Museum Studies at Tufts University

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Tag: future of museums (page 1 of 4)

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.”

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.

 

Measuring a Museum’s Worth

Is it via attendance or admissions fees? The size of the collection or the amount of funding it receives? By almost any measure, the Philadelphia History Museum has not proved its worth, for it shut down indefinitely at the end of June.

The museum, which is designated in the city charter to be the repository for artifacts relevant to the Philadelphia’s history, closed last month after a significant reduction in funding from the city. Talks to partner with other institutions, most recently with Temple University, fell through. For at least the next year, the museum will be closed and the collection will be reviewed with an eye toward figuring out a new direction for the museum to take. It is unclear if that direction will include re-opening to the public.

The reduction in funding was the hiatus-blow for the organization, but thriving museums rarely experience cuts like this. Attendance was low, despite efforts to revitalize the museum, including a recent renovation in 2012. The museum had also collaborated last year to create a new curriculum for Philadelphia public schools that centered the life of free Black resident, Octavius V. Catto. Shot by two white men who were never convicted for their crime while urging citizens to vote on Election Day, the exhibit sought to tell an important story with relevance to today. This is a moment in America that begs for interesting and relevant retellings of history, and Catto’s story certainly fits the bill. But it is hard to demonstrate relevance if no one seeks it out.

This is not an admonishment to the people of Philadelphia for not supporting their museum. Nor is it a diagnosis of what went wrong, for this blog does not have insight into the marketing plan, visitorship goal, or budget needed to make the Philadelphia History Museum a world-class institution, or at least, a city-class one. Rather, it is a recognition that a lot of museums in the United States are missing the mark when it comes to attracting audiences and money, despite possessing compelling stories.

There are many reasons why this is happening, but in thinking about the Philadelphia History Museum, it is worth pointing out that Philadelphia’s population is less than 50% white. As we have discussed previously on this blog, museums are not neutral spaces. Museum audiences tend to skew heavily white and affluent and often potential local visitors are alienated from spaces that don’t strive to create content of and with the surrounding community. There are museums that have bucked this demographic trend. The High Museum of Art in Atlanta, GA has tripled its non-white visitors in recent years, to the point that the museum’s visitors are starting to resemble the city’s racial makeup. They have done this with a mixture of initiatives that included highlighting artists of color within their collection, reaching out to local potential visitors in multiple languages, diversifying docents, and reassessing ticket prices. Other museums have also looked into their collections to find ways to create new relevance for existing content.

Hopefully the Philadelphia History Museum’s assessment will include considerations about community outreach, public programs, and exhibition content and interpretation, as well as the price of admission (at closing time, the adult admission was $10, in a city where the median income is only $41k/year, well below the national median).

The Philadelphia History Museum is the designated keeper of historical objects for the city of Philadelphia. Although it’s archive remains intact for now, it is not a library. Part of a museum’s mission is to take those objects and documents and interpret them for the public, helping the citizens of the city remember and understand their history. This requires support and support includes money. While it is perfectly acceptable and necessary to demand that museums present innovative exhibits and engage with audiences in current fashion, it is also necessary to provide the support that those museums need to be good and useful and interesting institutions. Art and history and culture require patronage, to see the work through periods of devaluation and maintain these common goods for all.

Our best museums are building collaborative experiences that decenter authority, tell important stories from their collections, and engage with local populations to create community spaces that are compelling, inclusive, representational – and thriving. Our best cities deserve nothing less.

 

Asking Forgiveness Instead of Permission

The Berkshire Museum has gone ahead with the auction and private sale of choice pieces from its collection, including works by Norman Rockwell (whose works were intended for the people of Pittsfield, MA in perpetuity), Alexander Calder, and Frederic Church. They have not yet reached the $55 million cap permitted by the Massachusetts Attorney General, and so may return to the auction block with more pieces, but the majority of the transactions have been completed. In response, the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) has sanctioned the Berkshire Museum, requesting that the association’s 243 members refuse to lend works to the Berkshire Museum or collaborate with it on exhibitions. In a statement the AAMD stated, “Selling art to support any need other than to build a museum’s collection fundamentally undermines the critically important relationships between museums, donors and the public. When museums violate the trust of their donors and the public, they diminish the opportunity and responsibility to make great works of art available to the public.”

Even as this sanction was issued, other voices in the art and museum world rallied to suggest that the current system is flawed. Artsy suggested that the American Association of Museums’ (AAM) policy which only allows collections to be deaccessioned and sold in order to fund the purchase of more art should be modified to permit more diverse uses. They argue that if the goal of museums is to secure collections for the public good, what good comes of large institutions locking away vast amounts of art that may never be displayed? They propose a modified deaccession policy that gives other institutions first opportunity to acquire works, and allows the proceeds from the sales to be used for other purposes beyond acquisitions.

The AAM’s deaccessioning policy intentionally restricts the use of proceeds from deaccessioned collections to prevent liquidation of assets held for the public good from being used to cover up financial mismanagement or other unethical uses. In a recent statement in response to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruling on the Berkshire Museum case, the AAM reiterated their position, “We believe this is a critical issue of ethical conduct and best practice, one tied directly to the public trust. When museums violate the trust of their donors and the public, they diminish the opportunity and responsibility to make our cultural heritage available to the public. This hurts the individual institution and affects the museum field as a whole.”

The AAM and AAMD are certainly working on behalf of the public good, and it is in keeping with their roles as professional organizations  to scrupulously maintain the ethics of the industry, but they may also need to assess their current position. Undoubtedly, institutions across the country with high storage costs and low display space are watching this saga unfold and contemplating if they might withstand the legal and professional scrutiny if it meant they could pursue that capital project, hire that new education staff, or add more robust programming to their schedule. Museums are well aware of their precarious positions in their communities as both trusted sources of information and lean competitors for tourism dollars. It may be time for a careful re-consideration of what constitutes the future of ethical use of funds raised from deaccessioning works. If the AAM  and other professional organizations refuse to seriously consider the issue before institutions, it may be that other museums follow the Berkshire’s lead and ethical debates, court judgements, and sanctions hit the newspapers with a frequency that could alter the public’s faith in museums.

Symposium on the Rosa Parks House Project this Friday, May 18

Please join RISD and Waterfire Providence for a symposium on the controversial artist intervention on the Rosa Parks House. The day begins with a tour of the project followed by panel discussions about art, preservation, and memory. This project brings up questions of race, artistic appropriation and preservation and should be an important discussion for all. Free. For more information about the symposium, please visit their website.

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