Museum as a cultural battlefield Higher Ed Gamma

If you want to see their most extreme culture battles, enter the museum world.

15 years ago the cultural historian Michael Kamen showed Visual shock, The history of its art debates, museums and exhibitions has long been a flashpoint in the ongoing struggle for cultural values, civic and national identity and ways to remember the past.

Yet by historical standards, today’s culture is particularly intense.

The website of the Crocker Museum in Sacramento unequivocally states that “museums are a legacy of Western colonialism, serving as the product of straight, able-bodied, white, male privileges.”

The Chicago Art Institute says: “Museums like ours have long centered on some stories and marginalized and suppressed others … Strongly rooted in the Eurocentric tradition, the founding objectives of our institutional history did not consider gender, ethnicity and racial equality.”

Meanwhile, the leadership of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has announced that the Mets must “be ambitious to be agents of change.” To that end, the museum has mandated “anti-apartheid training for all staff, volunteers and trustees”; Committed to “a program to recruit black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) candidates into departmental head and senior leadership roles”; And promises “a program of exhibitions, events, and publications that address complex and unfamiliar narratives, intercultural perspectives, and encourage a more diverse and expansive canon of art history.”

Not surprisingly, there was a reaction. Conservative polytheist Heather MacDonald has accused both the Art Institute of Chicago and the Metropolitan Museum in New York of redefining their primary purpose as racism and abandoning their “main goal of preserving the treasures of history and instructing future generations.”

He accused Mate of evaluating “racial consciousness-raising on scholarship and historical accuracy”; Interpreting paintings and sculptures on the basis of identity rather than artistic or historical basis; And its 2021 exhibitions, such as “The African Origin of Civilization”, revolve around “disrespectful theories” and “doctored quotes”.

On one side of the ongoing culture war those who throw museums as tools of exclusion and art, and other museum artifacts as masks of power and privilege that “actively sought to silence other artists and traditions from a racist, colonial persuasion.” On the other hand those who preserve museums are guardians of civilization, sanctuaries for aesthetic thought, and for artistic and scholarly skills.

For museums, this is the best and worst time of the year. Before the epidemic, there was an unprecedented museum boom. More people have joined the museum than ever before. Today, there are more than 17,500 museums in the United States, covering almost everything from art to ice cream, to natural history to sex.

But museums also face serious challenges from outside and inside. There is a financial challenge, as the cost of maintaining the museum increases as revenue stagnates. Museums can no longer rely on free or low-wage labor for volunteers or on the descendants of the rich.

There is also an audience challenge: how to attract a more diverse audience and ensure that these organizations better represent the communities they serve.

Then the political challenge. While leftists occasionally dismiss museums as castles of aristocracy, ruins of colonialism and representations of Eurocentrism, activists on the right see museums attacking traditional values.

But perhaps the most serious challenge is the lack of clarity about what museums should do: preserve, enlighten, educate, promote, employ, stimulate, provoke, or simply raise people above the world?

The most enjoyable of all the courses I taught recently was a class on history, politics and the future of museums. Over the course of a semester, we tested:

  • How missions, functions, guiding philosophy, collection principles, explanations and exhibitions of objects, and the experience of visiting the museum have changed over time.
  • Types of museums include not only art museums, but also history museums, museums of natural history and natural sciences and science and technology, as well as open museums, for-profit museums and non-traditional museums that address topics such as fashion. , Food, and music.
  • Debates that have engulfed the museum world and become culturally sensitive include “Harlem on My Mind” (1969), “New York’s Drug Scene” (1971), “Peace Christ” (1989), and “Science and American Life”. War (1994), “Sigmund Freud: Culture and Conflict” (1995), “Back of the Big House: The Cultural Landscape of the Plantation” (1995), “The Last Act: The Atomic Bomb and the End of World War II” ( 1995), “Scaffold” (2017), and “Philip Guston Now” (2020).
  • The challenges that museums face in terms of private and public funding, artefacts taken through war, colonial conquests, or the problems associated with pressure, fraud and forgery, and whether museums will reject money offers that some find stigmatized.
  • The impact of immersive and interactive digital technology on the museum experience.

During the semester, each student had to design a museum exhibition, outline the steps for its implementation, and create a compelling case for the importance of the exhibition.

The secret sauce of course? Almost all students aspired to become museum professionals: administrator, archivist, conservator, curator, exhibition designer, museum educator and origin researcher, among others.

Their pre-professional interests were narrowly anything but vocational. These students were interested in acquisition and display ethics, fraud, forgery and reproduction and compensation and return such as building design, exhibition layout, display techniques, labeling and experience creation.

In my professional career, I have been fortunate to work with a wide range of museums, including the National Museum of American History, the New Jersey Historical Society, the Minnesota Historical Center, and especially the New York Historical Society. , With its Slavery in New York exhibition, the Dimena Children’s History Museum, and a 17-minute-long orientation film.

I found nothing more exciting than participating in the process of creating a museum exhibition. It’s really a collaborative process to draw on content experts, community representatives, professional designers, donors, partner organizations and others. It really takes a village to engage in a repetitive design and development process that involves intelligence, planning and focus groups, not to mention fundraising and marketing.

But designing and developing a museum exhibit is also a white-knuckle, nerve-wracking experience.

In contrast to the classroom, which is a black box, museum exhibitions are inevitably universal. Everyone – critics, patrons, community groups and viewers alike – has the right to complain, to denounce and condemn. Whether or not the public acquires more of their artistic, ethnographic, historical or scientific knowledge from museums than from books or classrooms or television documentaries, there is no doubt that museum exhibitions serve as a manifestation of a particular historical interpretation or artistry. Canon or scientific development, is the cultural minefield.

Sensitivity is intense; Emotions are raw. An omission, a misrepresentation, a slanted explanation, even the choice of content can express anger, irritation and resentment. While an exhibition may be fleeting or short-lived, it can turn into a drive-by debate and provoke a commotion.

In other words, museums provide an ideal lens for studying the history of taste, the process of creating a collection, the social and ideological functions of a museum, and much more.

Give me some ways to teach about museums, past, present and future:

1. We need to offer more career-linked courses in humanities.
Students are more likely to be engaged in subjects that connect to future outcomes. Such courses give a window into the postgraduate job market and allow students to assess whether this is the right field for them.

2. Dare to reach beyond your discipline.
I could certainly dedicate an entire semester to the history of the museum, but it would have been a serious mistake. As far as my students are interested in history, it offers a window of change over time – a host of aesthetic values, artistic canon definitions, museum physical design and layout, museum ethics, museum content and more. Feel free to speak with your students’ interests and concerns.

3. Integrate project-based assessment into your class.
In my own course, I wanted to see if students were able to draw on the history, ideas and skills they had learned to design their own museum exhibits. Project-based learning has the great advantage of allowing a faculty member to evaluate accurately whether students can actually apply what they have learned in an authentic, real-world work.

4. Bring practitioners to your class.
One advantage of the hybrid environment is that anyone can invite practicing professionals to our class without incurring significant travel expenses and to compensate for lost work time. Practitioners can certainly provide realistic, hands-on insights that some full-time educators can provide.

5. Teach debate.
Gerald Graf, of course, is right: teaching conflict is actually one of the best ways to revive humanitarian education. This is especially true of museums, which serve as contemporary battlefields on issues ranging from key issues, acquisitions and ownership to inclusion and exclusion, proper methods of relevance and interpretation, cultural influences and distribution, material presentation and what it means. Be a civic place.

6. Remember: The study of history should not hinder a glimpse of the future.
The history of the museum is unfinished. At the moment, new types of museums – commercial, digital, identity-centric, among others – are emerging. While we can only speculate about what the future holds, it is clear that silent thinking is increasingly emphasizing dialogue, interactivity, and immersive experience. More and more, audiences crave innovation and technology-development. It is not forbidden to look back even if we look back. After all, you can’t just look in the rearview mirror.

Consider art museums as colonial, imperialist, aristocratic or patriarchal, white hegemonic past patterns, natural history museums as inherently racist and racist, science museums as progress and human domination of the physical environment and history museums. Monuments to patriotism and nationalism, or reminiscences of a world burdened with nostalgia that never existed, have replaced museums, for better or worse, cathedrals and churches, capitals and court houses, and even stadiums as our most important civic structures and communal spaces.

In fact, significantly more Americans visit museums than attend professional sports events.

If we want to give our students a more integrated humanistic perspective that gives a glimpse of a potential career, we can do worse than teaching about museums. I can prove first hand that I have not found a better way to deal with the cultural issues that divide American society today.

Steven Mintz is a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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