Museum Studies at Tufts University

Exploring ideas and engaging in conversation

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?

Job Post: Dorchester Historical Society Seeks Part Time Researcher

FROM THE DORCHESTER HISTORICAL SOCIETY

Dorchester Historical Society, 195 Boston Street, Dorchester, MA 02125

Job Description

Researcher/Writer Veterans Project Phase 1

This is a grant-funded, temporary position. A minimum of 10-15 hours of work per week is required. Payment will be based upon number of deliverables produced. Work must be completed by Nov. 15, 2019.
DUTIES:
Under the guidance of the Collections Committee of the Dorchester Historical Society, the Coordinator will be the main genealogical researcher and biographical writer for the Veterans Project.
● Research and compile genealogical data for a predetermined list of Dorchester residents who have served in the armed forces
● Use genealogical data (online resources, onsite resources)and documentary evidence, to write a high-quality, short biographical narrative of each Dorchester service member
● Use proper citation methods to document the source of information used in producing biographies
● Submit biography drafts to Collections Committee for review and online publication
● Report periodically on progress of the project, including metric data

PREFERRED QUALIFICATIONS:
● Minimum education required: Bachelor’s degree in history or related field. Graduate students currently pursuing degrees in public history are strongly preferred.
● Keen interest and experience in performing historical/genealogical research
● Strong research and writing skills
● Strong organizational skills, including the ability to independently manage project timelines and tasks
● Familiarity with genealogical research tools such as Family Search and Ancestry.com
● Familiarity with newspaper research
● Proficiency in MS Office, including Microsoft Word and Microsoft Excel

Please send cover letter and resume to: Earl Taylor, earltaylordorchhistsoc@gmail.com.  Please also include a writing sample of no more than 2 pages on a topic in history or genealogy.

Weekly Jobs Roundup!

Happy February! Here’s the job round up for the week of February 17th!

Northeast

Education-Exhibits Coordinator/Wethersfield Historical Society [Wethersfield, CT]

Curator/David Winton Bell Gallery (Brown University) [Providence, RI]

Assistant Education Director/Wade Institute for Science Education [Quincy, MA]

Registrar/deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum [Lincoln, MA]

Museum Educator/MIT Museum [Boston, MA]

Mid-Atlantic

Curator of Education and Public Engagement/Arkell Museum at Canajoharie and Canajoharie Library [Canajoharie, NY]

Collection Manager/George Eastman Museum [Rochester, NY]

Associate Manager, Education/Museum of the City of New York [New York, NY]

Education Associate/Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum [New York, NY] 

Informal Education Specialist/Space Telescope Science Institute [Baltimore, MD]

Institutional Relations Officer/National Museum of the American Indian [Washington, D.C.]

Southeast

General Museum Educator/University of North Florida [Jacksonville, FL]

Director of Education/Mosby Heritage Area Association [Loudoun County, VA]

Collections Manager/University of Alabama [Tuscaloosa, AL]

Curator, Historic Museums/Georgia College and State University [Milledgeville, GA]

Midwest

Education and Collections Manager/History Museum at the Castle [Appleton, WI]

Assistant Exhibits Preparator/Missouri Historical Society [St. Louis, MO]

K-12 Education Program Manager/Missouri Historical Society [St. Louis, MO]

Historic Site Supervisor/State Historical Society of North Dakota [Williston, ND]

Exhibition Designer/Detroit Institute of Arts [Detroit, MI]

ICAA Research Specialist/The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston [Houston, TX]

West

Interpretative Specialist/Denver Art Museum [Denver, CO]

Collection Information Specialist/LACMA [Los Angeles, CA]

Museum Educator/Oakland Museum of California [Oakland, CA]

 

 

Making Use of the Tools We Have

This week the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) announced that they will be closing their doors for four months later this year to complete their ongoing renovation and completely rehang their collection. When the museum reopens in the fall, they will rotate their collection more frequently, juxtapose works in different mediums, and, crucially, include more works that emphasize the contributions of women, people of color, and non-European artists to modern and contemporary art. They will also partner with the Studio Museum in Harlem, an American art museum that focuses on African American artists, to display their collection while that museum is being renovated.

This is a massive and much needed undertaking. Women and people of color have historically been included in MoMA’s exhibits in marginal ways. A 2015 Artnet survey of solo exhibitions from 2007-2014 at major American art museums found that only 20% of MoMA’s shows featured women artists. Not that these types of exclusion are limited to MoMA. Artnet recently looked at exhibitions of work by black artists at 30 major museums from 2008 to 2018 and found that they accounted for a mere 7.6 percent. So full-throated attempts to remedy these biases and gaps are welcomed. But not every museum can afford to close for months to revamp their space or aggressively collect work from marginalized artists. What can workers at those institutions do?

I recently attended a workshop on Social Justice and Museums run by Nicole Claris, Manager of School Programs at the MFA, Boston, and Sara Egan, from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. The workshop was put on by the Young Emerging Professionals group of the New England Museum Association. Its focus was on how to marshal resources to create exhibits, programming, and other experiences that surface marginalized lives and multiple points of view. Examples of real life successes were shared, like revamping a volunteer training program to give docents the knowledge and tools they needed to tell inclusive and truthful stories. Then step by step instructions for how to apply these intentions to your institution were shared:

  1. The work begins with you. Take a moment to check with yourself and see if you are able to take feedback about your work. It is ok to make mistakes, but we also have to be able to learn from them. This is how we build more inclusive experiences that share multiple perspectives.
  2. Define your goals and audience. What tools and objects do you already have in your institution? Perhaps it is a piece of art featuring a person of color. Are you telling that story? Maybe your historical institution starts its narrative when Europeans came on the scene. Can you surface the indigenous story as well?
  3. Get support. Determine how the actions you want to take relate to your institutional values and priorities. Identify people in your institution that could be allies. Build an external network of people who can help you do this work – who is doing this work that you can point to as a leader? What community organizations can you build relationships with to help your organization change? Who can help you with your blind spots and keep you honest?
  4. Identify activities that align with your goals. External resources from organizations doing this sort of thinking can help. Among those recommended were the Teaching Tolerance Project from the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Empathetic Museum Maturity Model.
  5. Use your collection! Know what you have, through and through. Take opportunities to research objects that you think might have another perspective to share.
  6. Picture success. What will change look like in your institution? Remember that incremental change is better than no change at all.

We don’t all work at MoMA, but we can all make changes that tell wider, more robust stories about art, history, science, and the world. Do you have resources for doing this sort of work? Share in the comments!

Weekly Jobs Roundup!

This Valentine’s Day, find your perfect match. Here’s the job round up for the week of February 10th!

Northeast

Curatorial Fellowship / The Trustees [North Andover, MA]

Education Program Manager / Design Museum [Boston, MA]

Exhibitions Coordinator / Clark Art Institute [WIlliamstown, MA]

Public Programs Associate / Shelburne Museum [Shelburne, VT]

Museum Director / Carpenter Museum [Rehoboth, MA]

Mid-Atlantic

Head of Public Programming / The Phillips Museum [Washington DC]

Curator / University of Buffalo Art Galleries [Buffalo, NY]

Museum Fellow / Bucknell University [Lewisburg, PA]

Development Assistant / National Museum of Women in the Arts [Washington DC]

Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, & Inclusion Project Manager / American Alliance of Museums [Arlington, VA]

Southeast

Museum Assistant / Rogers Historical Museum [Rogers, AR]

Curator / MOCA Jacksonville [Jacksonville, FL]

Manager of Family Programs / High Museum of Art [Atlanta, GA]

Midwest

Exhibition Assistant General Manager / Hamilton Exhibition [Chicago, IL]

Director of Curatorial Affairs / Allen County Museum & Historical Society [Lima, OH]

Curator / Contemporary Arts Center [Cincinnati, OH]

Assistant Exhibitions Preparator / Missouri Historical Society [St. Louis, MO]

Associate Director / Sheldon Museum of Art [Lincoln, NE]

West

Collections Manager & Exhibitions Coordinator / High Desert Museum [Bend, OR]

Executive Director / Coos History Museum [Coos Bay, OR]

Curator, Natural Science / Oakland Museum of California [Oakland, CA]

Director & Curator / University of Denver [Denver, CO]

Director / Wichita Falls Museum of Art [Wichita Falls, TX]

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