Museum Studies at Tufts University

Exploring ideas and engaging in conversation

Welcome First-Years of 2019-2020

I want to give a hearty welcome to the incoming Tufts’ students joining the museum studies program. This is a prestigious school with a well-connected group of lecturers, and just as Jennifer and Darcy recently reflected on what museums are and what they should do to be better, so will you in your new course of study. Please feel free to send in an article about what you’ve learned, and don’t hesitate to ask the 2nd-years all the questions you may have. 

I am going to weigh in briefly with what I’ve learned this summer after my internship collecting women’s oral histories and how that affects museums.

Oral histories are vital components of modern historical research and museum education. They create a link to the past about any conceivable subject, and all museums should utilize this tool to engage a more diverse audience. The stories told can capture a whole group of peoples’ attentions because they are hearing “their” story through another person— “their” story in the sense that they can relate the most to a story from someone of a similar background and life pathway. Though oral histories are important pieces to include in museum collections, they are not enough when it comes to including more diverse voices in museum exhibits. Museums need to be willing and able to work at every level of their community, and the staff, and sift through all layers of history to achieve a historical narrative that can bring the most diverse audience together in a common goal of attaining knowledge about the many layers of history. 

Museums are reinventing themselves now because they recognize that older institutions were built on the perspective of the white, middle to upper class point of view, and that is not representative of America today. It is a museum’s social responsibility to create equal cultural opportunities in their space.

This is something you’ll be learning in the Museum’s Today class, First-Years. In September, ICOM is voting on a new definition of a museum, that emphasizes inclusivity and dialogue that encourages “human dignity, … social justice, global equality and planetary wellbeing.” Be thinking about what the editors at this blog and the Tufts’ Museum Studies Community have been reflecting on when it comes to what a museum is and where it is going, and where it should go. I’d love to discuss it with you in the lounge!

“Nice to Meet You” from the New Editors

It’s that time of year again: the editors you’ve come to know and love have moved on to new endeavors. Never fear, your three new editors are here and ready to get to work! Many thanks and well wishes to Danielle, Kelsey, and Amanda – we hope to continue setting a high bar for the Tufts Museum Studies blog.

Without further ado, your new editors are:

Darcy Foster

Darcy Foster
MA in Museum Education, 2020

Hi everyone! I’m Darcy Foster and I’m entering my second year in the Museum Education program here at Tufts. I’m from Pittsburgh, PA and I have my bachelor’s in History. I currently work at the Concord Museum as a museum educator and tour guide, but my love for museum education started when I was just a young visitor. While I was growing up, my parents included museum visits during every vacation we took. After one trip that included two presidential library tours and a few historic houses, I realized that I actually enjoyed learning, even though I had never enjoyed it in a traditional classroom setting.

After also realizing my interest in history, I was driven to museums, which can encompass both of these passions. I love working with interpretation and programming to foster conversation between visitors in an exciting way. Museum education allows me to focus on what visitors take away from each museum they visit. I have worked at a variety of museums, from the large National Archives Museum to the tiny Benjamin Franklin House, and in a variety of positions, from archival processing to exhibits. In all cases, I enjoyed my time and it helped me to find a path to museum education, where I can help others find a love of learning in an informal setting. This upcoming summer, I’ll be interning at the Nantucket Historical Association. I’m looking forward to sharing both my experience there and museums in general with you!

Abby King

Abby King
MA in History and Museum Studies, 2020

Howdy, my name is Abby King. I have a BA in History (minor in classics), and I am a second-year grad student in the History and Museum Studies program at Tufts University. I am from the Kentuckiana region and have journeyed a long way to get here. My earliest museum memories have to do with peeking through the glass at fossils and mummies—so I have always had an eye for old history. I currently study ancient to medieval civilizations around the Mediterranean, including the Byzantines and ancient Greeks.

Only in undergrad did I realize I wanted to use my history focus in museums. This epiphany came when I was working in the special collection’s library at my old college, and from there I’ve been on a saucy and nerdy ride to where I am. I have worked with a curator at a historical home, at a baseball bat factory and museum, in the education department of a state history museum, and at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston in the registrar’s department. This summer I will be interning at the National Air and Space Museum with a curator and collections manager on oral histories and women’s history.

My successes are all thanks to family, friends, mentors, teachers, and those willing to share their knowledge, so I am happy that I will get to (try to) share a golden nugget or two on this blog about working in this field and experiencing exhibits. Welcome and enjoy our collection of stories!

Jennifer Sheppard

Jennifer Sheppard
MA in Museum Education, 2020

Hi there – I’m Jennifer Sheppard, a rising second-year in the Museum Education program and life-long lover of learning and museums. Five years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to articulate what “museum education” was, but a sudden, serendipitous internship at the Dallas Museum of Art took me from a seasoned summer camp professional with an art degree to a full-blown, italicized and bolded museum educator. That internship and the subsequent full-time educator position taught me the power of accessible programming and universal design, the awesome potential in collaborating with dedicated colleagues, and that bringing multi-sensory materials on a tour is always a good idea, among other lessons.

Looking back at my personal history as a museum-goer, my chosen career isn’t much of a surprise. From the very first time my family took me to an art museum to feed my childhood obsession with ancient Egypt, I have had the immense privilege of feeling like I belong in museums. Now, finding (and fighting for) ways to extend that experience to people of all ages, backgrounds, and abilities is my driving passion. It led me to the Tufts program and to the team editorship of this blog. Echoing Darcy and Abby, I’m thrilled to engage more with you and the museum field on such big ideas throughout the upcoming year. Stay tuned!

Why we should look towards the hospitality industry to improve visitor experience

This post was written in collaboration with second year Museum Education M.A. student Taylor Fontes

When moving to the Greater Boston Area to pursue my Masters degree in Museum Education, I made a hard decision. I chose to continue working in restaurants (a job I’ve done since I was a teenager) instead of pursuing a position at a local museum. I made this decision because restaurant work is a great way to make fast cash. As I move forward into a career in which that will no longer be the case, I wanted to start off strong with as little debt as possible and ample time to complete my course work. Sometimes, I have struggled with this choice as it has meant there is a gap in my resume when it comes to museum work. However, I have recently realized how important working in the hospitality industry has been to my experience in museums. So many of the skills I have learned in hospitality are transferrable to skills needed in museums. I firmly believe that these hospitality skills have strongly informed my ability to provide positive visitor experiences in museum environments.

When Taylor brought up the idea for this post she came from almost the opposite perspective. While she had been working in visitor service positions for a long time, she was new to the restaurant industry. Quickly however, she began to be referred to as a “rock star hostess.” So how did Taylor pick up the restaurant brand of hospitality so quickly? For her, it was so similar to the type of experience she strived to provide for visitors in museums she has worked in.

As museums become more visitor-centered and less object-centered it is important for us to see ourselves as institutions of hospitality. We can look towards the hospitality industry to help inform our practices within the museum. So what are our biggest takeaways?

  1. The vocabulary we use matters: Most hospitality focused restaurants don’t refer to their patrons as customers. It is too transactional. We focus on our guests. Guests are those that we invite in, they are wanted, accommodated, and catered too. In museums we need to think of our visitors as guests as well.
  2. First impressions are everything: From the atmosphere, to the signage, to the person greeting you. In a restaurant, the host/hostess is your first point of contact. They will set the tone for your entire experience, so friendly and personable staff are a must. But what about museums? Is there someone to greet visitors? Are the visitor service staff responsive? What is the tone we are setting?
  3. Restaurants know how to sell their product: Hospitality industry professionals have a lot of experience in selling their product. From the restaurant itself to up-selling the food and drink, this takes lots of knowledge of not just the products but of the audience as well. We need to know our audiences and understand what they want out of their experience. As we know, there are many different types of visitors with varying needs.
  4. Flexibility: Not all guests are looking for the same experience. We have to be flexible and fluid in order to provide satisfying and enriching experiences to a diverse audience. The same approach will not work with a group of millennials out for drinks that will work with an older couple having lunch. The same is true for museum visitors.
  5. Steps of service: Restaurants have very defined steps of service that guide our guests experiences. This does not in turn mean there is no free-choice within it. However, by creating these steps of service restaurants are able to be flexible while still provide superior service. Many museums think about visitor flow when designing exhibits. Creating steps of service within a museum experience can help us to better serve our visitors.
  6. Empathy and Tolerance: Restaurant professionals are highly experienced in empathy and tolerance. While we may use these words differently in the museum field. It is important as museum professionals that we don’t just teach empathy and tolerance but that we live it. In order to provide positive visitor experiences it is important that we can empathize with our visitors to better understand their needs as well as be tolerant to those that have different needs.
  7. The human connection: Hospitality professionals are experienced in creating personal connections in short periods of time. We talk to people from many different walks of life on a daily basis and if we want them to return it is important to create those connections. This, to me, is the biggest transferrable skill to the museum field. We want our visitors to make personal connections to what we are presenting. If museum professionals are not adept in making those connections how can they design and implement experiences that do. These social skills are so important.
  8. Ability to anticipate visitor needs: It is so important in both restaurants and museums for staff to be able to anticipate our guests and visitors needs before they can verbalize, or even know, what those needs are. These can be as basic as providing easily accessible bathrooms and comfortable seating or more complex such as providing for guests with disabilities. We need to anticipate everything our visitors may need when designing programming and exhibitions.

While this is just a short list there are many more things that museums can learn from restaurants as museums become more and more visitor focused.

Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa: The Main Complaint

In my last and final post for this series we will be exploring the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa in Cape Town, South Africa and their attempt to address earlier criticism through the exhibit “The Main Complaint.”

The Tufts Museum Studies Blog has previously written the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art (MOCAA) last year when Editor Kelsey Peterson addressed issues of diversity among the Museum’s staff. The privately funded art museum, often referred to as “Africa’s Tate Modern,” is the continent largest museum in the world dedicated to African art. In the two years since it’s grand opening the museum has faced many debates and controversies including the resignation of Executive Director and Chief Curator Mark Coetzee over allegations of racial and sexual misconduct and criticism regarding how accessible the museum is for the general public. MOCAA is in fact quite expensive at 190 rand approximately $14 USD. This may not seem exorbitant for museums in the U.S., but when compared to other costs in Cape Town, for example a Wagyu Steak Tartare dinner at a nearby posh waterfront restaurant is slightly less, it is an understandably unaffordable price for a city rife with economic and racial segregation.

From its onset, regardless of controversy, the museum has billed itself as an institution for all with a responsibility to represent everyone including audiences “who have often felt excluded from cultural institutions.” In fact, the opening exhibition, still on view today,  entitled All Things Being Equal asks visitors to questions “How will I be represented in the museum?” On its website the museum makes it clear that representation is an ongoing process for the institution, answering the question of “Is the Museum an accurate portrayal and representation of the African Continent?” with this statement:

“This museum is at the start of a journey to participate in the conversation of what it means to be African, and then begin representing the continent. This will be a process over many years to fully understand and represent such a huge continent with so many traditions, languages and cultural groups. No collection can represent an entire continent but Zeitz MOCAA hopes its collection will make a significant impact on how Africa and the world view and has access to works of art from Africa and its Diaspora.”

As I found out on my recent visit to Zeitz MOCAA, the institution does its best work when it is being self-reflective through grappling with these thoughts and ideas of representation, accessibility and institutional power. These ideas are best represented in the exhibition The Main Complaint, which opened to the public in November of last year and will be closing at the end of this week.

The Main Complaint is an infiltrating exhibition highlighting systematic, institutional failures, in an attempt to contextualise, recognise and repair. The exhibition exists as an ongoing series of interventions by museum staff and invited artists.

The Main Complaint is not confined to this exhibition space. The project exists as an infiltrating and sprawling series of interventions, workshops, talks and off-site programs – all of which will, in some form, end up in here. It’s unclear what this space will become. It may become claustrophobic and unaccommodating. Or perhaps it will generously harbour a collection of beautifully synchronised works and a range of alternative ideas.

The role of technology is an integral theme throughout, as an indicator of intergenerational communication, memory, modes of representation, accessibility, agency, and ultimately, a facilitator of collaborative, responsive change.

How much time are you willing to invest in the process?

According to Zeitz MOCAA Assistant Curator Michaela Limberis, the idea for The Main Complaint came from the idea of wanting to respond to the conversations surrounding the institution. The title is adapted from William Kentridge’s 1996 film, The History of the Main Complaint, which looks at white capital, power, and responsibility through the protagonist’s self-reflection while questioning what progress has been made. In an interview with ART AFRICA, Limberis described the importance of this exhibition for the young institution “some people perceived that there was a lack of communication between the museum and voices in the arts community, and believed that there wasn’t a sense of collaboration in the approach. As an institution that aims to be a representative of the African continent at large, there was an opportunity to being open to dialogue.” The artists explore many common themes of “access, value, representation, and ownership” within an institution.

The exhibition is in the in the Museum’s Centre for the Moving Image space, and as such relies heavily on film. Upon entering the space you are greeted by a foreboding security gate complete with a soundscape to set the scene. The piece, entitled “Right of Admission Reserved,” by Gaelen Pinnoch appropriately sets the tone for the rest of the exhibition. The piece is a physical barrier at the entrance to the exhibition space, access to which is only granted through pressing the “request access” button. The artists aim is to make viewers feel intimidated by the gate and/or the access control procedure. According to the label, the piece is an attempt to “distill the sense of exclusion, usually imparted by covert expressions of power, control or authoritarianism in the built environment, into something physical and explicit.” The work manifests into physical form the feelings many have towards cultural institutions. By having this piece at the entrance to the exhibition space, it helps to set the tone to complaints of access and power within cultural institutions.

Other works look directly at the relationships between artists and institutions such as Hhanya Mashabela’s “Ode to Institutional Critique” and Mitchel Messina’s “Lil Slugger Goes to Zeitz MOCAA.” Messina’s animated short was by far my favorite piece on view and made specifically for this exhibition. The film follows Lil Slugger to a slumber party at Zeitz MOCAA. From my understanding Lil Slugger represents smaller artists and the struggles they face while navigating institutions and systems of power. Throughout the film Lil Slugger is intimidated by security guards, rules, and other works of art before realizing that they may be struggling as well. The label description is written in Lil Slugger’s voice as he grapples with feeling hurt by “big systems’ while still trying to fix them:

And sometimes I wonder if these big systems broken and hurting also, and maybe they want to get better but only way how they can get attention is by acting out and doing things we wish they won’t.

If I ignore them maybe they will fall in with a bad crowd and get worse, maybe they will be pressured into being a badder system. But if I try to hug them they will push me away so hard I tumble and break my heart and never want to go back.

I was interested to see how many artists were willing to have their voices included in the exhibition and even more so in the institutions willingness to present narratives in which the Museum and cultural institutions as a whole were not always depicted in a positive light. I think overall Zeitz MOCAA excelled most in their exhibits that provided more self-reflective, meta looks at cultural institutions and the art world. I am curious to see how the Zeitz MOCAA will continue to progress with attempting to break down power structures and barriers to access and representation. As Limberis mentioned, as a young museum, Zeitz MOCAA has a lot of room for experimentation and that could bring the museum to the forefront as a leader in the museum world. I look forward to keeping an eye out for what they do next.

If you ever find yourself in Cape Town head to the V & A Waterfront for a visit to Zeitz MOCAA.

Iziko South African Museum: |Qe: The Power of Rock Art

This week I will be exploring the Iziko South African Museum in Cape Town, South Africa and the Museum’s attempt at decolonizing a controversial and culturally damaging exhibit space in the post-apartheid period.

The Iziko South African Museum (SAM) is one of an amalgamation of eleven national museums in the  Cape Town area.  The cluster of museums were founded in 1998 with legislation to break down the power structures in the existing museums. The Izizko Museums of South Africa include the South African National Gallery, the Bo-Kaap Museum, and even the interpretive areas of a local winery. Iziko means hearth in isiXhosa, one of the eleven national languages in South Africa. In the isiXhosa tradition the hearth is the social center of a home and is the space associated with warmth, kinship, and shared stories. In naming the national heritage institution after the hearth they are declaring them “centers of cultural interactions where knowledge is shared, stories told, and experiences enjoyed.”

Although SAM is part of the Iziko Museums, it has a longer history as the first museum in South Africa founded in 1825. The museum focused on natural history. Like many 19th century natural history museums, SAM included material culture from local indigenous groups while reserving cultural history museums for the display of settler culture. The practice of displaying cultural”others” next to animals in Natural History museums has long been opposed. This practice was exemplified with “Bushman” Diorama which had been on display in the museum since 1960. The display was controversial not just for its racial stereotyping and inaccurate representation of Khoe-San culture, but for the use of body casts that were taken from 1907 and 1924 which had been painful and humiliating for the participants.

The diorama was closed in 2001 and was replaced with |Qe: The Power of Rock Art. At the entrance to the exhibit space,  SAM acknowledges the harmful history of the space with a message Jatti Bredekamp, Iziko CEO.

|Qe- The Power of Rock Art is a milestone in the history of this Museum, the oldest on the African sub-continent. For almost a century the South African Museum housed some of the most significant examples of rock art produced by San artists, however it was better known for displays of plaster body casts that emphasized the physical features of san people rather that their history and culture.

The Tragic history of dispossession, brutality, and cultural loss that befell the San people at the hands of the colonial settlers was overlooked in favour of idealized displays that reinforced stereotypes. In 2001 the so-called Bushmen Diorama was closed to allow for a process of consultation with descendant communities. In planning the rock art exhibition we initiated a conversation with Khoe-San communities regarding the ways Iziko presents their cultural heritage. This has enriched the exhibition immensely and the dialogue will continue.

The exhibit opened for permanent display in 2003 with the aim of acknowledging the spiritual power rock art had for the indigenous people of southern Africa.  The exhibit title was developed with consultation of modern day speakers of N/u, a language related to /Xam, the now extinct language of the souther San. The use of the word “|Qe” is meant to convey the pervasive sense of power of the art.

When I visited in January of 2019, the exhibit had been updated slightly to reflect the recent finds from the Blombos Cave in South Africa. These finds have been used to show the earliest signs of art in Anatomically Modern Humans, previously designated to European rock art, with the discovery of carved ochre and what may have been the production of ochre pigments dating back 70,000 years. The exhibit itself was laid out over two rooms telling, in my opinion, three connecting stories: 1) The history of rock art in South Africa and the rest of the world 2) The production of rock art by San people prehistorically through modern day and its significance culturally and spiritually, and 3) The work of Wilhelm Bleek and Lucy Lloyd in the 1870’s to record the oral literature of the /Xam.

While the third story gave context to the interpretation of the rock art using the now extinct /Xam language, I felt its inclusion did a disservice to the exhibits intent of decolonizing the space. The Bleek and Lloyd story line exposed the “White Saviorism” the museum was still representing. For a more in depth critique of the exhibit and its disingenuous attempts at representation I recommend reading Remaking /Xam Narratives  in Post-Apartheid South Africa by Hendricks Mona D. Additionally, although the exhibit boasts its consultation with San communities, it is still displaying a historically “othered” group in a natural history museum. This point becomes complicated as often human material culture of the Pleistocene is relegated to Natural History Museums. However, the strength of this exhibit is in how it connects the early, prehistoric rock art to the modern-day San, as the continuation of a rich culture.

It is through the connection of the first and second storyline that the exhibit was most successful. When colonizers first found rock art in southern Africa they believed the art was too complex for the “primitive” San. The Khoe-San were racialized as being the lowest on the evolutionary time-scale. The connection between modern San rock art and prehistoric rock art turns that narrative around by showing the depth of San culture and tracing them back to the earliest Anatomically Modern Humans in South Africa. Furthermore, through the interpretation of recent rock art by descendants of /Xam speakers we can better understand the why? behind the rock art of South Africa.

While I think the Iziko South African Museum  has much work to do to decolonize its practices, |Qe: The Power of Rock Art, is an interesting exhibit in its telling of South African rock art. My hope is that the museum will continue to hold conversations with the Khoe-San communities and to break down the power structures upheld through colonialism and apartheid.

Further reading:

Remaking /Xam Narratives  in Post-Apartheid South Africa 

Limitations of Labels: Interpreting Rock Art at the South African Museum

The Politics and Poetics of the Bushman Diorama at the South African Museum

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