Museum Studies at Tufts University

Exploring ideas and engaging in conversation

Welcome First-Years of 2019-2020

I want to give a hearty welcome to the incoming Tufts’ students joining the museum studies program. This is a prestigious school with a well-connected group of lecturers, and just as Jennifer and Darcy recently reflected on what museums are and what they should do to be better, so will you in your new course of study. Please feel free to send in an article about what you’ve learned, and don’t hesitate to ask the 2nd-years all the questions you may have. 

I am going to weigh in briefly with what I’ve learned this summer after my internship collecting women’s oral histories and how that affects museums.

Oral histories are vital components of modern historical research and museum education. They create a link to the past about any conceivable subject, and all museums should utilize this tool to engage a more diverse audience. The stories told can capture a whole group of peoples’ attentions because they are hearing “their” story through another person— “their” story in the sense that they can relate the most to a story from someone of a similar background and life pathway. Though oral histories are important pieces to include in museum collections, they are not enough when it comes to including more diverse voices in museum exhibits. Museums need to be willing and able to work at every level of their community, and the staff, and sift through all layers of history to achieve a historical narrative that can bring the most diverse audience together in a common goal of attaining knowledge about the many layers of history. 

Museums are reinventing themselves now because they recognize that older institutions were built on the perspective of the white, middle to upper class point of view, and that is not representative of America today. It is a museum’s social responsibility to create equal cultural opportunities in their space.

This is something you’ll be learning in the Museum’s Today class, First-Years. In September, ICOM is voting on a new definition of a museum, that emphasizes inclusivity and dialogue that encourages “human dignity, … social justice, global equality and planetary wellbeing.” Be thinking about what the editors at this blog and the Tufts’ Museum Studies Community have been reflecting on when it comes to what a museum is and where it is going, and where it should go. I’d love to discuss it with you in the lounge!

“Nice to Meet You” from the New Editors

It’s that time of year again: the editors you’ve come to know and love have moved on to new endeavors. Never fear, your three new editors are here and ready to get to work! Many thanks and well wishes to Danielle, Kelsey, and Amanda – we hope to continue setting a high bar for the Tufts Museum Studies blog.

Without further ado, your new editors are:

Darcy Foster

Darcy Foster
MA in Museum Education, 2020

Hi everyone! I’m Darcy Foster and I’m entering my second year in the Museum Education program here at Tufts. I’m from Pittsburgh, PA and I have my bachelor’s in History. I currently work at the Concord Museum as a museum educator and tour guide, but my love for museum education started when I was just a young visitor. While I was growing up, my parents included museum visits during every vacation we took. After one trip that included two presidential library tours and a few historic houses, I realized that I actually enjoyed learning, even though I had never enjoyed it in a traditional classroom setting.

After also realizing my interest in history, I was driven to museums, which can encompass both of these passions. I love working with interpretation and programming to foster conversation between visitors in an exciting way. Museum education allows me to focus on what visitors take away from each museum they visit. I have worked at a variety of museums, from the large National Archives Museum to the tiny Benjamin Franklin House, and in a variety of positions, from archival processing to exhibits. In all cases, I enjoyed my time and it helped me to find a path to museum education, where I can help others find a love of learning in an informal setting. This upcoming summer, I’ll be interning at the Nantucket Historical Association. I’m looking forward to sharing both my experience there and museums in general with you!

Abby King

Abby King
MA in History and Museum Studies, 2020

Howdy, my name is Abby King. I have a BA in History (minor in classics), and I am a second-year grad student in the History and Museum Studies program at Tufts University. I am from the Kentuckiana region and have journeyed a long way to get here. My earliest museum memories have to do with peeking through the glass at fossils and mummies—so I have always had an eye for old history. I currently study ancient to medieval civilizations around the Mediterranean, including the Byzantines and ancient Greeks.

Only in undergrad did I realize I wanted to use my history focus in museums. This epiphany came when I was working in the special collection’s library at my old college, and from there I’ve been on a saucy and nerdy ride to where I am. I have worked with a curator at a historical home, at a baseball bat factory and museum, in the education department of a state history museum, and at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston in the registrar’s department. This summer I will be interning at the National Air and Space Museum with a curator and collections manager on oral histories and women’s history.

My successes are all thanks to family, friends, mentors, teachers, and those willing to share their knowledge, so I am happy that I will get to (try to) share a golden nugget or two on this blog about working in this field and experiencing exhibits. Welcome and enjoy our collection of stories!

Jennifer Sheppard

Jennifer Sheppard
MA in Museum Education, 2020

Hi there – I’m Jennifer Sheppard, a rising second-year in the Museum Education program and life-long lover of learning and museums. Five years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to articulate what “museum education” was, but a sudden, serendipitous internship at the Dallas Museum of Art took me from a seasoned summer camp professional with an art degree to a full-blown, italicized and bolded museum educator. That internship and the subsequent full-time educator position taught me the power of accessible programming and universal design, the awesome potential in collaborating with dedicated colleagues, and that bringing multi-sensory materials on a tour is always a good idea, among other lessons.

Looking back at my personal history as a museum-goer, my chosen career isn’t much of a surprise. From the very first time my family took me to an art museum to feed my childhood obsession with ancient Egypt, I have had the immense privilege of feeling like I belong in museums. Now, finding (and fighting for) ways to extend that experience to people of all ages, backgrounds, and abilities is my driving passion. It led me to the Tufts program and to the team editorship of this blog. Echoing Darcy and Abby, I’m thrilled to engage more with you and the museum field on such big ideas throughout the upcoming year. Stay tuned!

From Monument to Memorial: A Symposium Review

“We can’t change the past but we can change history.” -Dr. Kymberly Pinder

On Friday, March 29th, I attended Tufts University’s one-day symposium, “From Monument to Memorial: Space, Commemoration, and Representation in America Now.” Organized by the Department of Art and Art History, the symposium invited audiences to consider the role of public civic art in America and its current impact in our present political climate. Discussions on history, heritage, memory, and legacy were the undercurrents of each presentation.

Before the first panel began, Tufts University Art Gallery Director Dina Deitsch discussed the symposium organizers’ deliberate choice to host the event in Tufts’ Alumnae Lounge, a rather contentious space on campus due to the nature of its monumental murals. Commissioned in 1955, the mural’s east wall depicts the historical founding of Tufts on Walnut Hill, while the west wall shows Tufts students, faculty, and deans in an attempt to provide a “snapshot of student life” in the 1950s. Although there are at least fifty individuals painted between the two walls, almost all of the figures are white, Protestant men (except for a few white women). In fact, the only reference to Medford’s diverse population is a small image of the Isaac Royall Slave House, and the artists completely ignore the fact that Walnut Hill is a site of spiritual significance for the Mystic people.

The Alumnae Lounge murals do not portray the diversity of Tufts University, both past and present. (Stay tuned on updates concerning the murals; there is currently a working group determining how best to make the space more inclusionary. An announcement about the murals’ changes to come will be made in the next few months, according to Deitsch.) Considering the ongoing debates concerning the Alumnae Lounge, the space served as a fitting backdrop for the day’s discussants, with Deitsch’s speech further setting the tone for the issues at heart of each panel.

The morning session, “Local Histories/Contested Spaces,” was comprised of four panelists: Danielle Abrams, Professor of the Practice in Performance at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts; Kerri Greenidge, Professor of History and Director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at Tufts; Diana Martinez, Director of Architectural Studies at Tufts; and Kymberly Pinder, Provost of Massachusetts College of Art.

Each panelist discussed a controversial site, monument, or public art project and the importance of re-contextualizing it in its proper narrative. For instance, Danielle Abrams talked about her research concerning the segregated Lincoln Beach, an amusement park that was open from 1939-1964 in New Orleans. Today, Lincoln Beach is in ruins, and the nearby “whites only” Pontchartrain Beach Amusement Park is often more referenced in the archives. Abrams is working to uncover these archives and prevent the complete erasure of Lincoln Beach from memory by collaborating with the last living generation of individuals who used to frequent the park and can speak to their experiences of segregation.

After the morning panel session, symposium participants and audience members had the opportunity to go on a two-hour guided bus tour led by Kendra Field and Kerri Greenidge of Tufts’ African American Trail Project. The Trail Project is a collaborative effort among students, scholars, and community members, intended to interrogate Massachusetts’ white history. With an aim of placing greater Boston historical monuments in their proper context – that is a narrative that also includes the memory and experiences of “historic African American, Black Native, and diasporic communities,” the Project is bringing to light history that has long been negated. The sites on the tour span five centuries and five neighborhoods of greater Boston, including Somerville/Medford, Beacon Hill, Roxbury, and Mattapan. Some examples of tour stops include the Dorchester North Burial Ground, Bunker Hill Monument, Royall House and Slave Quarters, W.E.B. Du Bois House, the Charles Street Meeting House, and Marsh Chapel. Sites continue to be added to the growing list, and members of the public are welcome to suggest or edit any site.

Mabel O. Wilson, Professor of Architecture at Columbia University, led the keynote address, “Memory/Race/Nation: The Politics of Modern Memorials,” in which she discussed the events of the August 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville and the University of Virginia’s counter-protesters who shrouded their campus’ statues of Confederate figures in response. While traditionally University of Virginia’s campus tours spoke of Thomas Jefferson’s founding of the school and his legacy, now, thanks in part to increased student pressure, UVA tours highlight a narrative that was silenced for so long, one that acknowledges the approximately six hundred slaves that worked for Jefferson during his lifetime. Furthermore, a coalition of students and staff are “connecting the dots that have been missing,” with a forthcoming Memorial to Enslaved Laborers, a planned campus monument in the shape of a broken slave shackle, on which the names of 660 individuals are engraved along a timeline in a shallow pool of water in “an effort to humanize the unknown.”

As the symposium drew to a close, panelists left the audience with a series of questions to consider. How do we represent highly personal histories, and who do we represent in telling said narratives? How can we reconsider commemoration in light of recent violent events such as the Unite the Right rally in 2017? When should we preserve history, if at all, and what should we do with contentious spaces or monuments? For a room filled with museum professionals, artists, professors, trailblazers, and graduate students, these are timely questions for everyone to think about in our ongoing work of reframing histories.

Should We Defend the Universal Museum?

How can museums thoughtfully represent art that was never intended to be displayed in the first place? Should a museum contextualize the art it chooses to display, or does this unintentionally create an “othering” of one’s culture or heritage? Do museums have a responsibility to cast meaning onto an object, or should the art speak for itself? As a second year Master’s candidate in art history and museum studies with a focus in the politics of display concerning non-western art, these are just some of the many critical questions I regularly grapple with and consider. Currently, I am confronting these challenging notions in a seminar called, “Who Owns the Past?” Each week, my classmates and I discuss heritage in relation to nationalism, colonization, and questions of ownership while examining cultural property case studies (e.g. the ongoing Parthenon Sculptures debate).

The so-called ‘universal museum’ was the topic of discussion in our last class meeting. Universal museums, sometimes referred to as ‘encyclopedic museums,’ showcase a wide breadth of collections from around the world. Examples of such institutions include the British Museum, the Louvre, the Getty, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, places where a visitor can encounter everything from Japanese narrative handscrolls and ancient Roman coins to West African textiles or contemporary sculptures.

Although one could argue that universal museums promote cross-cultural learning and engagement by providing visitors with a multitude of diverse art forms all under one roof, these institutions have also been harshly criticized for several reasons. First, for the way they defend their ownership of objects acquired in questionable ways: in 2002, for instance, nineteen of such institutions released a “Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums,” a joint statement that argued universal museums should retain other nations’ cultural patrimony (objects often subject to repatriation debates) because “museums serve not just the citizens of one nation but the people of every nation.” Universal museums have also been critiqued for their location; most are predominately in the West. Finally, rather paradoxically, universal or encyclopedic museums are in fact nationalistic. Their collections showcase objects from places ruled by the West, reinforcing imperial messages.

Considering my classmates’ and I’s critiques of universal museums, our professor asked us if we should defend them. With such colonial baggage, what’s left to argue in favor of the universal museum? One of my colleagues, in playing devil’s advocate for this conversation, asked the class to consider if we are perhaps “over-villifying” the universal museum. In its pursuit to provide access and educational resources to the public, is the mission of the universal museum still inherently good? We did not come up with an answer or solution, instead fixed on the neo-colonial rings that universal museums still perpetuate.

As it turns out, a prominent national museum in Europe may offer a solution. Recognizing the “darker side of a country’s history,” the Rijksmuseum – Netherlands’ national museum in Amsterdam – announced it will open an exhibition meant to bring light to the country’s history of slavery. This exhibition, set to open in the fall of 2020, will be the museum’s first show dedicated entirely to slavery. According to the Rijksmuseum website, the “exhibition testifies to the fact that slavery is an integral part of our history, not a dark page that can be simply turned and forgotten about. And that history is more recent than many people realize: going back just four or five generations you will find enslaved people and their enslavers.” I think an exhibition such as this one is a strong step towards creating a more honest narrative in the canon of art history, and I hope more institutions follow suit.

What are your thoughts on the so-called universal museum? Do they continue to confirm prejudice or promote tolerance? Where do we go from here?

Call for Papers

Editors of the upcoming book For Love or Money:  The State of Museum Salaries, are offering the students in the Museum Studies program an opportunity to submit proposals for essays to be included in the book to be published by MuseumsEtc in the fall of 2019.

The museum profession suffers from systemic under-compensation and pay inequality. This book will examine both the causes of this situation and its resulting effect on staff, institutions, and the profession.  It will also propose strategies for remedying the problem.  It will identify internal and external factors that suppress wages, consider the impact of the present practices and paradigms on the field as a whole, articulate the benefits that fair and equitable compensation would achieve, and develop solutions to address wage inequity with the goal of strengthening our institutions, allowing committed museum staff to advance in careers that are financially and personally rewarding.

Further information and topics covered can be found here.

The closing date for the proposals is 17 December 2018.

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