Museum Studies at Tufts University

Exploring ideas and engaging in conversation

Making Use of the Tools We Have

This week the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) announced that they will be closing their doors for four months later this year to complete their ongoing renovation and completely rehang their collection. When the museum reopens in the fall, they will rotate their collection more frequently, juxtapose works in different mediums, and, crucially, include more works that emphasize the contributions of women, people of color, and non-European artists to modern and contemporary art. They will also partner with the Studio Museum in Harlem, an American art museum that focuses on African American artists, to display their collection while that museum is being renovated.

This is a massive and much needed undertaking. Women and people of color have historically been included in MoMA’s exhibits in marginal ways. A 2015 Artnet survey of solo exhibitions from 2007-2014 at major American art museums found that only 20% of MoMA’s shows featured women artists. Not that these types of exclusion are limited to MoMA. Artnet recently looked at exhibitions of work by black artists at 30 major museums from 2008 to 2018 and found that they accounted for a mere 7.6 percent. So full-throated attempts to remedy these biases and gaps are welcomed. But not every museum can afford to close for months to revamp their space or aggressively collect work from marginalized artists. What can workers at those institutions do?

I recently attended a workshop on Social Justice and Museums run by Nicole Claris, Manager of School Programs at the MFA, Boston, and Sara Egan, from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. The workshop was put on by the Young Emerging Professionals group of the New England Museum Association. Its focus was on how to marshal resources to create exhibits, programming, and other experiences that surface marginalized lives and multiple points of view. Examples of real life successes were shared, like revamping a volunteer training program to give docents the knowledge and tools they needed to tell inclusive and truthful stories. Then step by step instructions for how to apply these intentions to your institution were shared:

  1. The work begins with you. Take a moment to check with yourself and see if you are able to take feedback about your work. It is ok to make mistakes, but we also have to be able to learn from them. This is how we build more inclusive experiences that share multiple perspectives.
  2. Define your goals and audience. What tools and objects do you already have in your institution? Perhaps it is a piece of art featuring a person of color. Are you telling that story? Maybe your historical institution starts its narrative when Europeans came on the scene. Can you surface the indigenous story as well?
  3. Get support. Determine how the actions you want to take relate to your institutional values and priorities. Identify people in your institution that could be allies. Build an external network of people who can help you do this work – who is doing this work that you can point to as a leader? What community organizations can you build relationships with to help your organization change? Who can help you with your blind spots and keep you honest?
  4. Identify activities that align with your goals. External resources from organizations doing this sort of thinking can help. Among those recommended were the Teaching Tolerance Project from the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Empathetic Museum Maturity Model.
  5. Use your collection! Know what you have, through and through. Take opportunities to research objects that you think might have another perspective to share.
  6. Picture success. What will change look like in your institution? Remember that incremental change is better than no change at all.

We don’t all work at MoMA, but we can all make changes that tell wider, more robust stories about art, history, science, and the world. Do you have resources for doing this sort of work? Share in the comments!

Open Access and Museum Collections

According to the American Alliance of Museums’ Characteristics of Excellence, a museum should, “guided by its mission, provide public access to its collections while ensuring their preservation.” Although museums protect over a billion objects, did you know that on average, less than five percent of a museum’s collection is on view for the public to enjoy? To make up for this, many museums have turned to the “visible storage” display strategy, in which collections not on exhibit are stored in open cases for the public to still see and enjoy.  While certainly effective, albeit overwhelming (and sometimes confusing, with little-to-no interpretive wall texts), more museums are instead embracing the digital age and implementing a completely accessible collection online.

For instance, last week, the Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA) announced its “Open Access” system, providing the public with free access to thousands of images from the Museum’s collection to learn from and even download to use for commercial purposes. With a simple click to the Museum’s collection page, users can now select an artwork, zoom in, and observe close details that are difficult to notice when the same object is placed behind a glass vitrine or on the wall in a gallery space. Moreover, it is now permissible to even download a high quality JPEG of the image, to use in any capacity one can imagine.

According to the Cleveland Museum’s website:

“Open Access means the public now has the ability to  share, collaborate, remix, and reuse images of many as 30,000 public- domain artworks from the CMA’s world-renowned collection of art for commercial and non-commercial purposes. In addition, portions of collections information (metadata) for more than 61,000 artworks, both in the public domain and those works with copyright or other restrictions, works are now available.”

The Cleveland Museum joins a growing list of institutions that have prioritized an accessible online database – open to students, scholars, and the general public to use without any restrictions. Other museums include the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Art Institute of Chicago, the National Gallery of Art, LACMA, the Getty, and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

In a recent study by Ian Gill, a graduate of San Francisco State University’s M.A. Museum Studies Program, it was found that museums with Open Access “benefit the public, promote scholarship, and align with the museum’s mission;” however, it is an expensive system to initiate without help from outstanding grants or other sources of funding. As an art historian who can easily spend hours searching through Google Images’ archives in search of a high quality photo of a specific artwork, I am excited to learn that the Cleveland Museum of Art has shared its diverse collection online, providing me with a new go-to source for finding JPEG images that are free under Creative Commons Zero.

What are your thoughts on Open Access?

Cambridge Open Archives Tour

I heard from some attendees last year that these are an absolute blast. They’re certainly a rare opportunity to get behind-the-scenes.

Cambridge’s Fourth Annual Archives Crawl

 

The Open Archives Tour is a chance to go behind the scenes at a number of unique archives and collecting agencies in Cambridge. This year, twelve archives will be featured over four days, from July 9 through July 12. The tours are divided into four categories:

 

City Collections – July 9, 5:00-8:00 pm  

  • Cambridge Historical Commission
  • Cambridge Room of the Public Library
  • Cambridge Public Works Department

Harvard Collections – July 10, 3:00-6:00 pm  

  • Harvard University Archives
  • Houghton Library
  • Schlesinger Library

Cultural Collections – July 11, 5:00-8:00 pm 

  • Mount Auburn Cemetery
  • Cambridge Historical Society
  • The Longfellow House – Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site

MIT Collections – July 12, 3:00-6:00 pm  

  • List Visual Arts Center
  • Institute Archives & Special Collections
  • MIT Museum

You can sign up for one, two, three, or four tours, but you must sign up for each tour individually: $3 fee per tour. Space is limited.

Click here to register for the 2012 Open Archives Tour.

Survey on Contemporary Objects in History Museums

Please take a few minutes to help a fellow museum studies student out.

Leslie Howard, who’s completing an MA in Museum Studies from Harvard and is NEMA’s Membership Manager, is writing her thesis on collecting contemporary objects.

Do you have an opinion on whether museums should collect contemporary objects? Do you work at or know of an institution that is pursuing this? If so, please check out her survey.

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