Museum Studies at Tufts University

Exploring ideas and engaging in conversation

Author: Danielle N. Bennett (page 1 of 5)

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.”

Weekly Jobs Roundup!

Hello readers! Here’s the Weekly Jobs Roundup for the week of October 7th.

Northeast

Forum Education Associate [Museum of Science / Boston, MA]

Evaluation Manager [Children’s Museum / Boston, MA]

Researcher [New England Historic Genealogical Society / Boston, MA]

Mid-Atlantic

Senior Research Associate [New Jersey Historical Commission / Trenton, NJ]

Executive Director [Oysterponds Historical Society / Orient, NY]

Registrar/Collections Manager [Biggs Museum of American Art / Dover, DE]

Senior Manager for Public Services [Center for Jewish History / New York, NY]

Manager of Adult Public Programs [Philadelphia Museum of Art / Philadelphia, PA]

Southeast

Director of Museum Affairs [Drayton Hall Preservation Trust / Charleston, SC]

Content Coordinator [American Alliance of Museums / Arlington, VA]

Guide Program Manager [Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art / Bentonville, AR]

Grants Coordinator [Georgia Museum of Art / Athens, GA]

Midwest

Executive Director [National Music Museum / Vermillion, SD]

Manager of Community Engagement [Haggerty Museum of Art / Milwaukee, WI]

Regional Coordinator, Site Support Services [Ohio History Connection / Columbus, OH]

Assistant Director of Communications and Audience Development [Chicago, IL]

West

Curator [Yellowstone Art Museum / Billings, MT]

Associate Curator of Education [Shangri-La Museum of Islamic Art, Culture, and Design / Honolulu, HI]

Senior Curator [Aspen Art Museum / Aspen, CO]

Curator of Education [Idaho State Historical Society / Boise, ID]

Weekly Jobs Roundup

Hi friends! Here’s the weekly jobs roundup for September 16th:

Northeast

Research Coordinator [Massachusetts Historical Society / Boston, MA]

Curator of Exhibitions [Nantucket Historical Association / Nantucket, MA]

Executive Director [Southern Vermont Arts Center / Manchester, VT]

Engagement Manager [Naumkeag, The Trustees / Stockbridge, MA]

Interpretation and Education Program Developer [The Bostonian Society / Boston, MA]

Mid-Atlantic

Museum Exhibit Technician [Dumbarton Oaks Research Library / Washington, DC]

Communications Coordinator [Studio Museum / New York, NY]

Collections Assistant [Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Pocantico Center / Tarrytown, NY]

Registrar [Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum / St. Michaels, MD]

Curator [Salem County Historical Society / Salem, NJ]

Southeast

Director of Inclusion [American Alliance of Museums / Arlington, VA]

Director of Museum Affairs [Drayton Hall Preservation Trust / Charleston, SC]

Director and Chief Curator [Blaffer Art Museum / Houston, TX]

Curatorial Researcher [University of Texas / San Antonio, TX]

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

Midwest

Preservation and Digitization Strategist [Ohio State University / Columbus, OH]

Associate Director of Visitor Experience [National Veterans Memorial and Museum / Columbus, OH]

Director [Marshall M. Fredericks Sculpture Museum / University Center, MI]

Senior Exhibit Designer [Minnesota Historical Society / St. Paul, MN]

Curator, Global Contemporary Art [The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art / Kansas City, MO]

West

Site Manager, Fulton Mansion [Texas Historical Commission / Rockland, TX]

Executive Director [Willamette Heritage Center / Salem, OR]

Guest Curator [Anchorage Museum Association / Anchorage, AK]

Manager of Docent Programs [Skirball Cultural Center / Los Angeles, CA]

Museum Curator [Churchill County Museum / Fallon, NV]

The Problem with Plastics

two plastic flamingos with a plastic bag caught on them

We’ve all heard the dire news. We’ve seen the straw drawn out of the turtle’s nose. We carry our reusable bags, whether or not our town has outlawed them. We know about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. In ways large and small, the people of the world are grappling with the looming environmental disaster of plastics. But we know that the issue is complex. Plastic straws are a necessity for many members of the disabled community. Plastic treasures, from the earliest celluloid jewelry to the first artificial heart to myriad acrylic paintings and fiberglass sculptures, fill our museums. For museums, the problem with plastics threatens to destroy a century of treasures.

The New York Times recently detailed the issue facing the conservators of many institutions, including those at the Smithsonian, struggling to save Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit from the moon landing. The suit includes twenty-one different types of plastics, all deteriorating at different paces. The suit has been taken off display to arrest its decomposition, but the damage has already been done to other historic suits. In those, the neoprene found within internal layers of the suit has turned brittle and shattered. At the Smithsonian and many other art, science, and history museums around the world, conservationists and scientists are racing to figure out the best ways to preserve and repair artifacts that, despite having a half-life of a thousand years, seem to have a useful life span of less than a hundred years.

The first sign that a plastic object is deteriorating is usually yellowing or microfracturing of the object. While unsightly and inconvenient, this is essentially a warning sign that worse conditions are coming. Offgassing, shrinking, and other kinds of visible degradation are soon to follow. In creating plastics, molecules are arranged and frozen in an inefficient manner. Over time they regroup, separating the object itself into brittle structures with white powdery materials or sticky substances emerging. Some earlier types of film create acetic acid in the course of deterioration, causing what archivists call “vinegar syndrome”. As with film, this short shelf life of plastics is also affecting archivists who are rushing to save information stored on physical media. As the space and time needed to store content shrank, the amount of information saved exploded, resulting in a surfeit of information that needs to be evaluated and conserved in a relatively short amount of time. Whether cassette tape, CD, flash drive, or physical server, plastics are integral to the modern world’s ability to save itself for posterity and renewing the lifespan of plastic objects with information stored on them requires money and time that many institutions unfortunately do not have.

In the short and medium term, trainings on how to deal with plastic should become more widespread and additional funds will need to be allocated to deal with issues of plastics conservation and preservation of information and objects currently stored via plastics. However, the long-term state of preservation is going to require new thinking about how to display and discuss a culture who so thoroughly relied on an object with such a limited lifespan. Future historians will also need to explain why such reliance on a temporary material with harmful environmental effects was considered a desirable solution for twentieth century humans. The sooner those conversations commence, the more useful they may be in mitigating culture loss and environmental damage.

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.

 

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