Museum Studies at Tufts University

Exploring ideas and engaging in conversation

Author: Danielle N. Bennett

Brooklyn Museum Receives Community Pushback for Curatorial Hire

The Brooklyn Museum recently announced a new curator of African Art, Kristen Windmuller-Luna, a Princeton- and Yale-educated specialist in the field. This elicited some outrage in the museum community and the local Brooklyn community, especially in light of the recent depiction of the condescending white African Art curator in the recent film, Black Panther. Common questions include: “How can it be that the Brooklyn Museum could not find a qualified Black scholar for the position”, and “how hard did they look?”

In reporting on this issue, The New York Times found several museum professionals in the field of African Art who confirmed that it can be difficult to source appropriately diverse candidate pools for these positions.

Steven Nelson, the director of U.C.L.A.’s African Studies Center, agreed, saying on Friday that he was “one of a very small number of African-American specialists in the field.” Art history as a whole has done “a very poor job of recruiting a diverse pool,” he said, adding that “African art history in the U.S. is primarily white and female.”

This matches much of what is already understood about the museum world and indeed college and graduate school candidate pools generally skew white. It is worth noting that Windmuller-Luna’s position was announced in tandem with another curatorial hire in Photography, Drew Sawyer, a white man.

Of course, it is not wrong for a white person to work in a subject that is about non-white art or other issues, but any opportunity to examine hiring practices and candidate pipelines is useful, and the Brooklyn Museum has been the subject of protests by Decolonize This Place and other anti-gentrification groups concerned about the Brooklyn Museum’s transition to catering to a whiter, wealthier visitorship, which corresponds to changes in the neighborhoods around the museum in the past 20 years. There are further concerns in the community about museum director, Anne Pasternak, who headed up a 2015 Halloween Party at the museum with the theme “The Bronx is Burning”, a reference to a rash of fires in the Bronx due to severe underfunding of critical services in the borough in the mid1970s.

In a neighborhood with its own history of racial strife and struggles with gentrification, with neighborhood organizations asking for the Brooklyn Museum to engage with them on these issues, it seems that the Brooklyn Museum could minimize public blow back when making announcements like this by taking actions to demonstrate their intentions to be a good community actor for all, not just the white sections of Crown Heights and surrounds. Community advisory panels, creating opportunities specifically for scholars of color, and good faith engagement when problems arise are only a few of the ways to build a better relationship with the Brooklyn community. However, the real issue at hand here is a structural one: Educational, economic, and hiring bias work together at every level of the process, reducing the pipeline of available students of color bound for higher education, reducing the amount of students of color accepted to elite organizations, and reducing the amount of people of color who make it through the resume review and interview processes. For the Brooklyn Museum to fail to acknowledge these structural issues means they are choosing complicity in a broken system rather than engaged action to create a better museum.

Museums in the News: Ending Nostalgia at the Heritage Museum

This post comes to us from Danielle Bennett, a first-year student in the History and Museum Studies Master’s program. 

Historic Houses often suffer from two issues that make them less relevant to visitors. One, they
tend to present a history that focuses on great (or semi-great) men from history, ignoring the women,
people of color, working people, and queer people that enabled the actions of these great men (and
ignores the accomplishments of those people in their own right). Two, to combat a lack of interest in the
stories presented, some sites resort to gimmicky semi-relevant events and activities that divorce sites
from their specific historic interest and flatten history into storybooks. It is possible, however, to combat
these problems and capture new audiences for historic sites.
In “Ending Nostalgia at the Heritage Museum,” we learn about the process the new curator at the Museums of Mississauga (Ontario) has undergone to dismantle the nostalgic trappings that used to be present at historic house museums in Mississauga, including horse drawn buggy rides and costumed interpreters. Instead, he has commissioned contemporary artists to stage “interventions” in the houses to strip away nostalgia and re-engage the public with new thoughts about the houses that more fully reflect the diverse communities living in Mississauga.
One of the artist interventions, by Erika DeFreitas, explored how the history presented in historic
houses is staged and highly curated to tell certain narratives. Part of the work, titled “like a conjuring
(bringing water back to Bradley)” was intended to disrupt the understanding of the setting of the house
itself, which was moved from the shoreline of Lake Ontario for the purpose of becoming part of the
historic site several miles inland. The piece included singing wine and water glasses filled with Lake
Ontario water, as well as posters of the waters of the Lake, free for the taking. Another section of the
installation used blown-up photographs of a small textile woven by the hand of an unknown immigrant
worker alongside video of hands (the artist’s) dip dying into indigo dye, meant to evoke unseen labor of
many kinds, including that of the indigo plantation the Bradley family held in the (US) American South.

The program is scheduled to continue, with new installations from different artists coming in. All
the work on display intends to ask questions about the narratives that are on display at historic houses
and what other narratives are suppressed in service to the dominant ones. There are other examples of
using media to recontextualize historic sites, for example the Haas-Lilienthal House in San Francisco, but
the work on display at the Bradley is noteworthy for its intentions to encourage dialogue about larger
questions about who gets to have a history, and what we celebrate when we enshrine certain narratives.

Decolonizing Museums Session at NEMA

This post comes to us from Danielle Bennett, a first-year student in the History and Museum Studies Master’s program. 

At the 99th Annual New England Museum Association Conference held in Falmouth, I attended a session that was so in demand people were sitting in the aisles and leaning against the walls of the room. Decolonizing Museums was a panel discussion with three Native American women who work at museums and have spent a long time thinking about how to negotiate working with primarily white audiences, staffs, boards, directors, and communities while preserving native culture and making it more widely available to native communities.

The panelists were:

Jennifer Neptune, Penobscot Nation, Penobscot Nation Museum

Loren Spears, Narragansett/Niantic Tribe, Tomaquag Indian Memorial Museum

Jennifer Himmelreich, Dine (Navajo), Peabody Essex Museum

Loren and Jennifer Himmelreich both introduced themselves first in their native languages before moving into English. Loren stated that she uses her native language as much as possible to upset visitors’ sense of place and to remind them that English has not always been the native or expected language in this land.

The panel was moderated by Julia Grey from the Abbe Museum. The Abbe is a non-native museum that is exclusively devoted to the Wabanaki people. She briefly discussed the guiding principles the Abbe uses to work successfully with native communities to tell their stories without using oppressive practices. She emphasized privileging Native voices and perspectives, collaboration with tribal communities, and working to tell the “full measure” of truth, including difficult stories. Above all, she spoke of remembering that museums are not neutral spaces, and that we must acknowledge that we start from a negative place when it comes to colonizing practices and history that must be undone. The Abbe uses the work of Amy Lonetree, a Ho-Chunk nation member and history professor at UC Santa Cruz, as a guide for their efforts.

The panel began by defining Colonialism, which is when a nation or state assumes control over an area, its people, and its resources and exploits the resources of the place for profit. They also defined Settler Colonialism, which is when a colonizing state attempts to replace the native population by bringing in people to take over the land and displace the original people. The United States, Canada, and Australia are all examples of states resulting from this type of colonialism. They also defined aspects of Decolonization as: the undoing of colonialism; self-determination for colonized people; returning land, resources, knowledge, power and other tangible and intangible things.

The most important practical suggestion the panelists emphasized was the requirement that relationships be created before commencing work on a project involving native culture. This does not mean shooting an email to a tribe member or even having a meeting. Rather, it requires sustained interactions with multiple members of a tribe or nation – possibly even meetings with the entire community – where, over time, you establish a relationship based on mutual trust and good faith. Eventually that trust ought to be used in a collaborative manner to elevate the voices and perspectives of the native community to tell the story. Consent is a crucial element in these relationships, and it is good to remember the maxim, “Nothing about us, without us.”

Much of the work the panelists discussed involved opening up museums, archives, and resources to both tell native stories in culturally white spaces and to make the information and content available to native people who might not otherwise have access to these institutions and collections. In this effort, they reminded the audience to remember that the cultural materials in our collections have been taken from tribes – from families — and placed in “alien” spaces. They asked us to orient and explain settings to native people coming into the spaces to view these objects, and to be kind and polite and respectful when we do. There are several online resources devoted to enabling access to and rights over tribal content and objects including localcontexts.org and mukurtu.org

The panelists made it clear that they believe it is possible for any and every museum to participate in this work. They reminded the audience that many New England museums have indigenous content in their collections and that we should leverage it to tell a different story than we might have told previously. They asked us, “Are you telling the story of your town? What year does that story start?” When displaying examples of a native art, like basket-making, why not display antique examples alongside modern versions of the same objects to underline that the “vanishing Indian” trope is false. By reframing the concept of relevant history, we can bring much richer stories and more voices to light.

As the panel drew to a close, they issued a takeaway for us to consider as we hurried to our next panels: Decolonization is an ongoing process — it will not be finished in our lifetimes. The most important thing museum professionals can do is listen, know that they will make mistakes, and learn to be OK owning those mistakes and learning from them. Such small requests, but their impacts can be felt by many nations.

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