Museum Studies at Tufts University

Exploring ideas and engaging in conversation

The Politics of Seeing

A Sign of the Times by Dorothea Lange, 1934

Hopefully summer time is going swimmingly for everyone, whether you’re in internships, jobs, or are relaxing. For museum-goers, popping into an exhibit or two (or thirty) during the dog days is a favorite past-time. And that’s exactly how I kicked off my summer, by visiting the Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeingexhibition in Nashville at the Frist Art Museum.

The difference from last summer to this one is that I have a year of museum studies under my belt, and now I am looking at exhibits with a critical (albeit, novice) eye. Here is my shameless plug and a challengeto anyone reading: send in an exhibit critique this summer for a guest spot on the blog. We would love to hear from places around Boston and beyond—for the nomads. I personally would love to read more about and experience more exhibits that show museums care about engaging all walks of life.

So, rewinding, Dorothea Lange… who is she? She’s a popular photographer from the 20thcentury who used her camera as a tool for justice. She wanted to expose inequalities in regard to race and gender, to address issues around the Great Depression and migrant workers, and to demonstrate the decline of the rural communities and environments. These topics are not unfamiliar to us today, if you will excuse the double negative.

Dorothea Lange

I’ll be frank—I am not a photography fan. I can get down with a selfie or a scenic vista, but my world isn’t transformed by many pictures. I don’t know if it was my schooling coming in handy or maturation on my part, but I appreciated this exhibit for what it was trying to do, to give its audience a lesson on a compelling woman in history who visually captured the lives of those who would have been lost to time and to subtly make a point about how the world hasn’t changed in many ways.

Like many reinvented museum exhibitions today, this exhibit was clearly standing up for something. It wasn’t shying away from pointing out the injustices of this country. The major critique I would give is that it didn’t necessarily give an answer on how to change the oppression of minorities or the neglect of the poverty-stricken in this modern age. However, it does have a charming way of showing how photographs can be edited by the owner to represent the message the owner wants, rather than revealing the whole, complex truth. 

We should care about that visitor connection for so many reasons, but I will start with a basic one: many people for centuries haven’t seen “their story” in a museum and that’s fortunately changing. This exhibit was giving a low down on some of the rundown minorities of the past, but it wasn’t as accessible as it could’ve been due to entrance fees. Go away from this article today thinking about how museums can become more connected with the unconventional museum goer. (On a personal note, feel free to drop a line about how to spice up photography exhibits.)

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.

Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa: The Main Complaint

In my last and final post for this series we will be exploring the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa in Cape Town, South Africa and their attempt to address earlier criticism through the exhibit “The Main Complaint.”

The Tufts Museum Studies Blog has previously written the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art (MOCAA) last year when Editor Kelsey Peterson addressed issues of diversity among the Museum’s staff. The privately funded art museum, often referred to as “Africa’s Tate Modern,” is the continent largest museum in the world dedicated to African art. In the two years since it’s grand opening the museum has faced many debates and controversies including the resignation of Executive Director and Chief Curator Mark Coetzee over allegations of racial and sexual misconduct and criticism regarding how accessible the museum is for the general public. MOCAA is in fact quite expensive at 190 rand approximately $14 USD. This may not seem exorbitant for museums in the U.S., but when compared to other costs in Cape Town, for example a Wagyu Steak Tartare dinner at a nearby posh waterfront restaurant is slightly less, it is an understandably unaffordable price for a city rife with economic and racial segregation.

From its onset, regardless of controversy, the museum has billed itself as an institution for all with a responsibility to represent everyone including audiences “who have often felt excluded from cultural institutions.” In fact, the opening exhibition, still on view today,  entitled All Things Being Equal asks visitors to questions “How will I be represented in the museum?” On its website the museum makes it clear that representation is an ongoing process for the institution, answering the question of “Is the Museum an accurate portrayal and representation of the African Continent?” with this statement:

“This museum is at the start of a journey to participate in the conversation of what it means to be African, and then begin representing the continent. This will be a process over many years to fully understand and represent such a huge continent with so many traditions, languages and cultural groups. No collection can represent an entire continent but Zeitz MOCAA hopes its collection will make a significant impact on how Africa and the world view and has access to works of art from Africa and its Diaspora.”

As I found out on my recent visit to Zeitz MOCAA, the institution does its best work when it is being self-reflective through grappling with these thoughts and ideas of representation, accessibility and institutional power. These ideas are best represented in the exhibition The Main Complaint, which opened to the public in November of last year and will be closing at the end of this week.

The Main Complaint is an infiltrating exhibition highlighting systematic, institutional failures, in an attempt to contextualise, recognise and repair. The exhibition exists as an ongoing series of interventions by museum staff and invited artists.

The Main Complaint is not confined to this exhibition space. The project exists as an infiltrating and sprawling series of interventions, workshops, talks and off-site programs – all of which will, in some form, end up in here. It’s unclear what this space will become. It may become claustrophobic and unaccommodating. Or perhaps it will generously harbour a collection of beautifully synchronised works and a range of alternative ideas.

The role of technology is an integral theme throughout, as an indicator of intergenerational communication, memory, modes of representation, accessibility, agency, and ultimately, a facilitator of collaborative, responsive change.

How much time are you willing to invest in the process?

According to Zeitz MOCAA Assistant Curator Michaela Limberis, the idea for The Main Complaint came from the idea of wanting to respond to the conversations surrounding the institution. The title is adapted from William Kentridge’s 1996 film, The History of the Main Complaint, which looks at white capital, power, and responsibility through the protagonist’s self-reflection while questioning what progress has been made. In an interview with ART AFRICA, Limberis described the importance of this exhibition for the young institution “some people perceived that there was a lack of communication between the museum and voices in the arts community, and believed that there wasn’t a sense of collaboration in the approach. As an institution that aims to be a representative of the African continent at large, there was an opportunity to being open to dialogue.” The artists explore many common themes of “access, value, representation, and ownership” within an institution.

The exhibition is in the in the Museum’s Centre for the Moving Image space, and as such relies heavily on film. Upon entering the space you are greeted by a foreboding security gate complete with a soundscape to set the scene. The piece, entitled “Right of Admission Reserved,” by Gaelen Pinnoch appropriately sets the tone for the rest of the exhibition. The piece is a physical barrier at the entrance to the exhibition space, access to which is only granted through pressing the “request access” button. The artists aim is to make viewers feel intimidated by the gate and/or the access control procedure. According to the label, the piece is an attempt to “distill the sense of exclusion, usually imparted by covert expressions of power, control or authoritarianism in the built environment, into something physical and explicit.” The work manifests into physical form the feelings many have towards cultural institutions. By having this piece at the entrance to the exhibition space, it helps to set the tone to complaints of access and power within cultural institutions.

Other works look directly at the relationships between artists and institutions such as Hhanya Mashabela’s “Ode to Institutional Critique” and Mitchel Messina’s “Lil Slugger Goes to Zeitz MOCAA.” Messina’s animated short was by far my favorite piece on view and made specifically for this exhibition. The film follows Lil Slugger to a slumber party at Zeitz MOCAA. From my understanding Lil Slugger represents smaller artists and the struggles they face while navigating institutions and systems of power. Throughout the film Lil Slugger is intimidated by security guards, rules, and other works of art before realizing that they may be struggling as well. The label description is written in Lil Slugger’s voice as he grapples with feeling hurt by “big systems’ while still trying to fix them:

And sometimes I wonder if these big systems broken and hurting also, and maybe they want to get better but only way how they can get attention is by acting out and doing things we wish they won’t.

If I ignore them maybe they will fall in with a bad crowd and get worse, maybe they will be pressured into being a badder system. But if I try to hug them they will push me away so hard I tumble and break my heart and never want to go back.

I was interested to see how many artists were willing to have their voices included in the exhibition and even more so in the institutions willingness to present narratives in which the Museum and cultural institutions as a whole were not always depicted in a positive light. I think overall Zeitz MOCAA excelled most in their exhibits that provided more self-reflective, meta looks at cultural institutions and the art world. I am curious to see how the Zeitz MOCAA will continue to progress with attempting to break down power structures and barriers to access and representation. As Limberis mentioned, as a young museum, Zeitz MOCAA has a lot of room for experimentation and that could bring the museum to the forefront as a leader in the museum world. I look forward to keeping an eye out for what they do next.

If you ever find yourself in Cape Town head to the V & A Waterfront for a visit to Zeitz MOCAA.

Teens Programs Teach Us What Kids Can Handle

I recently had the pleasure of going on a tour of the New-York Historical Society‘s special exhibit on Citizenship, entirely curated and presented by Teen Leaders. The exhibit is located on Governor’s Island, a park in New York Harbor that hosts a variety of art installations, food trucks, performances, and other events and activities. A decommissioned military base, exhibits are hosted in the homes of former military officers, making for an interesting backdrop for an exhibit on citizenship.

The Teen Leaders are part of a multi-year Student Historian Internship program at the museum. After completing a summer as a Student Historian, returning students can become Student Curators or Educators. Using New-York Historical’s collection as the basis for their research, last year’s crop of curators created a survey of US history through the lens of citizenship – who has it, who determines eligibility, and how those questions have shaped the United States of America.

The exhibit moves through ideas about who was originally granted citizenship, when different groups of people agitated for full citizen rights, and moments when factions took action to rescind rights from certain groups. The exhibit does not shy away from discussing complicated moments from the United States’ past, and takes care to include a wide representation of “Americans”. Native American citizenship is covered, as well as the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Sedition Act, and the 14th and 19th Amendments.

 

Once the objects are selected (and reproduced), labels written, and the exhibit is hung, a second group of Teen Leaders focusing on Education arrive for the summer. These teens take the curators’ work and develop interpretive content for the exhibit that they lead families in all summer, including theatrical presentations and hands-on activities. It was these students that we interacted with as we went through the exhibit, and their enthusiasm and intellectual curiosity was equally on display.

The Teen Educators led us in activities that asked us to engage with the material presented. We created scrapbooks about rights and responsibilities of citizens; connected new images of America to parts of the exhibition; read and responded to quotations about education in America; created flags that represented our own personal identities and values; and even watched an interactive theatrical performance featuring historical figures. The creativity and variety of the activities really encouraged audiences to think deeply about the topics covered, but also contained enough variety to be appropriate for every age range.

What struck me most as I read the labels and played the games was how well these Teen Leaders grasped the importance of their subject. These students have not shied away from the complicated history of who gets to be an American, and done it deftly with fewer than fifty images, highlighting people and events that challenged or upheld the status quo. It was a welcome reminder that teenagers are ready to work with difficult concepts, whether in the classroom or in an informal learning environment. As emerging museum professionals we should keep their abilities in mind as we plan their field trips and learning experiences.

The Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art: Indigenizing Museum Spaces

The Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art

Like many museum lovers, a visit to an unfamiliar city is a chance to discover new museums. Being in the museum field, those visits are an invaluable chance to find inspiration, see museum trends in action, and gain new ideas for future practice. Never have I found this to be more true than with a recent visit to Indianapolis and the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art. This one-of-a-kind museum exemplifies what it is to be a modern museum focusing on interactive displays, shared authority, and visitor experience. But more importantly, the Eiteljorg is a decolonizing museum, representing indigenous people and cultures not as relics of the past, but as contemporary and still here.

The Eiteljorg Museum was founded by Indianapolis businessman and philanthropist Harrison Eiteljorg in 1989. Originally conceived as an art museum, the institution made an early commitment to a shared authority with indigenous people. As founding curator Mike Leslie wrote, “The museum’s overall programming emphasizes not only the historical importance of Native American art and artifacts, but also their importance in a modern context. We must not forget that Native American cultures are still flourishing artistically.”

By 1991 the museum had formed the American Indian Advisory Board, this board would work directly with the museum’s administrators, curators, and collections staff to provide guidance, assistance and direction in all matters associated with the art, history, and culture of native peoples of North America. One of the main takeaways from the advisory board was the need for the museum to create a distinction between ownership and stewardship in relation to sacred and sensitive objects.

In 2002 the museum continued to indigenize museum spaces with the opening of a new permanent gallery, Mihtoseenioki: The People’s Place, created in collaboration the advisory board and representatives from local tribes. The exhibit was opened to interpret the Miami, Potawatomi, Delaware, and other tribes who were and still are an important part of the state’s history and culture.

Mihtohseenionki (The People’s Place)

It was in this exhibition I felt the most inspired, intrigued, and moved. Mihtoseenioki tells the stories, both past and present, of the original Miami people as well as that of other tribal groups that moved into the current state of Indiana as the result of European conquest and expansion. The written panels were written by members of native communities and curated by Ray Gonyea an Onondaga Iroquois. While many museums have been accused of presenting indigenous people and cultures as historical and ethnographic this exhibition leaves visitors with the knowledge that indigenous people are still here and that tribal cultures are still being practiced. This same theme was carried through the rest of the Eiteljorg’s art galleries. The gallery space was organized not chronologically but geographically with historical and contemporary art side by side.

While I was most affected by the Eiteljorg’s decolonizing efforts, the museum further impressed me with their commitment to improving the visitor experience. This was made clear through the incorporation of different evaluation tools throughout the exhibition, encouragement of visitor feedback, multiple hands-on, participatory, and interactive exhibit elements for visitors of all ages.

As museum practitioners, I encourage us all to keep and eye on the Eiteljorg Museum and any future innovations they may take.

 

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