Museum Studies at Tufts University

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Category: Museums in the News (page 1 of 35)

The Centennial NEMA Conference and the Stamford Hilton Boycott

This past week many museum professionals and emerging professionals attended the New England Museum Association’s annual conference Museums on the Move. This year was a big year for NEMA celebrating its 100th annual conference. The theme of the conference was meant to investigate how museums have evolved over the past century and how they are “positioning themselves for success in the century ahead.” However, this years conference was marred by situations beyond the conference planners control that brought up many insightful discussions both at the conference and across the field.

According to NEMA’s Statement Regarding the Labor Situation at the Stamford Hilton Hotel and Executive Meeting Center, NEMA went into contract with the hotel for the centennial conference in August of 2016. In December 2017, workers at the hotel voted to join Unite Here local 217 with a vote of 110 to 5. These workers entered into this vote after months of intimidation strategies from the hotel owners including the presence of armed guards and the hiring of anti-union consultants.

UNITE HERE is a labor union representing 270,000 workers across Canada and the United States. They boast a diverse membership, predominately women and people of color, from across many industries. Their goal is “to enable people of all backgrounds to achieve greater equality and opportunity.” The hotel workers at the Stamford Hilton are currently in contract negotiations with the Stamford Hilton for three main demands: better wages, free quality healthcare, and pensions.

NEMA chose not to change locations for the conference as progress had been made in talks between the two sides over the summer. However, in recent weeks the headway made deteriorated and demonstrations and picketing at the hotel has continued. While NEMA choose to continue with the centennial conference they opened lines of communication with the hotel workers and invited union leaders to speak at the crowd at the keynote meeting.  Pampi of Decolonize our Museums conference panel facilitator, furthered lines of communications and disseminated information on requests from the hotel workers including the cancellation of hotel rooms and moving workshops off site. The purpose was to show both the union workers and the hotel management our solidarity to the workers strife. So why is it important for museum professionals to show solidarity to unionized hotel workers?

As museum professionals, workers, and emerging professionals we must first and foremost have empathy. As human, we must have empathy for the struggles of others. However, beyond that, museum workers have much in common with hotel and other service industry workers. Not just in the long hours and low wages we share, but in the structures of the industries that often relegate women and people of color to the lower levels. In recent years many non-profits have been turning to unions to organize workers and collaborate on common causes and increasingly museum security and custodial staff have unionized. Museums such as MoMA and Plimoth Plantation have unionized workers and have successfully fought for better working conditions, wages, and healthcare. Other organizations such as #Museum WorkersSpeak have attempted to look “at the relationship between museums’ stated commitments to social value and their internal labor practices.” We stand in solidarity because these labor issues effect this profession as well. We enter the museum field drawn in by a love of museums, but research shows many emerging professionals leave do to low wages, insufficient benefits, and lack of job prospects among other reasons. What more can we and should we do to create better labor environments for both ourselves and others?

On Education and the Vote

Museums have, for many decades now, been sites of learning and exploration for people of all ages, economic classes, and educational levels. The idea of informal learning spaces assisting with civic education of newly arrived Americans has its roots in a Progressive Era ethos of immigrant assimilation, with the accompanying racist and xenophobic undertones one might expect. However, some of the programs provided by settlement houses and other progressive aid organizations had a significant impact on the lives of immigrants eager to learn about their new country and to advance within it.

Regardless of the flawed origins of these programs, the value of civic education that unites all Americans and enables advocacy and enfranchisement is not to be denied. This understanding of the role museums can play in the pursuit of civic engagement is fully realized in programs like New-York Historical Society’s Citizenship Project. This class uses art from New-York Historical’s collection to teach prospective citizens about American History and Civics through art in the collection. The course does not shy away from informing the students about the darker aspects of American History, including Native American removal, the Chinese Exclusion Act, and the Civil War. The Society also hosts naturalization ceremonies for students after they complete the program and pass their citizenship exam.

Of course, for those of us already enfranchised, we don’t have to wait long to exercise our right to vote. There is a midterm election fast approaching on November 6. Aside from the noble causes museums can assist with, like citizenship courses or enhancing student learning by providing material culture to augment in class learning, we know that museums are affected by political decisions every day. From federal funding of the arts and history projects to local budgets supporting field trips, elections matter when it comes to keeping museums open, encouraging new work to be done, and extending access to museums for students and other prospective learners.

This blog encourages you, museum professionals and students alike, to make sure that you make a plan to vote on November 6. The state of Massachusetts, where Tufts is located, has a sample ballot available here to help you prepare for voting and a way to find your polling location here. Other states have also posted their ballots and polling place locators online. Making decisions about who and what will best represent your life and your institutions is an important responsibility that comes with civic education. As John Dewey once noted, “Democracy has to be born anew every generation, and education is its midwife.”


Who does the new National Law Enforcement Museum serve?

On Saturday, the National Law Enforcement Museum opened to the public in Judiciary Square in Washington, D.C. The Museum, which cost $103 million to construct, has a collection of 21,000 objects, and is intended to educate visitors about the experience of working in law enforcement. Featuring twelve interactive exhibits, visitors have the opportunity to engage with forensics, enter a 911 call center and play the role of a dispatcher, or participate in an officer training simulator.

Although Dave Brant, the museum’s executive director, has stated that “this facility will help us to educate, inform, create dialogue, around both the history of law enforcement [and] the current status of law enforcement,” I have to wonder who is missing from the museum’s narrative. How does the museum address Black Lives Matter, if at all? What about the lack of women in law enforcement, and the minority officer experience?  Does the museum discuss implicit biases among officers? At a time of intense racial divides, how does the National Law Enforcement Museum plan to engage visitors in a much-needed conversation?  Moreover, what does it mean for this museum to open now, merely two weeks after the Washington Post reported that 756 individuals have been fatally shot by police in 2018?

According to the museum’s website, its mission is to “introduce visitors to the proud history and many facets of American law enforcement in an experience you won’t find anywhere else. Our ‘walk in the shoes’ experience lets visitors learn what it’s like to be a law enforcement officer through innovative and engaging exhibits, artifacts and programs. We also seek to strengthen the relationship between law enforcement and the communities they serve with thought-provoking programs that promote dialogue on topics of current interest.”

While it seems as if the museum is trying to become a space for constructive conversations, it is clearly one-sided. Despite an entire exhibit devoted to the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, there is no mention of Black Lives Matter. Ultimately, through the use of special programming and other year-round educational programs, the museum is trying to improve community relations while striving to provide an alternative view of law enforcement not often told in the media.

Decolonization Roundup

In honor of Indigenous Peoples Day, we’d like to share a roundup of articles about efforts to decolonize museums around the world.

With “Donors Force a Point at the Met that Never Should Have Had to be Made”, Nonprofit Quarterly looks at the shift in location for Native American art in a new exhibit opening at the Metropolitan Museum of Art this month. The shift was demanded by the donors backing the exhibit, and forced the Met to locate Native American art within the American Galleries, instead of their galleries for Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, where it is usually relegated, thus separating it from “America” conceptually.

“Sarah Cascone, writing for ArtNet, says, ‘In other countries, it is common to present indigenous art as part of the wider arc of a nation’s art history.’ Sylvia Yount, the curator in charge of the wing, told Brigit Katz at Smithsonian that US museums, including the Met, are ‘really behind the curve…when it comes to displaying indigenous artworks within the framework of America’s art history.'”

NPR’s “Where ‘Human Zoos’ Once Stood, A Belgium Museum Now Faces Its Colonial Past” looks at the history of The Royal Museum for Central Africa, where Belgian King Leopold once imprisoned more than 200 Congolese to be on display for Belgian crowds. The museum, and Belgium generally, has long resisted acknowledging its violent and colonial heritage, but is currently under the auspices of a Belgium director who is attempting to rectify some wrongs.

“‘They brought me here just to reform it,’ Gryseels says. ‘Obviously, our colonial past is something that we have to deal with.’ The museum finally closed for massive renovations in 2013, after years of planning. ‘We walk a tightrope,’ Gryseels says, between those who fear this transformation won’t go far enough and others who fear it will go too far.”

In “Decolonizing the Museum Mind”, a guest post for the American Alliance of Museums’ Center for the Future of Museums blog, Frank Howarth, former director of the Australian Museum  discusses the value of “welcome to country” practices that center traditional aboriginal owners of land and encourages European and US museums to embrace the idea and the values centered.

“A bit later I went to the then Getty Museum Leadership Program in 2010, with my New Zealand and Australian colleagues expecting to be welcomed to the Native American country on which the Getty Museum is situated (a comparable program in Australia or New Zealand would have a significant and very meaningful welcome to country by the traditional owners). We were surprised and disappointed that not only was there no acknowledgement of Native American place, there was negligible mention of anything Native American within the whole course. Nor was there any discussion around contemporary issues in museums and collections of the materials of first peoples.”

The “Spectacularization” of the Modern Art Museum

Spiraling ramp ways, dizzying spatial effects, metal beams that emulate a flapping wingspan, and multimillion-dollar converted industrial buildings: these are just some of the many characteristics we find in the recent cultural phenomenon known as the “spectacularization” of museums. From Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum Bilbao to the Broad Museum in Los Angeles,  art museums have quickly become places not just containing great art, but works of art in themselves. Yet again, another museum architectural wonder is set to open next week- the Glenstone Museum, in Potomac, Maryland. With a hefty renovation price tag of $200 million, the new museum design features a network of glass-enclosed passageways surrounding an 18,000 square foot water court. Although aesthetically intriguing, does this flamboyant architecture detriment the art viewing experience?

From the mid-twentieth century onward, in part as a result of Frank Lloyd Wright’s design of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City, there has been a shift from the Neoclassical-type museum design to more open, airy, and dynamic building projects. This approach is global; from I.M Pei’s construction of the glass pyramids at the Musée du Louvre, to Thomas Heatherwick’s conversion of a grains silo into the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa in Cape Town, there has been an increased use of “blockbuster” museum building types. Not only do these facilities boost attendance, revenue, and local economies, they also act as a catalyst for greater interest in art.

In 2016, for instance, SFMOMA received a $305 million-dollar facelift from Snøhetta, a Norwegian design and branding firm. Two floors of the seven-story building are now free and accessible to the public. With daily free public tours, the space encourages anyone to visit and learn. The multitude of seating arrangements in these spaces also invites visitors to sit down, relax, and digest the art surrounding them. Similarly, the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles – another renovated contemporary art museum – offers free tours that facilitate engaging conversation about both the art and architecture that are available to the public on a weekly basis.

According to the Glenstone Museum’s website, “architecture is as essential as artwork and landscape, providing a minimal design to complement the collection and visitor experience.” Because so many museums that undergo these extreme updates ensure that their changes will positively serve the local population, instead of only capitalizing on tourists, I find that overall dramatic architecture types are inherently good, and that visitors are just as eager to discover the art inside as they are to experience the architecture itself. Similarly, the couple who is responsible for funding Glenstone has recently shared that one of the reasons why they decided to expand was to bring in more local school groups, “where arts education is at risk.” While it may be true that some visitors are more interested in the architecture than the art that lies within, I argue that these waves of dramatic architecture construction and conversion actually promote serious inquiry, encourage critique, and invite conversation.

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