Museum Studies at Tufts University

Exploring ideas and engaging in conversation

Category: Around the Globe (page 1 of 4)

Rising to the Challenge of Economic Hardship

As I was scrolling through some news articles about museums on my phone, I came across an interesting article about how the Musée Rodin in Paris is using revenue from the sale of bronze casts of Auguste Rodin’s sculptures in order to decrease their budget deficit due to the pandemic. I was not previously aware of the museum’s decision from two years ago to dramatically increase the number of works that can be cast, a decision that is clearly benefitting the museum now. Initially, it seems strange to allow for the sculptures to be made again in bronze and sold to private collectors and other museums; however, this decision was allowed for in the institution’s bequest and Rodin himself stipulated that the museum has the rights to his works. This year, two large bronze pieces have been sold to a Middle Eastern museum, helping the Musée Rodin to lower their deficit to about three million euros. The institution has also set up an online donations page from which they have received 1,200 euros.

Musée Rodin

            What efforts have other museums made to decrease their financial burdens? The Museum of the City of New York is discussing launching virtual adult education courses that might include online discussions moderated by curators that are focused on New York topics. The museum is also putting the online programming it has released during the pandemic to good use: it has collected over 4,000 photographs and “Covid Stories” documenting New York’s experience of the pandemic and curators are now preparing an exhibition for the fall centered on this topic (using a previous 2018 exhibition focused on past epidemics in the city, titled “Germ City” as a model).

As this year's flu season begins, we reflect on the 1918 influenza pandemic and other contagious diseases the city has had to contend with.

Jacob A. (Jacob August) Riis (1849-1914). [Infirmary.] ca. 1890. Museum of the City of New York 90.13.2.322.

Meanwhile, the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation in Germany is aiming to restructure the extensive bureaucracy within the foundation and perhaps even dissolve and replace it with a new foundation to manage the state museums in a more streamlined and concise structure. This would also allow for more budget autonomy for each individual museum as well as restructuring financing in order to allow for improved long-term planning.

Berlin's Museum Island at sunrise (imago images/Panthermedia)

            This is an extremely difficult time for all museums as they struggle to survive the economic hardships caused by the pandemic. Many institutions have had to furlough staff and cancel programming, and still some might not survive. However, it is encouraging to see the diverse and creative methods – and self-evaluation – that some institutions are employing in order to improve their economic prospects.

Three more years until a new definition

A man wearing glasses leans over a look, looking closely at something he is pointing at

We return to the question, “What is a museum?” this week but, instead of doodles by summer campers, we have the perspectives of the International Council of Museums community. A new museum definition was up for a vote at ICOM’s 25th General Conference in Kyoto, Japan this past weekend. The museum community polarized into two strongly for- and anti-new definition camps and, without a consensus, the Extraordinary General Assembly voted to… vote later.

The current ICOM museum definition, which has not changed much in decades and is likely familiar to most museum professionals, is as follows:

A museum is a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment.

Current definition from ICOM Statutes, adopted by the 22nd General Assembly on 24 August, 2007

The new definition, which split opinions worldwide, focuses less on the “what” and more on the “how” and “why” of museums. It references hot topics such as diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion, and pushes the idea of a museum ever closer to forum than temple:

Museums are democratising, inclusive and polyphonic spaces for critical dialogue about the pasts and the futures. Acknowledging and addressing the conflicts and challenges of the present, they hold artefacts and specimens in trust for society, safeguard diverse memories for future generations and guarantee equal rights and equal access to heritage for all people.

Museums are not for profit. They are participatory and transparent, and work in active partnership with and for diverse communities to collect, preserve, research, interpret, exhibit, and enhance understandings of the world, aiming to contribute to human dignity and social justice, global equality and planetary wellbeing.

new alternative museum definition selected by the Executive Board of ICOM on July 2019

I find my own opinions on this definition are split; I am drawn to the prioritizing of working with and for all people, but the ideas in it are disorganized. The editor in me wants something more concise! François Mairesse, a French professor and museum professional who resigned from the ICOM committee in charge of developing the new definition, shared a similar sentiment with The Art Newspaper, saying, “A definition is a simple and precise sentence characterizing an object, and this is not a definition but a statement of fashionable values, much too complicated and partly aberrant.” He went on to say that the new definition was exclusionary to existing museums who do not match or would have difficulty adapting to it, adding, “It would be disastrous to impose only one type of museum.”

For me, this second part of Mairesse’s argument has no legs. The practical difference between the current and new definitions is the exclusion of the word education and the inclusion of voices outside of museum staff and leadership. Words and phrases such as democratising [sic], polyphonic, participatory, and critical dialogue mark the strongest change in how a museum who adheres to the new definition might operate. The rest – basic ideas on collecting, conserving, researching, interpreting (and can’t interpretation include education, anyways?), and exhibiting objects and ideas that tell the story of humanity for humanity – remains the same, albeit with loftier goals of benefiting “planetary wellbeing.”

Is that not what we, the museum community, should be striving for? To continue our work with care and further engage the communities we serve – to share the responsibilities of authority, expertise, and meaning-making? Just because the undertaking may prove challenging for “traditional” museums (Mairesse cited the Louvre, for example), doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done.

I am curious to see where the definition goes from here, as the vote postponement passed by the Extraordinary General Assembly means that ICOM will have another three years to refine a new definition before it comes up for a vote at the next General Conference. My hope is for something more succinct that keeps the participatory spirit. I expect the topic will be up for fresh debate in many Tufts Museum Studies courses (as well as in programs and institutions globally). What do you think, Tufts Museum Studies Blog readers, how should the definition change between now and 2022?

If you’d like some inspiration, or just a look at the ideas of others, ICOM collected 269 submissions for the Committee on Museum Definition, Prospects and Potentials (MDPP, 2017-2019) to reference as they were coming up with the new definition. Are there any that strike closest to what you think should guide the museums of today? We welcome your thoughts in the comments!

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.


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