Museum Studies at Tufts University

Exploring ideas and engaging in conversation

Category: Museum Topics (page 1 of 20)

Making Use of the Tools We Have

This week the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) announced that they will be closing their doors for four months later this year to complete their ongoing renovation and completely rehang their collection. When the museum reopens in the fall, they will rotate their collection more frequently, juxtapose works in different mediums, and, crucially, include more works that emphasize the contributions of women, people of color, and non-European artists to modern and contemporary art. They will also partner with the Studio Museum in Harlem, an American art museum that focuses on African American artists, to display their collection while that museum is being renovated.

This is a massive and much needed undertaking. Women and people of color have historically been included in MoMA’s exhibits in marginal ways. A 2015 Artnet survey of solo exhibitions from 2007-2014 at major American art museums found that only 20% of MoMA’s shows featured women artists. Not that these types of exclusion are limited to MoMA. Artnet recently looked at exhibitions of work by black artists at 30 major museums from 2008 to 2018 and found that they accounted for a mere 7.6 percent. So full-throated attempts to remedy these biases and gaps are welcomed. But not every museum can afford to close for months to revamp their space or aggressively collect work from marginalized artists. What can workers at those institutions do?

I recently attended a workshop on Social Justice and Museums run by Nicole Claris, Manager of School Programs at the MFA, Boston, and Sara Egan, from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. The workshop was put on by the Young Emerging Professionals group of the New England Museum Association. Its focus was on how to marshal resources to create exhibits, programming, and other experiences that surface marginalized lives and multiple points of view. Examples of real life successes were shared, like revamping a volunteer training program to give docents the knowledge and tools they needed to tell inclusive and truthful stories. Then step by step instructions for how to apply these intentions to your institution were shared:

  1. The work begins with you. Take a moment to check with yourself and see if you are able to take feedback about your work. It is ok to make mistakes, but we also have to be able to learn from them. This is how we build more inclusive experiences that share multiple perspectives.
  2. Define your goals and audience. What tools and objects do you already have in your institution? Perhaps it is a piece of art featuring a person of color. Are you telling that story? Maybe your historical institution starts its narrative when Europeans came on the scene. Can you surface the indigenous story as well?
  3. Get support. Determine how the actions you want to take relate to your institutional values and priorities. Identify people in your institution that could be allies. Build an external network of people who can help you do this work – who is doing this work that you can point to as a leader? What community organizations can you build relationships with to help your organization change? Who can help you with your blind spots and keep you honest?
  4. Identify activities that align with your goals. External resources from organizations doing this sort of thinking can help. Among those recommended were the Teaching Tolerance Project from the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Empathetic Museum Maturity Model.
  5. Use your collection! Know what you have, through and through. Take opportunities to research objects that you think might have another perspective to share.
  6. Picture success. What will change look like in your institution? Remember that incremental change is better than no change at all.

We don’t all work at MoMA, but we can all make changes that tell wider, more robust stories about art, history, science, and the world. Do you have resources for doing this sort of work? Share in the comments!

Iziko South African Museum: |Qe: The Power of Rock Art

This week I will be exploring the Iziko South African Museum in Cape Town, South Africa and the Museum’s attempt at decolonizing a controversial and culturally damaging exhibit space in the post-apartheid period.

The Iziko South African Museum (SAM) is one of an amalgamation of eleven national museums in the  Cape Town area.  The cluster of museums were founded in 1998 with legislation to break down the power structures in the existing museums. The Izizko Museums of South Africa include the South African National Gallery, the Bo-Kaap Museum, and even the interpretive areas of a local winery. Iziko means hearth in isiXhosa, one of the eleven national languages in South Africa. In the isiXhosa tradition the hearth is the social center of a home and is the space associated with warmth, kinship, and shared stories. In naming the national heritage institution after the hearth they are declaring them “centers of cultural interactions where knowledge is shared, stories told, and experiences enjoyed.”

Although SAM is part of the Iziko Museums, it has a longer history as the first museum in South Africa founded in 1825. The museum focused on natural history. Like many 19th century natural history museums, SAM included material culture from local indigenous groups while reserving cultural history museums for the display of settler culture. The practice of displaying cultural”others” next to animals in Natural History museums has long been opposed. This practice was exemplified with “Bushman” Diorama which had been on display in the museum since 1960. The display was controversial not just for its racial stereotyping and inaccurate representation of Khoe-San culture, but for the use of body casts that were taken from 1907 and 1924 which had been painful and humiliating for the participants.

The diorama was closed in 2001 and was replaced with |Qe: The Power of Rock Art. At the entrance to the exhibit space,  SAM acknowledges the harmful history of the space with a message Jatti Bredekamp, Iziko CEO.

|Qe- The Power of Rock Art is a milestone in the history of this Museum, the oldest on the African sub-continent. For almost a century the South African Museum housed some of the most significant examples of rock art produced by San artists, however it was better known for displays of plaster body casts that emphasized the physical features of san people rather that their history and culture.

The Tragic history of dispossession, brutality, and cultural loss that befell the San people at the hands of the colonial settlers was overlooked in favour of idealized displays that reinforced stereotypes. In 2001 the so-called Bushmen Diorama was closed to allow for a process of consultation with descendant communities. In planning the rock art exhibition we initiated a conversation with Khoe-San communities regarding the ways Iziko presents their cultural heritage. This has enriched the exhibition immensely and the dialogue will continue.

The exhibit opened for permanent display in 2003 with the aim of acknowledging the spiritual power rock art had for the indigenous people of southern Africa.  The exhibit title was developed with consultation of modern day speakers of N/u, a language related to /Xam, the now extinct language of the souther San. The use of the word “|Qe” is meant to convey the pervasive sense of power of the art.

When I visited in January of 2019, the exhibit had been updated slightly to reflect the recent finds from the Blombos Cave in South Africa. These finds have been used to show the earliest signs of art in Anatomically Modern Humans, previously designated to European rock art, with the discovery of carved ochre and what may have been the production of ochre pigments dating back 70,000 years. The exhibit itself was laid out over two rooms telling, in my opinion, three connecting stories: 1) The history of rock art in South Africa and the rest of the world 2) The production of rock art by San people prehistorically through modern day and its significance culturally and spiritually, and 3) The work of Wilhelm Bleek and Lucy Lloyd in the 1870’s to record the oral literature of the /Xam.

While the third story gave context to the interpretation of the rock art using the now extinct /Xam language, I felt its inclusion did a disservice to the exhibits intent of decolonizing the space. The Bleek and Lloyd story line exposed the “White Saviorism” the museum was still representing. For a more in depth critique of the exhibit and its disingenuous attempts at representation I recommend reading Remaking /Xam Narratives  in Post-Apartheid South Africa by Hendricks Mona D. Additionally, although the exhibit boasts its consultation with San communities, it is still displaying a historically “othered” group in a natural history museum. This point becomes complicated as often human material culture of the Pleistocene is relegated to Natural History Museums. However, the strength of this exhibit is in how it connects the early, prehistoric rock art to the modern-day San, as the continuation of a rich culture.

It is through the connection of the first and second storyline that the exhibit was most successful. When colonizers first found rock art in southern Africa they believed the art was too complex for the “primitive” San. The Khoe-San were racialized as being the lowest on the evolutionary time-scale. The connection between modern San rock art and prehistoric rock art turns that narrative around by showing the depth of San culture and tracing them back to the earliest Anatomically Modern Humans in South Africa. Furthermore, through the interpretation of recent rock art by descendants of /Xam speakers we can better understand the why? behind the rock art of South Africa.

While I think the Iziko South African Museum  has much work to do to decolonize its practices, |Qe: The Power of Rock Art, is an interesting exhibit in its telling of South African rock art. My hope is that the museum will continue to hold conversations with the Khoe-San communities and to break down the power structures upheld through colonialism and apartheid.

Further reading:

Remaking /Xam Narratives  in Post-Apartheid South Africa 

Limitations of Labels: Interpreting Rock Art at the South African Museum

The Politics and Poetics of the Bushman Diorama at the South African Museum

Open Access and Museum Collections

According to the American Alliance of Museums’ Characteristics of Excellence, a museum should, “guided by its mission, provide public access to its collections while ensuring their preservation.” Although museums protect over a billion objects, did you know that on average, less than five percent of a museum’s collection is on view for the public to enjoy? To make up for this, many museums have turned to the “visible storage” display strategy, in which collections not on exhibit are stored in open cases for the public to still see and enjoy.  While certainly effective, albeit overwhelming (and sometimes confusing, with little-to-no interpretive wall texts), more museums are instead embracing the digital age and implementing a completely accessible collection online.

For instance, last week, the Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA) announced its “Open Access” system, providing the public with free access to thousands of images from the Museum’s collection to learn from and even download to use for commercial purposes. With a simple click to the Museum’s collection page, users can now select an artwork, zoom in, and observe close details that are difficult to notice when the same object is placed behind a glass vitrine or on the wall in a gallery space. Moreover, it is now permissible to even download a high quality JPEG of the image, to use in any capacity one can imagine.

According to the Cleveland Museum’s website:

“Open Access means the public now has the ability to  share, collaborate, remix, and reuse images of many as 30,000 public- domain artworks from the CMA’s world-renowned collection of art for commercial and non-commercial purposes. In addition, portions of collections information (metadata) for more than 61,000 artworks, both in the public domain and those works with copyright or other restrictions, works are now available.”

The Cleveland Museum joins a growing list of institutions that have prioritized an accessible online database – open to students, scholars, and the general public to use without any restrictions. Other museums include the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Art Institute of Chicago, the National Gallery of Art, LACMA, the Getty, and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

In a recent study by Ian Gill, a graduate of San Francisco State University’s M.A. Museum Studies Program, it was found that museums with Open Access “benefit the public, promote scholarship, and align with the museum’s mission;” however, it is an expensive system to initiate without help from outstanding grants or other sources of funding. As an art historian who can easily spend hours searching through Google Images’ archives in search of a high quality photo of a specific artwork, I am excited to learn that the Cleveland Museum of Art has shared its diverse collection online, providing me with a new go-to source for finding JPEG images that are free under Creative Commons Zero.

What are your thoughts on Open Access?

Thinking about museum workplace communities

When we think about the people that comprise a museum’s community, sometimes we overlook the very core of that group: the staff. Like all non-profits and cultural organizations, museums often have a small but dedicated crew of people giving 110% toward accomplishing the museum’s mission. And they wouldn’t have it any other way, right? But besides the devoted staff, museums can also often rely on tight budgets, small headcount, and, for small museums, no formal HR department to handle the needs of the people. This can all lead to the feeling that museums are (or should be) a stressful place to work. This can be dangerous for a mission-driven workplace, leading to employee burnout.

Burnout is a bit of a buzzword these days, but with good reason: If an institution’s culture makes people feel exhausted, frustrated, and alienated from their work, people will and do leave. If an industry’s culture does it, they will leave the industry. And we know that has been happening, because people have been writing about it. And as a member of EMP groups online, I can testify that the agonizing conversation  over whether or not to leave the field is taking place all the time, all over the country. That turnover can mean that institutional knowledge is walking out the door faster than it can be replaced, making a museum even more difficult to work for because people are constantly having to reinvent the wheel to keep moving. Museums, like many non-profits and places that depend on inspiration to motivate labor, are places where a number of workplace issues can come together to drain staff of their energy, enthusiasm, and ability to build a great institution. As emerging museum professionals, we should know the signs of burnout and of work cultures that will hasten it. This way, we can try to avoid toxic workplaces and build or grow non-toxic ones as we go. The best way to do that is to think about how we like to be treated in our other communities and implement those processes in our workplaces.

In our other relationships and communities, communication and dialogue in which everyone gets to share their opinions and needs are valued. It may be useful then for museums to create venues for feedback from staff, just like they do for visitors! This can include anonymous surveys, “listening sessions,” where someone in management hosts a group of people to get their feedback, or “postmortems,” meetings after issues or events where problems are assessed and betterments for the next time are decided. Implementation and followup is key: when people share their concerns, institutions must try to figure out how to make progress toward common requests. Do people want more vacation? Can your institution create a flex time policy so people can work around school pickups, appointments, etc? Do people want more money? Can your institution arrange a salary review, comparing salaries to like institutions and see if they are at par? Take in information and communicate plans to address issues.

Let’s not underestimate how important it is to show gratitude and encourage development, either. Thank people for their work. Thank teams for their work. Recognize work publicly. Celebrate finishing a project or hitting a fundraising goal. Encourage professional development, even if it means that a staffer might eventually outgrow their position and leave. Think creatively about low or no cost ways to help your staff develop. And remember that feedback goes both ways! Does your institution do performance reviews? It is difficult to know if you are doing well or to set goals without data.

There are a number of resources and action groups people can get involved with if they want to work more directly on these issues. Joyful Museums is a blog that conducts an annual survey of museum workers and, as the title suggests, thinks about how to create better museums. Gender Equity in Museums Movement (GEMM), is an advocacy group working for equity and transparency in museums on a number of workplace issues and they offer a tipsheet about combating burnout.  The Western Museum Conference recently held a panel on workplace culture, and the thoughtful handouts are available online. Do you have more ideas for fighting burnout or creating a happy and productive museum workplace? Share them in the comments!

 

Adventures in Repatriation: Around the World and Down the Street

 

Last month, the Medford Public Library, in the town where Tufts University is located, announced an auction of “surplus goods”. The goods turned out to be a number of Native American religious objects, including shaman’s masks and rattles and a totem pole, all of considerable monetary value. The items were donated to the library in the 1880s by James G. Swan, a Medford-born collector of Native American objects, long before the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) was passed in the 1990s. The auction was halted by the mayor of Medford, Stephanie M. Burke, after public outcry organized by American Indian groups took hold.

Even though NAGPRA governs ownership and repatriation of sacred indigenous objects and remains in the hands of institutions that receive federal funds, not all organizations have completed the required inventory of objects that apply to this law. An incident like this might have happened and could still happen anywhere in the country. Native American object collecting was incredibly popular in the late 19th century, as indigenous people were thought to be “vanishing” as the conquest of the American continent completed. It is entirely likely that similar collections exist unprocessed in the archives of other libraries, schools, or museums across the country, and that more attempts to auction goods may take place in the future against a background of dwindling federal funds for cultural institutions.

Controversies around objects stolen from indigenous, colonized, and otherwise disempowered people around the world are making news every day now, in a flood that is by turns both reparative and dismaying. Under reparative, the President of France, Emanuel Macron, recently announced the planned return of 26 works of Dahomey art to the Benin government, who formally requested their return a number of years ago. Macron suggested that more such repatriations would be forthcoming, an important step in acknowledging the role France had in the destructive colonization of Africa in the 19th century.

Under dismaying, however, one can find any number of refusals including the famed Benin Bronzes or the Kohinoor Diamond, all of which remain in British hands for now. But changes may be underway. Not only are governments demanding the return of cultural objects from colonizing countries, in some cases countries or individuals are stealing objects out of the Western museums that keep them. Private citizens are also forming groups to wage social media campaigns that pressure institutions to return works to home countries.

As technology and globalization conspire to shrink the world, the call to return wrongfully obtained objects will only grow louder. Amid the din, protests and refusals from governments and institutions still holding ill-gotten treasures will sound like the weak excuses they are. In an attempt to counter tours that highlight illicit artworks at the British Museum, the museum has developed a series of lectures that focus on the proper provenance of many works originating in other countries. While any move toward transparency is positive, telling a partial story designed to improve an organization’s credibility while ignoring the larger issue the institution is complicit in is marginally laudable. With some luck and a lot of guilt and outcry, however, the public can keep pushing this important conversation to a place of resolution, rather than obfuscation.

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