Museum Studies at Tufts University

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Category: Museums in the News (page 1 of 34)

The Problem with Plastics

two plastic flamingos with a plastic bag caught on them

We’ve all heard the dire news. We’ve seen the straw drawn out of the turtle’s nose. We carry our reusable bags, whether or not our town has outlawed them. We know about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. In ways large and small, the people of the world are grappling with the looming environmental disaster of plastics. But we know that the issue is complex. Plastic straws are a necessity for many members of the disabled community. Plastic treasures, from the earliest celluloid jewelry to the first artificial heart to myriad acrylic paintings and fiberglass sculptures, fill our museums. For museums, the problem with plastics threatens to destroy a century of treasures.

The New York Times recently detailed the issue facing the conservators of many institutions, including those at the Smithsonian, struggling to save Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit from the moon landing. The suit includes twenty-one different types of plastics, all deteriorating at different paces. The suit has been taken off display to arrest its decomposition, but the damage has already been done to other historic suits. In those, the neoprene found within internal layers of the suit has turned brittle and shattered. At the Smithsonian and many other art, science, and history museums around the world, conservationists and scientists are racing to figure out the best ways to preserve and repair artifacts that, despite having a half-life of a thousand years, seem to have a useful life span of less than a hundred years.

The first sign that a plastic object is deteriorating is usually yellowing or microfracturing of the object. While unsightly and inconvenient, this is essentially a warning sign that worse conditions are coming. Offgassing, shrinking, and other kinds of visible degradation are soon to follow. In creating plastics, molecules are arranged and frozen in an inefficient manner. Over time they regroup, separating the object itself into brittle structures with white powdery materials or sticky substances emerging. Some earlier types of film create acetic acid in the course of deterioration, causing what archivists call “vinegar syndrome”. As with film, this short shelf life of plastics is also affecting archivists who are rushing to save information stored on physical media. As the space and time needed to store content shrank, the amount of information saved exploded, resulting in a surfeit of information that needs to be evaluated and conserved in a relatively short amount of time. Whether cassette tape, CD, flash drive, or physical server, plastics are integral to the modern world’s ability to save itself for posterity and renewing the lifespan of plastic objects with information stored on them requires money and time that many institutions unfortunately do not have.

In the short and medium term, trainings on how to deal with plastic should become more widespread and additional funds will need to be allocated to deal with issues of plastics conservation and preservation of information and objects currently stored via plastics. However, the long-term state of preservation is going to require new thinking about how to display and discuss a culture who so thoroughly relied on an object with such a limited lifespan. Future historians will also need to explain why such reliance on a temporary material with harmful environmental effects was considered a desirable solution for twentieth century humans. The sooner those conversations commence, the more useful they may be in mitigating culture loss and environmental damage.

The Burning of the Museo Nacional of Brazil

This week, tragedy struck the museum community and humankind with the burning of the Museo Nacional in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The 200 hundred year old museum, housed in the what was once the royal palace, has lost more than 90% of it’s 20 million object collection. While reports have come in that some objects such as Luzia, the oldest human fossil found in the Americas may have survived the devastation, those lost to the flames are among priceless objects and specimen that represent an enormous loss for not just the Brazilian people but human cultural heritage as a whole. Among those lost are nearly all of the 5 million specimen in the insect collection, roughly 700 Egyptian artifacts, a fresco from Pompeii, a large number of holotype specimen, dinosaur fossils, a Royal Hawaiian feather cloak, pre-contact artifacts, and recordings of now extinct indigenous languages.

The loss is monumental and irreplaceable. However, this is not the first time, nor will it be the last, that a loss of this magnitude will affect our natural and cultural history. Akin, to the burning of the library in Alexandria, a symbol for the loss of cultural knowledge, this fire was the result of decreasing museum budgets, neglect, and a declining care for our natural and cultural histories. Last year the museum received an operating  budget of just $13,000 for South America’s largest natural history museum. Staff and curators were reduced to online crowdsourcing campaigns to raise the money necessary to provide the most basic care and when firefighters arrived on the scene to fight the flames they found that both hydrants in front of the museum were dry.

While neglect and lack of funding was at issue for the Museo Nacional in Rio, even museums with large operating budgets, strong disaster preparedness, and Emergency Response Plans can be at risk. This past year the Getty Museum in Los Angeles faced risk as the Skirball fire moved closer and closer, and many museums have been damaged by hurricanes and other natural disasters in recent years. No amount of emergency planning can fully protect a collection and with hurricane season back upon us it is important for museums to look for other ways to prepare for the worst. For myself, this issue shows the importance of digitizing collections. If the Brazilian Museum’s indigenous language recordings had been digitized and stored off site or in a cloud they would not be lost today. While a digital sample does not replace the actual object or specimen it is highly preferable to have at least a digital record than none at all. The day after the fire Wikipedia began a crowdsourcing campaign to collect images of objects in the museum from museum visitors to help investigators and curators piece together what has been lost and to attempt to keep the museums 20 million specimen collection in memory. Unfortunately, we may never know just what has been lost to the flames.

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.

 

The Pillaging of Cultural Patrimony: Who Does Art Belong To?

This week, the British Museum announced that it would return eight looted artifacts of antiquity to Iraq’s National Museum. These objects, including a 4,000 year old clay-fired cone inscribed in cuneiform, were illegally taken from the country following the US-led Iraq invasion in 2003. While thousands of priceless objects of Mesopotamian cultural heritage remain missing, the return of these eight signal a positive “win” for cultural materials often subject to global discussions concerning repatriation and restitution.

The debate is complicated, involving questionable permits, unethical archaeological practices, colonial coercion tactics, nation-state laws, and of course, money. Is there ever truly an owner when it comes to great art and if so, who would it be? The one who created it, the one who bought it, the one who found it, or the one who restored it? These imperative questions are just some of many involving issues of repatriation and restitution of cultural materials in museums around the world. From the Bust of Queen Nefertiti (originally from Egypt but currently on display in Berlin) to the thousands of artworks looted under the Third Reich, the controversies surrounding these cultural materials are complex, emotional, and anything but straightforward.

The Elgin Marbles often receive the most public attention in repatriation conversations, probably because museums fear the Marbles’ return to Athens could set the stage for countless other cultural objects to be repatriated too. With an impressive archaeological museum right down the hill from the Acropolis, as well as the equipment, teams, space, and funding available to properly care for and display the Parthenon sculptures, I am in favor of their repatriation. However, many fear that returning a culture’s heritage back to its country of origin possibly means putting the objects at risk of iconoclasm or destruction.

For instance, the Antalya Museum in Turkey has been attempting unsuccessfully to ensure the return of the Sion Treasure, a precious set of silver and gold liturgical objects from Byzantium, currently on display at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C. The Turkish government has argued the patens, crosses, and candlesticks in the collection are their rightful property, and that they should be returned. Similar to the Elgin Marbles, their legal acquisition into an American museum provokes further scrutiny. The silver was first discovered buried on a hillside in Kumluca, in southwestern Turkey, where it may have been hidden for protection in response to Arab raids. Due to unauthorized excavations and black market traders, the objects eventually found their way onto American ground illegally.

Despite this, many art historians and museum professionals argue the Sion Treasure should stay in D.C. Dumbarton Oaks spent thousands of dollars restoring the flattened and shattered pieces of the set, the condition in which they arrived at the Museum. There it was lovingly restored to its original brilliance and luster, safeguarded and protected, and displayed for the thousands of tourists who have visited this museum each year.

Should cultural objects reside in a place that is most accessible to the public? The past belongs to all of humanity; is it our right to be able to see and enjoy art objects in the place that is most safe? (Antalya is close to Syria, where a significant amount of art objects have already been lost due to deliberate demolition.) As the cultural theorist Kwame Anthony Appiah has stated, the “rule should be one that protects the object and makes it available to people who will benefit from experiencing it.”[1] When it comes to displaying antiquities with a contentious provenance, does it come down to the “greater good?”

What are your thoughts?

[1] Kwame Anthony Appiah, “Whose Culture is it?,” 4, (https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2006/02/09/whose-culture-is-it/).

Rapid Response Exhibits

The International African American Museum, a museum planned to trace African-American history in America from slavery to today, has hired a rapid response educator to help create exhibits in response to current events. Brenda Tindal had previously done this work at the Levine Museum in which she created an exhibit on modern race relations in the months after police brutality riots in 2016.

The choice to hire an educator focusing on rapid response and current events follows a new trend in museums. Whereas most new exhibitions take months, even years, of planning before coming to fruition, museums are consciously choosing to incorporate current issues and events to better serve their communities. This new trend has gone hand in hand with rapid response collecting. A practice in which museums begin collecting items from current events they deem important to our current society.

While this has been a growing trend for some time, our current political and social climate has accelerated the need for exhibits to give a voice to social issues. Just this month, the National Civil Rights Museum (NCRM) in Memphis opened an exhibit I AM A CHILD, to shed light on our current immigration crisis and the separation of children from their parents at the border. This exhibit was the result of a photoshoot by Paola Mendoza and Kisha Bari on the steps of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency in New York City. These photos, only taken one month prior to the exhibits opening, went viral. This led to NCRM to contact the pair via twitter about a rapid response installation at the museum. I AM A CHILD, speaks not just to a current human and civil rights crisis, but also to the power of social media to fight for social change.

While many museums are turning towards rapid response exhibits and installations to promote social awareness and change, the practice is also a necessary step to changing the narrative around museums. Museums for far too long have curated the dominant narrative of many cultures. It is time for us to step back and tell the story as it happens and embrace the fact that museums are biased.

Further Reading

National Civil Rights Museum harnesses social media for ‘rapid response installation’

New South Carolina Museum to have rapid response exhibits

I AM A CHILD

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