Museum Studies at Tufts University

Exploring ideas and engaging in conversation

Category: Museum Questions

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.

Museum Questions: Resonance and Wonder

 

In his short article “Resonance and Wonder,” Stephen Greenblatt explores two of the most central concepts that inform a museum-goer’s experience: resonance and wonder. While the article was written in 1990, the topic of resonance and wonder in museums is one that is still very relevant to museums today. Like the definition of the word, Greenblatt’s ideas on resonance are multi-faceted. Resonance, he asserts, is “the power of the displayed object to reach out beyond its formal boundaries to a larger world, to evoke in the viewer the complex, dynamic cultural forces from which it has emerged and for which it may be taken by a viewer to stand.” In this sense, he is touching on the idea that objects in a museum should be examined within the larger context of all the influences that helped shape that object such that any viewer coming from any standpoint may be able to connect with that piece. He further notes that resonance within a museum setting also refers to the notion of an echo or reverberation, as with sound, and connects this to the idea of an object having its own voice separate from any other agenda. The object then has the ability to take on its own character and, as he says, intimate “a larger community of voices and skills, an imagined ethnographic thickness.” In essence, an object or museum resonates with visitors when they are able to connect with it, get a sense of the context in which it was formed, formulate questions, conversations, and/or ideas about it within that context, and come away with a deeper understanding of it because of the interaction they have had.

Greenblatt’s definition of wonder, on the other hand, while deeply connected with resonance, lacks the sense of understanding that resonance instills and favors the ‘wow-factor.’ Wonder is instead a tool which may or may not lead to resonance, invoked by the object’s ability to “stop the viewer in his or her tracks, to convey an arresting sense of uniqueness, to evoke an exalted attention.”  Wonder can be invoked not only by the object itself, but the way in which it is displayed within the museum, such as with boutique lighting or placement within a coveted area in the museum. In any case, Greenblatt argues that the most successful exhibitions begin with an “appeal to wonder, a wonder that then leads to the desire for resonance, for it is generally easier in our culture to pass from wonder to resonance than from resonance to wonder.” Wonder and resonance can thus work in concert to produce the most impactful museum experience, one in which the visitor is both awed by and more deeply informed by an object simply by experiencing it under the right circumstances.

How do you see resonance and wonder play out in your museum? Does one necessarily lead to the other, and can a visitor fluctuate between the two? How can a museum invoke both resonance and wonder at the same time, or is it possible to do so? Is wonder still valuable without resonance, and vice-versa? Which do you think is more important for a visitor to walk away from the museum with, resonance, or wonder? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!

Museum Questions: Can art museums be for everyone?

While there is no easy answer to this question, it brings up a topic that indeed should be addressed.  Art museums can sometimes be intimidating to the general public, and consequently there seems to be a two-sided debate about who art museums should be for. Some argue art museums should primarily serve those who are highly educated in art history who know how to look at and appreciate art, while others argue that everyone should be feel comfortable and welcomed in an art museum, including those with no art historical knowledge or appreciation skills. Yet if the word ‘everyone’ encompasses the art-historically educated as well as the general public, does the question even need to be asked? The issue seems to stem from the assumptions that a) a public with no art historical knowledge will adversely affect how the knowledgeable art appreciator experiences the museum, and b) an art historical knowledge base is necessary to experience an art museum ‘correctly.’ Allowing those with less art-historical knowledge to enjoy an art museum does not inherently mean that those with more art historical background cannot still experience art museums in the same way that they always have, nor does it mean that the general public will not get anything out of an art museum visit even if they have no formal art historical training. In fact, the art museum and the art inside it can serve as a place of refuge and insightful thought. Recognizing that there is no correct way to interact with art and that equal value should be placed on an interaction with art that is not based in traditional art historical fact is the first step to dispelling the idea that the art museum cannot be for everyone.

Christopher Knight, art critic for the Los Angeles Times, even likened art museum elitism to sports elitists in his article “Elitist and Proud of It.”  His argument (“why are sports elitists OK, but art elitists aren’t?”), however,  is problematic for many reasons. Perhaps the greatest issue is that it is a clear case of false equivalence, where the two cannot possibly be compared because there are no similar defining qualities about the two. The fact of the matter is that while sports games are primarily a source of entertainment and comradery for fans and even their uninterested friends, museums are institutions committed to education and conservation of materials for posterity (this is not to say that people cannot be entertained by museums; rather that the core purpose of museums is not strictly entertainment). Museums have mission statements and are held by a standard of ethics while sports teams are for-profit franchises that market human achievement as entertainment. There is also a feeling of not being welcome in museums felt by those perceived to be less-educated, while this is not nearly as prevalent at sports games if at all. To compare the two when their fundamental purposes are utterly different therefore does nothing to further the argument that art elitists should be the only ones that art museums are for.

So, should museums be for everyone? Yes, absolutely. This is not to say that everyone will want to engage in museums, that they will appreciate museums in the same way that ‘art elitists’ do, or that they will even come. Yet while some museums will require a multitude of institutional changes for this to happen, everyone should at the very least have the opportunity to engage with art and the feeling of being welcome in an art museum.

What is it about art museums that inhibit inclusion? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

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