Museum Studies at Tufts University

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Category: Museums in the News (page 1 of 36)

How is the Government Shutdown Affecting Museums?

Twenty three days and counting.

On December 22, the U.S. government shutdown over President Donald Trump’s demand for $5.7 billion in funding to build a border wall between the United States and Mexico. Democrats (and some GOP members) refuse to approve the funding, calling the wall immoral, unnecessary, and “a giant symbol” of racism and xenophobia. Although the House of Representatives passed several spending bills aimed at reopening certain sections of the government as soon as possible, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell blocked the legislation.

Now, for twenty-three days, the government has been in a political standstill (and as of yesterday, this has become the longest shutdown ever). According to Trump, the shutdown will continue until his funding is passed, and has even considered calling a national emergency to build the wall without congress approval.

As a result of this impasse, all federal institutions, departments, and agencies are closed. Over 800,000 federal workers remain furloughed, or continue to work without pay.

How does this seemingly endless shutdown affect museums and other cultural institutions?

While the Smithsonian Institution had funding through the first day of January, on January 2nd, all nineteen of its museums and galleries, including the Cooper Hewitt, National Air and Space Museum, National Zoo, and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, closed. With no federal budget, upcoming public programs, lectures, and related arts and culture events were also canceled.

For special traveling exhibitions with an upcoming closing date, visitors will unfortunately miss the opportunity to enjoy the art on view. Charline von Heyl: Snake Eyes, for example, the new special exhibition at the (currently inaccessible) Hirshhorn Museum, will not be extended past its closing date of January 27th.

In response to the government shutdown, some artists and art critics are using social media to present their work through a different light. For instance, for each day the government has been closed, the New York City- based writer Phyllis Tuchman has used Instagram to post a painting from the National Gallery of Art’s collection.

Until an agreement is reached for federal funding, Smithsonian Museums and other National Mall institutions will remain closed, and tourist visits will most likely continue to decrease.

Have you been personally affected by the government shutdown? Leave a comment with your story below.



On Climate Change and Museums

This weekend, the 24th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP24) met in Katowice, Poland with the aim of reaching a global climate agreement. Almost 200 hundred nations’ diplomats were in attendance, and all agreed to track their annual greenhouse gas emissions, aligning with the goals set out in the 2015 Paris Agreement. With steadily increasing climate-related natural disasters and CO2 emissions that continue to rise, global warming is an issue that needs to be addressed not just internationally, but locally too. How can museums contribute to this conversation? Or, better yet, how can museums practice and promote climate activism?

With their frequent public programs focused on sustainability and climate change, the Hammer Museum is an excellent role model for other museums to follow in seeking to create more educational opportunities related to climate conversations. In the past year alone, the Museum hosted (free) monthly panel discussions concerning water usage, environmental equity, renewable energy sources, and ecosystems.

Similarly, many museums across the country feature rotating exhibitions that address conservation. The Museum of Science in Boston, for instance, currently displays three exhibits about wind power and other green energy alternatives. However, visitors should sometimes take these exhibits with a grain of salt: I’ll never forget the experience of visiting the Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas, TX and encountering an entire hall dedicated to “the benefits of fracking.” As it turns out, the exhibit was funded by Exxon.

While hosting programs about environmental conservation methods and creating platforms for discussing climate change is crucial, institutions must also consider clean energy and sustainable practices before the design and construction process for a new museum or remodeling project even begins. Both Boston Children’s Museum and the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco have green roofs covered in native plants (and therefore bees), mechanisms for catching rain water, and other organic materials. “Living,” or green roofs such as these not only help reduce overall air pollution, but also function as natural insulators for buildings.

Finally, the American Alliance for Museums (AAM) is a great source for museums that wish to ground theirselves in green practices. The 2018 AAM annual meeting, for example, promoted the Environment and Climate Network to “establish museums as leaders in environmental stewardship and sustainability, and climate action.” Although COP24 is a strong start in the fight against further climate change, the issue can’t be modified without support from local institutions around the globe. I think museums are a wonderful place to begin.


Adventures in Repatriation: Around the World and Down the Street


Last month, the Medford Public Library, in the town where Tufts University is located, announced an auction of “surplus goods”. The goods turned out to be a number of Native American religious objects, including shaman’s masks and rattles and a totem pole, all of considerable monetary value. The items were donated to the library in the 1880s by James G. Swan, a Medford-born collector of Native American objects, long before the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) was passed in the 1990s. The auction was halted by the mayor of Medford, Stephanie M. Burke, after public outcry organized by American Indian groups took hold.

Even though NAGPRA governs ownership and repatriation of sacred indigenous objects and remains in the hands of institutions that receive federal funds, not all organizations have completed the required inventory of objects that apply to this law. An incident like this might have happened and could still happen anywhere in the country. Native American object collecting was incredibly popular in the late 19th century, as indigenous people were thought to be “vanishing” as the conquest of the American continent completed. It is entirely likely that similar collections exist unprocessed in the archives of other libraries, schools, or museums across the country, and that more attempts to auction goods may take place in the future against a background of dwindling federal funds for cultural institutions.

Controversies around objects stolen from indigenous, colonized, and otherwise disempowered people around the world are making news every day now, in a flood that is by turns both reparative and dismaying. Under reparative, the President of France, Emanuel Macron, recently announced the planned return of 26 works of Dahomey art to the Benin government, who formally requested their return a number of years ago. Macron suggested that more such repatriations would be forthcoming, an important step in acknowledging the role France had in the destructive colonization of Africa in the 19th century.

Under dismaying, however, one can find any number of refusals including the famed Benin Bronzes or the Kohinoor Diamond, all of which remain in British hands for now. But changes may be underway. Not only are governments demanding the return of cultural objects from colonizing countries, in some cases countries or individuals are stealing objects out of the Western museums that keep them. Private citizens are also forming groups to wage social media campaigns that pressure institutions to return works to home countries.

As technology and globalization conspire to shrink the world, the call to return wrongfully obtained objects will only grow louder. Amid the din, protests and refusals from governments and institutions still holding ill-gotten treasures will sound like the weak excuses they are. In an attempt to counter tours that highlight illicit artworks at the British Museum, the museum has developed a series of lectures that focus on the proper provenance of many works originating in other countries. While any move toward transparency is positive, telling a partial story designed to improve an organization’s credibility while ignoring the larger issue the institution is complicit in is marginally laudable. With some luck and a lot of guilt and outcry, however, the public can keep pushing this important conversation to a place of resolution, rather than obfuscation.

Where in the World is Salvator Mundi?

A year ago this month, Christie’s Auctions sold Salvator Mundi, one of about twenty known paintings by Leonardo da Vinci, for over $450 million, shattering all previous auction records and becoming the most expensive painting to ever be sold. The identity of the mysterious over-the-phone buyer remained anonymous for several days, until it was announced that a Saudi prince, Bader bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan al-Saud, had purchased the work with the aim of displaying it in the Louvre Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. In September, however, the month that the Salvator Mundi was intended to be debuted, an official statement was released announcing a display postponement and that “further details will be announced soon.”

Although it has been over a year since the historic auction sale, Salvator Mundi has yet to be displayed, and scrutiny from museum professionals and art historians about its whereabouts has intensified. This week, it was announced that the painting may even be “lost,” since no one – aside from the Arab hierarchy – has seen it since the night of the auction.

This is not the first controversy associated with Salvator Mundi. In the media hype leading up the auction, many art historians and conservators were doubting its authenticity and provenance. Could this be the reason the painting has yet to be displayed? Perhaps the Louvre Abu Dhabi wants to ensure of its proper identification before it is shown to the world.

When, and if, Salvator Mundi is ever shown, I have to wonder where it will be displayed in the Louvre Abu Dhabi, especially considering it is a prominent portrait of Christ in a country that largely practices Islam. Will the painting be given a whole wall to itself, similar to the representation technique of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre in Paris? Or will it be placed in dialogue with other religious works, such as in “Gallery Four: Universal Religions,” where Qur’ans, Bibles, and Hindu sculptures would surround it?” The world will have to stay tuned to find out.


Missing Picasso Possibly Found 6 Years After Heist

Six years after the art heist of the Kunsthal Museum in Rotterdam, one painting has possibly reappeared in Romania under strange circumstances. The painting, Picasso’s Tête d’Arlequin, was one of seven works by masters including Matisse, Monet, and Gauguin valued at over $23 million. Until the reappearance of this Picasso all works were believed to have been destroyed.

The painting were stolen from the Dutch Museum, which boasted a state of the art security system but no night guards on duty, on October 16th, 2012. The Romania gang responsible for the heist worked fast and by the time authorities  arrived they had made off with the seven paintings. The small-time criminals faced the same problems early art thieves have faced. Thieves have limited options when it comes to attempting to sell stolen works. All the works were described, photographed, and registered internationally.  For this reason, stolen art is often destroyed or lost forever.

That was believed to be the case for these paintings. As police closed in on the gang, the leaders mother reportedly dug up the painting that had been buried in the village graveyard and burnt them on her hearth. Analysis of the ashes from her hearth reveal materials such as canvas, wood, staples, and paints that indicate the remains of at least three or four canvases. All were believed to be lost.

The possible reappearance of the Picasso this weekend have been strange. Dutch authorities report that two Dutch citizens arrived at the Netherlands Embassy in Bucharest with the painting. The two tourists reportedly found the painting under a tree in Southeastern Romania after receiving a tip. However strange the circumstances, if true, we have recovered an important piece of humanity.

Further Reading

6 Years After Museum Heist, Missing Picasso Possibly Found In Romania

Art Thieves Sentenced To 6 Years For Dutch Museum Heist

Picasso, Monet Paintings Among Those Swiped From Dutch Museum

Dutch art heist paintings may have been burned by suspect’s mother

The art of stealing: The tragic fate of the masterpieces stolen from Rotterdam


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