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.

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?

Who does the new National Law Enforcement Museum serve?

On Saturday, the National Law Enforcement Museum opened to the public in Judiciary Square in Washington, D.C. The Museum, which cost $103 million to construct, has a collection of 21,000 objects, and is intended to educate visitors about the experience of working in law enforcement. Featuring twelve interactive exhibits, visitors have the opportunity to engage with forensics, enter a 911 call center and play the role of a dispatcher, or participate in an officer training simulator.

Although Dave Brant, the museum’s executive director, has stated that “this facility will help us to educate, inform, create dialogue, around both the history of law enforcement [and] the current status of law enforcement,” I have to wonder who is missing from the museum’s narrative. How does the museum address Black Lives Matter, if at all? What about the lack of women in law enforcement, and the minority officer experience?  Does the museum discuss implicit biases among officers? At a time of intense racial divides, how does the National Law Enforcement Museum plan to engage visitors in a much-needed conversation?  Moreover, what does it mean for this museum to open now, merely two weeks after the Washington Post reported that 756 individuals have been fatally shot by police in 2018?

According to the museum’s website, its mission is to “introduce visitors to the proud history and many facets of American law enforcement in an experience you won’t find anywhere else. Our ‘walk in the shoes’ experience lets visitors learn what it’s like to be a law enforcement officer through innovative and engaging exhibits, artifacts and programs. We also seek to strengthen the relationship between law enforcement and the communities they serve with thought-provoking programs that promote dialogue on topics of current interest.”

While it seems as if the museum is trying to become a space for constructive conversations, it is clearly one-sided. Despite an entire exhibit devoted to the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, there is no mention of Black Lives Matter. Ultimately, through the use of special programming and other year-round educational programs, the museum is trying to improve community relations while striving to provide an alternative view of law enforcement not often told in the media.

The 400th Year of What, Exactly?

Next summer, the United States will mark a somber anniversary. In August of 1619, the first recorded group of African people destined for sale in the colonies arrived in Jamestown, Virginia. Although, as Michael Guasco argues at Smithsonian.com, the date is not as important as many make it out to be, for race-based slavery was already well underway in other parts of the Americas, this is a date in US history that will likely be met with a fair amount of commemoration. As with other anniversaries marking the advance of European conquest and settler colonialism in the Americas, this event is an opportunity for museums and educational institutions to present content and programming that grapples with the complicated and complicit legacies of racism, colonialism, conquest, violence, and slavery in US History.

In looking at the 2019 Commemoration page for the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, doing justice to this difficult history does not appear to be at the center of their plans. This anniversary is one of four being celebrated this year, along with the arrival of English women, the first meeting of a representational assembly in the European Americas, and the first official Thanksgiving. In general, the events planned seem to be focused on “the entrepreneurial and innovative spirit of the Virginia Colony”, that seeks to “build awareness of Virginia’s role in the creation of the United States and reinforce Virginia’s position as a global leader in education, tourism and economic development.” In other words, these events are presented as an opportunity for economic development and tourism promotion, rather than for reflection or reparative work.

This is an excellent moment to reflect on the idea put forward by LaTanya Autry and Mike Murawski that  “Museums are not neutral”. Every exhibit, program, marketing material, and tour given at a museum is crafted by people with unique collections of knowledge, perspectives, and goals. They bring their own life experiences to how they view the world and a hierarchy to what they deem important. Though many might aim for neutral presentations in their work, the fact of the matter is that there is no neutral, there is only the illusion of neutrality, which usually manifests in “default” presentations: content that focuses on white Europeans, on men, on the cis-gendered and heterosexual, on the non-disabled, on the wealthy. In a history museum, the archive, too, is biased in favor of these individuals, making it appear as if all of humankind’s history has only been for these humans.

What, then, should the goals of a commemoration of a terrible anniversary like the first arrival of enslaved Africans endeavor to encompass? Here are a few thoughts, and by no means is this list exhaustive. We welcome your additions in the comments.

  • Placing the US and its adoption of slavery in a larger Atlantic context that acknowledges the economic interdependence of the British colonies and situates their actions amid European empire building of the era.
  • Acknowledges the transition to race-based slavery and the long lasting ramifications of that change.
  • Remembers that though the crime committed was vast and difficult to process, for each human who endured the violence and violation of bodily autonomy, the trauma was real, specific, and inescapable.

Above all, this is a good moment for museums to take a hard look internally to assess how the legacy of slavery is manifesting within their own institutions. Who are the curators? Are there people of color in positions of power in the organization? Who has input into telling the story of this group of Africans? Does the story told center the experiences and legacies of those most affected, or is the story used to strengthen a dominant group? These are only a few jumping off points for exploring this and similar events as we navigate a number of coming quadricentennials with complex narratives.

 

Making Museums Connected

This week’s post comes from Jingya Guo, a graduate student in the History and Museum Studies program

As a new graduate student of Museum Studies so far, I can always notice shifts inside my understanding of museums. I’ve been to museums many times when I was in China. I visited museums with my parents, and sometimes my peers. We read written labels’ discourse on the provenance of an object, such as a hand-made wooden chair from Ming dynasty, then we received a bunch of information in terms of how it was produced and how its social context was according to the introduction of docent. We experienced this process again and again in a short time period, then we finished our museum visit. The museums in my mind were shrines containing works of art, I was cautioned against touching objects in museums, photos were strictly forbidden to be taken even though the flash light was not open. I hardly noticed people working in museums behind the scene. Museums were once temples for me to worship the beauty of great human wisdom. They were isolated from what I experienced in my daily life. However, I know something in my mind may have already changed, I am not only a museum visitor but also a museum studies student, which means museums will possibly be my workplace. The dual identities that I embody makes me think more about what museums are, and what museums mean to me. With the external changes of technology and globalization, it is indispensable for a museum to make connections with the outside world and stop regarding itself as a “temple.” Museums need to restart life at a grass-roots level and make it popularized to the public. Integrating museums into the community and making people engage in museum activities needs to become a significant considerations for museum professionals. It is the responsibility of museum professionals to make museums connected.

Why is it important for a museum to play an active role in community?

A museum’s nature and characteristics facilitates the need to establish a interactive relationship between itself and the society. Museums, as explained by the American Alliance of Museums (AAM), is an institution serving for education and aesthetic enjoyment. The Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) also demonstrates that museums maneuver to organize its collection and design programs for “educational and aesthetic purposes”. The International Council of Museums straightforwardly points out that museums should be open to public and render service for society and the local community.  These institutions address the educational role that museums play and intentionally highlight the interactive relationship between the society and museums. The belief that museums are holy places, storing precious artifacts, has been doubted by many scholars. John Cotton Dana, mentioned that an ideal museum should reach as much of the population as possible and be in proximity to the center of a city. The reason for the existence of museums is for the informal education of the public and as a service to society. Although the nature of a museum can be modified by humans and may change over time, the consensus or agreement that most of us have reached so far in terms of the role of a museum is that it should serve the public so that it can initiate potential at a maximum level.

Another reason for building a connection between museums and outside world is the internal demand of a museum. The organization, administration of museums, design of museum programs and the management of collections in museums all requires a network of external contractors, the engagement of those who can satisfy needs of the museum and help them reach public expectation. For example, in order to gain public trust and get an understanding of what direction museum programs can lead towards, more and more museums adopt the strategy of crowdsourcing. To encourage people to participate in the direction or guidance of museum projects, some museums use social medias such as online forums to connect with the public and understand the public need as much as possible. In terms of collection stewardship, museums have to integrate visitors’ experiences, personal interests, and museum resources into the consideration of the management and use of collections. Museums’ own operations and the purposes of serving public cannot be isolated from the society. Indeed, it is the reciprocal relationship built between museums and the public that help developing museums and meet the internal demands of a museum.

What does museum’s connection mean to me? Why is it crucial for me?

The philosophy that a museum should be open to public and building connections with society has led to a shift in the role of museum workers. As a future museum professional, I need to consider the role that I play in front of museum audiences. Not only should I become a collection manager, or exhibition planner, or museum educator, but more importantly I need to take the responsibility of acting as a facilitator between museums and the public. The mission that museums undertake for informal education and public memory always reminds me of my goal, which is to engage visitors in museums and make them feel freely exhibitions. Also, as a museum visitor who does not have many impressive experiences and happy memories, I do not want visitors to have miserable and frustrating memories when they stepped out from museums. I want them to be able to relate their museum experiences to their daily life, and make museum a social space for family and friends.

To make museums connected, what might be challenges or difficulties for museum experts and museum itself?

What I will eventually encounter in my career might be a realistic museum working environment instead of the romantic picture depicted in textbooks. Many factors have to be taken into consideration for museum professionals. One thing is that we need to be cautious that outside connection will not negatively intervene with the administration of museums. For example, individuals like philanthropists who donate their collections to the museums or fund museums may want to have more say in affairs of the museum and to be involved in decisions of the museum’s mission and scopes. Multiple personal goals or interests may also be involved in the museum’s connection with the public. The other challenge for museum programmers may be in keeping a balance between the freedom enjoyed by the public and the application of the museum’s resources including money and time. Engaging the public into the museum experiences also requires certain rules in order to avoid the waste of museum resources and make the work of museum effective.

In conclusion, it is a long way for museums to transform into a paradigm that everyone may agree on. But the goal of keeping a dynamic relationship with public and connecting with the society should always be a focus for museum experts.

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