Museum Studies at Tufts University

Exploring ideas and engaging in conversation

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The Burning of the Museo Nacional of Brazil

This week, tragedy struck the museum community and humankind with the burning of the Museo Nacional in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The 200 hundred year old museum, housed in the what was once the royal palace, has lost more than 90% of it’s 20 million object collection. While reports have come in that some objects such as Luzia, the oldest human fossil found in the Americas may have survived the devastation, those lost to the flames are among priceless objects and specimen that represent an enormous loss for not just the Brazilian people but human cultural heritage as a whole. Among those lost are nearly all of the 5 million specimen in the insect collection, roughly 700 Egyptian artifacts, a fresco from Pompeii, a large number of holotype specimen, dinosaur fossils, a Royal Hawaiian feather cloak, pre-contact artifacts, and recordings of now extinct indigenous languages.

The loss is monumental and irreplaceable. However, this is not the first time, nor will it be the last, that a loss of this magnitude will affect our natural and cultural history. Akin, to the burning of the library in Alexandria, a symbol for the loss of cultural knowledge, this fire was the result of decreasing museum budgets, neglect, and a declining care for our natural and cultural histories. Last year the museum received an operating  budget of just $13,000 for South America’s largest natural history museum. Staff and curators were reduced to online crowdsourcing campaigns to raise the money necessary to provide the most basic care and when firefighters arrived on the scene to fight the flames they found that both hydrants in front of the museum were dry.

While neglect and lack of funding was at issue for the Museo Nacional in Rio, even museums with large operating budgets, strong disaster preparedness, and Emergency Response Plans can be at risk. This past year the Getty Museum in Los Angeles faced risk as the Skirball fire moved closer and closer, and many museums have been damaged by hurricanes and other natural disasters in recent years. No amount of emergency planning can fully protect a collection and with hurricane season back upon us it is important for museums to look for other ways to prepare for the worst. For myself, this issue shows the importance of digitizing collections. If the Brazilian Museum’s indigenous language recordings had been digitized and stored off site or in a cloud they would not be lost today. While a digital sample does not replace the actual object or specimen it is highly preferable to have at least a digital record than none at all. The day after the fire Wikipedia began a crowdsourcing campaign to collect images of objects in the museum from museum visitors to help investigators and curators piece together what has been lost and to attempt to keep the museums 20 million specimen collection in memory. Unfortunately, we may never know just what has been lost to the flames.

How has the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa Addressed its Lack of Diversity?

In September of last year, the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (MOCAA) – the largest museum of contemporary African art in the world – opened its doors on the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town, South Africa. Hailed as “a new beacon of art” and “Africa’s most important museum opening in a century,” MOCAA promised its visitors an accessible and engaging space in which to enjoy one hundred galleries of installations, photography, paintings, and video works on view. Although its collection represents an impressive breadth of global art, and the artists represented are queer, female, and international, MOCAA received criticism for its lack of diversity among its high-ranking staff (most of whom are white and male). Considering the Museum will be celebrating its one-year anniversary this month, how has it addressed this problem…if at all?

At MOCAA, boutique lighting, white walls, and spaced out exhibitions provide an aesthetic experience that facilitate art viewing, encouraging visitors to stay for hours and to become lost in the great art before them. From Yinka Shonibare’s film installations that reflect on colonial practices, to sculptures by Swazi artist Nandipha Mntambo that explore the notion of binaries, MOCAA poignantly displays art from critically acclaimed artists. The collection, in addition to being beautiful, is worldly, intellectual, and relevant to today’s ever-changing political climate.

As a result of this universal approach, the canon of African art history is slowly widening and shifting to a more inclusive perspective. Despite these positives, the “overarching amount of white male voices” among its staff and Board of Directors becomes problematic when we consider the fact that only twenty-six years ago black South Africans were not even allowed to enter museums. Apartheid, the discriminatory racial classification system that severely restricted black South Africans’ rights to own land, vote, or visit certain areas, existed throughout the country from 1948-1991. Although apartheid has been abolished, its effects of systemic racism divisions still linger.

In May, MOCAA faced even more criticism when Mark Coetzee, executive director and chief curator (and personal friend of museum founder Jochen Zeitz), resigned due to professional misconduct allegations. Azu Nwagbogu, MOCAA’s photography curator, replaced him as the new director and head curator. Nwagbogu is also the editor-in-chief of Art Base Africa, an online contemporary African art journal, and has been the director of the African Artists’ Foundation since 2007. With these outstanding qualifications, it makes me wonder why he wasn’t hired as chief curator in the first place. In this role, Nwagbogu will also oversee the Museum’s curating training program, which trains twenty aspiring curators from around the continent “to work specifically in the context of their communities.”

I think there is hope for change with its youth curating program. After all, the Museum is still in its infancy; at the time of this writing it has only been open to the public for one year. With the criticisms it has received regarding its “whiteness” in a country that has experienced ongoing intense racial divides, I hope that in the coming year, and under the new direction of Nwagbogu, MOCAA will mindfully make decisions to prioritize inclusion and diversity among its staff, Board, and program efforts.

Weekly Jobs Roundup

Greetings Readers! Here are the job listings for the week of September 2nd!

Northeast

Assistant Registrar [Springfield Museums/Springfield, MA]

Development and Communications Manager [IS183 Art School of the Berkshires/Stockbridge, MA]

Manger, Content Strategy and Social Media [Museum of Science/Boston, MA]

Curatorial Assistant [Worcester Art Museum/Worcester, MA]

Prospect Manager [Historic New England/Boston, MA]

Mid-Atlantic

Exhibition Designer [MoMA/ New York, NY]

Museum Exhibitions and Programs Director [Morris Center for Lowcountry Heritage/Ridgeland, SC]

Curator of Collections [Wake Forest University/Winston-Salem, NC]

Coordinator of Museum Interpretation [High Museum of Art/Atlantic, GA]

Southeast

Chief Archivist [The John and Marble Ringling Museum of Art/ Sarasota, FL]

Midwest

Associate Conservator (Mellon Initiative) [University of Kansas/Lawrence, KS]

Education Coordinator [South Dakota State Agricultural Heritage Museum/Brookings, SD]

Curator of Collections [Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and Music Museum/Owensboro, KY]

Director [Historic Wagner Farm / Glenview, IL]

Public Programs Manager [Space Center Houston/Houston, TX]

West

Registrar [Anchorage Museum Association/Anchorage, AK]

Curator of Academic Engagement [Colorado College/Denver, CO]

Associate Curator [Boise Art Museum/Boise, ID]

Publications Assistant [De Young Museum/San Francisco, CA]

Education Coordinator [LACMA/Los Angeles, CA]

The 400th Year of What, Exactly?

Next summer, the United States will mark a somber anniversary. In August of 1619, the first recorded group of African people destined for sale in the colonies arrived in Jamestown, Virginia. Although, as Michael Guasco argues at Smithsonian.com, the date is not as important as many make it out to be, for race-based slavery was already well underway in other parts of the Americas, this is a date in US history that will likely be met with a fair amount of commemoration. As with other anniversaries marking the advance of European conquest and settler colonialism in the Americas, this event is an opportunity for museums and educational institutions to present content and programming that grapples with the complicated and complicit legacies of racism, colonialism, conquest, violence, and slavery in US History.

In looking at the 2019 Commemoration page for the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, doing justice to this difficult history does not appear to be at the center of their plans. This anniversary is one of four being celebrated this year, along with the arrival of English women, the first meeting of a representational assembly in the European Americas, and the first official Thanksgiving. In general, the events planned seem to be focused on “the entrepreneurial and innovative spirit of the Virginia Colony”, that seeks to “build awareness of Virginia’s role in the creation of the United States and reinforce Virginia’s position as a global leader in education, tourism and economic development.” In other words, these events are presented as an opportunity for economic development and tourism promotion, rather than for reflection or reparative work.

This is an excellent moment to reflect on the idea put forward by LaTanya Autry and Mike Murawski that  “Museums are not neutral”. Every exhibit, program, marketing material, and tour given at a museum is crafted by people with unique collections of knowledge, perspectives, and goals. They bring their own life experiences to how they view the world and a hierarchy to what they deem important. Though many might aim for neutral presentations in their work, the fact of the matter is that there is no neutral, there is only the illusion of neutrality, which usually manifests in “default” presentations: content that focuses on white Europeans, on men, on the cis-gendered and heterosexual, on the non-disabled, on the wealthy. In a history museum, the archive, too, is biased in favor of these individuals, making it appear as if all of humankind’s history has only been for these humans.

What, then, should the goals of a commemoration of a terrible anniversary like the first arrival of enslaved Africans endeavor to encompass? Here are a few thoughts, and by no means is this list exhaustive. We welcome your additions in the comments.

  • Placing the US and its adoption of slavery in a larger Atlantic context that acknowledges the economic interdependence of the British colonies and situates their actions amid European empire building of the era.
  • Acknowledges the transition to race-based slavery and the long lasting ramifications of that change.
  • Remembers that though the crime committed was vast and difficult to process, for each human who endured the violence and violation of bodily autonomy, the trauma was real, specific, and inescapable.

Above all, this is a good moment for museums to take a hard look internally to assess how the legacy of slavery is manifesting within their own institutions. Who are the curators? Are there people of color in positions of power in the organization? Who has input into telling the story of this group of Africans? Does the story told center the experiences and legacies of those most affected, or is the story used to strengthen a dominant group? These are only a few jumping off points for exploring this and similar events as we navigate a number of coming quadricentennials with complex narratives.

 

Weekly Jobs Roundup!

Greetings Readers! Here are the job listings for the week of August 26th!

Northeast

Site Manager [Historic New England / Boston, MA]

Luce Project Assistant Curator [Mystic Seaport Museum / Mystic, CT]

Donor Engagement Manager [Massachusetts Historical Society / Boston, MA]

Research and Adult Programs Director [Paul Revere House / Boston, MA]

Executive Director [South End Historical Society / Boston, MA]

Mid-Atlantic

Manager of K-12 Digital and Educator Initiatives [The Phillips Collection / Washington, DC]

Curator [The Fabric Workshop and Museum / Philadelphia, PA]

Interpretive Planner [The Penn Museum, Philadelphia, PA]

Associate Director of Teen Programs [New-York Historical Society / New York City]

Assistant Manager of Teen Programs [New-York Historical Society / New York City]

Southeast

Associate Curator of Education [Norton Museum of Art / West Palm Beach, FL]

Director of Education and Engagement [The Columbus Museum / Columbus, GA]

Research and Digital Experience Specialist [The Museum of Fine Arts / Houston, TX]

Group Educator [Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation / Williamsburg, VA]

Executive Director [The Germanna Foundation / Locust Grove, VA]

Midwest

Director [Historic Wagner Farm / Glenview, IL]

Grants Officer [Detroit Museum of Arts / Detroit, MI]

Research Associate [The Art Institute of Chicago / Chicago, IL]

Science Collections Curator [Grand Rapids Public Museum / Grand Rapids, MI]

Assistant Registrar, Photography [Spurlock Museum of World Cultures / Urbana-Champaign]

West

Curator of Natural History [Metropolitan Museum / Riverside, CA]

Curator of Collections and Exhibits [Juneau-Douglas City Museum / Juneau, AK]

Curator [Rice Northwest Museum of Rocks and Minerals / Hillsboro, OR]

Associate Curator, Academic and Public Programs [University of Arizona, Center for Creative Photography / Tucson, AZ]

Assistant Objects Conservator [Denver Museum of Art / Denver, CO]

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