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Tag: Museums in the News

The Desecration of Memory: Bigotry and Violence Against Museums and Markers

Content warning: this post includes discussion of vandalism against museums and markers honoring women, Black Americans, and Jewish individuals.

The Susan B. Anthony Museum & House, in Rochester, New York.

On September 26th, 2021, a fire engulfed the back porch of the Susan B. Anthony Museum & House in Rochester, New York. The fire department was able to contain the flames, sparing any historical artifacts from destruction, though carpets and a doorway were damaged. It was clear, as soon as surveillance footage was played back, that the fire was no accident: a person, whose face was covered, was holding something by the porch just before it broke out.

Just weeks before the incident at the suffragist and reformer’s home, the marker memorializing the murder of Emmett Till went missing. Such signs have been repeatedly shot, doused with acid, thrown into the river, and vandalized with racist messages throughout the years; and this one disappeared not a week after the 66th anniversary of the fourteen-year-old boy’s death at the hands of white men.

The George Floyd bust, vandalized with grey paint.

At the beginning of October, a statue of George Floyd in New York City was vandalized, as a man hurled paint at the large bust of the man whose murder at the hands of police officers helped spark 2020’s worldwide Black Lives Matter movement. The bust of Floyd — part of a display which also includes statues of Breonna Taylor and John Lewis — was unveiled just two days before it was damaged. Earlier this year, when it was displayed in a different location for Juneteenth, it was vandalized with white supremacist markings five days into its run.

And since May, the Alaska Jewish Museum in Anchorage has experienced more than one case of antisemitic vandalism, which has caused museums across Anchorage to rally in support of the institution as they seek answers, justice, and healing.

Hatred and violence of this magnitude, against museums and markers meant to remember world-changers, marginalized communities, or those who have lost their lives as a result of racism and bigotry, is a frightening, jarring thing. It has seemed to me that every time I look at museum news lately, there is a new incident.

As a training museum professional, it hurts, discourages, and angers me. But for the communities against whom the violence is leveled, I cannot even begin to imagine the agony. “In some ways I feel they are enjoying our pain,” Ollie Gordon, Emmett Till’s cousin, told the Atlanta Black Star in September. “Or they are in pain themselves and they know no other way to deal with it.” Gordon, who was living with Emmett at the time of his murder, shared that every time the markers commemorating his cousin’s death have been vandalized, it has been like salt poured in the wound for their family.

One of the markers memorializing the murder of Emmett Till, ridden with bullet holes.

In the same article, Patrick Weems, the executive director of the Till Center, clapped back against those who posited that the sign’s most recent disappearance was the result of a traffic accident and not an intentional act of bigotry. “We’ve never had a sign that’s been accidentally vandalized or taken down,” Weems argued. “These have always been intentional by folks who want to erase this history.”

A desire to erase the history of racism against Black individuals, antisemitism against Jewish communities across the globe, and the efforts of women to gain the same rights as men — that certainly explains some of the motivation behind the acts of desecration I’ve included here. Museums, markers, memorials — these all serve as keepers of historical memory, and as reminders of the darkness and hatred that has come before us, so that we should never forget.

Yet the Susan B. Anthony home, the Emmett Till marker, the George Floyd bust, and the Alaska Jewish Museum exist not only to remind modern Americans of the movements and atrocities of the past, but to honor these people, as well. Museums and monuments have the opportunity (and, indeed, the responsibility) to give visitors safe spaces to learn about the lives of and pay respect to those members of marginalized communities who have lost their lives or fought to make changes. It is a truly devastating thing when these spaces are hatefully attacked and compromised, taking away people’s opportunity for safe reflection.

I believe it is necessary to mention here that keepers of historical memory must be careful about who they honor. Calls for the removal of statues of Confederate generals cannot be placed in the same category as the vandalism of the Emmett Till marker. The latter was an innocent victim to the very same racism and violence that the former stands for. And though the secession of the Southern states in a desperate attempt to retain slavery, and the resulting Civil War, must always be remembered, the legacies of its leaders should under no circumstances be honored the way that of Emmett Till’s is.

The desecration of historic homes, sites, and markers not only discourages museum professionals and keepers of historical memory, but hurts and endangers members of marginalized communities. Every museum must do its part by calling out such acts of hatred, standing in solidarity with its fellow institutions, and paying careful attention to whose legacies it honors within its walls.

Though these types of bigotry and violence will likely continue as long as such things are tolerated in our country, museums have a responsibility to provide their visitors with a safe space to process this pain, and continue honoring the memory of those who experienced such hatred in life — and cannot even escape it in death.

What Makes a Beautiful Museum?

With safe travel starting to become possible again, and folks thinking about engaging together in culture, art, and history to gain hope after a worldwide pandemic, it perhaps seems natural that people might seek out special beauty in the places they choose to visit. I was browsing the news online when I came across this National Geographic article entitled “These are the world’s most beautiful museums,” complete with short descriptions and breathtaking photographs of fourteen visually stunning museums across the globe. It speaks to the power of visuals to draw human beings in and entice us, and to the value of making an exterior as impressive as its inner contents, that I found myself longing to visit every single one of these museums.

Yet it certainly made me wonder. What, really, does make a beautiful museum? To each museum-goer, this question has a different answer. Is it simply its architectural design which makes a museum beautiful — the inside, the outside, or both? Is it the artwork hanging on the walls? The history that’s told within? The passion of the staff and volunteers who keep it operating? The discourse, questions, and ideas it sparks? The significance of the place itself, or the people who once lived or worked there? Or the visitors, bringing with them their biases, their problems, and their thoughts, and leaving with renewed knowledge, interest, and energy? Is it a combination of all of these things?

What, to you, makes a museum beautiful? Under your qualifications, what are the most beautiful museums in the world?

Below, find a list of just a few of the museums commonly considered the “world’s most beautiful.” But remember that — and it’s only cliche because of its profound truth — beauty is absolutely in the eye of the beholder.

Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, South Africa

 Upon its opening in 2017, the Zeitz MOCAA became the largest museum of contemporary African art in the world. The building was previously a grain silo, and both the interior and the exterior creatively and effortlessly incorporate and transform the remnants of this former function into something beautiful.

Niterói Contemporary Art Museum, Brazil 

The Niterói Contemporary Art Museum is, unsurprisingly, a main attraction in the city of Niterói, Rio de Janeiro. It took five years to build before its opening in 1996 and stands four stories high, overlooking the South Atlantic Ocean.

Guggenheim Bilbao, Spain

 The Guggenheim Bilbao is just one in a family of four surreal Guggenheim institutions. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, and Guggenheim Abu Dhabi all manage to catch the eye and keep it.

National Museum of African American History and Culture, United States

The NMAAHC stands powerfully and beautifully on Washington D.C.’s National Mall, surrounded by monuments honoring men whose involvement in Black history is detailed within the museum. Designed with elements of African, European, and American architecture, the building gives an impactful statement on the African diaspora.

Museum of Islamic Art, Qatar

Built on an island in Doha Bay, the Museum of Islamic Art was designed by a 91-year-old architect who had to be coaxed from retirement. The building’s mesmerizing reflection on the sea alone is enough for me to be grateful they convinced him. The museum has become a cultural icon for the Arabian Gulf since opening in 2008.

Shanghai Astronomy Museum, China

Having just opened its doors in July of 2021, the Shanghai Astronomy Museum is already making a huge impact. It is the largest museum in the world dedicated to astronomy, and each architectural component of the building is also an instrument that tracks the sun, moon, and stars. In imitation of the universe’s complex geometry, the museum is designed with no right angles or straight lines.

State Hermitage Museum, Russia

This is by far the oldest museum on the list. Founded in 1764 with Catherine the Great’s own art collection, the Hermitage still manages to impress. It was once home to Russian Tsars and remains the largest art museum in the world. It’s been said that with a minute spent looking at each item in the Hermitage for eight hours every day, it would take fifteen years to see the entire thing.

So what do you think? Would any of these museums make your list of the most beautiful in the world? What else would you add?

Museums Celebrate Juneteenth

Over the weekend, many people across the nation celebrated Juneteenth — a day made all the more special this year because it was finally made a national holiday, the first new one declared since Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in 1983. This long overdue step in our country’s story is vital, yet it is also just the beginning: a reminder of all we have yet to accomplish in bringing freedom, justice, and equality to all. As beacons of history, social enlightenment and education, and change, museums are uniquely situated to tell the story of Juneteenth and its implications, and many have long been doing so.

June 19th, 2021: Houston dancer Prescylia Mae performs at the dedication ceremony for a new mural honoring emancipation, Galveston, Texas. via Galveston County Daily News

First, what is Juneteenth? This holiday, long celebrated by Black Americans, commemorates June 19th, 1865. On this day, the arrival of Union troops to Galveston, Texas informed the still-enslaved African Americans that they were free; the Emancipation Proclamation, signed all the way back in 1863, was at last the law of the land. Peace had come nearly two months prior, resulting in the South’s defeat; the treaty was signed, President Abraham Lincoln already dead. Yet news spread slowly, and enslavers resisted the change, meaning that these Texan African Americans still did not know they were free; Juneteenth remembers the day that the belated news finally reached them. Celebrations of this holiday spread rapidly through Black communities in the following years, and now, it has finally been acknowledged on a federal level.
So what can we expect from the museum field going forward, with Juneteenth finally being a part of the national consciousness? Here is just a brief list of examples of what we saw this year, and what we can expect from now on.

Members of the Pan African Rhythm Cooperative perform at the grand opening of the Harriet Tubman Museum, which doubled as a Juneteenth celebration.

This museum had its long-anticipated grand opening on June 19th, 2021, combining the ceremony with a Juneteenth celebration. The commemoration included performances by the Pan African Rhythm Cooperative, Civil War reenactments, communal prayer, and a discussion of the meaning of Juneteenth. Four hundred community members gathered to attend. 
NMAAHC honored Juneteenth with a whole series of virtual programs, which included insights from novelists, professors, eminent scholars, singer-songwriters, storytellers, and museum professionals. These online events, free and open to the public, grappled with the meaning of Juneteenth historically and in our modern climate, while also educating participants about African American cultural traditions, literature, activism, and even food. Watch those programs and learn more about the holiday on NMAAHC’s Juneteenth resource page here.
Over the weekend, the MFA commemorated Juneteenth with free admission to the museum and a series of outdoor events, including a concert organized by BAMS Fest (an organization dedicated to breaking down racial barriers in the arts), art-making inspired by and discussions in tribute to Basquiat, and a screening of the new documentary Summer of Soul, presented in partnership with the Roxbury International Film Festival. The MFA’s events illustrate the ability of museums of all types to fight for racial justice and celebrate the contributions of people of color in our nation.

Informational slides on Juneteenth. via blkfreedom.org

On June 15th, 2021, blkfreedom.org hosted a spectacular virtual event of education and celebration. Ten museums of African American history and culture participated, demonstrating the sheer power and impact of museums in cooperation with one another. The entire event can be viewed online here. The participating museums:
Amistad Research Center, New Orleans, LA
With these and other events across the country, American museums used Juneteenth as an opportunity to celebrate, honor, remember, and educate. Hopefully, we can expect such commemorations of our newest national holiday for years to come.

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.

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