Museum Studies at Tufts University

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Category: Museum Topics (page 3 of 12)

Museums in the News: Debate Over the Confederate Flag Rages On [Part Two]

Today we bring you Part Two of an article by Claire Pettit, currently a Tufts student in the Museum Studies certificate program. For Museums Today: Mission and Function, the foundation course required for all Museum Studies students, students research and report on a recent topic regarding museums in the news. Claire’s examination of the role of the Confederate flag in museum collections is in two parts. Please check out Part One, posted yesterday, here.

Museums have not always been as inclusive as they are today. In the past, museums focused on cataloging the collections of wealthy men. They were exclusive men’s clubs and did not open to the public until the early 1800s. As Colonial Revival took hold in the mid to late 1800s, museums became places that reflected a simpler time and upper class ideals. The inclusivity and accessibility that many museums tout today was nowhere to be found. Today, museums incorporate accessibility and a code of ethics. While many controversial collections remain in storage, many others are on display and invite visitors to think about a topic that could make them a bit uncomfortable.

While it is important to be ethical and inclusive, museums also have to figure out how to handle patrons who may disagree with museum practices. In the case of the Museum of the Confederacy, many members terminated their membership over the controversy about the Confederate flag. Those who donated family heirlooms to the museum’s collection did so “believing that this was going to be a memorial to the Confederacy, and the Confederate soldier and the cause for which he fought.” As the museum’s physical structure and name (as described above) changed, so did its mission. This did not sit well with many Virginians and other Southern groups who visited.

When the community around a museum is unhappy with the museum’s practices, it affects visits and membership. This brings up a potentially difficult situation, because local support and funding as well as wealthy member donations have the power to sway the path of a museum. In the case of the Museum of the Confederacy, their mission now states that their goal is:

 

“To be the preeminent center for the exploration of the American Civil War

 and its legacies from multiple perspectives: Union and Confederate, enslaved

 and free African Americans, soldiers and civilians.”

 

The issues and lessons to be learned from the Museum of the Confederacy’s dilemma about how to interpret the Confederate battle flag relate to the museum profession as a whole. How each museum decides to deal with potentially uncomfortable topics projects to the community and to the world exactly what the purpose of museums is. If museums want to be places like the historic house museums of Colonial Revival where negative history is ignored and replaced by with a halcyon glow around them, there is a decision to be made. If museums want to introduce an historical event from many perspectives, like the Museum of the Confederacy began to do, that comes with an entirely different set of staff training needs and visitor assumptions.

A museum event, exhibition, or program that gets visitors interacting about this encounter offers a chance to deal with different perspectives respectfully. Consider an event this past July. Leroy Smith, an African American public safety officer on detail at a white supremacist rally following the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the South Carolina State House. As an older protester, decked out in full swastika-covered attire, begins to falter, Smith went to him and helped him up the steps to get some water.
Ultimately, and interestingly, the flag removed from the South Carolina State House made its way to a state-controlled museum. This is a powerful move, underlining the responsibility that museums have to care for such objects. Museums also take on the decision of just how to display and frame these controversial symbols within its walls. This is a big responsibility, bringing with it the potential for loss of membership and funding, as the Museum of the Confederacy discovered. Yet it also offers the possibility for engaging discussions and inspiring change. Education programs and programming related to controversial collections objects or museum topics can be a helpful way to draw visitors into the discussion.

In the words of South Carolina’s lieutenant governor Tate Reeves, “Flags and emblems are chosen by a group of people as a symbol of all that unites and ties the group together. The good and bad in our shared history, and all that we have learned from it, is something that ties us together.” There is a place for museums to take a role in mitigating controversy rather than avoiding it. There is still more to be done to confront controversy head on, dealing with negative aspects of history and using discussions to illuminate contemporary issues. The most effective service a museum can offer is a forum for discussion. Creating a safe space for the community to come together and navigate issues is a far better way to deal with continuing controversy. Difficult histories exist and ignoring them does not make them disappear.

Museums in the News: Debate Over the Confederate Flag Rages On [Part One]

Today we bring you an article by Claire Pettit, currently a Tufts student in the Museum Studies certificate program. For Museums Today: Mission and Function, the foundation course required for all Museum Studies students, students research and report on a recent topic regarding museums in the news. Claire’s examination of the role of the Confederate flag in museum collections will be in two parts. Part Two will be posted tomorrow morning, so stay tuned!

“It’s an hysteria—we just want to fly this flag for family, for Grandpappy. This whole thing is basically insulting and demeaning our respect for our ancestors.”

~Ben Jones, Sons of Confederate Veterans

“I believe our state’s flag has become a point of offense that needs to be removed.”

~Philip Gunn, Mississippi Republican

 

To this day, the politics of the United States are deeply divisive when it comes to the symbolism surrounding the Confederate battle flag. After the killing of nine members of an African American congregation in Charleston, S.C., South Carolina’s Senate decided to remove the Confederate battle flag from the grounds of their state house. Confederate veterans’ descendants who donated to the collections of Virginia’s Museum of the Confederacy with the understanding that it was a memorial to the Confederacy became angered when the battle flag was not displayed there. Politicians in the South continue to debate over whether or not the flag should continue to be flown at public buildings. Many simply want to avoid angering people and agree to take down the controversial symbol.

John M. Coski is trying to change the perception of the Confederate flag. As chief historian at the Museum of the Confederacy, his goal is to “’modernize from a shrine’ to the Old South.” Recently, the museum joined forces with the American Civil War Center and they now operate under the title of the American Civil War Museum. But many other Virginians take issue with this, chide the museum for keeping their flags in storage, and have terminated their membership to the museum. There are hundreds of confederate flags in the collections at the Museum of the Confederacy. Do they need to be hidden? Is this harming or helping the process of dealing with the controversy?

In this vein, many of the flags at the Museum of the Confederacy have personal touches that set them apart from the mainstream view of racism so many people associate them with. They are created from bridal gowns or incorporated into an apron. There are also many versions of the Confederate flag, not all resembling the controversial Confederate battle flag. Recently, Christy Coleman (an African American museum specialist) and S. Waite Rawls (a descendant of Confederate soldiers) teamed up to run a new branch of the Museum of the Confederacy in Appomattox, VA. There, they display the collection’s diverse Confederate flags to show the many versions of the flag, not just the Confederate battle flag. They hope that by doing this, the multitude of meanings the flag has taken on over time can begin to be discovered. The discovery and acceptance of these many meanings is difficult to structure in a way that remains inclusive to a wide variety of visitors. Programming at the Museum of the Confederacy deals with learning about a day in the life of a Confederate soldier, a black Southerner, and a woman or child left at home during the Civil War.

This is the story of the path that the Museum of the Confederacy took to deal with the controversial object (or objects) in its collection. However, the questions raised by the Confederate battle flag can also be asked of many other museums with diverse, controversial collections. This same tale of controversy springs up again and again at museums dealing with slavery, the Holocaust, death, the Gulag, and nudity.  These types of topics tend to be played down in an attempt to create a “feel good” museum experience. Time and again museums learn that ignoring tough times in history is not a helpful thing to do. When serving the public, there is an ethical necessity to inspired discussion. So museum professionals and visitors alike need to think about the questions: Should the battle flag remain in storage? What are some thoughtful ways to display or present it? What are the teaching possibilities for the Museum of the Confederacy’s flag collection? The answers to these questions can influence exhibitions and programming at other museums who confront similar issues.

What Good Is A Museum? Secret Shelters at the Heritage Museums and Gardens

Today we bring you an article by Kathryn Sodaitis, currently a Tufts student in the Museum Studies certificate program. For Museums Today: Mission and Function, the foundation course required for all Museum Studies students, students read Adam Gopnik’s “The Mindful Museum” and use it to create a discussion around the question, “What Good Is A Museum?”.

What makes some exhibitions more memorable than others?  A meaningful experience can delight and surprise us, and motivates us to return.  This summer, I visited Heritage Museums and Gardens in Sandwich, MA where I had such an experience.  Heritage has a small permanent collection of Americana–antique cars, scrimshaw, folk art, and an antique carousel–all located in several buildings scattered throughout the grounds, and a special exhibition gallery, which houses new exhibits each summer.  But it is the gardens that make Heritage Museums unique. They span 100 acres and include paved walking paths as well as unusual features such as a flume waterfall installation, a maze, and a labyrinth.  Each season, different artists are invited to build temporary installations.  

Heritage offers its visitors a specific type of outdoor experience, merging the natural world with creative works.  It is these outdoor installations that offer a different experience of time and place.  This type of work requires full presence in order to engage with the art.   

The pieces I encountered on this trip were part of a temporary exhibition entitled Secret Shelters.  Each piece is placed into the land, bringing your attention to a specific location:  surrounding a tree, set inside a grassy valley, up on a hill.  Not only do you engage with the artwork, but you engage with the physical landscape.  The installations set into the scale of the land allow you to fully experience the art with your whole body; art is experienced on the human scale and in relation to the vast landscape.       

Yugon Kim's "Outside-In." Photo from the Heritage Museum and Gardens.

Yugon Kim’s “Outside-In.” Photo from the Heritage Museums and Gardens.

One of these exhibits, titled “Outside-In,” by artist Yugon Kim is a circular bench made of recycled waste wood surrounding a tree.  From afar, the bench itself is enticing to the weary visitor, but as you approach, you notice how it is put together.  Many hollow cubes of wood, stacked and fastened together make up the structure of the bench which encircles the tree.  An opening on the far side requires the viewer to walk around the tree before entering and sitting.  This tree, unnoticed and unseen before the construction of the bench, now becomes an object of significance.  The texture of the bark, the shade of its canopy, the diameter of its trunk are now acknowledged and appreciated.  In the shadow of this looming tree, standing in this place only because of the artistic intention, I realize I am just a part of the larger artistic experience.  The artist’s contribution to this moment is felt.    

The next piece I enountered took a bit of work.  I wandered off the paved pathway, through the vast Hydrangea Garden into a grassy meadow down into a valley.  I might not have seen the piece titled “Eaves/Grass” by Joel Reider made out of living grass had the structure not jutted out in its rectangular and pointed house-like shape, complete with a front door and side window.  Constructed out of wood supports and covered with sod, the grass house sat comfortably into its landscape.  Its attempt at

Joel Reider's "Eaves/Grass."  Photo by Jan Crocker from the Heritage Museums and Gardens

Joel Reider’s “Eaves/Grass.” Photo by Jan Crocker from the Heritage Museums and Gardens.           

camouflage unsuccessful (this is an art piece after all), it struck me as something that shouldn’t exist (but it did).  Once inside, I saw the square mirror, the same size and shape of the window on the opposing wall.  Looking out the window, I saw the landscape. Looking into the mirror, I saw myself in the very same landscape.  This hidden gem, both seen and unseen, tucked into a secluded space, yet deliberately sought after, reminded me of what I most appreciate in a museum experience: the joy of surprise.  Where else can we go expecting and yet still experiencing surprise?   The artists bring the experience of the (sometimes) absurd into existence, but the viewers may not know to look for them without the presence of the museum.           

These landscape pieces, especially the temporary ones, would not exist without the ability of the museum to create a space that brings artwork and viewers together.  Museums create a space for artistic encounters between artists, objects, and viewers. These encounters can be emotional-visceral experiences, bringing the viewer to full attention, awakening feelings of surprise and delight.  This might be described as the “mindful museum” experience, one that is personal, place-centered, and belonging to the “here and now”.  

 

Here is a link to the museum’s website, which details the exhibition, Secret Shelters.

 

Community Gardens as Education Programs

I recently came across a great NPR story about the benefits of school gardens. When I lived in Wisconsin while getting my teaching degree, I student taught at an alternative high school that was just getting their school garden off the ground. Now it’s fully flourishing, and hearing from the teachers who are still at that school, many of the benefits NPR discusses were also present: students are more invested in their school, both as a building and a space for community, they are more engaged in many of their classes, they have an opportunity to be outside and away from stress or technology, and they are taking what they learn about growing food and nutrition home to their families and friends. The community gardens that are jointly created and maintained by students and staff are effective ways of empowering students while helping them make healthy choices. Museums like Strawberry Banke and the Enfield Shaker Museum offer public spaces for community members to participate in collaborative gardens. I love this idea, because it helps bring the museum into the community in a different way – it’s not necessarily about the history, for example, but it’s still fulfilling the museum’s mission. It’s community building but more equally focused on how the museum can listen to its community members and give them more say over how museum assets are used.

But what if we took it a step farther? Instead of only letting the community take charge of the gardens, which is already a great idea, what if we saved a portion of the garden to use in educational programs? Museums who are looking for a way to start after school or long-term programs can use the garden to help kids learn about a wide variety of projects like seed germination, or the historical uses for certain plants. The Buttonwoods Museum has created an herb garden that is maintained by both staff and the local Boy Scouts, and is used to teach school groups how early colonists in the Merrimack Valley learned (largely from Native Americans) how to use herbs as healing entities. If students are given the authority to take control of both what is planted in the garden and how it is taken care of, museums can add scaffolding through the expertise of its collection and staff. This is not to say that educational garden programs should be very structured and formal – on the contrary, the students should be given an informational foundation and then allowed to make their own meaning through tending the garden. Isn’t informal learning, that “making meaning,” something that museums are constantly striving for? Groups like Groundwork USA can partner with museums to help get garden programs up and running.

Do you know of museums creating these kinds of educational programs through long-term educational partnerships with students? How do the programs fit within their mission? We would love to hear more about this topic!

Museums Gone Viral: Chicago’s Talking Statues

Many museums struggle with maintaining a good balance of technology – enough to attract (and keep the attention of) younger crowds, but not so much that visitors who go to museums to “unplug” are unable to do so. The best solution is to give visitors options. They can sign up for the facebook and the instagram feeds; they can walk past the video touch screens. Our new series, Museums Gone Viral, brings you real ways that museums have used technology and the internet to reach a variety of visitor groups.

Chicago, well known for its plethora of outdoor art, has recently stepped up its art game. This summer, statues all over the city began to talk. People can find a statue, like that of Abraham Lincoln and Cloud Gate (the big bean), with a plaque next to it, and wave their phone over the text. They then receive a phone call “from” that statue (which shows up on the caller ID) to hear it talking to them. Anyone with access to a smartphone can engage with the usually taciturn statues. The audio covers everything from silly stories to serious monologues. The best part about the project, which will last about a year, is that it’s totally free – minus the need for a smart phone – and very community centered. The words of the statues were completely written by Chicagoans. Other local famous folks, such as producer Shonda Rhimes and actors Steve Carrell and David Schwimmer, lend their voices to the project.

The statues have been bringing together people who pass by and wonder what the big attraction is. As Colette Hiller, artistic director of the company that created the project, explains, “It’s different from an audio guide. It’s more personal; it takes you by surprise.” This is an interesting thought. The project has roughly the same format as a traditional audio guide – visitors come to an object they want to know more about, are instructed on how to access the audio, and use an electronic device to listen to information on that object. Despite that fact, the mere idea of the audio being more interesting and engaging is seen as being somehow above a regular audio guide. It brings to mind interesting audio guides completed by people like Allison Dufty, who writes fascinating audio guides for a wide variety of audiences and museums. I would be interested to hear what the talking statues project is considered, if not an audio guide.

If you are around Chicago, particularly as the holidays are coming up, head out to any number of places to get a call from the lions outside the Art Institute or the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz. Let us know what you think! Is it worth the effort? Would you consider it an audio guide?

Keep your eyes open around Boston – it’s been reported that the same company who created the talking statues in Chicago are considering Boston as one of their next locations! I would love to hear the story that the ducklings in the Boston Public Garden have to tell.

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