Museum Studies at Tufts University

Exploring ideas and engaging in conversation

How Should Museums Deal With Controversy?

In the wake of the “Leaving Neverland” documentary, chronicling the allegations of of sexual assault by Michael Jackson, the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis has decided to remove three Michael Jackson artifacts from display. The Museum’s decision was the result of their decision to be “very sensitive to our audience.” The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis made a swift decision when faced with controversy. However other museums, such as the Bundekunsthalle in Germany, have chosen different paths. The Bundekunsthalle has decided to continue with their plans to open Michael Jackson: On the Wall, an exhibition focusing on the musician’s influence on contemporary art. Museum organizers have decided to avoid discussing his biography in favor “examining his cultural impact” as a way to anticipate and avoid the allegation’s and controversy surrounding Jackson.

In both these cases the Museums have decided to remove or avoid objects or subjects as a means to evade controversy. Yet, as Willard L. Boyd wrote in his piece Museums as Centers of Controversymuseums should “consciously invite controversy” in order to inform and stimulate visitor learning. While Boyd speaks more to controversial ideas presented in the museum than to the more recently common controversial actions conducted by a museum, as more often than not centers of controversy, museums must learn how to deal with controversy.

So, how should museums deal with controversy? Museums can look to the National Coalition Against Censorship’s Best Practices for Managing Controversy as a good jumping off point. The best way to deal with controversy is to anticipate it, have a plan, be transparent, create an educational framework that can provide context to why a curatorial choice may be, or is, controversial. What I believe if missing from their “Best Practices” list is the importance of speaking with the communities involved or effected by the controversy. Museums are not neutral and generally have institutional biases that reflect Western colonial power imbalances, we must as museum practitioners acknowledge that fact and incorporate the voices of those that were historically silenced.

Overall, I am not quite sure how a museum should deal with controversy. Likely, there is not one definitive answer. But, as museums have been dealing with controversy for many years and will continue to in the future, as museum professionals we can take note of how museums have dealt with past controversies to help inform our decisions for the future.

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!

Happy February! Here’s the job round up for the week of February 25th!

Northeast

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

Executive Vice President [Billing Farm and Museum- Woodstock, VT]

Internship Program Coordinator [Museum of Science- Boston, MA]

Executive Assistant [Rose Art Museum- Waltham, MA]

Deputy Director of Education and Engagement [Williams College- Williamstown, MA]

Collections Care Technician [Historic Deerfield- Deerfield, MA]

Mid-Atlantic

Museum Director [Dumbarton Oaks- Washington, D.C.]

Museum Educator [City of Alexandria- Alexandria, VA]

Assistant Registrar/ Preparator [The Phillips Collection- Washington, D.C.]

Exhibitions Assistant [Philadelphia Museum of Art- Philadelphia, PA]

Collections Interpreter [Philadelphia Museum of Art- Philadelphia, PA]

Southeast

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

Coordinator of Youth and Family Programs [Oklahoma Contemporary, Oklahoma City, OK]

Manager of Public Programs and Community Engagement [Oklahoma Contemporary- Oklahoma, OK]

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

Manager of Education and Youth Programs [Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg- St. Petersburg, FL]

Midwest

Curatorial Fellow [Walker Art Center- Minneapolis, MN]

Deputy Director of Public Experience and Learning [University of Michigan Museum of Art- Ann Arbor, MI]

West

Manager of Digital Strategy [San Jose Museum of Art- San Jose, CA]

Assistant Registrar [Gerald Peters Gallery- Santa Fe, NM]

President and Executive Director [International Museum of Arts and Sciences- McAllen, TX]

Education Outreach Coordinator [Computer History Museum- Mountain View, CA]

Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa: The Main Complaint

In my last and final post for this series we will be exploring the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa in Cape Town, South Africa and their attempt to address earlier criticism through the exhibit “The Main Complaint.”

The Tufts Museum Studies Blog has previously written the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art (MOCAA) last year when Editor Kelsey Peterson addressed issues of diversity among the Museum’s staff. The privately funded art museum, often referred to as “Africa’s Tate Modern,” is the continent largest museum in the world dedicated to African art. In the two years since it’s grand opening the museum has faced many debates and controversies including the resignation of Executive Director and Chief Curator Mark Coetzee over allegations of racial and sexual misconduct and criticism regarding how accessible the museum is for the general public. MOCAA is in fact quite expensive at 190 rand approximately $14 USD. This may not seem exorbitant for museums in the U.S., but when compared to other costs in Cape Town, for example a Wagyu Steak Tartare dinner at a nearby posh waterfront restaurant is slightly less, it is an understandably unaffordable price for a city rife with economic and racial segregation.

From its onset, regardless of controversy, the museum has billed itself as an institution for all with a responsibility to represent everyone including audiences “who have often felt excluded from cultural institutions.” In fact, the opening exhibition, still on view today,  entitled All Things Being Equal asks visitors to questions “How will I be represented in the museum?” On its website the museum makes it clear that representation is an ongoing process for the institution, answering the question of “Is the Museum an accurate portrayal and representation of the African Continent?” with this statement:

“This museum is at the start of a journey to participate in the conversation of what it means to be African, and then begin representing the continent. This will be a process over many years to fully understand and represent such a huge continent with so many traditions, languages and cultural groups. No collection can represent an entire continent but Zeitz MOCAA hopes its collection will make a significant impact on how Africa and the world view and has access to works of art from Africa and its Diaspora.”

As I found out on my recent visit to Zeitz MOCAA, the institution does its best work when it is being self-reflective through grappling with these thoughts and ideas of representation, accessibility and institutional power. These ideas are best represented in the exhibition The Main Complaint, which opened to the public in November of last year and will be closing at the end of this week.

The Main Complaint is an infiltrating exhibition highlighting systematic, institutional failures, in an attempt to contextualise, recognise and repair. The exhibition exists as an ongoing series of interventions by museum staff and invited artists.

The Main Complaint is not confined to this exhibition space. The project exists as an infiltrating and sprawling series of interventions, workshops, talks and off-site programs – all of which will, in some form, end up in here. It’s unclear what this space will become. It may become claustrophobic and unaccommodating. Or perhaps it will generously harbour a collection of beautifully synchronised works and a range of alternative ideas.

The role of technology is an integral theme throughout, as an indicator of intergenerational communication, memory, modes of representation, accessibility, agency, and ultimately, a facilitator of collaborative, responsive change.

How much time are you willing to invest in the process?

According to Zeitz MOCAA Assistant Curator Michaela Limberis, the idea for The Main Complaint came from the idea of wanting to respond to the conversations surrounding the institution. The title is adapted from William Kentridge’s 1996 film, The History of the Main Complaint, which looks at white capital, power, and responsibility through the protagonist’s self-reflection while questioning what progress has been made. In an interview with ART AFRICA, Limberis described the importance of this exhibition for the young institution “some people perceived that there was a lack of communication between the museum and voices in the arts community, and believed that there wasn’t a sense of collaboration in the approach. As an institution that aims to be a representative of the African continent at large, there was an opportunity to being open to dialogue.” The artists explore many common themes of “access, value, representation, and ownership” within an institution.

The exhibition is in the in the Museum’s Centre for the Moving Image space, and as such relies heavily on film. Upon entering the space you are greeted by a foreboding security gate complete with a soundscape to set the scene. The piece, entitled “Right of Admission Reserved,” by Gaelen Pinnoch appropriately sets the tone for the rest of the exhibition. The piece is a physical barrier at the entrance to the exhibition space, access to which is only granted through pressing the “request access” button. The artists aim is to make viewers feel intimidated by the gate and/or the access control procedure. According to the label, the piece is an attempt to “distill the sense of exclusion, usually imparted by covert expressions of power, control or authoritarianism in the built environment, into something physical and explicit.” The work manifests into physical form the feelings many have towards cultural institutions. By having this piece at the entrance to the exhibition space, it helps to set the tone to complaints of access and power within cultural institutions.

Other works look directly at the relationships between artists and institutions such as Hhanya Mashabela’s “Ode to Institutional Critique” and Mitchel Messina’s “Lil Slugger Goes to Zeitz MOCAA.” Messina’s animated short was by far my favorite piece on view and made specifically for this exhibition. The film follows Lil Slugger to a slumber party at Zeitz MOCAA. From my understanding Lil Slugger represents smaller artists and the struggles they face while navigating institutions and systems of power. Throughout the film Lil Slugger is intimidated by security guards, rules, and other works of art before realizing that they may be struggling as well. The label description is written in Lil Slugger’s voice as he grapples with feeling hurt by “big systems’ while still trying to fix them:

And sometimes I wonder if these big systems broken and hurting also, and maybe they want to get better but only way how they can get attention is by acting out and doing things we wish they won’t.

If I ignore them maybe they will fall in with a bad crowd and get worse, maybe they will be pressured into being a badder system. But if I try to hug them they will push me away so hard I tumble and break my heart and never want to go back.

I was interested to see how many artists were willing to have their voices included in the exhibition and even more so in the institutions willingness to present narratives in which the Museum and cultural institutions as a whole were not always depicted in a positive light. I think overall Zeitz MOCAA excelled most in their exhibits that provided more self-reflective, meta looks at cultural institutions and the art world. I am curious to see how the Zeitz MOCAA will continue to progress with attempting to break down power structures and barriers to access and representation. As Limberis mentioned, as a young museum, Zeitz MOCAA has a lot of room for experimentation and that could bring the museum to the forefront as a leader in the museum world. I look forward to keeping an eye out for what they do next.

If you ever find yourself in Cape Town head to the V & A Waterfront for a visit to Zeitz MOCAA.

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?

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