Museum Studies at Tufts University

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Category: Museums in the News (page 1 of 30)

Museums in the News: Shell and The London Science Museum

Today we bring you an article by Christina Errico, currently a Tufts student in the Museum Education Master’s 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.

In December of 2010, the London Science Museum opened its new Atmosphere gallery that focused on climate science of the past, present, and future. Yet when Shell, a major petro-chemical company and one of the largest multi-national corporations in the world, became a principal sponsor of the Atmosphere gallery, company executives began suggesting changes to the gallery’s content which caused many outsiders to call into question the museum’s ethical integrity. While museums should be avoiding even the appearance of a conflict of interest, it seems that the London Science Museum disregarded this ethical code in order to preserve its partnership with Shell.

According to the 315 pages of emails between Shell and the London Science Museum released in 2014, Shell politely requested to be described as an “energy company” rather than a “petro-chemical company,” and, if possible, they’d “prefer the wording [in the gallery] not to focus on pollution and environmental damage.” The contents of these emails do not necessarily prove that the museum agreed to censor information in the gallery, but the issue with these emails is that there was no public transparency and no accountability for the emails by the museum after they had been released. The museum’s director, Ian Blatchford, stated in a blog post that “not a single change to the curatorial program resulted from these email exchanges.” Yet the evidence from the emails and from visitor reviews suggests that there is a very real possibility this is not true.

On Atmosphere’s “About Our Funders” webpage, Shell states that they are “working hard to build a new energy system while supporting a deeper understanding of climate science.” Yet if Shell was committed to a deeper understanding of climate science, why would they ask the museum to censor the connection between energy use and pollution, one that has been recognized by scientists, the public, and even the government? As a matter of fact, Shell told the museum in an email that a drilling company working for Shell “pleaded guilty to eight felony charges tied to pollution, propulsion, and record keeping problems with the two drilling rigs that bored Arctic oil wells for Shell.” Even after learning about this incident the museum continued its partnership with Shell, seemingly without a second thought.

While the central argument against Shell and the London Science Museum focuses largely on the appearance of a conflict of interest, the relevance of this issue for the greater museum community is that even the appearance of a conflict of interest can cause the museum to lose its public’s trust. And, sadly, this is not the first time a corporate sponsorship of a museum exhibit has caused a public trust issue. To provide two additional examples, Genoways and Ireland question the ethical soundness of a tobacco company funding a tour of the U.S. Constitution and ask whether “funding from pest exterminator Orkin compromised the intellectual integrity of a major Smithsonian exhibition on insects.” Substitute Shell for Orkin and the London Science Museum for the Smithsonian and one could ask the very same question regarding the Atmosphere gallery. If issues like this continue to occur, the risk is that the entire museum field may begin to lose the trust of not just their local communities, but the greater public as well.

Ron Chew, former director for the struggling Wing Luke Asian Museum, points out that “museums, as respected educational institutions, have the power to shape public opinion.” That kind of power can be wonderfully inspiring and used to great good, but it can only be attained if the museum is seen as a respected institution by the public. Museums like the London Science Museum can therefore serve as a warning and a lesson for other museums: if they are to have the formidable power to shape public thought, they must maintain, or gain back, their public trust and respectability.

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.

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.

Rapid Response Collecting: Not All Objects are Created Equal

Today we bring you an article by Erica Colwell, 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.

In 2014, the Victoria & Albert Museum in London announced a new collecting strategy: rapid response collecting. This type of collecting involves a team of curators that “scour the streets—in a global sense—for items of interest and get them into the museum as quickly as possible.” The goal is to collect objects that are relevant to the present time, in hopes of creating an exhibition that will be updated regularly.

The curators on the rapid response team are putting a lot of thought into the objects they are bringing into the V&A’s collection. Collecting objects that represent current global culture is no easy task, in part because the scope of the collecting strategy is so broad. Some of the objects the V&A has collected via the rapid response method include the world’s first 3D-printed gun, an electronic cigarette, and Katy Perry false eyelashes.3 An eclectic array of objects, it is not immediately apparent why these items are being considered “museum worthy.” Kieran Long, the Senior Curator of Contemporary Architecture, Design and Digital at the V&A, offers the following argument for her decision to add the Katy Perry false eyelashes to the collection:

This apparently insignificant object unfolds a wide range of histories and worlds, involving several timely issues that link at a stroke the magic of Cleopatra, as played by Elizabeth Taylor in 1963, to what some would consider the darkest excesses of global consumer capitalism, encompassing theatre and performance, gender theory, images of the feminine…

While this is an impressive argument, such an argument could be made for virtually any object, because every object has a history. A curator could pick up a roll of paper towels and explain how our society has moved from the hand-made to the mass-produced, from the essential to the disposable. Not all objects are created equal.

Even though there may be no right or wrong answer to the question “what is art,” some of the objects collected via the rapid response method are more “museum-worthy” than the Katy Perry false eyelashes. The set of Christian Louboutin stilettos in different shades of nude representing the skin colors of women of different races is one such object. The shoes are art in the fashion sense (the shoes are beautiful) and the conversation-sparking sense (racial inequality is a hot-button issue for many in the world today.) The key is to have an argument that will convince visitors that viewing the object is worthwhile. In fact, getting people to talk about why one object is art and another object is not art is one of the best conversations a curator could hope to start amongst their museum’s visitors. The Louboutin set of stilettos is therefore an example of rapid response collecting done right.

While many might rejoice at a museum displaying objects that are truly current, some are wary of collecting objects in this way. I believe rapid response collecting could be a great thing, though it is possible to take it too far. Though museums cannot ignore the art and design being created today if they want to remain relevant, the arguments behind some of the objects being collected via the rapid response method are stronger than others. Since it is often the relevance of an object over time that indicates its value, collecting objects without that passage of time could mean that the choice of objects is based solely on the tastes of those curators doing the collecting.

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