Museum Studies at Tufts University

Exploring ideas and engaging in conversation

Taking Stock

As this academic year draws to a close, Kelsey, Amanda, and I are preparing to hand over the reins of this blog to our wonderful new editors who will be introducing themselves to you shortly. In the past year we’ve been able to explore museums from so many angles. We have asked questions about what museums should be and what they shouldn’t. We’ve looked at collections, from the issues with preserving 20th century plastics to the plain weird! We’ve considered how museums play a role in thinking about important social issues of our time and how museums are affected by political events and trends. We believe a deeply considered understanding of and engagement with the local community is crucial to creating a strong and successful museum.

Some of our conversations centered around issues that will concern us directly as workers in the museum industry, whether it be wages and unionization fights, ethical donations, or managing burnout. We’ve examined forward-thinking programs, compelling trends, and how to improve visitor experience. And we’ve considered matters of inclusion, asking who gets included in collections, exhibits, and outreach. We know that museums can not afford to disregard their workers, their visitors, or innovative design if they want to grow and survive a changing landscape.

What we have spent the most time on, however, are matters of race and decolonization. Questions of what history is covered and how, who owns artefacts and how they were obtained are a serious part of the zeitgeist and museums must continue to grapple with them for a long time. We examined changing interpretations to center marginalized people, who is served by an organization, and how to implement decolonization practices. We are certain that this is one of the major issues facing the museum sector globally and many more honest and serious conversations will be needed in the coming years.

We hope that we’ve encouraged you to keep thinking about what a museum can and should mean to its visitors, place, subjects, and workers. We will certainly take these conversations with us as we enter the workplace. Thank you for being a part of this community! Stay tuned to see what the next set of editors will bring to the dialogue.

Case Studies in Community: The Museum of the Shenandoah Valley

Often when a museum is dealing with tight margins, dropping interest from local visitors, and growing infrastructure concerns, they are inclined to draw inward, hunker down, and try to weather the storm by protecting the visitors, donors, and physical spaces they need to survive. Unfortunately, this can backfire, further alienating an institution from the very people that can stabilize and enliven it. While it may feel risky, going out into the community can be a pathway to survival and growth for a museum. I recently had the good fortune to meet with one such organization, the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley, who took this route.

The Museum of the Shenandoah Valley (MSV) was created in 2005 with a two-fold mission: To house the fine and decorative arts collections of Julian Glass Jr., whose ancestral estate the MSV is built on, and to collect and share the arts and culture of the Shenandoah Valley. The Museum came about after Glass designated in his will that his family estate, Glen Burnie, become a historic house museum after his death. Glen Burnie opened to the public in 1997 and the house and museum were moderately successful, seeing about thirty thousand visitors a year in 2013. But the MSV seemed unable to grow their visitorship beyond that point and had the all too common experience of small museums where the same group of people was constantly engaged with the site, with little interaction with the larger community.

Executive Director Dana Hand Evans, who came on board around that time saw the potential of the site and set out to bring more people into the MSV. They entered into a phase of strategic planning and created a ten year Master Plan to shape the MSV into a “cultural park” for the town of Winchester, VA and the Valley beyond. Evans made a series of curatorial, programmatic, and financial decisions that resulted in big changes and an uptick in local engagement with the museum.

Some of these decisions were small, but made the MSV more welcoming. They opened up their spaces to local organizations for meetings and other events at no charge. Suddenly the local college had access to an offsite space with a piano they could hold concerts in, and local non-profits didn’t need to search for meeting space, and lines of dialogue were opening up. At the same time, the MSV made the choice to stop pursuing grant opportunities that were open to social services. The Shenandoah Valley is a relatively poor area, with the majority of the students in the public school system eligible for free or reduced lunch. In reducing competition for funding for needed services, the MSV signaled to the community that they wanted to help build the people of the Valley up, not just preserve the memory of the people who lived there in the past.

A bigger change was to completely revise the interpretive experience of Glen Burnie, their historic house museum. Previously, the house had been a traditional historic house, with roped-off rooms displaying beautiful objects but with little context about who actually lived in the house. The house needed structural work and they had obtained an NEH grant to remove the contents of the house, do repairs, then reinstall it exactly as it had been before. However, Evans saw an opportunity to do more than maintain the status quo. The MSV undertook a series of listening sessions with community leaders, organizations, teachers, and more to hear their concerns and interests for the site, and to discuss ways to bring more people into the house. Evans and the MSV returned the NEH grant which did not allow for interpretive changes to be made, and sought alternative funding for a new interpretation that featured Julian Glass, Jr. and R. Lee Taylor as central figures in the house, giving visitors a peek into the mid-century life of two gay men who preserved and restored the house and gardens, filled it with fine decorative arts and furniture, and turned it into a social gathering place for their extensive group of friends and family.

Glen Burnie’s new welcome panel, featuring snapshots from Glass and Taylor’s personal collection.

Building on the success of that risk, Evans and the MSV have taken many more steps to build stronger bonds between the museum and the larger community. Local artists are now displayed in a small gallery, and a cafe was turned into a makerspace that offers classes and workshops to the public. Other arts education spaces have also been constructed. Seeking a way to expand use of their considerable grounds, the MSV recently completed fundraising to add three miles of walking and biking trails that will connect them to the larger Winchester Green Circle Trail and expand recreational space access for the community. And a new event oval is currently under construction, allowing the MSV to grow a small annual concert into a concert series that brings in thousands of visitors each summer.

In all, the MSV has doubled its visitorship in the past six years, bringing in over seventy thousand visitors in 2018. It has taken a lot of work, fundraising, and communication, but the MSV is in a better position now that they have devoted themselves to creating and strengthening their community connections. For any smaller organizations out there wondering how to create their own sustainable futures, looking at the MSV’s philosophy may be the key.

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.


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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