Museum Studies at Tufts University

Exploring ideas and engaging in conversation

Radical Transparency: History with Layers

Back in January, we mentioned that Chicago’s Field Museum had recently announced a major overhaul to their Native North American Hall. The exhibit largely dates back to the 1950s, and is sorely in need of cosmetic updates to their displays and better interpretive labels. However, the most serious issue with the current exhibit is its treatment of Native Americans as people from the past, instead of peoples with varied and traumatic pasts that still exist today, playing a key role in some of the most complicated issues facing the United States and the rest of North America now. The new exhibit is being undertaken with input from a variety of indigenous stakeholders and will . include contemporary depictions of Native Americans and rotating displays to continue telling better stories. The museum is also working to increase the number of indigenous people on their staff.

An example of the out of date displays in the Field Museum’s North American Hall, 2017. Photo by author.

I visited the Field Museum in 2017, shortly before they closed the hall for the renovations. The space was clearly in need of attention, featuring collections of objects with little or no context for who owned them, or how they were used. The Field has one of the most robust collections of Plains tribes in . the world, yet I found little indication of what separated Cheyenne from Araphaho or Cree from Sioux. However, I did see reason to have hope for the hall’s future, because I was there during “Drawing on Tradition: Kansa Artist Chris Pappan,” which ran from October 29, 2016 to January 21, 2019. This interim exhibit changed the way visitors thought about the original contents of the hall, while also dispelling the trope of the “vanishing Indian,” showing modern indigenous art that draws on historical native art practices.

The exhibit, a mixture of prints, drawings, and video/sound pieces, often laid the new pieces directly over the vitrines full of decontextualized native objects via transparent overlays. New interpretive labels were also used that referenced both the new pieces and old, bringing them together in a dialogue. The effect was that of literally rewriting history. It was exciting to feel the space come to life through the vivid artwork of Chris Pappan, and it inspired questions about what it means to have the history of people frozen in time, without room for input from the people depicted. It will be exciting to see how the Field tells these stories in a more permanent fashion when the new exhibit opens in 2021. I suspect we will see more of this concept of the “overlay” employed as a method that tells a more whole version of history without erasing previous mistakes.

This method is being employed now in another major natural history museum. The American Museum of Natural History in New York has recently unveiled an update to their infamous dioramas in the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Hall. The diorama, built in the 1910s, supposedly depicts a meeting between Lenape tribespeople and Dutch settler colonists, including Governor Peter Stuyvesant, but it is riddled with inaccuracies and promoted racist and hegemonic visions of history. Encouraged to make changes by both internal and external forces, including Decolonize This Place, which has been protesting at the museum for several years. Rather than remove the dioramas and thus hide the museum’s complicity in promoting racist interpretations of American history, the museum has chosen to reinterpret the diorama with labels laid directly over the glass. The new panels correct wrong information, such as what the Lenape would have worn to such an important meeting, and posit important questions like, “Where are the Lenape today?” These corrections are important for teaching visitors who are not experts in the content that previous interpretations had an agenda and advanced stereotypes about indigenous people that have assisted in legitimizing state-sanctioned violence against them since the founding of the American colonies.

The use of transparencies and edits is a useful way to provide context and right interpretive wrongs without removing the wrongs. In preventing institutions from, essentially, deleting their tweets, we can both remember what was previously permitted as acceptable and hold institutions accountable while learning new material. These overlays are a powerful tool for both institutions and marginalized peoples and can be deployed in a number of contexts.

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.


Are Museums Clean if Their Donations Are Bloody?

(Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The spoon is massive, 800 pounds of steel, with a bent shaft that forms a handle and a blackened center suggesting prepared heroin. Built by artist, fabricator, and person in recovery, Patrick Lynch, this sculpture was recently given to Massachusetts Attorney General, Martha Healy, whose office has brought a lawsuit against Purdue Pharmaceuticals and members of the Sackler family who were involved in the marketing and selling of OxyContin, one of the drugs responsible for the current opioid epidemic. Members of the Sackler family are also named in a similar lawsuit brought by the City of New York. The Sacklers also own another opioid manufacturer, Rhodes Pharmaceuticals, which has also been targeted by the Opioid Spoon Project, which places the sculptures.

This is not the only piece of art-based protest produced around the crisis. Photographer Nan Goldin, who is in recovery from her almost fatal opioid addiction after being prescribed OxyContin, has founded P.A.I.N. Sackler, an organization that stages theatrical protests at museums that have accepted donations from the Sackler family foundation and Purdue Pharmaceuticals, including the Smithsonian Institute, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Brooklyn Museum. P.A.I.N. Sackler’s mission statement demands that these museums and other institutions “remove Sackler signage and publicly refuse future funding from the Sacklers,” as well as, “demand that these institutions publicly disavow the Sacklers, and apologize for having whitewashed the reputation of this criminal family.” (It is worth noting that this blog is affiliated with Tufts University, which has also received large donations from the Sackler family.) P.A.I.N. Sackler does not differentiate between the branches of the Sackler family tree, because the Sackler name cannot be parted from the impacts of Purdue and OxyContin.

In light of the recent legal and protest actions against the Sackler family, some institutions are beginning to reconsider their donation policies, including the Met, where a recent action by P.A.I.N. Sackler filled the eponymous gallery with prescription pill bottles. Massachusetts General Hospital removed the Sackler name from their Pain Center after the opioid crisis began. However, most arts organizations have not taken action, including the Smithsonian, which has a naming agreement in perpetuity for the Sackler Gallery of Asian Art. They have stated that they have no intention of changing the name, although their policy no longer permits perpetual naming agreements, meaning that if the Sacklers donated another wing to a Smithsonian, it would only carry their name for a generation.

Like divestment movements before it, which call for organizations to refrain from investing in industries that are harmful to people or the environment, refusing donations from pharmaceutical companies that profit from addiction and inappropriate medical care is a tool that humanities organizations can use to signal their concerns. Art and culture institutions ostensibly care about documenting and showcasing the human experience, and though that experience may include pain, organizations need not profit off the pain and allow the culprits to launder their names in the process. Elizabeth Sackler, the daughter of Arthur Sackler, and namesake of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum, has endorsed the actions of Goldin and P.A.I.N. Sackler while also distancing her father and her branch of the family from Purdue.

Although the family protests blaming Arthur Sackler’s Foundation for the impacts of OxyContin, which was created after he died, the matter is not so simple. Arthur Sackler was a pioneer in marketing drugs directly to doctors, creating the modern pharmaceuticals industry that his descendants profit from. Indeed, the pending lawsuit facing Purdue and Sackler family members in Massachusetts has turned up internal Purdue memos from Sackler family members that show individual Sacklers were directly responsible for encouraging prescriptions of OxyContin while knowing about the addictive qualities of the drug. Other memos discuss the need to paint addicts as the problem and plan to push OxyContin as a safe alternative to Tylenol. Arthur Sackler’s shares of Purdue were sold to his brothers after his death. Had Arthur lived, keeping his shares of Purdue, who can say if his family branch would be as equally implicated in OxyContin’s sales.

In a statement to the Washington Post, Sackler’s widow Jillian stated in part, “Arthur would be horrified to see how this drug has been misused and would be working to find solutions.” If that is true, perhaps the Sackler Foundation should be refocusing their efforts away from cultural organizations and toward harm reduction and recovery support. Maybe the donations they make should not come with named buildings and galleries to publicize and promote the Sackler name as pure philanthropic selflessness. Of course, they have the right to spend their money as they please, but perhaps museums and other cultural organizations should not help them side step more impactful charitable giving by accepting the donations.

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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