Museum Studies at Tufts University

Exploring ideas and engaging in conversation

Category: Museums in the News (page 2 of 40)

How Science Museums Can Talk About Race.

As people across the country fight back against police brutality and systemic racism, cultural institutions need to leverage their platform as trusted sources of information to educate the public about racism in the United States. Discussions about race are typically limited to art and history museums, while science museums tend to focus on the environment, health, and conservation. Science museums are not exempt, however, as racism intersects with both environmental science and health science. Moving forward, it’s critical that science museums start addressing systemic racism in order to better serve both their missions and their communities.

RACE: Are We So Different? debuted in 2007 and has visited over 40 institutions.

The American Anthropological Association and the Science Museum of Minnesota worked together to develop an exhibit entitled RACE: Are We So Different?  in 2007 to explore race and racism in the United States. The exhibit combines history, science, and lived experiences to challenge how we think about race. The exhibit has since travelled around the country to various science museums, with its most recent stop at the Durham Museum in Omaha, NE. A traveling exhibit that addresses race is great, but science museums have a responsibility to do more.

Many science museums focus on topics about the environment and sustainability, but from my experience, rarely talk about environmental racism. Environmental racism is the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards on people of color. For example, Black and Latinx Americans are more likely to live in areas with high air pollution leading to an array of health problems. Overall, people of color are on the front lines of the climate crisis and have fewer resources to deal with the consequences. In the U.S., the white upper middle class will be the last to feel the catastrophic effects of climate change. These are the same demographics that tend to visit museums. To both better serve communities of color and accurately deliver conservation messaging, science museums have a duty to address environmental racism head on through educational programming and activism.

Ending our reliance on fossil fuels is the key to reversing climate change and a fundamental part of environmental messaging. Non-renewable energy is also tightly linked with colonialism and the destruction of indigenous land and culture. In 2016, the Dakota Access Pipeline was rerouted to pass directly upstream from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation without understanding the environmental impacts. Only this year did the D.C. district court order a proper environmental review. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe is still fighting to shut down the DAPL. To divorce climate change and sustainability from human rights is a disservice to the indigenous communities that have led the environmental movement from the beginning.

From earthjustice.org

Health sciences and medicine also have a deeply racist history. Ethics and consent have evolved over time, but have taken advantage of people of color in particular. Jon Quier experimented with smallpox inoculation on enslaved peoples in Jamaica. The Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male deliberately misled black men into believing they were receiving treatment in order to study the progression of the disease. In 1951, Henrietta Lacks’ immortal cancer cells were taken without her or her family’s knowledge or consent. These HeLa Cells have been instrumental in understanding polio, HIV, HPV, and thousands of other diseases, but have sparked questions about informed consent and collecting patient cells. Museums are uniquely equipped to present these questions and facilitate discussions on bioethical standards. It’s important to acknowledge and confront how racism has and continues to shape medical advancements worldwide.

Whale People: Protectors of the Sea at the Florida Museum of Natural History.

As educational institutions, most science museums are already addressing both the current environmental crisis and human health. As cultural institutions, they need to include whole narratives if they are going to properly serve their communities. The Natural History Museum is a traveling pop-up museum that “makes a point to include and highlight the socio-political forces that shape nature.” Past exhibits include Whale People: Protectors of the Sea which addresses orca conservation, pollution, and industrialization of the Pacific Northwest in collaboration with the Lummi Nation. Mining the HMNS tackles the Houston Museum of Natural Sciences’ relationships with the fossil fuel industry by investigating exhibits in HMNS and highlighting the stories of communities along the Houston Ship Canal.

All science museums need to take The Natural History Museum’s lead and project marginalized voices. To remain apolitical is to continue whitewashing both environmental and health sciences and to silence BIPOC communities. Science museums need to uplift activists of color by giving them a platform to speak. Science museums need to diversify their boards, staff, and leadership to dismantle the white narratives that are pervasive throughout. And science museums need to adapt their missions to address the social and political factors that influence both nature, health, and scientific discovery.

The Role of Museums in the Removal of Monuments

The recent decisions to remove various statues and monuments across the nation presents, I believe, an opportunity for museums to play a vital part in this reevaluation of our nation’s history and to serve their communities in a vital way. While public opinion calls for the removal of these statues, I do not think it wise to destroy these monuments or to remove them totally from the public eye. Rather, it is the museum’s responsibility to conserve and preserve these pieces – painful as they may be – in order to further the conversations that are being initiated. In this way, we may continue to examine and evaluate our nation’s history, how it has thus far been taught and engaged with as well the important moments that are happening now.

The toppled statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis on Monument Ave. in Richmond, VA.

I went to university in Richmond, Virginia. And anyone who has lived in or even just visited Richmond knows the prominent place that Monument Avenue holds in the city. With its lovely tree-lined cobblestone streets, Monument Avenue is an iconic part of the city; but it is also a highly contested area due to the Confederate figures that hold pride of place at various locations along the street. Some believe that these monuments should remain where they are as they serve as important symbols of the Confederacy and part of Richmond’s history; however, for many others, these memorials are a glorification of the city’s history with slavery and racism. Virginia Governor Northam has promised to remove the statue of Robert E. Lee although a court ruling on 8 June temporarily stymied efforts to remove the statue. Protestors have since taken matters into their own hands and toppled statues of Jefferson Davis and Christopher Columbus.

Richmond is certainly not the only city seeing the removal of its statues. In New York City, the American Museum of Natural History has made the decision to remove the monument of Theodore Roosevelt that has marked the museum’s entrance overlooking Central Park since 1940. The museum’s president, Ellen Futter, has remarked that it is the statue’s hierarchical composition that is being objected to, rather than Roosevelt himself. It is interesting to note, however, that the statue’s architect, John Russell Pope referred to the figures as a heroic group, while the sculptor, James Earle Fraser, remarked that the monument could even symbolize “Roosevelt’s friendliness to all races.” While this may have been the intention of those who are responsible to the statue’s placement, it is certainly not how it is being interpreted now, leading many to protest the monument and the decision to have it removed.

The “Equestrian Statue of Theodore Roosevelt” in front of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

It is my hope that as we are reevaluating the various monuments placed around the nation, that museums would take the actions of the American Museum of Natural History as an example to follow. Prior to the decision to remove the Roosevelt statue, the museum held an exhibit exploring the history and addressing the issues that the statue presents. It includes the many different remarks and opinions of museum visitors, which would surely lead to further conversations and critical thinking amongst visitors to the exhibit. With this very recent decision to remove the statue, it is my hope that the statue will not be removed entirely from public view. Rather, I think it would be more constructive to have the removed monuments considerately placed – graffiti and all – within a museum, along with information of the various nuances that the statue represents and encouragement for visitors to stop and think about the issues that the monument presents to them as well as their own beliefs and attitudes.

What an opportunity museums can have now to encourage these conversations and help visitors to think about the past in ways that they hadn’t previously considered. History is often a complicated mess that can be painful to think about. And monuments can be painful reminders of these difficult and complicated histories. I believe that it is a museum’s responsibility to help their communities to engage with this history in its entirety and to not allow it to be forgotten. I see the removal of these monuments as an opportunity to create a deeper understanding of ourselves, our history, and each other. It will certainly be difficult. But I am just as certain that it is worth doing.

Diversity and Inclusivity: How the Boston MFA is Promoting Change

Having grown up going to museums, it would surprise me when others would not enjoy going to museums as much as I did. Many times, I would attribute such disinterest to boredom, thinking that they just never learned how to have fun in a museum. I had never considered that perhaps some people did not like to go to museums because they felt such places were not there for them; that they weren’t welcome.

Such ideas were brought to the forefront of my mind when I was assigned to read the essay “The Art Museum and the Pressures of Society” by Robert Coles for a class. Coles was a resident in child psychiatry at the Children’s Hospital in Boston. In the essay, Coles reflects upon some of the youths he worked with during his residency. One youth, a black child ten years of age, talked about going to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) with his school because the teachers wanted to be sure that he “got his culture” (191). He did not understand what that meant. What he did understand was that he was living in a ghetto tenement building surrounded by pealing wallpaper and not surrounded by the beautiful things of the museum. Later in the essay, Coles recalls a statement made by the boy’s father: “Maybe I could go to see a lot of pictures in the museum, like my boy did. Maybe I’d want to keep coming back: look at a picture on each visit. But there’s no use going there. It’s not the place for me; I know that” (196).1

Museum of Fine Arts Boston. (Jesse Costa./WBUR)

While Cole’s essay was written 75 years ago, its sentiments are still relevant today. In 2017, the MFA created a three-year strategic plan to increase the diversity of the institution which included the creation of “a warmer welcome, greater sense of belonging, and a deeper engagement with art.” Whatever its best intentions, its attempts to create a more welcoming atmosphere fell through in May of 2019 when a group of students from the Helen Y. Davis Leadership Academy experienced racial profiling and insults from museum staff and other visitors during their visit to the MFA (further details regarding the incident can be found in an article by Antonia Noori Farzan and Herman Wong for The Washington Post). On its website, the MFA apologized, stating that they “deeply regret any interactions that led to this outcome and are committed to being a place where all people trust that they will feel safe and treated with respect.”

In response to recent protests after the killing of George Floyd, the Ann and Graham Gund Director of the MFA, Matthew Teitelbaum, sent an email (a copy of which can be found on its website) stating that “the killing of George Floyd, and many others before him, is intolerable. It is unjust.” He also acknowledges that it is “past time to recognize that the usual commitments to change are not enough” and that the MFA has more work to do to become a better institution. Some of its plans for change which Teitelbaum mentioned in the email includes, but is not limited to a commitment to:

continue to diversify staff, management, and board governance to represent all of Boston and report regularly on our progress to hold ourselves publicly accountable; continue to diversify programming to recognize the voices and views of many and celebrate art in many forms; give all staff the training and learning opportunities so they can understand and support the necessary changes; commit transparently to our Community Engagement Plan that creates a presence for the MFA in collaboration with communities across Boston, including our commitment to reconciliation with the Davis Leadership Academy students and community.

MFa Director, Matthew Teitelbaum

After reading the email, I was curious to know more about these changes and what they might look like and had the opportunity to speak with three MFA staff members: Brooke DiGiovanni Evans, the Interim Director of Learning, Dalia Linssen, the Head of Academic Engagement, and Nadia Harden, the Community Engagement Manager. They graciously agreed to answer some of my questions regarding some of the changes to which Director Teitelbaum referred. DiGiovanni Evans spoke about the Idea Task Force which was organized to promote internal discussion among the staff about ongoing issues. The task force allows different members of staff to bring their own knowledge and experiences to the table. Along a similar vein, Harden discussed the Table of Voices program which seeks to more broadly define what it means to be an expert. Within the program they ask not only what story is being told but also who has the right to tell it. Another program Harden discussed was City Talks which is designed to promote discussion on a variety of issues in Boston and relating them to art. Linssen takes similar ideas to a broader community by speaking with college students, explaining the importance of teaching the students how to use art for interdisciplinary learning.

MFA City Talks, sourced from MFA website

Another avenue through which the MFA has strived to promote inclusivity and equitability is by investing resources in interns. Harden discussed a program called Curatorial Study Hall, developed in partnership with Becoming a Man and The BASE. Through this program, high school sophomores and juniors are given the skills and resources to create their own exhibition. Their latest exhibition, Black Histories Black Futures, highlights black artists in the MFA’s collection.

Many of these programs have been developing at the MFA over a long period of time, responding to a variety of needs within the Boston community. While it is fantastic that there are so many programs available, I was curious to know how the museum draws individuals to the museum who may not be inclined to enter in the first place. How can those individuals be made to feel welcome? Harden answered by first articulating that there is no one-size-fits-all strategy, explaining that there are a variety of reasons why someone might not want to go to the museum. Interestingly, Harden also said that sometimes all it takes is a simple invitation. Linssen agreed and added the comment that museums are considered one of the most trusted institutions and therefore there is an obligation to uphold that ideology. This made me consider how the black father in Coles’ essay might feel differently about museums if someone were to actively invite him. What if he were made to feel that a museum was not only a place where he could go, but a place where people wanted him to go?

I am looking forward to the reopening of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. I hope that when I walk through those doors, I will find myself surrounded by diversity. I want to see others enjoying art in a place where they feel not only safe but accepted. As I move forward along my own career path within the museum field, I hope to look back on the MFA as an example of how to listen to one’s community and how to promote positive change. In the meantime, I must do what I can as a visitor to make the museum more inclusive. Perhaps the next time I visit I will be accompanied by someone new, someone I will have invited to share my love of museums.


References:

  1. Coles, Robert. “The Art Museum and the Pressures of Society.” Excerpt from On Understanding Art Museums, edited by Sherman Lee, 185-202. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1975.

Living Collections and COVID-19

Museums across the country have felt the impact of the COVID-19 and the mandatory stay-at-home orders. Thousands of employees have been laid off and furloughed as these institutions try to stay afloat without revenue from visitors. Zoos and aquariums have an extra element to juggle: live animals. Without reliable income to buy food or pay staff, zoos and aquariums are having to find new ways to cope.

Tierpark Neumünster in Germany has expressed panic at its dwindling budget. With no money coming in, the zoo announced that it may have to start sacrificing certain animals to feed the others. The park’s beloved polar bear, Vitus, would be the last animal standing. While Tierpark Neumünster is only suggesting this as an absolute last resort, it does shine light on some scary scenarios. What would happen if zoos and aquariums run out of money? What if they shut down? What would happen to the animals? These institutions are in uncharted territory. There’s no protocol for handling a pandemic and months of closure.  

Vitus, the polar bear

The animals themselves have been feeling the impact of the pandemic. COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease, meaning it jumped from animals to humans. Snakes, pangolins, and bats are all feasible culprits. Furthermore, we do not know which animals in our zoos could potentially carry the disease or succumb to infection. Tigers and lions at the Bronx Zoo have tested positive for COVID-19, likely infected by an asymptomatic zookeeper. Thankfully, all of the cats are doing well and recovering, but there’s little knowledge on how other species will react. Ultimately, COVID-19 is an unknown entity. We know it can infect animals, we know it can pass between humans and animals, but we do not know the full ramifications.

Nadia, one of the Bronx Zoo’s tigers who tested positive for COVID-19.

Massachusetts started its four phase reopening on May 18th. As of May 25th, outdoor zoos are allowed to reopen, with strict guidelines. Aquariums and other museums will not be allowed to open until Phase 3. With such limited information about the interspecies spread of COVID-19, it’s risky to allow visitors back into proximity with these animals. Reopening could put both the visitors and the animals at an increased risk of infection.

It’s a tricky balance to find enough money to operate while prioritizing the health of the animals, the visitors, and the staff. In the U.S., museums received aid from the $2 trillion distributed from the CARES Act on March 27th, designed to protect American workers and small businesses. For animal care, zoos and aquariums need more. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums has collaborated with the American Alliance of Museums to request an additional $4 billion in relief funding from Congress. Here is the AZA’s form to request aid for zoos and aquariums. Hopefully, with additional funding, zoos and aquariums won’t have to choose between reopening prematurely or feeding their animals to each other.

Memorial Day and Museums Reopenings

I suppose for myself, as a History major, museums signify places of remembrance that offer more vivid understandings of the past. Of course, this is the purpose of Memorial Day as well, as we remember our service members and oftentimes hear their stories. It is only fitting, therefore, that museums should play a significant role in remembering those members of our nation’s military who died serving our country.

But what does Memorial Day in a museum look like in the midst of a pandemic?

Many museums around the country have already begun to reopen in some capacity. For example, the National World War II Museum reopened yesterday in a limited capacity, in terms of both a limited staff and a limited crowd. 25% of the museum’s normal capacity was allowed to enter and 82 of its approximately 300 member staff were laid off. The museum’s reopening required careful planning to maintain the proper safety measures: guests had the option to purchase tickets online in advance, social distancing was maintained, and cleanings happened with more frequency.

Other museums that were not in a position to reopen, even in a limited capacity, resorted to other measures to commemorate the holiday. For example, volunteers at the Antique Gas and Steam Engine Museum in Vista, California painted the American flag on the back lawn of the property. The flag took 45 gallons of paint to complete and measures 137 feet long and 78 feet tall. Once it was completed, trumpeter Fred Ashman performed “God Bless America” and “Taps” as a tribute.

Wisconsin Virtual Commemoration

Finally, the Wisconsin Veterans Museum in Madison held a virtual Memorial Day ceremony. Many local politicians appeared in a video to commemorate Memorial Day: Governor Tony Evers held a moment of silence and Secretary of Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs Mary Kolar suggested that viewers pay their respects by flying a flag or lighting a candle at their homes.

A recruitment poster for the Coast Guard SPARs program. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Many other museums have made their exhibits available online, as was mentioned in a previous post on this blog. Some virtual exhibits that are relevant to Memorial Day include the National Museum of African American History and Culture’s World War I-focused exhibit, “We Return Fighting.” The National Air & Space Museum offers an exhibit focused on Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) during World War II, while the National Women’s History Museum offers content on women who served in the Coast Guard during World War II in the SPARS program.

These are just a few of the exhibits and content that I found particularly interesting (I had never heard of the SPARS before!). Many museum exhibits have become available online during this unprecedented time for museums — and for us all — and this has already shaped the manner in which we commemorate holidays such as Memorial Day. So while it was definitely an unusual holiday, at least we are still able to keep learning and remembering and honoring the past.

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