Museum Studies at Tufts University

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Three more years until a new definition

A man wearing glasses leans over a look, looking closely at something he is pointing at

We return to the question, “What is a museum?” this week but, instead of doodles by summer campers, we have the perspectives of the International Council of Museums community. A new museum definition was up for a vote at ICOM’s 25th General Conference in Kyoto, Japan this past weekend. The museum community polarized into two strongly for- and anti-new definition camps and, without a consensus, the Extraordinary General Assembly voted to… vote later.

The current ICOM museum definition, which has not changed much in decades and is likely familiar to most museum professionals, is as follows:

A museum is a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment.

Current definition from ICOM Statutes, adopted by the 22nd General Assembly on 24 August, 2007

The new definition, which split opinions worldwide, focuses less on the “what” and more on the “how” and “why” of museums. It references hot topics such as diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion, and pushes the idea of a museum ever closer to forum than temple:

Museums are democratising, inclusive and polyphonic spaces for critical dialogue about the pasts and the futures. Acknowledging and addressing the conflicts and challenges of the present, they hold artefacts and specimens in trust for society, safeguard diverse memories for future generations and guarantee equal rights and equal access to heritage for all people.

Museums are not for profit. They are participatory and transparent, and work in active partnership with and for diverse communities to collect, preserve, research, interpret, exhibit, and enhance understandings of the world, aiming to contribute to human dignity and social justice, global equality and planetary wellbeing.

new alternative museum definition selected by the Executive Board of ICOM on July 2019

I find my own opinions on this definition are split; I am drawn to the prioritizing of working with and for all people, but the ideas in it are disorganized. The editor in me wants something more concise! François Mairesse, a French professor and museum professional who resigned from the ICOM committee in charge of developing the new definition, shared a similar sentiment with The Art Newspaper, saying, “A definition is a simple and precise sentence characterizing an object, and this is not a definition but a statement of fashionable values, much too complicated and partly aberrant.” He went on to say that the new definition was exclusionary to existing museums who do not match or would have difficulty adapting to it, adding, “It would be disastrous to impose only one type of museum.”

For me, this second part of Mairesse’s argument has no legs. The practical difference between the current and new definitions is the exclusion of the word education and the inclusion of voices outside of museum staff and leadership. Words and phrases such as democratising [sic], polyphonic, participatory, and critical dialogue mark the strongest change in how a museum who adheres to the new definition might operate. The rest – basic ideas on collecting, conserving, researching, interpreting (and can’t interpretation include education, anyways?), and exhibiting objects and ideas that tell the story of humanity for humanity – remains the same, albeit with loftier goals of benefiting “planetary wellbeing.”

Is that not what we, the museum community, should be striving for? To continue our work with care and further engage the communities we serve – to share the responsibilities of authority, expertise, and meaning-making? Just because the undertaking may prove challenging for “traditional” museums (Mairesse cited the Louvre, for example), doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done.

I am curious to see where the definition goes from here, as the vote postponement passed by the Extraordinary General Assembly means that ICOM will have another three years to refine a new definition before it comes up for a vote at the next General Conference. My hope is for something more succinct that keeps the participatory spirit. I expect the topic will be up for fresh debate in many Tufts Museum Studies courses (as well as in programs and institutions globally). What do you think, Tufts Museum Studies Blog readers, how should the definition change between now and 2022?

If you’d like some inspiration, or just a look at the ideas of others, ICOM collected 269 submissions for the Committee on Museum Definition, Prospects and Potentials (MDPP, 2017-2019) to reference as they were coming up with the new definition. Are there any that strike closest to what you think should guide the museums of today? We welcome your thoughts in the comments!

Moves Toward Transformative Climate Change at the MFA

Transformation creates opportunities and problems that call for collective interpretation: What are we about? Who are we? What is important? What are our priorities?

(Eckel & Kezar, 2003a)

In May of 2019, a story of racist behavior directed at students of color at the MFA Boston broke on news sites across the internet. Seventh graders from Helen Y. Davis Leadership Academy, a charter middle school in Dorchester, MA, reported being targeted by racist speech from MFA staff and visitors and racial profiling by security. In the weeks since, the MFA has conducted investigations into the events, banned the visitors who made racist comments, opened discourse between museum and Davis Academy leadership, and organized community roundtables to begin the healing process.

Toward a More Inclusive MFA details the MFA’s responses to the Davis Academy visit and updates regarding MFA efforts regarding inclusion in the institution at large. Such transformation takes time and needs certain elements to foster change among individuals and at the institutional level. The five elements needed for transformative climate change as identified by Eckel & Kezar (2003b) are senior administrative support, collaborative leadership, flexible vision, faculty/staff development, and visible action. How have MFA efforts aligned with these five elements?

1. Senior Administrative Support

MFA leadership has been involved in these efforts from the beginning. Matthew Teitelbaum, director of the MFA, has been quoted often in stories from news sites. Museum-issued statements have come jointly from the chiefs of each department at the MFA. Makeeba McCreary, Chief of Learning and Community Engagement at the MFA, reached out to Davis Academy leadership herself to start the reparative process and has organized a series of roundtables on inclusion and race among educational and non-profit leaders in the Boston area.

2. Collaborative Leadership

As all information regarding this process is coming from MFA leadership, it appears that all of these measures are mandated by MFA leadership. Whether staff at different levels have had or will have input into the process is unknown. However, MFA leadership has openly collaborated with the community on this issue. They have been engaged with Davis Academy leadership since the incident and have opened discourse with community members regarding inclusion and racial equity.

3. Flexible Vision

Because museums serve the public at large, it behooves them to leave the specifics of “who for” and “how” open-ended. This way, museums can (theoretically) respond to trends with greater agility. The MFA does not have a clearly defined vision statement; instead, the mission is supplemented with statements in the MFA 2020 strategic plan and inclusion statements in Toward a More Inclusive MFA. In this time of action, MFA leadership should consider revisiting the mission. It was written in 1991 and, while flexible, it is old and places primary emphasis on caring for the collection. The idea is not to bring the focus so far away from collections, as Chet Orloff warns against in “Should Museums Change Our Mission and Become Agencies of Social Justice?” (Orloff, 2017); rather, it is to explicitly express that visitors are as valued as the objects within the museum’s walls.

4. Faculty/Staff Development

Among the first measures announced by the MFA were staff trainings on conflict resolution and unconscious bias. Trainings were scheduled for June and July and some have already been completed. Similar volunteer trainings are being scheduled, but the timeline there is unknown. Information on follow-up sessions is unavailable, but the MFA has also noted that they contracted external consultants to “expedite and evolve” ongoing training in which all staff is required to participate. (“Toward a More Inclusive MFA,” 2019)

Before the Davis Academy visit, the MFA had already been working toward diversifying its staff through new recruitment methods, including adding paid teen internships and mentorship programs. Further steps toward enabling individuals from diverse backgrounds to earn a meaningful, sustainable living at the MFA include raising wages, adding full-time entry-level positions (and therefore benefits), and changing the requirements of and language in job descriptions. The Design Museum Foundation offers an excellent example of inclusive language in a job posting:

We know there are great candidates who may not fit into what we’ve described above, or who have skills we haven’t thought of. If that’s you, don’t hesitate to apply and tell us about yourself. We are committed to diversity and building an inclusive environment for people of all backgrounds and ages. We especially encourage members of traditionally underrepresented communities to apply, including women, people of color, LGBTQ people, and people with disabilities.

(“Marketing Manager – Foundation,” n.d.)

5. Visible Action

Towards a More Inclusive MFA is updated weekly with notes on completed trainings, results from investigations, and responses to news stories. People can also subscribe to the MFA email list to receive notice of updates as they happen. Some change can already be seen and heard in the museum more staff has been added to the galleries and school groups entrance. They have also changed the greeting used for school groups to be more welcoming and to avoid confusion with hurtful speech.

It goes without saying that the road toward healing and toward a more inclusive MFA will be long and challenging. The efforts so far are promising in terms of meeting the recommended elements for transformative climate change, though there is always room for improvement.

What are your thoughts on the matter?


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Radical Transparency: History with Layers

Back in January, we mentioned that Chicago’s Field Museum had recently announced a major overhaul to their Native North American Hall. The exhibit largely dates back to the 1950s, and is sorely in need of cosmetic updates to their displays and better interpretive labels. However, the most serious issue with the current exhibit is its treatment of Native Americans as people from the past, instead of peoples with varied and traumatic pasts that still exist today, playing a key role in some of the most complicated issues facing the United States and the rest of North America now. The new exhibit is being undertaken with input from a variety of indigenous stakeholders and will . include contemporary depictions of Native Americans and rotating displays to continue telling better stories. The museum is also working to increase the number of indigenous people on their staff.

An example of the out of date displays in the Field Museum’s North American Hall, 2017. Photo by author.

I visited the Field Museum in 2017, shortly before they closed the hall for the renovations. The space was clearly in need of attention, featuring collections of objects with little or no context for who owned them, or how they were used. The Field has one of the most robust collections of Plains tribes in . the world, yet I found little indication of what separated Cheyenne from Araphaho or Cree from Sioux. However, I did see reason to have hope for the hall’s future, because I was there during “Drawing on Tradition: Kansa Artist Chris Pappan,” which ran from October 29, 2016 to January 21, 2019. This interim exhibit changed the way visitors thought about the original contents of the hall, while also dispelling the trope of the “vanishing Indian,” showing modern indigenous art that draws on historical native art practices.

The exhibit, a mixture of prints, drawings, and video/sound pieces, often laid the new pieces directly over the vitrines full of decontextualized native objects via transparent overlays. New interpretive labels were also used that referenced both the new pieces and old, bringing them together in a dialogue. The effect was that of literally rewriting history. It was exciting to feel the space come to life through the vivid artwork of Chris Pappan, and it inspired questions about what it means to have the history of people frozen in time, without room for input from the people depicted. It will be exciting to see how the Field tells these stories in a more permanent fashion when the new exhibit opens in 2021. I suspect we will see more of this concept of the “overlay” employed as a method that tells a more whole version of history without erasing previous mistakes.

This method is being employed now in another major natural history museum. The American Museum of Natural History in New York has recently unveiled an update to their infamous dioramas in the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Hall. The diorama, built in the 1910s, supposedly depicts a meeting between Lenape tribespeople and Dutch settler colonists, including Governor Peter Stuyvesant, but it is riddled with inaccuracies and promoted racist and hegemonic visions of history. Encouraged to make changes by both internal and external forces, including Decolonize This Place, which has been protesting at the museum for several years. Rather than remove the dioramas and thus hide the museum’s complicity in promoting racist interpretations of American history, the museum has chosen to reinterpret the diorama with labels laid directly over the glass. The new panels correct wrong information, such as what the Lenape would have worn to such an important meeting, and posit important questions like, “Where are the Lenape today?” These corrections are important for teaching visitors who are not experts in the content that previous interpretations had an agenda and advanced stereotypes about indigenous people that have assisted in legitimizing state-sanctioned violence against them since the founding of the American colonies.

The use of transparencies and edits is a useful way to provide context and right interpretive wrongs without removing the wrongs. In preventing institutions from, essentially, deleting their tweets, we can both remember what was previously permitted as acceptable and hold institutions accountable while learning new material. These overlays are a powerful tool for both institutions and marginalized peoples and can be deployed in a number of contexts.

How Should Museums Deal With Controversy?

In the wake of the “Leaving Neverland” documentary, chronicling the allegations of of sexual assault by Michael Jackson, the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis has decided to remove three Michael Jackson artifacts from display. The Museum’s decision was the result of their decision to be “very sensitive to our audience.” The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis made a swift decision when faced with controversy. However other museums, such as the Bundekunsthalle in Germany, have chosen different paths. The Bundekunsthalle has decided to continue with their plans to open Michael Jackson: On the Wall, an exhibition focusing on the musician’s influence on contemporary art. Museum organizers have decided to avoid discussing his biography in favor “examining his cultural impact” as a way to anticipate and avoid the allegation’s and controversy surrounding Jackson.

In both these cases the Museums have decided to remove or avoid objects or subjects as a means to evade controversy. Yet, as Willard L. Boyd wrote in his piece Museums as Centers of Controversymuseums should “consciously invite controversy” in order to inform and stimulate visitor learning. While Boyd speaks more to controversial ideas presented in the museum than to the more recently common controversial actions conducted by a museum, as more often than not centers of controversy, museums must learn how to deal with controversy.

So, how should museums deal with controversy? Museums can look to the National Coalition Against Censorship’s Best Practices for Managing Controversy as a good jumping off point. The best way to deal with controversy is to anticipate it, have a plan, be transparent, create an educational framework that can provide context to why a curatorial choice may be, or is, controversial. What I believe if missing from their “Best Practices” list is the importance of speaking with the communities involved or effected by the controversy. Museums are not neutral and generally have institutional biases that reflect Western colonial power imbalances, we must as museum practitioners acknowledge that fact and incorporate the voices of those that were historically silenced.

Overall, I am not quite sure how a museum should deal with controversy. Likely, there is not one definitive answer. But, as museums have been dealing with controversy for many years and will continue to in the future, as museum professionals we can take note of how museums have dealt with past controversies to help inform our decisions for the future.

Repatriating Roadblocks: The Case of the Kenyan Vigango Memorial Posts

In November of 2018, French President Emmanuel Macron made headlines (and shook the museum world) when he released a report detailing the restitution of “African cultural heritage to Africa” from French museums long known for their collections of sub-Saharan objects. He called for the swift return of twenty-six royal Dahomey works of art back to Benin, objects that were taken to France in the late nineteenth century as a result of colonial expeditions.

Conversations concerning such Benin objects have often dominated restitution debates focused on African culture – but what other countries from the continent are also seeking the return of their tangible heritage? One case study that has recently lost political steam is that of the vigango memorial posts from the Mijikenda peoples of Kenya. Considered Kenya’s cultural patrimony, vigango memorial posts are tall and narrow “spirit markers” made of wood that resemble an abstracted male body, often incised with repeating geometric patterns and painted.

Example of a kigango (the singular form of vigango)
Photo credit: Denver Museum of Nature and Science

Sometimes up to nine feet in height, vigango memorial posts represent deceased male members of the Gohu society, individuals who were known in their communities for both their wisdom and wealth. Once installed, vigango are never to be removed or disturbed, as they represent the “incarnation of the deceased” and continue to play a central role in Mijikenda communities, such as preventing misfortune.

Despite their communal importance and efficacy, vigango have long been subject to theft and exportation among art dealers and collectors abroad. In 2007, for instance, it was estimated that over four hundred vigango had entered the collections of some nineteen museums across the United States, with often questionable acquisition histories. The debate involving the repatriation of vigango is complicated, involving Mijikenda youth seeking a quick profit, unsigned UNESCO deals, and art market/museum ethics. A recent exposé in African Arts estimated that a kigango (the singular form of vigango) could fetch anywhere between $150,000-$250,000 if placed on auction today (in comparison to $5000 each at a 2012 Paris auction).

While the Denver Museum of Nature and Science recently tried to repatriate thirty of its vigango, the memorial posts never left the United States due to an unexpected and exorbitant tariff that would have been charged at Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (the tariff is equivalent to USD $47,000). Unfortunately for this costly reason, several vigango that were repatriated from California State University, Fullerton in 2014 currently sit in a crate in the airport’s customs’ shed. Although the vigango may be back in their country of origin, no institution involved in their return intend to pay the tariff fees. Until a solution is agreed upon, the vigango will remain in political limbo.


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