The Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male deliberately misled black men into believing they were receiving treatment in order to study the progression of the disease. In 1951, Henrietta Lacks’ immortal cancer cells were taken without her or her family’s knowledge or consent. These HeLa Cells have been instrumental in understanding polio, HIV, HPV, and thousands of other diseases, but have sparked questions about informed consent and collecting patient cells. Museums are uniquely equipped to present these questions and facilitate discussions on bioethical standards. It’s important to acknowledge and confront how racism has and continues to shape medical advancements worldwide.

Whale People: Protectors of the Sea at the Florida Museum of Natural History.

As educational institutions, most science museums are already addressing both the current environmental crisis and human health. As cultural institutions, they need to include whole narratives if they are going to properly serve their communities. The Natural History Museum is a traveling pop-up museum that “makes a point to include and highlight the socio-political forces that shape nature.” Past exhibits include Whale People: Protectors of the Sea which addresses orca conservation, pollution, and industrialization of the Pacific Northwest in collaboration with the Lummi Nation. Mining the HMNS tackles the Houston Museum of Natural Sciences’ relationships with the fossil fuel industry by investigating exhibits in HMNS and highlighting the stories of communities along the Houston Ship Canal.

All science museums need to take The Natural History Museum’s lead and project marginalized voices. To remain apolitical is to continue whitewashing both environmental and health sciences and to silence BIPOC communities. Science museums need to uplift activists of color by giving them a platform to speak. Science museums need to diversify their boards, staff, and leadership to dismantle the white narratives that are pervasive throughout. And science museums need to adapt their missions to address the social and political factors that influence both nature, health, and scientific discovery.

The Role of Museums in the Removal of Monuments

The recent decisions to remove various statues and monuments across the nation presents, I believe, an opportunity for museums to play a vital part in this reevaluation of our nation’s history and to serve their communities in a vital way. While public opinion calls for the removal of these statues, I do not think it wise to destroy these monuments or to remove them totally from the public eye. Rather, it is the museum’s responsibility to conserve and preserve these pieces – painful as they may be – in order to further the conversations that are being initiated. In this way, we may continue to examine and evaluate our nation’s history, how it has thus far been taught and engaged with as well the important moments that are happening now.

The toppled statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis on Monument Ave. in Richmond, VA.

I went to university in Richmond, Virginia. And anyone who has lived in or even just visited Richmond knows the prominent place that Monument Avenue holds in the city. With its lovely tree-lined cobblestone streets, Monument Avenue is an iconic part of the city; but it is also a highly contested area due to the Confederate figures that hold pride of place at various locations along the street. Some believe that these monuments should remain where they are as they serve as important symbols of the Confederacy and part of Richmond’s history; however, for many others, these memorials are a glorification of the city’s history with slavery and racism. Virginia Governor Northam has promised to remove the statue of Robert E. Lee although a court ruling on 8 June temporarily stymied efforts to remove the statue. Protestors have since taken matters into their own hands and toppled statues of Jefferson Davis and Christopher Columbus.

Richmond is certainly not the only city seeing the removal of its statues. In New York City, the American Museum of Natural History has made the decision to remove the monument of Theodore Roosevelt that has marked the museum’s entrance overlooking Central Park since 1940. The museum’s president, Ellen Futter, has remarked that it is the statue’s hierarchical composition that is being objected to, rather than Roosevelt himself. It is interesting to note, however, that the statue’s architect, John Russell Pope referred to the figures as a heroic group, while the sculptor, James Earle Fraser, remarked that the monument could even symbolize “Roosevelt’s friendliness to all races.” While this may have been the intention of those who are responsible to the statue’s placement, it is certainly not how it is being interpreted now, leading many to protest the monument and the decision to have it removed.

The “Equestrian Statue of Theodore Roosevelt” in front of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

It is my hope that as we are reevaluating the various monuments placed around the nation, that museums would take the actions of the American Museum of Natural History as an example to follow. Prior to the decision to remove the Roosevelt statue, the museum held an exhibit exploring the history and addressing the issues that the statue presents. It includes the many different remarks and opinions of museum visitors, which would surely lead to further conversations and critical thinking amongst visitors to the exhibit. With this very recent decision to remove the statue, it is my hope that the statue will not be removed entirely from public view. Rather, I think it would be more constructive to have the removed monuments considerately placed – graffiti and all – within a museum, along with information of the various nuances that the statue represents and encouragement for visitors to stop and think about the issues that the monument presents to them as well as their own beliefs and attitudes.

What an opportunity museums can have now to encourage these conversations and help visitors to think about the past in ways that they hadn’t previously considered. History is often a complicated mess that can be painful to think about. And monuments can be painful reminders of these difficult and complicated histories. I believe that it is a museum’s responsibility to help their communities to engage with this history in its entirety and to not allow it to be forgotten. I see the removal of these monuments as an opportunity to create a deeper understanding of ourselves, our history, and each other. It will certainly be difficult. But I am just as certain that it is worth doing.

Taking Stock

As this academic year draws to a close, Kelsey, Amanda, and I are preparing to hand over the reins of this blog to our wonderful new editors who will be introducing themselves to you shortly. In the past year we’ve been able to explore museums from so many angles. We have asked questions about what museums should be and what they shouldn’t. We’ve looked at collections, from the issues with preserving 20th century plastics to the plain weird! We’ve considered how museums play a role in thinking about important social issues of our time and how museums are affected by political events and trends. We believe a deeply considered understanding of and engagement with the local community is crucial to creating a strong and successful museum.

Some of our conversations centered around issues that will concern us directly as workers in the museum industry, whether it be wages and unionization fights, ethical donations, or managing burnout. We’ve examined forward-thinking programs, compelling trends, and how to improve visitor experience. And we’ve considered matters of inclusion, asking who gets included in collections, exhibits, and outreach. We know that museums can not afford to disregard their workers, their visitors, or innovative design if they want to grow and survive a changing landscape.

What we have spent the most time on, however, are matters of race and decolonization. Questions of what history is covered and how, who owns artefacts and how they were obtained are a serious part of the zeitgeist and museums must continue to grapple with them for a long time. We examined changing interpretations to center marginalized people, who is served by an organization, and how to implement decolonization practices. We are certain that this is one of the major issues facing the museum sector globally and many more honest and serious conversations will be needed in the coming years.

We hope that we’ve encouraged you to keep thinking about what a museum can and should mean to its visitors, place, subjects, and workers. We will certainly take these conversations with us as we enter the workplace. Thank you for being a part of this community! Stay tuned to see what the next set of editors will bring to the dialogue.

Do Smaller Museums Better Serve Their Communities?

In conducting my thesis research, I recently came across a quote that really stood out to me and that I think museum professionals can agree on:

“The most promising innovations in museums’ relationships with communities are coming not from the largest, oldest, and best-funded institutions, but rather from institutions once viewed as marginal.” (From “Audience, Ownership, and Authority” in Museums and Communities: The Politics of Public Cultures, edited by Ivan Karp and Christine Mullen Kreamer).

Why is it that some of the most striking, relevant exhibitions come from museums operating on a much smaller scale than say, the Metropolitan or the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston? That is not to say that larger institutions are not relevant to their communities, but in my experience, smaller museums seem to be a better platform for fostering interpersonal connections and serving the needs of their immediate audiences.

In reading this quote, a few examples of smaller community museums that appear to offer “the most promising innovations” immediately came to mind, including the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester, New Hampshire and the Wing Luke Museum in Seattle, Washington.

For instance, the Currier Museum is a resonant example of a museum actively engaging with its community by creating outreach programs that reflects its visitors’ needs. Its mission statement clearly supports this idea- “Focused on Art, Centered in Community, Committed to Inspire.” The Currier also curates exhibitions that directly respond to its community, such as the Visual Dispatches from Vietnam War exhibition that involved Manchester’s close-knit veteran community. More relevant, however, is the museum’s current work reflecting on one of the worst epidemics the United States is currently experiencing. Manchester, the largest city in New Hampshire, is unfortunately at the heart of the opioid crisis. In response to this, the Currier has created a program that invites family members of individuals struggling with an addiction to come to the museum and create art in a safe space. This is a beautiful example of a museum “reinventing” themselves to become relevant to their own community, proving that relevance is often more important than even the museum’s collection.

The Currier’s work in successfully engaging with its community reminds me of the transformation that the Wing Luke Museum in Seattle recently experienced. As a result of Director Ron Chew’s decision to create a “community-response” exhibition platform, that is an exhibition “that speaks to the issues happening here and now, and that reach and echo far beyond the museum’s space,” the Wing Luke Asian Museum experienced a spike in museum attendance, fundraised millions of dollars, and ultimately established a “mutually beneficial relationship” within its community.[1] I am impressed with museums such as the Currier and Wing Luke Asian that have taken the (sometimes scary) initiative to amend and improve their relationship with their community, by inviting more voices and perspectives to be heard and recognized.   

What are your thoughts? Does the size and budget of an institution matter when it comes to producing relevant exhibitions? Do any other examples come to mind? Please share your thoughts in the comments below and keep the conversation going!


[1] Ron Chew, “Five Keys to Growing a Healthy Community-connected Museum,” 6.

From Monument to Memorial: A Symposium Review

“We can’t change the past but we can change history.” -Dr. Kymberly Pinder

On Friday, March 29th, I attended Tufts University’s one-day symposium, “From Monument to Memorial: Space, Commemoration, and Representation in America Now.” Organized by the Department of Art and Art History, the symposium invited audiences to consider the role of public civic art in America and its current impact in our present political climate. Discussions on history, heritage, memory, and legacy were the undercurrents of each presentation.

Before the first panel began, Tufts University Art Gallery Director Dina Deitsch discussed the symposium organizers’ deliberate choice to host the event in Tufts’ Alumnae Lounge, a rather contentious space on campus due to the nature of its monumental murals. Commissioned in 1955, the mural’s east wall depicts the historical founding of Tufts on Walnut Hill, while the west wall shows Tufts students, faculty, and deans in an attempt to provide a “snapshot of student life” in the 1950s. Although there are at least fifty individuals painted between the two walls, almost all of the figures are white, Protestant men (except for a few white women). In fact, the only reference to Medford’s diverse population is a small image of the Isaac Royall Slave House, and the artists completely ignore the fact that Walnut Hill is a site of spiritual significance for the Mystic people.

The Alumnae Lounge murals do not portray the diversity of Tufts University, both past and present. (Stay tuned on updates concerning the murals; there is currently a working group determining how best to make the space more inclusionary. An announcement about the murals’ changes to come will be made in the next few months, according to Deitsch.) Considering the ongoing debates concerning the Alumnae Lounge, the space served as a fitting backdrop for the day’s discussants, with Deitsch’s speech further setting the tone for the issues at heart of each panel.

The morning session, “Local Histories/Contested Spaces,” was comprised of four panelists: Danielle Abrams, Professor of the Practice in Performance at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts; Kerri Greenidge, Professor of History and Director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at Tufts; Diana Martinez, Director of Architectural Studies at Tufts; and Kymberly Pinder, Provost of Massachusetts College of Art.

Each panelist discussed a controversial site, monument, or public art project and the importance of re-contextualizing it in its proper narrative. For instance, Danielle Abrams talked about her research concerning the segregated Lincoln Beach, an amusement park that was open from 1939-1964 in New Orleans. Today, Lincoln Beach is in ruins, and the nearby “whites only” Pontchartrain Beach Amusement Park is often more referenced in the archives. Abrams is working to uncover these archives and prevent the complete erasure of Lincoln Beach from memory by collaborating with the last living generation of individuals who used to frequent the park and can speak to their experiences of segregation.

After the morning panel session, symposium participants and audience members had the opportunity to go on a two-hour guided bus tour led by Kendra Field and Kerri Greenidge of Tufts’ African American Trail Project. The Trail Project is a collaborative effort among students, scholars, and community members, intended to interrogate Massachusetts’ white history. With an aim of placing greater Boston historical monuments in their proper context – that is a narrative that also includes the memory and experiences of “historic African American, Black Native, and diasporic communities,” the Project is bringing to light history that has long been negated. The sites on the tour span five centuries and five neighborhoods of greater Boston, including Somerville/Medford, Beacon Hill, Roxbury, and Mattapan. Some examples of tour stops include the Dorchester North Burial Ground, Bunker Hill Monument, Royall House and Slave Quarters, W.E.B. Du Bois House, the Charles Street Meeting House, and Marsh Chapel. Sites continue to be added to the growing list, and members of the public are welcome to suggest or edit any site.

Mabel O. Wilson, Professor of Architecture at Columbia University, led the keynote address, “Memory/Race/Nation: The Politics of Modern Memorials,” in which she discussed the events of the August 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville and the University of Virginia’s counter-protesters who shrouded their campus’ statues of Confederate figures in response. While traditionally University of Virginia’s campus tours spoke of Thomas Jefferson’s founding of the school and his legacy, now, thanks in part to increased student pressure, UVA tours highlight a narrative that was silenced for so long, one that acknowledges the approximately six hundred slaves that worked for Jefferson during his lifetime. Furthermore, a coalition of students and staff are “connecting the dots that have been missing,” with a forthcoming Memorial to Enslaved Laborers, a planned campus monument in the shape of a broken slave shackle, on which the names of 660 individuals are engraved along a timeline in a shallow pool of water in “an effort to humanize the unknown.”

As the symposium drew to a close, panelists left the audience with a series of questions to consider. How do we represent highly personal histories, and who do we represent in telling said narratives? How can we reconsider commemoration in light of recent violent events such as the Unite the Right rally in 2017? When should we preserve history, if at all, and what should we do with contentious spaces or monuments? For a room filled with museum professionals, artists, professors, trailblazers, and graduate students, these are timely questions for everyone to think about in our ongoing work of reframing histories.

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