Museum Studies at Tufts University

Exploring ideas and engaging in conversation

Taking Stock

As this academic year draws to a close, Kelsey, Amanda, and I are preparing to hand over the reins of this blog to our wonderful new editors who will be introducing themselves to you shortly. In the past year we’ve been able to explore museums from so many angles. We have asked questions about what museums should be and what they shouldn’t. We’ve looked at collections, from the issues with preserving 20th century plastics to the plain weird! We’ve considered how museums play a role in thinking about important social issues of our time and how museums are affected by political events and trends. We believe a deeply considered understanding of and engagement with the local community is crucial to creating a strong and successful museum.

Some of our conversations centered around issues that will concern us directly as workers in the museum industry, whether it be wages and unionization fights, ethical donations, or managing burnout. We’ve examined forward-thinking programs, compelling trends, and how to improve visitor experience. And we’ve considered matters of inclusion, asking who gets included in collections, exhibits, and outreach. We know that museums can not afford to disregard their workers, their visitors, or innovative design if they want to grow and survive a changing landscape.

What we have spent the most time on, however, are matters of race and decolonization. Questions of what history is covered and how, who owns artefacts and how they were obtained are a serious part of the zeitgeist and museums must continue to grapple with them for a long time. We examined changing interpretations to center marginalized people, who is served by an organization, and how to implement decolonization practices. We are certain that this is one of the major issues facing the museum sector globally and many more honest and serious conversations will be needed in the coming years.

We hope that we’ve encouraged you to keep thinking about what a museum can and should mean to its visitors, place, subjects, and workers. We will certainly take these conversations with us as we enter the workplace. Thank you for being a part of this community! Stay tuned to see what the next set of editors will bring to the dialogue.

Adventures in Repatriation: Around the World and Down the Street

 

Last month, the Medford Public Library, in the town where Tufts University is located, announced an auction of “surplus goods”. The goods turned out to be a number of Native American religious objects, including shaman’s masks and rattles and a totem pole, all of considerable monetary value. The items were donated to the library in the 1880s by James G. Swan, a Medford-born collector of Native American objects, long before the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) was passed in the 1990s. The auction was halted by the mayor of Medford, Stephanie M. Burke, after public outcry organized by American Indian groups took hold.

Even though NAGPRA governs ownership and repatriation of sacred indigenous objects and remains in the hands of institutions that receive federal funds, not all organizations have completed the required inventory of objects that apply to this law. An incident like this might have happened and could still happen anywhere in the country. Native American object collecting was incredibly popular in the late 19th century, as indigenous people were thought to be “vanishing” as the conquest of the American continent completed. It is entirely likely that similar collections exist unprocessed in the archives of other libraries, schools, or museums across the country, and that more attempts to auction goods may take place in the future against a background of dwindling federal funds for cultural institutions.

Controversies around objects stolen from indigenous, colonized, and otherwise disempowered people around the world are making news every day now, in a flood that is by turns both reparative and dismaying. Under reparative, the President of France, Emanuel Macron, recently announced the planned return of 26 works of Dahomey art to the Benin government, who formally requested their return a number of years ago. Macron suggested that more such repatriations would be forthcoming, an important step in acknowledging the role France had in the destructive colonization of Africa in the 19th century.

Under dismaying, however, one can find any number of refusals including the famed Benin Bronzes or the Kohinoor Diamond, all of which remain in British hands for now. But changes may be underway. Not only are governments demanding the return of cultural objects from colonizing countries, in some cases countries or individuals are stealing objects out of the Western museums that keep them. Private citizens are also forming groups to wage social media campaigns that pressure institutions to return works to home countries.

As technology and globalization conspire to shrink the world, the call to return wrongfully obtained objects will only grow louder. Amid the din, protests and refusals from governments and institutions still holding ill-gotten treasures will sound like the weak excuses they are. In an attempt to counter tours that highlight illicit artworks at the British Museum, the museum has developed a series of lectures that focus on the proper provenance of many works originating in other countries. While any move toward transparency is positive, telling a partial story designed to improve an organization’s credibility while ignoring the larger issue the institution is complicit in is marginally laudable. With some luck and a lot of guilt and outcry, however, the public can keep pushing this important conversation to a place of resolution, rather than obfuscation.

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.”

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