Museum Studies at Tufts University

Exploring ideas and engaging in conversation

Category: Museum Topics (page 2 of 16)

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?

Living in the Past: The Heritage House Program at Strawbery Banke Museum

This week’s contribution comes from Emma Cook, who is in her second year in the Masters of Museum Studies/History program, and  is the Collections Department Intern at Strawbery Banke Museum in Portsmouth, NH. 

In a transitional world, museums face the pressures to stay relevant to society. Change has redefined the public’s idea of museum experiences and definitions of patriotism. Public demand has grown for museums to reinvent themselves in ways that will increase public engagement and relevance, while maintaining sustainability in historic preservation and financial affairs. Strawbery Banke has many traditions and has relied on many traditional practices, but the museum understands its need to adapt and remain flexible in an ever-changing society. What separates Strawbery Banke from other outdoor museums is its preservation of one of the oldest neighborhoods in urban America, spanning a lifetime of nearly four centuries that has been brought back to life by the museum and the city of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The Heritage House Program creates the opportunity for community members to live and work within a historic American neighborhood, while providing financial sustainability in the preservation of its historic houses.

Strawbery Banke consists of 39 preserved historic buildings, with many on their original foundations. These historic houses interpret the past culture and lives of individuals who resided in Puddle Dock from the 1690s to the neighborhood’s decline in the 1950s. The Heritage House Program was designed to revitalize underutilized buildings on the Strawbery Banke Museum property for rental space and museum revenue. The program not only preserves the historic structures and restores them to a specific period in time; it provides residential and commercial space to the local community, and a substantial income for sustainable pursuits. The Heritage House Program contains 15 buildings that, when completed, will provide contemporary residential apartments and offices. So far there are seven completed apartments and six buildings containing 31 offices. The work is funded by individuals, corporations, grants, and in-kind contributions with a percentage of the annual rental income from each unit reserved for the preservation fund to ensure continued maintenance and funding for all historic houses on the museum campus.

Presently, the Penhallow House is in the workings of a complete restoration with Heritage House Program funding. This historic house is a site on the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail and the only “saltbox” house remaining at Strawbery Banke Museum. Further planning and communications are underway in developing the future role of this historic house at Strawbery Banke Museum.

Since its rescue from the 1950s city renewal projects, the Strawbery Banke Museum has not only found control of its own site and economy, but also shared authority with its community and city history. The vast changes in the museum’s look, function, and internal structure, over the years since its establishment in 1978, demonstrate an ever-changing dynamic of a reinventing museum. The ability to not only find funding through modifying excess space, but also including the community to utilize this space, is a unique strategy worth learning from, as the Heritage House Program exemplifies historic preservation with an outcome of community inclusion through rental space and revenue to support museum operations and exhibition space.

An Unanticipated Session at AAM 2017

The next few weeks we will be posting reflections from students who attended the American Alliance of Museums Annual Meeting and Conference, held in St. Louis, Missouri, May 6-10. This first post comes from Max Metz, a current M.A. candidate in the Museum Education program at Tufts. 

Just blocks away from the Old Saint Louis Courthouse in downtown Saint Louis Missouri, where in 1846 Dred and Harriet Scott filed for their freedom from slavery, the American Alliance of Museums held its 2017 Annual Meeting and Museum Expo. This year’s theme was “Gateways for Understanding: Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion in Museum,” a theme that showed its importance and pertinence within the conference itself at an unanticipated session.

On Sunday, the LF Creative Group, an art and fabrication studio, set up their sales display of two manikins with the intention of showing their best work, create an emotional response, and to sell their products to museums and cultural institutions alike. They were unaware that their choice of an enslaved black man, chained to a post, chest bare, alongside a white slave trader, would create the kind of reaction that eventually overtook aspects of the conference. Early Monday, Michael Furlund, employe of LF Creative Group, was coming in to ready his display when he happened upon a black female on the cleaning staff almost in tears after seeing the two figures in his booth – a sign of what was to come. The AAM community took to twitter where the #AAM2017SlaveAuction hashtag was born and within 24 hours AAM president Laura Lott had weighed into the discussion and eventual the enslaved man manikin was covered in a black cloth.

Between late Tuesday and the close of the Annual Meeting and Museum Expo on Wednesday, conference goers and the CEO of LF Creative Group, Rodney Heiligmann, were able to address concerns and explain the company’s stance in front of a crowd of more than 100 conference-goers. This productive conversation did not happen naturally, but needed to be mediated and facilitated to keep it productive and civil. Participants on both sides were becoming too heated when Dina Bailey, CEO at Mountain Top Vision, stepped in to mediate the conversation. Under her calm and respectful guidance, the conversation was able to proceed and create a learning experience for all present.

 Looking at this controversial, impromptu conversation like a session, I had a few takeaways that were profound to me. Although I did have more than these four takeaways, I personally found these more accommodating – they created new areas of experience that I can weigh on in my future.

Social Media

The power of social media is both terrifying and liberating – awesome in the truest sense of the word. If I was not following the conference on Twitter and I did not try to engage in the digital space as well as the physical space of the conference, I would have missed this entire event. The terrifying power is that of the troll and the negativity that can erupt out of social media to create a volatile situation. The liberation comes from the ability to see diverse perspectives in an unregulated and open space that is accessible everywhere. While following #AAM2017SlaveAuction, one of the first hashtags I have ever followed (ever), I was amazed by the moderating behavior of some users and the incendiary behavior of others.  I do not think that users truly understand the power of their words, and the tone and emotion behind those words, when amplified by social media. If it was not for a few moderators that brought some calm to the hashtag, the conversation would have developed into a riotous, unproductive space. However, with their mediation online and their calm, information began to permeate, not just emotion.


Just like the digital space, the physical space did not have a productive conversation immediately. One or two outspoken opponents of the company began to control the dialogue and amp up the emotions in the room. The productive conversation that eventually took place in the exhibition hall was almost missed had  a skilled museum educator not stepped up to the plate and offered to mediate the conversation. As Heiligmann began to speak, museum professionals heckled him, while he tried not to react negatively.  The situation was developing into an unruly mob. I was on the “side” of the museum professionals asking for more answers. However the way in which the conversation was proceeding was unproductive until deliberate steps were made to create a conversation instead of a one-sided protest. Together we stated the problems, gathered information on both sides, understood the problem from various perspectives, and created a set of recommendations for all of us to take away from this unfortunate situation.

Confrontation vs Dialogue

Much of the unrest came from the booth attendant, a fabricator and artist with the company, who was unprepared for the situation. I had the opportunity to overhear him interact with museum professionals at the booth before the larger session with the CEO, and it was clear that the stances that both sides had were too deeply seated to have productive dialogue, it was only resulting in heated confrontation and deeper heals in the sand. He was not around for the CEO’s session, however I happened to run into him on the other side of the exhibit hall, outside of the context of the intense situation. We chatted and I was really able to understand his point of view and I made sure he was able to understand mine, and the many others who were opposing his view. When we were outside of the intense context created by the manikins and I was not attacking him, he did not attack back and we communicated. When overhearing interactions at the booth, there was just noise being directed back and forth at each party – there was no listening taking place. I was happy to be able to listen to him, disagree with him, and walk away understanding him in the end. We must diffuse before we can communicate.

An Industry “About” Learning Not “Of” Learning

Much of the argument that the employee used to combat the criticism of much of the conference-goers had to do with the division between museum expo exhibitors and museum conference attendees. Although both audiences were under the same umbrella of inclusion, diversity, equity, and access, not all were present for the same reason. Exhibitors are there to sell products and grow business, while attendees are there to learn and grow perspectives – neither of these aims is wrong, but they are not productive in the same space. I do believe that there needs to be a larger emphasis in the industry, encompassing vendors and museum-based professionals, about education and the greater mission of our institutions. There needs to be a bigger push for exhibitors to attend sessions and interact with other attendees in a less transactional space. Furthermore, non-exhibitors should expose and educate themselves to the “other side” of the industry that makes exhibitions, publications, interactives, multimedia, etc. happen so that we can promote learning inside our four walls. A greater mixing of the two groups with the goal of education and understand could help prevent a situation like this from happening in the future.

Follow the links below below to view images of the the Old St. Louis Courthouse, the LF Creative Group booths, and the “Slave Auction”  Installment at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum respectively.


About the Author: Max Metz is a second year graduate student in the Museum Education program at Tufts University. He is the Manager and Anne Larner Educator at the Durant-Kenrick House and Grounds of Historic Newton. As a nontraditional educator, Max flows freely between various atypical teaching and learning environments from museums to parks, deep in the forest or deep in the neighborhoods, and contemporary art settings to historic houses. He consideres himself a facilitator of educational experiences who uses interpretation to reveal the personal context and connections behind the resources at hand.


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