Museum Studies at Tufts University

Exploring ideas and engaging in conversation

Category: Museum Topics (page 1 of 16)

Interpreting Aboriginal Culture- An Australian Outlook

This week’s post is brought to you by Melissa Kansky, a first-year student in the Museum Education M.A. program at Tufts,


Image 1 :  (Bark Painting exhibited at the Art Gallery of NSW)

Image 2    (Political poster, Museum of Contemporary Art, Australia )


Museums provide a lens into a community’s cultural identity, as well as the social issues that define its history and development. During Winter Intersession, I had the opportunity to travel to Australia. While abroad, I relied on art museums to uncover the layered history of the unfamiliar place. Despite the unique character of each museum, they exhibited similar themes, revealing dominant questions that permeate Australian society. The national institutions consistently used their respective collections to address the country’s colonization practices and resulting injustices against the Aboriginal people.

Similar to museum practices in the United States, Australian museums have, historically, depicted indigenous culture as static and archaic. Displays of Aboriginal culture had been restricted to anthropological museums, which provoke visitors to associate Native heritage with primitive and obsolete populations. However, in 1959, the former deputy director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales advocated that the museum include Aboriginal works, moving indigenous culture from the domain of natural history into an art context. Although controversial at the time, the decision acknowledges that Aboriginal experiences contribute to present Australian identity and enable Aboriginal peoples to direct their narrative. Aboriginal artists produced the series of Bark Paintings, exhibited on the first floor of the museum, specifically for the gallery. As a result, the artists determined the way in which their culture was presented for public consumption. Additionally, wall text often includes the artist’s voice and perspective, permitting both artist and curator to contribute to the interpretive process.

In addition to elevating Aboriginal voice, museums also highlight persistent colonization practices. An exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia illustrates current issues regarding land ownership and indigenous rights. The temporary exhibit, “Word: MCA Collection,” contains political posters from the permanent collection. The posters respond to displacement and cultural appropriation. The contemporary collection indicates these social injustices are not confined to Australian history, but influence present political structures, showing that museums must be courageous enough to not only participate in, but also advance, challenging conversations that shape the country.

While Australia is certainly not perfect in its museum practice, the country offers a model for greater inclusion of indigenous perspective. In the United States, the Abbe Museum, located in Bar Harbor, Maine, has positioned itself as a leader in decolonizing museum practices, which demands sharing authority for the documentation and interpretation of Native culture. Nevertheless, indigenous collections have, largely, been limited to natural history museums, tribal museums, or indigenous-focused museums. In contrast, exhibitions in non-disciplinary museums expand where visitors encounter Native voice and the way it is incorporated in the community’s story. Museums that prominently feature Native artists signify that the experiences of marginalized populations are part of our national character.

New Year, New Museums

Happy New Year Museum lovers!

Here’s to the next twelve months of dialogue, thoughtful interpretation, social action, and reflection in our institutions.

With a new year, comes a host of new museums opening around the world!  Here are 8 new museums opening in 2018. Take a look, be inspired, and plan a visit!

  •  Guardian Art Center, Beijing
    • Opening: May 2018
    • This institution serves the public in a bi-fold manner; a museum and a modern auction house. It is an innovative idea for a creative, modern space set amid the ancient backdrop of Beijing
  • The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, Montgomery, Alabama
    • Opening: April 2018
    • This powerful museum, located at the location of the former slave warehouse in Montgomery, will explore historical and contemporary issues of slavery, segregation, racial terrorism, etc.
  • Grand Egyptian Museum, Giza Egypt
    • Opening: Late 2018
    • Not only does this massive institution display objects relating to Egypt’s colorful history, this museum provides one of the best views from which to view the colossal pyramids!
  • Institute for Contemporary Art at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), Richmond, VA
    • Opening: April 2018
    • The largest arts project in this college’s history, this Institute of contemporary art will be opening with a show comprised of 30 artists, all dealing with contemporary, Social Issues
  • Victoria and Albert Museum of Design, Dundee, Scotland
    • Opening: Late Summer 2018
    • Scotland’s first museum to exclusively display design throughout the 20th century, is anchored in the River Tay, Yes, it is an actual floating watercraft.
  • Nordic Museum, Seattle, Washington
    • Opening May 2018
    • Even the structure of this museum screams NORWAY, as the angular walls are meant to represent fjords. Check out Scandinavian film, art, history, and culture in this smartly designed space.
  • Glenstone Museum, Maryland,
    • Opening: late 2018
    • This museum, featuring landscape, architecture, and contemporary art, is set to include a water garden in its newly constructed space right outside of DC.
  • Fotografiska, London
    • Opening November 2018
    • With an original branch in Sweden, this photography museum is expanding to London, and will feature exhibits all year round from legendary photographers

Should art museums be for everyone? Yes. But can they be for everyone? Not yet.

This Week’s Post Comes from Kelsey Petersen, a First Year MA student in the Art History and Museum Studies program. 

Should art museums be for everyone? Yes. But can they be for everyone? Not yet. Although many museums promote themselves as institutions open to all, not everyone feels welcome upon stepping through their doors. For someone who has never been to a museum, it
can be intimidating to access a space with historical objects that he or she may know nothing about, especially considering how so many art museums themselves are far from accessible. With rising admission fees, limited daytime hours, and an ever-pervasive air of elitism, museums still have progress to make to become more relevant, inclusive, and responsive for all, no matter one’s education, race, gender, and socioeconomic status.

Art historian and curator James Cuno has argued, the problem lies in the fact that “while anyone who can enter an art museum is free to be part of the elite experience it offers, the issue is not about access but rather about institutionalization, about who decides what art will comprise the elite experience.”  Certainly, as anyone can infer by examining the makeup of trustee boards and staff, museums continue to perpetuate white (and presumably heterosexual and male) culture. Could this cultural homogeneity from the top account for the reason that most audiences are predominantly white? Since their beginning, museums have been selective in their audiences, carefully choosing a select few to engage with the art and objects within. Originally, only the bourgeois could access these private collections. Even though. The Imperial Collection in Vienna, for example, did not allow individuals in without clean shoes, immediately discriminating against the working class population and those who could not afford a carriage to arrive at the museum.

Museums today, of course, do not have such flagrant policies; however, their operating features continue to prevent approachable access. By only having their galleries open from 10AM-5PM, Monday thru Saturday, they are barring entry to the average individual with a full-time job. With entrance fees that sometimes run as high as $25 for a single ticket, not including special exhibition prices, museums are inherently closing themselves off to a large portion of the population. While many institutions have taken the steps to avoid this exclusion by opening late on certain days or having monthly free days – they still continue to be an intimidating and inaccessible space. To combat these ongoing issues, I argue that more museums should follow the model of the Anacostia Museum in D.C., which sought to “encompass the life of the people of the neighborhood – people who are vitally concerned about who they are, where they came from, what they have accomplished, their values, and their most pressing needs.” 3 As John Kinard, the founding director of the Anacostia has stated, museums “must have relevance to present-day problems that affect the quality of life here and now.” 4 If more museums adhered to this idea, I think they would experience an increase in attendance from individuals who don’t normally visit. The Currier Museum of Art in Manchester, New Hampshire recently adopted this model to appeal to the city’s high number of veterans by putting on two exhibitions about the Vietnam and Iraq Wars, and ensuring its veteran voices were included. The Museum has also recently started an art program for individuals with family members abusing opioids, in response to Manchester’s high death toll from the opioid crisis. Ultimately, by creating spaces and programs that directly appeal to and impact a museum’s community and surrounding neighborhoods, museums can cultivate and intrigue more visitors from a broader scope.

NEMA Session Review: Leading From All Levels: What You Can Do for Social Justice

This week’s post comes from Sarah Coulter, a first year student in the Museum Education M.A. program at Tufts. 

During the 99th Annual New England Museum Association Conference, I attended a session that facilitated deep thinking and reflection on how museum professionals can bring the social justice lens into their own work. The session, Leading From All Levels: What You Can Do for Social Justice, was facilitated by Sara Egan and Nicole Claris. Egan is the School Partnership Manager at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston and Claris is the Manager of School Programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Both women have created internal programs at their institutions that promote reflection, dialogue and action.

The session started with a mindfulness activity led by Nicole that helped center the group in what we were going to be doing. From here, they asked us what are we going to do with this information once we leave the session. The main idea of the session was to help other museum professionals identify their sphere of influence at their own institutions and what can one do within that sphere to promote equity and open-dialogue about that.

Nicole Claris then spoke about her own sphere of influence at the MFA. She identified that as the training program for MFA Gallery Instructors. She has been working for the past six years to make the training more inclusive. To do this she has worked to make the trainings speak to all of the museum’s collections, incorporate classroom teachers into how the instructors are taught, and make students real aspects of the training. Claris works to make equity part of her trainings every day, even in the smallest ways.

Sara Egan had a different sphere of influence at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. She saw her sphere as the whole museum. Over a year ago she wanted to help staff connect with each other and build emotional support. For her, she wanted a regular opportunity for people who work together to talk to each other, outside of just work based conversations. This idea manifested itself into “Sanctuary for Staff,” a monthly discussion series where staff are invited to meet on the first Friday of each month.

Both facilitators identified that their spheres of influences were vastly different but that they show that leadership can happen at any level. From the examples they gave, the session moved into a workshop about how we as museum professionals can enact our own spheres of influences.

Here are 6 guiding steps to begin this process.  

  1. The Work Begins with You. 

– You must learn and acknowledge your values, assumptions, and biases to begin this process. Seek out resources that widen your perspective and practice empathy.

  1. Picture Success

– Articulate your goals. Determine what indicators will mark progress, be patient and celebrate small victories.

  1. Identify Your Sphere of Influence

– Where is this? Who will be in the room?

  1. Build Institutional Support or Not?

– How do your goals relate to institutional values and priorities? Build a network, this will keep you honest.

    5. Identify Activities That Align with Your Goal

– Learn best practices, methods (VTS, Empathy Toolkit). Set clear expectations and meet people where they are.

  1. Put Your Collection to Work

– Incorporate the materials you already have into your practice.

After this discussion, we broke off and used a worksheet that helped outline what we can do once we get back to our own institutions and how we can identify our own spheres of influence. The practicality of this session was super engaging and really sparked some interesting discussions about the role museums play as agents of change, even within their own staff. I think this session held a lot more meaning for me because it was something that I could hopefully implement at a museum I work at. My main takeaway was no matter your role in a museum there is always the opportunity to spark change and discussion about equity, even in the smallest ways. All the participants left with the knowledge of how to effectively start this process.

Rethinking Relevance

Be relevant. Is there a phrase we’ve recently heard more often than this one in the museum field? It’s tossed around a lot. So much so, in fact, that I’m getting kind of tired of it. But these past few months I’ve had multiple conversations and experiences that have led me to reflect on relevance even more, and I’ve realized that maybe the reason it’s the subjects of so many conferences, books, and blog posts is because:

  1. It’s super important, especially for public institutions such as museums
  2. It can take a LOT of effort and skill to implement well
  3. It’s more complex than it seems at first

So, if you can bear yet another voice on this subject, let me share a few words about my recent reflections. And in light of it’s complexity, let me start with the simple definition, put forth by Merriam-Webster, that relevance is something with a “practical and especially social applicability.”

That’s a pretty broad definition, but it speaks to our conversations around relevance that almost all speak to the ‘applicability’ part. Whenever I hear conversations about relevance, they seem to focus on specific techniques but only briefly, if at all, mention why these practices matter. While techniques are critical, I think we’re selling ourselves, and our communities, short if we gloss over our reasons for implementing them. Motivation and technique always go hand in hand when implementing and practicing values.

Three motivations that I see are a:

  • Drive for numbers: Some museums see relevance as a tool to increase the number of visitors at the museum. The American Alliance of Museums’ (AAM) blog has a section titled “Building Cultural Audiences” devoted to conversations about expanding visitors through better understanding of their preferences and organizational adjustments.
  • Drive to serve: Other museums put the emphasis on their role as an institution in service to their community, as outlined in ICOM’s 2007 definition of a museum.
  • Drive to collaborate: Nina Simon discusses in her book The Art of Relevance the concept of an assets-based focus in which museums work with their community’s assets and collaborate rather than serve.

While a museum can be motivated by each of these, they will at times be faced with a choice that does not accommodate all – and then which will they choose?

Motivation aside, there are many different techniques to increasing relevance. But they seem to fall into two categories:

  • Situational relevant techniques include programs that capitalize on time, anniversaries, or trends – high interest areas that increase visitors. Think blockbuster exhibits, exhibits and programs commemorating an event, or trends in technology. However, each such program is temporary and so begs the questions: do the additional visitors stay engaged with the institution for a long duration? If not, does this count as relevance?
  • The flip side of situational relevance is engagement integrated into the institution. Museums that follow this method demonstrate a long-term commitment to relevance in their community through outside partnerships and the institutional culture. It often involves strong mission-based programming, listening to the community, long-term commitments, and focusing on assets.

While reflecting on these different motivations and techniques, I at first thought that integrated techniques motivated by a desire to serve or collaborate were better. But then I thought about the diversity of museums and began questioning whether relevance does, or should, look the same at all of them. Is there one standard that all museums need to reach in order to be considered ‘relevant?’

Characteristics such as size and location of a museum and their audience do not need to change the motivation, but they sure have an impact on the techniques. Does one technique denote more or less relevance than another? And therefore, are some museums positioned better to be relevant than others?

Many large institutions fall into the situational category with large exhibits and programs, while smaller institutions may find it harder to accommodate trends but easier to integrate a new value into their entire staff. To compensate for such differences, large museums could create advisory teams to work more closely with specific communities and small museums could find smaller/cheaper ways to integrate situational techniques.

It’s easy to see a few programs a museum is doing and walk away critiquing their level of relevance. But of course there are many actions and conversations we don’t see if we don’t work there. And we also need to recognize that most museums are on a path towards increased relevance and these journeys may look different for different museums. What would it look like for our field to encourage one another along this process, while holding each other accountable, rather than judge from afar?

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