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What are museums for?

9 Jan

What are museums for, really? Applying for several jobs in the museum field, I find myself invited to have a vision about what museums are and could be. One thing I know: they are not just storage facilities for rare and valuable property. They are capable of so much more, more than the “cool” factor of royal jewels or curiosity-piquing antiquities.

In a way, they exist because if they did not exist, we would have to create them in order to store dinosaur skeletons.

But their potential to have an impact on thought, dialogue, and cultural action is not developed to anywhere near their potential. They are not just the aloof cousins of theatres, when in fact they can be as daring, as thought-provoking as the most insightful, challenging, and entertaining drama. They can present and discuss history in polyvocal ways and from myriad perspectives, can personalize science in a way that complements critical thinking, can contextualize the arts in such a way that they resonate more deeply and broadly. Museums can memorialize, and challenge historical narrative, memory, and the absence of same. They can visualize and envision, both the distant past and the potential for the future.

But everywhere I go, they are underfunded or, as in Europe, if well-funded and comfortable, then they are not hungry enough to deepen the level of inquiry into our own world. As long as they have to remain commercially viable – unlike libraries and archives, for the most part – their potential to be not just repositories, but theatres for social change and dynamic, collaborative workspaces for understanding the arts, history, culture, and science through visual, aural and artifactual media – even when that understanding emerges as a synthesis of conflicting views (or especially then) – will be dulled.

I’ll be coming back to this topic in the weeks ahead as I think through this with more specificity.

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Museum exhibits and the beginnings of reconciliation

24 Dec

In October of this year a student asked me about an exhibit we had produced on the Civil Rights movement at a local history museum in the U.S. where I used to be the director. I wrote back in November after Hurricane Sandy knocked out power for five days.  Since I seem to do much of my best writing for an audience of one – something I am trying to overcome through this blog – I decided to go back and revise my response to this student.

I was not the curator of the exhibit, but I had oversight and the managerial role of deciding how the museum was going to handle, publicize, promote, and treat the exhibit in relation to the local community. The exhibit itself left implicit the issues of racial harmony and reconciliation that the student was asking me about. The texts of the exhibit consisted only of interview excerpts with the narrators of the oral history interviews, and stunning black-and-white photo portraits by a professional photographer. I recall we had one introductory text panel, but the intention was to led the speakers speak for themselves.

At the same time, we planned and budgeted for an anthology of oral histories, historic texts, and other essays to be distributed at public history/education workshops to be held around town, to be led by scholars, as a way of opening up a discussion of civil rights some 35 years after open conflict in the town that led to riots and tanks rolling down the main street. Not only would school students be invited to participate in our education programs, but we felt it was an opportunity to open up discussion to adults in the community as well, especially those who had been present 35 years before and who were eyewitnesses to the tanks. The board of the historical society did not permit us to go forward with the public education programs. So that was a lost opportunity, to say the least.

The student asked about racial harmony and whether it was one of the goals of the exhibit. Every museum and every cultural institution has its own context. The town at the time was about 2/3 African American, maybe 1/4 Latino (which may have increased since then) and the remainder white, along with the neighboring towns which are white but with a growing Latino population. I wouldn’t presume to lecture any audience about the need for racial harmony, but being in the position of museum director at the time I would say I saw our role in the museum as creating a forum in which those issues could be addressed, issues that had been skirted or even suppressed for 35 years since the riots. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take a stand. Taking up these issues, and for a museum or historical society to say they are important and have not been given their due, is taking a stand. We were hearing, through the interviews, that there was still a need for reconciliation. So opening up that discussion was an important step – and who but a museum is better suited to do this? Of course I believe in reconciliation, and the idea of harmony, of people of different backgrounds and histories being able to live together peacefully and cooperatively is very important in the development of livable cities.

I also wrote to the student that reconciliation and harmony are different. More than just creating the space for the discussion though, our purpose was to include voices and texts and images that would encourage a discussion that went beyond the superficial, including voices that had been silenced in one way or another The problem is, if such an exhibit is not in some way deeply interactive, it can be at best top-down in its lessons, and may miss an opportunity to energize an audience. I don’t want museum audiences (or students) to be passive. Also, being white myself, it’s important for me to remember and to emphasize that white not a neutral category, in the sense that a white American perspective is a “norm” in museums or historical societies (which is how whiteness is treated, I think, invisibly). In fact our exhibit was a collaboration between white and African American staff and artists, and the interviewees consisted of both African American and white residents. For the dialogue to be effective, and not just window dressing, we have to take the hard step of being aware of our own inherent and sometimes unexamined biases (neither white nor American being neutral categories, ever), at the very least our own perspectives based on our own individual histories, and recognize that there is no neutral center – which is not to say that the pursuit of historical truth is not a worthwhile and important exercise.

I do think, as the student implied, that it’s a good idea for museums and historians to provide interpretation and an argument, or even multiple arguments, especially if they acknowledge or address competing interpretations or arguments and make a case as to why they believe their interpretation to be more truthful. Good arguments depend upon the soundness of the evidence. One role of museums is to provide (and preserve) evidence, through artifacts, through texts, or through the generation of previously unheard voices and texts through oral histories. Good teachers have faith in their students to draw their own conclusions, especially if they are well-equipped to find and evaluate the veracity of evidence. Museums have a greater depth and variety of evidentiary materials within their reach than does the general public and so they can do interpretation from primary sources and artifacts. There are different curatorial and directorial choices to be made about when to allow the artifacts to speak for themselves, the subjects to speak for themselves, and when and where is the right time and place for the museum to speak with its own authoritative voice(s). There’s a difference between being insightful and being definitive, not open to differing views, but an insightful interpretation is always welcome. Museums can both create a space for dialogue and also be one of the informed voices in that dialogue. There’s no contradiction and it doesn’t cut off the possibility of competing views. If anything, the museums may air views – their own, their subjects’ – that otherwise are not parts of processes of reconciliation.

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