Museum Studies at Tufts University

Exploring ideas and engaging in conversation

Category: Museum Topics (page 1 of 12)

How Do Museums Join the National Conversation on Social Justice?

Today’s  post comes to you from Colleen Sutherland, recent Tufts Museum Studies graduate and previous co-editor of the Tufts Museum Studies Blog. To read some of her previous work, click here.

Where have museums been during the recent incidents of police-related violence, protests, and the discussion around race? As community spaces, museums are in the unique position to engage with their communities around contemporary events, particularly ones that are traumatic and require unprecedented action that no one seems to know how to take. Museums should have their fingers on the pulse of their communities, and should be able to both respond with their constituents and help create proactive solutions.

One of the major goals of museums is to inspire critical thinking, and a big part of critical thinking is understanding other perspectives, whether or not you agree with them.  Yet no matter your point of view, it seems like no one is really talking to each other – it’s more like at each other. There is a lot of confusion, anger, and pain felt by all parties involved. Museums can and should be helping people understand what is happening right now, especially when you consider how much the nation is already talking about the state of race relations, violence, gun rights, and injustice. If we want museums to be safe spaces where their communities can turn to for discussion and learning, we need to put our money where our mouths are, so to speak. If we’re not helping to further the conversation, does that make us inauthentic or disingenuous?

Museums can play a huge role in helping people understand and discuss, and eventually to help produce solutions and begin to heal. Some museums are responding to this need, and I’ll talk about that later. Still, some museums might be hesitant because they don’t want to get mired down in political discussions, or that they don’t believe that the topics fit their missions. But if the mission of a museum is to engage with its audience, to serve the needs of its community, then I would argue that programming around social justice is all the more imperative. Some museums might not know how to proceed and so are putting it off or are stuck in discussion with how to begin. And that’s understandable. These are huge, systemic issues that can be very difficult to facilitate. But that’s why it’s even more important that we lead the discussion and the action. Museums have experience talking about hard topics, or at least facilitating discussion, so they have a natural place encouraging people to sort through complex emotions and thoughts. And that’s what we as a nation need right now, when we’re having trouble communicating with each other.

For museums to be effective at this, we need to be more flexible and responsive to the needs of our communities. It takes a long time for an exhibition to go from concept to opening night, and many museums already have their public programming set through the fall. That doesn’t mean that extra pop-up exhibitions or programs can’t be added, however. It’s relatively easy to add in town hall type discussions, talks lead by staff members, or even conversations surrounding relevant books, poems, or films. Perhaps museums can encourage these types of extra programs by changing some of the ways that programs are presented to the public, to allow for events that are timely and relevant without a long marketing push.

Here are some museums that are joining in on the discussions, with exhibitions and programming – past, present, or future – to give you ideas if you’re feeling stuck:

  • Museums Discuss Black Lives Matter: This YouTube video is almost two hours long, but it’s completely worth it. As many of you know from previous posts I’ve written, my focus is on education, and this video is from the NYC Museum Educators Roundtable. However, the discussion they held at the Whitney Museum is applicable to more than just educators. The discussion centers around “how museum workers, from front-line staff to departments and institutions, have addressed the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and continue to advocate for change.” Even if you don’t agree with everything that’s being said, it’s a very helpful resource and that dialogue is important.
  • The African American Museum in Philadelphia
    • Arresting Patterns I recently had an opportunity to visit this exhibition in May, and it is phenomenal. Through a mixture of contemporary art, news clippings, and some extremely striking video vignettes of young men talking about their encounters with police, the exhibition helps you start an internal dialogue and gives you ways to carry that dialogue over externally.
    • Community-focused Open House and Town Hall discussion around the systemic disparity inherent in the US justice system, and its impact on communities of color.” There are live performances and a panel discussion by community leaders.
  • The Underground Museum (a collaboration between LACMA and MOCA):
    • Nonfiction exhibition “pulls together works of art that investigate, either explicitly or implicitly, the culture of violence perpetrated on black citizens.”
    • Holding Court, “a new series of conversations and performances connecting artists, writers, political thinkers and audiences on the social issues and creative endeavors that matter most.”
  • The African American History Museum (scheduled to open this fall in Washington, DC) has an exhibition focusing on Black Lives Matter

It is important to note, though, that most of the museums discussed above already have mechanisms in place to talk about social justice. So how do museums who don’t have that join the discussion? Is your museum addressing these issues, and if so, how are you doing it?

The Role of Objects in Today’s Historic House Museum

The role of objects in the 21st-century museum seems to be a hot topic right about now, especially with many museums incorporating digital collections, 3-D models, and reconstructions into their understanding of what it means to interact with a museum object. When we think about digital collections and 3-D models, however, historic house museums might not be the first thing that pops into our head. Yet, as a student currently taking a course called Revitalizing Historic House Museums (HHMs), my mind has been infiltrated with thoughts about how to make the visitor experience worthwhile in a genre of museums with declining visitor numbers. In my experience, HHMs seem to be one of least likely kinds of museums to create a digital collection of their objects. One reason for this could be because HHMs sometimes serve as dumping grounds for community members to donate their personal belongings that they feel are important enough to be preserved, and thus many sites have a plethora of unrelated objects that they may not even know they have. Another reason could be that many HHMs contain mostly objects that are not original to the house. And a very pressing and apparent issue is that HHMs typically have small operating budgets, low numbers of paid staff (and oftentimes are run solely by volunteers), and are dealing with houses that are sometimes hundreds of years old that require careful and costly maintenance. So how can HHMs compete with other bigger, flashier, more digitally-oriented museums when they are focused on keeping their doors open and the house still standing?

While it can be hard to see past some of the unrelenting issues HHMs as a genre are facing, digitizing collections and creating reconstructions could make them a more desirable place to visit. Indeed, in our modern world where visitors are asking (begging) more and more for an interactive experience rather than a lecture from a stodgy tour guide, HHMs might need digital collections and 3-D models more than any other kind of museum. Think about this: many HHMs have a strict “DO NOT TOUCH” policy when it comes to the collections. Yet how does this recreate a realistic home-life experience for the visitor? If a goal of HHMs is to allow visitors to experience what it was really like to live in the house, how does a hands-off policy achieve this? What person lives in a house and touches nothing (and does anyone really live in a house with Plexiglas over the bookshelves and velvet ropes in front of the bed)? Whose home is always perfectly set up to look as if no one has lived in it the way many HHMs are? This is where digital collections, 3-D models, and reconstructions can come in. While it would be unrealistic to recreate every object in the house, even having a few objects that visitors can touch, sit on, or interact with would greatly add to the visitor experience. An online digital collection where visitors can zoom in on and manipulate the objects in the house could also be an option and can be an effective stand in for those people who will, for whatever reason, never be able to visit a particular site. Digital collections accessed prior to a visit have also been known to increase visitor interest in a museum, which could improve declining visitor numbers at HHMs who do have an online collection. However, these endeavors require time, money, and resources which, unfortunately, many HHMs do not have.

Thus, I have more questions than answers about this topic when it relates specifically to HHMs (*sigh*). Is it necessary to create an online collection of objects that are not even original to the house or have anything to do with the house or site? If the objects are not original to the house, are they there to simply create the ‘experience’ of being in the house and how could this experience be recreated with a digital collection? Additionally, does it matter if non-original objects are touched by the public during a site visit? If an HHM is able to create a digital collection, how can they do it effectively so that it enhances the visitor experience rather than simply providing a picture with the same information from the proverbial house tour? What objects will be chosen and who has the final say in this? Will the visitor’s experience of the objects online and out of context from the house itself be as rich as an on-site visit? Is it even responsible to create an online collection if there are so many other issues with the house, and where on the ‘to-do list’ of HHMs should creating a digital collection fall? Is it an HHM’s responsibility to have an online collection for those who cannot visit the house?

These are just a few of the questions I have come up with (some of which came to me in the middle of writing this reply), but I think there are many more that are important to think about with regards to HHMs, their collections, and the possibility of digital collections. Let me know other questions or thoughts you have in the comments below!

Preservation & Presentation: Tourists at Historic Sites (Part II)

Today’s post comes to you from current Tufts Museum Education student Carlos Lu. Please check see last weeks’ post for Part I. Check out these posts for more of Carlos’ writings.

Last time I wrote about a common paradoxical issue that faces many historic site museums: how to present history to the public while maintaining the site from the wear that very public inflicts upon it.  While the natural inclination may be to focus on the maintenance of the site as the wear builds up, that approach is a purely reactive measure.  Instead I present to you readers two examples of sites that use active attempts to prevent the wear to their sites, both primarily focusing on the tourists themselves.  Additionally, I want to highlight a slightly controversial trend in how the detrimental effects tourism has on historic sites is perceived.

With the expectation that the wear caused by tourism will negatively affect the area, taking a preemptive approach to how tourists flow in and out of an environment can mitigate those affects before they happen.  In Gulyang, China students of architecture and civil engineering used Geographic Information Systems (GIS) in order to map out the movement and development of tourism over the past century within their hometown.  By tracking the development of street patterns, buildings related to tourism, and using an algorithm tracking the literal ‘flow’ of tourist movements, GIS software can predict the most economically likely places for future development and where this development might conflict with heritage sites.  If certain services such as hotels or restaurants can be used to direct tourism around particular locations rather than through them, archaeological sites and the governments that want to utilize them can help ensure their survival.  Then it becomes just a matter of modifying zoning laws.  Understanding the inherent morphological evolution and how space is utilized allows local governments to better plan more sustainable tourism at historic sites.  While the technology is still relatively new, it provides positive benefits for historic site museum preemptive care.

Another way to involve tourists in the preemptive care of historic sites is to educate them on what their visitation actually does.  By disseminating information to tourists about the detrimental effects tourism has on historic sites, tourists themselves can play an active role in conservation.  In Hwange National Park of Zimbabwe, tourists were given a survey about their knowledge on the safety of the animals in the preserve.  Using convenience sampling, the park was able to determine that more than two thirds of visitors had knowledge of the potentially hazardous materials their visitation could expose to the animals.  More importantly the survey revealed that while local visitors received their knowledge from newspaper media, and foreign visitors received their knowledge from internet sources, the biggest source of conservation knowledge was from word-of-mouth; a general awareness from their communities, family, and friends that careless tourism could negatively affect the wildlife in the park.  This indicated an increased need for awareness programs instituted by the park.  While a natural park reserve is not a historic site museum, care of the animals within present much the same concerns of human involvement seen at historic sites.  As such, the same conclusions can be drawn about the need for awareness programs, word-of-mouth advertisement, and ensuring visitors are aware of the potentially negative effects tourism has on historic sites.

Probably the best example in recent memory of the role of public awareness plays with the preservation of historic sites is the public media’s response to an incident at Luxor Palace in Egypt.  In 2013 a tourist named Ding Jinhao wrote in Chinese “Ding Jinhao was here” on the walls of Luxor Palace, scraping his message into the millennia old building.  This teenager has since been eviscerated on the Chinese social media tool Weibo, an analogue of Twitter in the States.  This mass social shaming extended to the governmental level when the Chinese government issued a public statement warning Chinese citizens to behave whilst overseas.  While we certainly wouldn’t endorse any form of social media browbeating, the incident triggered an important shift in how Chinese tourists treat the various sites they visit.  An alternative approach to inundating visitors with a sense of shame would be to offer more awareness to visitors on the lasting effects tourism has on historic sites, highlighting how past events have effected sites today.

The two teenagers from the U.K. who visited Auschwitz had a desire to cherish cultural heritage that is admirable.  The natural predilection to wanting to own a piece of history got the better of them, though, and is representative of a mistake on the part of the Auschwitz site itself.  Visitors need to be better educated to the effects their involvement at historic sites have.  History is ephemeral and a historic site museum, and any other museum for that matter, struggles in futile against the tide of time in order to preserve what little of the past it can.  But at the same time, tourism is an integral part of the maintenance and care of a historic site museum.  Aware of the problems that come with tourism, such as the regular use or the attempts to bring home trinkets, can better prepare a museum to face the issues as they arise.  The best thing a historic site museum can do is educate its visitors of not only the history the site has, but also the part tourists play in keeping that history alive.  That means not just the metaphorical way their experiences keep the stories of the past alive, but the actual, real way their efforts of preservation while visiting can keep a site going.  By being aware of this problem, museums and tourists can better manage their collections for future generations.

 

Preservation & Presentation: Tourists at Historic Sites (Part I)

Today’s post comes to you from current Tufts Museum Education student Carlos Lu. Please check back next Monday for Part II of Carlos’ post. Check out these posts for more of Carlos’ writings.

Earlier this summer two students from the U.K. were punished for attempting to steal from the museum at Auschwitz, the famous former Nazi extermination center.  Rather than an elaborate museum heist, these two teens on a school trip attempted to pocket a button, two pieces of glass, pieces of a hair clipper, and pieces of a spoon.  Convicted of a crime that typically carries a 1-10 year imprisonment sentence, they were released with a 1000 polish Zloty fine as a reduced sentence as they were both minors.  The two boys apologized profusely and claimed they picked up the items “without thinking”, not considering their act to bear as much significance as it did.  The museum curator confirmed that visitors often try to pilfer artifacts for souvenirs. Trying to bring a piece of history home, large or small, is virtually part of human nature.  This part of human nature, though, can mean a huge amount of detritus for historic site museums.  The Coliseum in Rome averages an annual 4 million visitors; if only .1% of these visitors decide to take a single pebble from the premises, that’s 4 thousand pebbles of the Coliseum lost a year.  These small numbers add up over time and result in some of the major wear historic site museums must face.

But tourism plays a major part in museums’ place in world society. As globalization increases, the importance of sharing the lessons and experiences of local heritage sites to foreign audiences grows with it.  Tourism invigorates local communities to shine a greater light upon their traditions, turning the familiar and mundane into showpieces to be relished by newer audiences. Old customs can be reborn as periphery celebrations to historic sites.  A sense of identity in the face of an increasingly homogenous world can be reinforced when the homogenous world comes to a community’s doorstep.  For tourists, visitation to historic sites broadens personal understanding and helps to reshape perspectives; learning about heritage and applying the feelings and experiences to your own life is the explicit purpose of heritage tourism.  Both parties strengthen their own cultural individuality while sharing their commonalities. This mating of cultures is only possible via heritage tourism, allowing cultures to share and mingle the memes that embody them.  As more of these memes are expressed and shared, they form the genes of the future, globalized society.  In order to ensure a healthy balance of cultural diffusion, proper conservation efforts must be made to ensure authenticity to the memetic exchange.  That is to say, a historic site museum’s objective includes the proper representation of the history embodied by its site, uninfluenced by the preconceived notions of its visitors.

While this may be enough motivation for the museum educator, the more promising result for a museum administrator is the financial benefits tourism provides.  The financial advantages of tourism for historic sites benefit and encourage conservation efforts in a self-perpetuating cycle to increase more tourism. In short, conservation efforts require funding and heritage tourism provides a means to this end.  In Peru, tourism funding is the primary source of income for the restoration efforts of the UNESCO world heritage site Machu Pichu. In Japan a concept called “green tourism” is used to divert funds to more rural areas.  By using historic sites in rural areas of Japan as the focus, townships plan to provide proper maintenance and care for the very sites they are using to lure tourists in.

So in the face of these problems, how can historic sites and historic museums perpetuate the restoration and conversation of their stewardship when the very process they use to fund this perpetuation causes even more damage?  Next time I’ll expand upon a few case studies of ways tourism and historic locations can coexist in peace.

Interpreting the Charlestown Navy Yard in Context

Today’s post comes to you from Carlos Lu, current Tufts student in the Museum Education Master’s program. Here, he discusses an experience he recently had at the USS Constitution Museum.

As part of training for my new position at the USS Constitution Museum, I visited the Charlestown Navy Yard’s Visitor Center. There, a National Park Services Ranger named Patrick Boyce proceeded to inform us about the position of the Charlestown Navy Yard as the “black sheep” of Boston’s National Park Services family.

The National Park Services (NPS) of Boston focuses primarily in handling and preserving sites important to the American Revolution, rightfully so as Boston is the inception of America’s choice to cast off its chains of colonialism and become its own, independently governed state. But that means the design of Massachusetts’ NPS interpretation is seen through the lens of the American Revolution. Where does this leave a shipyard that wasn’t built at the time of the American Revolution and saw its highest levels of use during the Second World War? If the responses from the park ranger is any indication, it leaves the still culturally significant, government run service feeling excluded, neglected, and pretty confused.

Let’s step back for a second. For those who don’t know, the Charlestown Navy Yard was built in the 18th Century to build ships capable of defending the United States’ merchant fleet from those who would do it harm, in particular the Barbary pirates from Algiers.  It was the construction site of the USS Constitution, one of the original six frigates that made up the United States Navy. Since that time its employment reached its peak during the Second World War when it employed women to support the “boys overseas” with their welding prowess.  In 1974, the Navy Yard became a National Historic Park of Boston.

Currently the red bricked path of the Freedom Trail leads right to the front door of the USS Constitution Museum and the Charlestown Navy Yard Visitor Center, both essential fonts of information for those wanting to learn about important times in Boston’s history. However, they are totally unrelated in time period to the other sites on the Trail.  Already as an educator at the museum I have had to field questions from visitors asking me the relevance of the USS Constitution to the American Revolution.  No, she did not fight the British during the Revolutionary War, she was actually built much after.  Yes, the British landed nearby during the Battle of Bunker Hill, but the Navy Yard wasn’t built yet at the time.  No, this is not a museum for the Constitution the document, but for the ship.

So how does the Charlestown Navy Yard highlight its important place in Boston’s history while distinguishing it from the Revolutionary War?

The Navy Yard does not have a concrete mission statement that encapsulates its importance to the city’s history.  Instead it falls under the greater NPS of Boston’s mission statement to encourage visitors to “Discover how one city could be the Cradle of Liberty, site of the first major battle of American Revolution, and home to many who espoused that freedom can be extended to all”.  Instead, the Navy Yard should focus its interpretational efforts on its role as a protector of American Liberty.  The USS Constitution and its five sister ships defended American interests across the seven seas, ensuring that along with the goods traded on board merchant vessels came American ideals of freedom.  The employment of women and African-Americans without a difference in pay during World War II speaks volumes to Boston’s history of racial and gender equality. This history could easily be interpreted throughout the Navy Yard, yet buildings like the Charlestown Ropewalk Complex, the oldest rope factory in the country, currently on its way to being turned into rental space for residents and commercial services, has nary a sign of historical interpretation in sight.

The Charlestown Naval Yard is a government run institution that has active Navy sailors, National Park Rangers, and civilian museum educators like myself working through its grounds.  That means that at least three institutions are working with varying goals to utilize the historic site, and yet despite this, or perhaps because of this, the Naval Yard does not get the attention in the public eye that such a historic landmark deserves. Utilizing resources from all three sites could lead to clearer interpretation and a stronger site.

 

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