Museum Studies at Tufts University

Exploring ideas and engaging in conversation

On Education and the Vote

Museums have, for many decades now, been sites of learning and exploration for people of all ages, economic classes, and educational levels. The idea of informal learning spaces assisting with civic education of newly arrived Americans has its roots in a Progressive Era ethos of immigrant assimilation, with the accompanying racist and xenophobic undertones one might expect. However, some of the programs provided by settlement houses and other progressive aid organizations had a significant impact on the lives of immigrants eager to learn about their new country and to advance within it.

Regardless of the flawed origins of these programs, the value of civic education that unites all Americans and enables advocacy and enfranchisement is not to be denied. This understanding of the role museums can play in the pursuit of civic engagement is fully realized in programs like New-York Historical Society’s Citizenship Project. This class uses art from New-York Historical’s collection to teach prospective citizens about American History and Civics through art in the collection. The course does not shy away from informing the students about the darker aspects of American History, including Native American removal, the Chinese Exclusion Act, and the Civil War. The Society also hosts naturalization ceremonies for students after they complete the program and pass their citizenship exam.

Of course, for those of us already enfranchised, we don’t have to wait long to exercise our right to vote. There is a midterm election fast approaching on November 6. Aside from the noble causes museums can assist with, like citizenship courses or enhancing student learning by providing material culture to augment in class learning, we know that museums are affected by political decisions every day. From federal funding of the arts and history projects to local budgets supporting field trips, elections matter when it comes to keeping museums open, encouraging new work to be done, and extending access to museums for students and other prospective learners.

This blog encourages you, museum professionals and students alike, to make sure that you make a plan to vote on November 6. The state of Massachusetts, where Tufts is located, has a sample ballot available here to help you prepare for voting and a way to find your polling location here. Other states have also posted their ballots and polling place locators online. Making decisions about who and what will best represent your life and your institutions is an important responsibility that comes with civic education. As John Dewey once noted, “Democracy has to be born anew every generation, and education is its midwife.”

 

Transitioning into the Wider World

I’ve been putting off writing this post, and it’s probably because it’s hard to say goodbye. I hope that readers don’t mind the diaristic style of this last post from me, and I hope that my fellow graduates feel it speaks to their experience as well.

Three days ago, I officially graduated with a Master’s in History and Museum Studies. After listening to the various commencement speeches about what it means to be a Jumbo and how elephants always remember places they’ve been, my mom asked me whether Tufts feels like “my school” now, or whether I feel a stronger connection to my undergrad alma mater. Looking around the green, I realized I don’t feel a very strong connection to Tufts University as a whole, although I’m proud to have been a part of it. What I do feel is a strong connection to the individual pieces of Tufts that made up my experience.

I feel that Tufts Museum Studies Program and the History Department are “my school.” I feel a connection to the Education and Art History departments, too, because of my close working relationships with the faculty and students there. I feel that Tisch is “my” library, and East is “my” academic building. These are the institutions, and pieces of institutions, I feel faithful to, and I will have fond memories of. So yes, Tufts is my school, even though as a grad student and a commuter with a day job, it took me almost two years to figure out what Dewick is,* and I never figured out where it is. I think that ten years from now if someone asks me “did you go to Tufts?” I’ll say, “not just Tufts — Tufts Museum Studies.”

It’s a very exciting time in my life, because I am also in a job transition; soon I will be starting a job at the Paul S. Russell, MD Museum of History and Innovation at Massachusetts General Hospital. I absolutely have my Tufts education to thank for helping me become qualified for this new stage in my career. A good professional program isn’t just about helping students launch their careers, it’s really about preparing them to be good at their jobs, and I am both hopeful and confident that Tufts has done that for me.

From September 2013 through March 2015, I wrote a monthly-ish column for this blog called “The Wider World,” which discussed ways that we as students could explore the relationship between museums and their wider communities, even while we were in our school bubble. Now I’m leaving the bubble, and I plan to continue to reflect on this relationship.  I hope that you will join me.

I’m pleased to announce that two museum studies students will be taking over the blog from me, Colleen Sutherland and Jess Camhi. Even if you don’t already know them, you may have seen their exhibits in the Koppelman Gallery as part of “Focus: Experiments in Photographic Interpretation” this past month. I am excited to be passing the baton into their capable hands.

 

Over and out (on this channel),

Tegan

 

*Dewick is a dining hall.

Self-Care for Museum Students

March is going to be a very, very busy month for me. So busy that I’m writing and pre-scheduling this post in January so that I don’t have to think about it. Since January is also kind of busy, this is post going to be lighter on analysis than most, but it’s also going to be on-topic. How do we take care of ourselves as museum professionals and grad students?

– I have learned from other grad students that it’s important to stock up on frozen meals for a few weeks before final papers and projects are due each semester. I often feel guilty about it at the time, thinking that I’m setting myself up to be unhealthy by not buying fresh foods, but during the couple of weeks that are really crunch time, it helps a lot to have well-rounded meals on hand. Remember you can always eat a salad and save the TV dinner for another time if the mood strikes, but you can’t save a salad for after the semester if you’ve already bought the ingredients.

– Don’t forget to take at least one session off every time you go to a conference (I learned this one the hard way). If you are at a hotel, chill in your room or go to the hotel pool or gym. If you’re commuting to the conference, take a walk or go to a nearby cafe. The amount that you’ll feel rejuvenated will be well worth the “missed” time.

– Speaking of taking time off, it’s important to take time for yourself when juggling school, work, and homework, too! Almost everyone will tell you this. I still struggle with feeling guilty for taking time for myself, some of the time, but I know that it works. I watch TV, swim, knit, or spend time with friends. Find the activities that help you take your mind off your to-do list and the things that you get excited about, and prioritize not losing touch with those things.
– Last but not least, go to museums for fun! It can be hard to turn work-brain off, and of course it’s valuable to analyze the exhibits that you see in other museums, but I think that having positive, non-work-related experiences in museums can be really restorative and energizing for museum professionals. After all, these are the places we’re passionate about.
Update from actual March: I am, as predicted, quite busy right now, and I have been for over a month and don’t see myself getting less busy for a while. In the interest of taking some things off of my plate, I’m going to stop posting The Wider World posts for a few months. The rest of the blog will update as normal!

Does the Status Quo Myth Hold Us Back? Part 1 of 2

Recent events, including Ferguson, the killing of Eric Garner, and the Black Lives Matter movement, have reminded many museums and museum professionals that we are situated in communities, and we need to figure out how to respond when our community is in crisis. For some, it’s not a reminder but a wake-up call. if you haven’t yet read the “Museums Respond to Ferguson” joint statement a number of voices in the field circulated a few weeks ago, I highly recommend it.

There are excellent resources out there for museums that want to embrace being a safe space to explore community issues of the past or the present.*  Many of them offer advice on working with museum leadership, boards, or stakeholders who are reluctant for the museum to do anything that could be perceived as political. Museum success stories demonstrate how many institutions find that addressing difficult issues can help meet their larger goals. But despite all this, many museum seem to have a hard time taking the plunge into meaningful, meaty engagement with community problems. Museums and their staff may be afraid to address community issues because they are afraid of mission creep, they worry that their funders will withdraw support, or they don’t know how. I want to suggest one more reason museums and their staff hesitate, one that I have seen in other conversations about political engagement but don’t hear discussed in museum circles often enough.
We believe that the status quo is apolitical. Getting involved in community issues, even as a forum for multi-sided discussion, is considered a political statement, while inaction or adhering to the status quo is not considered a political statement.

People have a natural tendency to believe that the way things currently are, the status quo, is the natural way for things to be. We also have a tendency to believe “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” and believe that the status quo implies that something is not broken. For a somewhat technical explanation, look at Wikipedia’s section on “Irrational Routes to the Status Quo Bias” within the Status Quo article and the economics and psychology articles cited there. This translates to believing that the way things are is not political. We see certain things in society as a baseline which exists because of human nature and not because people made choices that led to these things. **

Because museums and museum professionals fall into the trap of believing that the status quo is apolitical, it’s easy to avoid engaging with community issues. It appears to be the safe route. As Gail Ravnitzky Silberglied points out in the second chapter of Speak Up For Museums: The AAM Guide to Advocacy, many museum professionals incorrectly think that we can’t advocate on political issues because of our museum’s nonprofit status. Within the museum workplace, the myth of the apolitical status quo can prevent even hypothetical conversations about exhibitions or programming around tough issues. Young professionals especially are taught that at work, you should avoid any topics you wouldn’t talk about at an extended family dinner, like religion, your love life, or politics. It’s solid advice, but it’s possible some of our caution is misplaced. We shouldn’t be afraid to “talk politics” if we can leave our party affiliations at home. Community issues happen around our museums whether we engage with them or not.

 

In Part 2 of this post, I’ll explore what museums and museum professionals may be able to do about this problem. For now, I’ll leave you with the first and probably only time I will illustrate a post on this blog with a GIF.

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* To name a few:

** Since I teach field trips about Boston in the American Revolution, I’ll use it as an example. Opponents of the American Revolution accused Patriots of stirring up trouble and being disloyal to English government. They argued that English subjects inherently owed a duty of respect to the King and Parliament. Patriots, on the other hand, argued that deference to the British government was not part of the natural order. Thomas Paine wrote, “There is another and great distinction for which no truly natural or religious reason can be assigned, and that is the distinction of men into KINGS and SUBJECTS.” Yet many loyalists would not have described themselves as taking a political stance. They felt they were just being good subjects.

Visitor Studies in the Wild?

Raise your hand if you expect to be asked, “So, what do you do?” or “What are you studying?” more than once in the next couple of weeks. This is the season for parties with people you don’t know very well, friends of friends and friends of family. Personally, I’m still figuring out how to answer these questions in a way that satisfies both me and the asker. I’ve run into a fair number of people who think that the only jobs in museums are curator and tour guide, and don’t understand that I’m not currently either of those. However, a lot of my friends and some recent acquaintances also like to ask me my professional opinion on this or that museum they have visited – and while it’s fun to be asked, it’s hard for me to find an answer between launching into a full exhibit review and just saying “oh, it was cool.”

"He's an expert at the art of small talking." [In very small letters:] "Very nice weather we have today."

I want to share with you a new approach I’ve been trying out. As soon as I can, I turn the conversation to be about the other person’s experiences. I know, recommending that makes me sound like a networking coach, but there is a reason beyond the truism that people like to talk about themselves. I like to ask, “What do you think of that museum?” If they hesitate, I explain that I am really interested to know, because museum exhibits aren’t made for museum professionals,* they are made for everyone else, so it’s their opinion that matters. Sometimes this question is far too broad, so I ask, “What was your favorite part?” or “Was there anything in particular that stuck with you?” Recently I had friends tell me that they love the way the Museum of the American Indian is divided into small sections, each telling a story that’s fully independent of the others. I was surprised because the element my friends liked was the center of many critiques of that museum. I wouldn’t use one conversation as a formal exhibit evaluation strategy, but it gave me new information to think about.

 

Another question I’m learning to use is “What’s your favorite museum?” or “What’s the most memorable museum you’ve been to?” This can also be a fun icebreaker when you are suddenly making small talk with a small group of people. But beware, the last time I did this, I learned a lot more about an – um, anatomically-focused – museum in Iceland than I ever thought I would know. I haven’t yet had the opportunity to ask someone who says they don’t like museums what they don’t like about them. I want to ask, “Are there any exceptions? What’s different about them?” I also want to ask, “What do you think of when you think of museums?” The problem, of course, is that I have usually already blown my cover, and the other person knows they are talking to a museum-lover.

 

Have you tried this type of question in a social setting? What have you learned?

 

*Don’t tell that one very old-fashioned and inward-focused staff or board member at your organization that I said that. There’s one in every family (or museum).

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