Museum Studies at Tufts University

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Category: Museums in the News (page 1 of 40)

Reimagining Museums During the Coronavirus Pandemic

According to Harriet Baskas, in her article “Museums are opening slowly – and differently – but one-third will likely shutter for good,” before COVID-19, “museums, zoos, science centers, and other historic and cultural attractions across the United States welcomed more than 850 million visitors a year, supported more than 726,000 jobs, and contributed more than $50 billion a year to the economy.” This is no longer the case. These same institutions are now having to make hard choices to try and stay afloat. In a national survey posted in July, the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) reported that “one-third (33%) of museum directors surveyed confirmed there was a ‘significant risk’ of closing permanently by next fall, or they ‘didn’t know’ if they would survive.” More specifically, 87% of museums reported to have “twelve months or less of financial operating reserves remaining [and] 56% having less than six months left to cover operations.”

Many museums are eager to reopen; however, they are not going to be able to function as they did before. Of the institutions which are deciding to reopen, they are facing numerous challenges including reduced staff, increased safety protocols, and in some cases the repurposing of spaces. Leading the charge in reopening are the cultural institutions of the sate of New York. Mark Kennedy states, in his article, “Face masks amid the art: New York City’s museums to reopen,” museums that are opening this week include The Museum of Modern Art, opening Thursday, August 27; and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, opening on Saturday, August 29. Kennedy goes on, explaining that in reopening, “city museums will institute a range of precautions, including reduced hours, reserved tickets, mandating masks, limiting attendance to a quarter of capacity, and closing movie theaters, coat rooms, and food courts.” Despite taking these protective measures, museum directors say the next concern is if patrons will actually come back. For museums which rely heavily on revenue from ticket sales, attendance is of great importance.

The Museum of Modern Art, New York City, New York, sourced from “New York’s Iconic Museum of Modern Art Reveals Its $450 Million Makeover,” Architecture and Design, October 2019.

Other institutions which have been greatly impacted by the effects of the pandemic are museums like the New York Hall of Science (also known as The Hall) in Queens, New York. Kennedy describes the museums as “a place where children engage with the exhibits – controlling mock space rovers, exploring digital environments and experimenting with circuits.” The Hall has yet to reopen its doors but plans to do so at some point in the spring of 2021. However, the fact that their doors are closed does not mean they have stopped contributing to their community. According to Kennedy, The Hall has “helped donate thousands of meals, turned a parking lot into a drive-in theater, encouraged research, and hosted a mobile testing site on campus.”

The Children’s Museum of Lowcountry in Charleston, South Carolina is another museum which advertised itself as a place of interactive exploration. In her article, “At SC children’s museums, ‘hands-on learning’ complicated reopening during pandemic,” Emily Williams explains that “the very same things that have made children’s museums unique and valuable are now making it highly complicated for them to reopen.” Williams quotes Laura Huerta Migus, the director of the Association of Children’s Museums, who stated that “175 children’s museums are still closed to any kind of physical visits. […] That means they’ve gone five months without any kind of revenue and have lost their most profitable spring and summer periods.” Therefore, in order to avoid permanent closure, these institutions have had to get creative with their spaces. The children’s museums of South Carolina have done just that. According to Williams, “the children’s museum will be running a ‘Schoolseum,” which will give about 30 local families the option of sending their children to the Ann Street museum to Complete their virtual school work in a small, in-person setting with the help of museum staff.” Other, larger institutions have been able to implement reopening plans which include reworking hands-on exhibitions and prioritizing space for distancing between families.

Brad Nettles, “Children’s Museum of the Lowcountry education specialist Kevin Powers reads a book to the younger campers during snack time,” sourced from “At SC children’s museums, ‘hand-on learning’ complicates reopening during pandemic,” The Post and Courier, August 2020.

Each institution is going to face different hardships as they work to maintain a presence in their communities during the coronavirus pandemic. Even as museums reopen their doors, it does not mean that the fight is over. In order to follow guidelines established by the CDC, many museums must reduce the number of visitors entering their spaces at a given time. In a report by Ken Budd, “What to Know About Visiting Museums During the Coronavirus Era,” museums have reduced their visitor numbers to anywhere from 25-80% of their normal capacity. Additionally, certain museums are requesting that visitors order their tickets ahead of time online and a number of those tickets are for scheduled visits.

Visitor experiences within the museum will be different as well. A number of museums have decided to close their restaurants and cafes. Others have informed visitors of the possibility of exhibition spaces being closed in order to accommodate individual room capacities. An additional hardship facing museums is how to follow both the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) and CDC guidelines. For example, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City is currently not offering audio guides for tours. Related concerns regarding touched surfaces will likely force many museums to reevaluate their exhibitions, like those in the children’s museums discussed above.

If you want to visit a museum, it is important to educate yourself on their changes in regulations beforehand. A visit to their website or a call to the institution can provide interested patrons on their process for purchasing tickets, their regulations regarding masks, and what visitors can expect to see or experience when visiting the museum. For those working within the museum field, the AAM has created a COVID-19 Resources and Information page where guidelines and recommendations for museum practices will be updated in response to the current situation.

Patience and understanding from all sides is necessary during these unprecedented times. We must work together to support not only these cultural institutions but also the communities which they serve. Sharing our stories and experiences can help educate each other about best-practices and innovative programs that have been most successful in maintaining a presence during the pandemic.

Have you had an interesting experience visiting a museum during the pandemic? Do you work for a museum or other cultural institution which has implemented some note-worthy changes? We want to hear from you! Contact us through the Want to Guest Post on the Blog page to share your story!

Discussing the “D-Word” of Museums: Deaccessioning

For many years, issues of the deaccessioning of works in museums’ permanent collections have garnered much attention. Since the pandemic, these concerns have only increased as museums struggle to stay open. In recognition of these struggles, the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) – an organization which offers guidance on museum best-practices to its members – decided to make changes to their regulations regarding museums’ usage of restricted funds. According to Olga Symeonoglou – an attorney in the Washington D.C. office of Cultural Heritage Partners – in her article, “Will AAMD’s New Guidelines on Deaccessioning and the Use of Restricted Funds Change the Way Museums Handle Their Collections?,” these purportedly temporary changes were made in order “to give museums flexibility to withstand the financial distress caused by closures and continuing uncertainty.” Such a decision begs the question: how temporary will this change turn out to be and what precedent will it set for future concerns regarding deaccessioning?

According to Azmina Jasani – a partner in Constantine Cannon’s Art and Cultural Property Law Group – in her article, “The Art of Deaccessioning by Museums,” deaccessioning means “the removal of an object via sale or otherwise, from a museum’s collection.” Jasani goes on, explaining that “it’s a practical way for museums to manage their collections, as it affords them the opportunity to purchase newer or more relevant works and change directions.” One of the concerns regarding deaccessioning is often a question of ethics. In order to help museums conduct themselves appropriately, specific guidelines have been put in place. This includes the AAMD’s Code of Ethics. This code stated, according to Jasani’s article, that “a museum director shall not dispose of accessioned works of art in order to provide funds for purposes other than acquisitions of works of art for the museum’s collection” (1).

Despite such regulations, there have been some instances where museums have had to rely on funds garnered from deaccessioning in order to survive economic hardships. One such case involved the sale of a Norman Rockwell painting by the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. According to an article published for The Boston Globe, “Berkshire Museum sells Norman Rockwell painting to George Lucas’s museum,” the Berkshire Museum was facing closure without an increase in funds. In order to avoid closing, the museum selected forty pieces to sell, including Norman Rockwell’s “Shuffleton’s Barbershop.” The article states that the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art claimed to have purchased the Rockwell piece. It goes on, articulating that the museum announced its goal “to raise $55 million so it could stay open and refocus its mission.”

Norman Rockwell (1894-1978), “Shuffleton’s Barbershop,” 1950. Oil on canvas, 31″ x 33″. Cover illustration for “The Saturday Evening Post,” April 29, 1950. Collection of the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art. Norman Rockwell Museum Digital Collections. ©SEPS: Curtis Publishing, Indianapolis, IN.

The Berkshire Museum succeed in deaccessioning some of its works, however, it also stirred up controversy and concerns regarding the museum’s stewardship of its collection. In fact, the very mention of the word “deaccession” tends to harbor negative connotations. There are those who would argue that this generally negative perspective on deaccessioning needs to be reevaluated in order to allow museums to evolve. For example, Andrew McClellan – a professor of art history at Tufts University – argues that “the selective deaccessioning of objects no longer deemed essential to a museum’s mission, in order to acquire new objects that are, may make good sense,” in his article, “Museums need to move with the times – that’s why deaccessioning isn’t always bad news.” McClellan goes on, arguing that such changes could help increase diversity within museums, making them more reflective of their respective communities (2). However, this usage of funds from deaccessioning which McClellan describes would still function within the original guidelines established by the AAMD.

The recent change in the AAMD’s guidelines which allows museums to utilize funds garnered from deaccessioning for operational costs seems to have punctured a hole in the ethical standards which previously shadowed cases such as that of the Berkshire Museum. Not only will this change in code make it difficult, if not impossible, to pass judgement on museums’ actions against future threats, it also raises questions as to what other uses such funds may be applied. Mark Gold – a partner in the law firm of Smith, Green, and Gold – and Stefanie Jandl – a former curator – discuss these concerns in their article, “Why the Association of Art Museum Directors’s move on deaccessioning matters so much.” They explain that “according to the AAMD’s statement, the new resolutions ‘were proposed in recognition of the extensive negative effects of the current crisis on the operations and balance sheets of many art museums.” Afterwards, the authors cannot help but refer to the case of the Berkshire Museum, described above, and recall that the situation described by the AAMD is exactly what occurred at the Berkshire Museum. In response, they ask the question: “Should it matter what is causing the existential threat? [..] Should it matter if the cause of the crisis is a pandemic or the loss of major employers in the region, a declining demographic and donor base, or a series of unfortunate decision by staff or board?”

Deeper into the article, the answer to the above question begins to unfold as the authors return to the question of ethics. Gold and Jandl state that “ethics inform behavior not just when it’s easy or convenient, but when it’s hard. And if it’s ethical to use income from the proceeds of deaccessioning for operating expenses, why not the proceeds themselves?” They go on, arguing that museum professionals should seize this moment as an opportunity to reevaluate previous sentiments regarding best-practices. They also add that these professionals “can be more openminded about what can be removed from the collection without affecting a museum’s mission and be advocates for converting those objects into resources to keep the museum open and to support and advance the mission by treating museum employees and programmes as assets worthy of investment-pandemic or not.” Doing so could reshape individuals’ perceptions of collections and how they can function in a reciprocal relationship of support with their museums.


References:

  1. Jasani, Azmina. “The Art of Deaccessioning by Museums.” Wealth Management (February 23, 2018). https://global-factiva-com.ezproxy.library.tufts.edu/ha/default.aspx#./!?&_suid=159761333945104543291629816466
  2. McClellan, Andrew. “Museums need to move with the times — That’s why deaccessioning isn’t always bad news.” Apollo (March, 14, 2019).

Agecroft Hall: A Tudor-Era American Home

Summertime is often the season when I, as I am sure many of our readers as well, will go and explore various museums. Seeing as how I am from Virginia, this usually means going to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts or the (newly renamed) Virginia Museum of History & Culture. One of my absolute favorite hidden gems in Richmond, however, is Agecroft Hall. A beautiful Tudor-era English manor house that was brought over piece-by-piece in the early twentieth century from its original place in England, Agecroft Hall is a unique blend of early modern architecture with modern conveniences (such as closets and radiators).

Agecroft Hall

The tours that visitors are treated to at Agecroft are likewise an interesting mix of early modern English history and the estate’s twentieth-century history of how it made its way from England to the US due to the popular desires to have European-style homes. T.C. Williams, Jr., the man who purchased Agecroft and had it brought over to Richmond, actually wanted to create a kind of Tudor-style neighborhood surrounding Agecroft Hall (although this didn’t ultimately happen, Agecroft’s neighbor is likewise an early modern English-style home). Some visitors, I think, will be unsure of how to feel about a very historic English home being taken from its original grounds and brought over and adapted to fit 1920s standards of living; I know I at least was not sure what to think of this initially. However, Agecroft Hall was on the verge of collapse due to mining in the surrounding English countryside and had fallen into disrepair. So while extra closet spaces and radiators are perhaps not quite what is usually done in the maintaining of an historic house – indeed, nor is changing the entire floor plan, as Williams chose to do – at least Agecroft Hall was given a kind of second life as the home-turned-museum in Richmond, Virginia. This choice was also not made without much thought and care – Agecroft Hall only left England with the approval of Parliament after a debate.

For me, it is also so interesting to think of how much conservation and preservation work has developed from the time when Agecroft Hall was brought over to the US to today. I think that while the methods perhaps are not what would have been done now, that the spirit of wanting to ensure the survival – at least in some capacity – of a historically significant building is something that is in common between past and present efforts.

Gardens at Agecroft Hall, modeled after the gardens of Hampton Court Palace

The museum also is such a wonderful opportunity to learn about and experience these kinds of historic houses that usually one would have to fly overseas to Europe in order to see. As my area of focus is early modern England, you can imagine my delight when I first went to Agecroft Hall. The majority of the museum is staged just as an early modern home would have been in its day, giving visitors an idea of what life in a manor house like Agecroft Hall would have been like for both servants and the family. Rich tapestries and wood furniture darkened with age; portraits of Elizabethan courtiers; a curiosity cabinet; herbals and King James I’s treatise on the evils of witchcraft; and, most exciting of all, a pardon with Elizabeth I’s own beeswax seal. These are only some of the wonderful artifacts on display at this fascinating historic house and I know I can’t wait to go visit again as soon as I can.

Celebrating the 30th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act

July 26th, 2020 marked the thirty-year anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) which made it illegal to discriminate against people based on a disability in areas including, but not limited to, employment, transportation, and public services. In an article, called “A Brief History of The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA),” Jillian Abel provides some historical context about the passing of the law and how it has been influential in recent years. According to Abel, active support for those with disabilities had began as early as the 1960s and resulted in the passing of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act which banned discrimination based on disabilities for those receiving federal funding. Over the years, activism continued and would eventually lead to the passing of the ADA. Since then the ADA has continued to make updates to their regulations with the intent of providing as much participation and access of equal quality to all individuals.

Museums have gradually made changes to become more ADA compliant. In an article by NEA Director of Accessibility, Beth Bienvenu, “Museums and the Americans with Disabilities Act at 25: Progress and Looking Ahead,” some of the accommodations made by museums are discussed such as audio guides, tactile tours, captioned video, sign-language interpreted tours, and wheelchair access to all physical spaces. Despite these efforts, however, Bienvenu also explains that a 2012 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts found that “21 percent of all adults visited an art museum or gallery, but only 11 percent of adults with disabilities made such a visit.” She goes on, explaining that there is still more work to be done in order to provide more involvement for those with disabilities.

Last year, Claire Voon wrote an article, “Museums Are Finally Taking Accessibility for Visitors with Disabilities Seriously,” in which she discussed changes made by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in order to better serve visitors with disabilities. One of the actions taken by MoMA was to invite ten individuals with different impairments to walk through their spaces. Voon discusses the MoMA’s decision in more detail, articulating that while museums attempt to be more accessible, they often fail to consider the various kinds of accommodations visitors might need. In many cases, it takes someone with a disability walking through a space to indicate that there is a problem with access or inclusion.

In many cases, museums have taken steps in the right direction to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and create more accessibility to their events and spaces. However, as many of the articles have stated above, there is still much work to be done. In my own experience, interactions I have had with individuals with different impairments has greatly increased my awareness of potential barriers within museum spaces. While my awareness has been increased, I do not always have ideas on how to solve the problem. This is where knowing what resources are available to you come in handy. Below are a few links which provide information on the Americans with Disabilities Act itself and ideas on how to create a more accessible institution.


Are there experiences you have from a visit to a museum you would like to share? Consider creating a guest post on our blog to further the discussion of accessibility and inclusivity. 

Do you know of other useful resources that both current and future museum professionals could utilize to create more accessible environments? Please leave a comment below or send us a message through the “contact us” option located in the sidebar at right.

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.

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