Museum Studies at Tufts University

Exploring ideas and engaging in conversation

Author: Kelsey L. Petersen (page 2 of 9)

Repatriating Roadblocks: The Case of the Kenyan Vigango Memorial Posts

In November of 2018, French President Emmanuel Macron made headlines (and shook the museum world) when he released a report detailing the restitution of “African cultural heritage to Africa” from French museums long known for their collections of sub-Saharan objects. He called for the swift return of twenty-six royal Dahomey works of art back to Benin, objects that were taken to France in the late nineteenth century as a result of colonial expeditions.

Conversations concerning such Benin objects have often dominated restitution debates focused on African culture – but what other countries from the continent are also seeking the return of their tangible heritage? One case study that has recently lost political steam is that of the vigango memorial posts from the Mijikenda peoples of Kenya. Considered Kenya’s cultural patrimony, vigango memorial posts are tall and narrow “spirit markers” made of wood that resemble an abstracted male body, often incised with repeating geometric patterns and painted.

Example of a kigango (the singular form of vigango)
Photo credit: Denver Museum of Nature and Science

Sometimes up to nine feet in height, vigango memorial posts represent deceased male members of the Gohu society, individuals who were known in their communities for both their wisdom and wealth. Once installed, vigango are never to be removed or disturbed, as they represent the “incarnation of the deceased” and continue to play a central role in Mijikenda communities, such as preventing misfortune.

Despite their communal importance and efficacy, vigango have long been subject to theft and exportation among art dealers and collectors abroad. In 2007, for instance, it was estimated that over four hundred vigango had entered the collections of some nineteen museums across the United States, with often questionable acquisition histories. The debate involving the repatriation of vigango is complicated, involving Mijikenda youth seeking a quick profit, unsigned UNESCO deals, and art market/museum ethics. A recent exposé in African Arts estimated that a kigango (the singular form of vigango) could fetch anywhere between $150,000-$250,000 if placed on auction today (in comparison to $5000 each at a 2012 Paris auction).

While the Denver Museum of Nature and Science recently tried to repatriate thirty of its vigango, the memorial posts never left the United States due to an unexpected and exorbitant tariff that would have been charged at Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (the tariff is equivalent to USD $47,000). Unfortunately for this costly reason, several vigango that were repatriated from California State University, Fullerton in 2014 currently sit in a crate in the airport’s customs’ shed. Although the vigango may be back in their country of origin, no institution involved in their return intend to pay the tariff fees. Until a solution is agreed upon, the vigango will remain in political limbo.


Weekly Jobs Roundup!

Hello job seekers! Here’s the national museum jobs round up for the week of March 10th!

Northeast

Exhibit Content & Experience Developer [MIT Museum/Boston, MA]

Museum Project Management Assistant [The Bostonian Society/Boston, MA]

Museum Teacher [USS Constitution Museum/Boston, MA]

Membership Engagement Officer, Development [New England Aquarium/Boston, MA]

Grants Manager [Wadsworth Atheneum/Hartford, CT]

Collections Preparator [The Newark Museum/Newark, NJ]

Coordinator of Museum Programs [Liberty Hall Museum/Newark, NJ]

Mid-Atlantic

Manager of Family Programs [New-York Historical Society/New York, NY]

Supervisory Museum Registrar [Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens/Washington D.C.]

Events Manager [American Museum of Natural History/New York, NY]

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

Betty Parsons Archivist [Alexander Gray Associates/New York, NY]

Southeast

Assistant Curator [Museum of the American Arts and Crafts Movement/Palm Harbor, FL]

Public Programs Manager [Vero Beach Museum of Art/Vero Beach, FL]

Assistant Registrar [Birmingham Museum of Art/Birmingham, AL]

Midwest

Education and Outreach Manager [Massillon Museum/Massillon, OH]

Associate Educator, Student and Teacher Learning [The Saint Louis Art Museum/St. Louis, MO]

Associate Curator of Education [Oklahoma State University Museum of Art/Stillwater, OK]

Collections Assistant [Judd Foundation/Marfa, TX]

West

Museum Registrar [Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco/San Francisco, CA]

Communication and Program Associate [Center for Cultural Innovation/San Francisco, CA]

Executive Director [Western Front Society/Vancouver, Canada]

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]

 

 

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