Museum Studies at Tufts University

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Category: Museums in the News (page 2 of 32)

Museums in the News: Crowdfunding for a Mummy?

Recently I read an article by the Huffington Post titled, “London’s Viktor Wynd Museum Is Crowdfunding To Buy A Mummified Head.” Yes, you read that right. A museum in London has started a crowdfunding page to raise £6,666 (about $8126.72) to purchase the mummified head of a Peruvian child from the Chimú culture (they’ve somehow managed to raise £1,391, about $1695.81, in a month). And that’s not even the worst of it. As you may know, crowdfunding pages often utilize rewards that correspond to donating certain amounts of money as an incentive to donors. Well, this crowdfunding page has some pretty macabre rewards. For £30 you will receive “Mummy Dust:” “a pinch of powdered Mummy, with a signed certificate of authenticity (At the bottom of the Mummy’s case is a little pile of powdered skin/hair/textile);” for £35 you will receive “The Skull of a Small Animal;” for £48, you can take “4 Drinks from The Cup of Life:” “Four of you may enter our museum, see The Mummy, sit down on a plush velvet banquette and be served The Cup of Life – a very special cocktail within a real human skull” (emphasis added, because ARE YOU KIDDING ME?).

Thought it couldn’t get any worse? It does. For a  £100 donation you will receive a pair of Victor Wynd’s used underwear…because what better reward for helping a museum potentially illicitly buy a child’s mummified head is there than “a pair of Y fronts worn by Viktor Wynd, with a signed certificate of authenticity”? And for a whopping £2,000 you will have the privilege of taking the mummy home with you for a night: “Drive The Mummy in Your Car – see if it breaks down, then take him home for the night. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to spend the night with The Mummy of Mare Street in the privacy of your own home. What secrets will he tell you? What secrets will you tell him? There is only one way to discover – support our campaign now.”

Now that we’ve all picked our jaws up off the floor, lets look at the real issues here. Despite the fact that what this museum, (or rather a wunderkabinett, as it calls itself) is attempting to do is completely and totally disrespectful and unethical, a Forbes magazine article also points out that in some cases it is even illegal. The mummified head in question has apparently traveled through multiple different countries Europe before landing in the UK, so the provenance is questionable which is a problem in itself. Additionally, the crowdfunding page the museum is utilizing is based in the US, and each of the countries involved have different laws when it comes to handling human remains. So, for instance, while it is illegal for the US to import or exchange Peruvian antiquities, it may not be for certain European countries or the UK. And even if it was illegal for the UK to import Peruvian antiquities and it wasn’t for, say, Sweden, then the UK may have found a loophole through which to import the head from Sweden.

And those rewards of human remains? Yeah, those are potentially illegal too. While there are no Federal laws prohibiting trade in human remains in the US, certain states do have laws against it. So, as the Forbes article states, “a person in Louisiana who funded the Viktor Wynd campaign to the tune of £43 would be breaking the law to accept the human bone ‘reward’ (and potentially fined $5,000 with up to a year in jail), but a person living in another state or country might not be.” What does this mean for the US-based crowdfunding site the Viktor Wynd Museum is using? They have a clause in their terms and conditions that states “Campaign Owners are not permitted to offer or provide any of the following as a Perk: […] any items (a) prohibited by applicable law to possess or distribute, (b) that would violate applicable law if distributed…” (emphasis added). These are pretty general terms considering the variety of different laws that prohibit the exchange and possession of human remains in the US, but it appears that as of yesterday the crowdfunding site has asked the museum to clarify the origins of the mummy and to stop offering human remains as rewards. As of today, nothing appears to have changed on the site.

Whew. So to recap, here are the main issues:

  1. The mummified head has unclear provenance which is an immediate red flag.
  2. Importing the mummy may or may not be illegal (but is certainly unethical given the circumstances).
  3. The ‘rewards’ being offered are also potentially illegal in some states and countries, and definitely a gray area for the host crowdfunding site.
  4. Used underwear. Enough said.

Joking aside, this is a serious ethical issue. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!


For the Huffington Post article, click here.
For the Forbes article, click here.
For the crowdfunding page, click here.

Museums in the News: Columbus Day vs Indigenous People’s Day

With Columbus Day around the corner, it is interesting to note where museums stand on the Columbus Day vs Indigenous People’s Day debate. Some museums, like the Mitchell Museum of the American Indian and the Museum of the Rockies have decided to forgo celebrating Columbus Day in favor of Indigenous People’s Day. The idea behind the movement is that American Indian history is not acknowledged nearly as much as it should be in traditional American history, and instead of celebrating Christopher Columbus’s conquest we should be recognizing the impact that those actions have had and still have on indigenous peoples (for more information on the movement, check out this article). Yet some museums choose not to engage entirely with this dialogue, including the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. According to their website, the museum is doing nothing to celebrate either Columbus Day or Indigenous People’s Day. On their Facebook page, however, the museum has been sharing news about different cities adopting Indigenous People’s Day and have been met with mixed reviews in the comments section. Some people argue we should acknowledge indigenous people, others say “like it or not, we wouldn’t be here without [Christopher Columbus]” or “why can’t we have both?”

What do you think? Should museums take a stand on this issue, even if that museum does not formally deal with indigenous history? If so, what stance should they make? Or should they remain  neutral, and say nothing? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Museums in the News: Bronx Museum of the Arts

Recently, I’ve been reading in various news articles about the resignations of top trustees at the Bronx Museum of the Arts. According to these articles, the chairwomen and the vice-chairwomen of the board of trustees have resigned because of controversy surrounding an two international initiatives with Cuba. These two chairwomen say that the issues stem from the museum leadership’s desire to create a $2.5 million replica of a statue of a Cuban leader to send down to Cuba, as well as to participate in an art exchange with Havana that they say is almost guaranteed to fall through on Cuba’s end. The argument has also been made that the museum is spending too much time and resources focusing on working with Cuba while they neglect the social and economic issues in their backyard. Local Cuban artists add that the museum has frequently been selective in choosing Cuban artists to represent in the galleries while others feel that the museum exploits the Bronx’s troubled past. And while the two chairwomen claim to have brought these issues as well as others to light before, the museum appears to be ‘perplexed’ as to why these two women have resigned and maintain their full support of the director and the museum’s initiatives.

Shortly after the two chairwomen resigned, four more board members resigned for what the museum claims are unrelated reasons: “In no way is the museum experiencing any mass exodus of trustees in solidarity with [chairwomen] Laura and Mary Beth.” Now, the museum has appointed two new board leaders to in the interim and maintain that their director, Holly Block, has their full support.

While it is difficult to say who is right or wrong in this situation, it is clear that there is something fishy going on at the Bronx Museum of the Arts. Why would the museum not address the issues brought up by the two chairwomen and the local Cuban population before? Why does the museum seem surprised that the two chairwomen resigned if they had already expressed concerns before that were not addressed? Why would four more board members suddenly resign for unrelated reasons? Do you think the museum is sweeping these issues under the rug by appointing new board members and not addressing the issues at hand? Let me know what you think in the comments.

Here are some of the articles I’ve been reading on this subject:

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.

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