Small and Passionate Museums

As we wrap up the semester, I’ve begun to think more and more about what brought me to Brown in the first place. My professional identity has fundamentally shaped by small history museums; I came to Brown knowing that small history museums and the stories told in them have value, maybe not to the whole world, but to the community they come from. And while my past work experiences have made me quite cynical in some regards, Filene’s article helped me re-focus my thinking. “Outsider” history-makers (the beating heart of local history museums) are really great at connecting past to present because of their passionate and emotional investment in small stories. Thinking back to the case study I shared in week 6, even if I personally disagree with their sentiments, I cannot discredit the passion CCHS’s pioneer community has for their stories. The way “outsider” history-makers tell stories is incredibly valuable, and by association, I think this makes the venue of a small history museum incredibly valuable as well.

This article also made me think about what my role as a professional in this world. I love small history museums and I want the rest of the museum sector to love them too. But they are not without their problems; inclusivity, accessibility, and sustainability are the key ones I think about most often. I maybe lack the ability to emotionally tell the stories of local communities, a skill “outsider” history-makers do, but I do have the “fancy degree” (that’s what former volunteers back home called it), professional skills, and a deep passion for small things that I can use to create an inclusive, accessible, and sustainable platform for people who want to tell the small stories. Maybe that’s my place in the nebulous public humanities realm after all.

Accessibility at the New York Transit Museum (and thoughts about my past work)

For this blog post, I wanted to highlight the New York Transit Museum and their work with folks with disabilities and special needs. I first came across NYTM’s Access Programs when researching strategies that small museums can employ to make their museums more accessible to people with physical impairments. NYTM’s Access Programs are a series of programs designed to welcome people with disabilities and special needs into the museum and give them the opportunity to experience the collection. I think one of their standout programs is Ready to Ride. The NYTM has a large collection of subway cars, and the Ready to Ride program affords those with developmental disabilities an accessible way to interact with the card. Ready to Ride Participants (those in 6th grade and up) learn how to navigate the subway system, buy a Metrocard, and ride the train independently while in the safe space of the museum. I think that Ready to Ride is a really great example of a museum being relevant and meeting the needs of one of their communities, as outlined by Nina Simon. But the program is definitely not a traditional example of an educational museum program; Ready to Ride participants aren’t learning about the history of the NYTM’s collection but they are interacting with the collection in a way that benefits them. Can museums make themselves more accessible by expanding their programming to not be solely educational?

In my past work at the Clackamas County Historical Society, we spent a lot of time thinking of ways to be more accessible to our regional community. Many of the ideas we brainstormed weren’t educational programs about the county’s history. One of our favorite ideas was to promote ourselves as a place to learn professional skills; a lot of our volunteers came to us because they were unemployed and were hoping to learn skills like data entry, collections management, etc. We were also fond of that idea because it was something our regional community needed and we felt we could make ourselves more accessible as a cultural organization by giving them a program that was relevant to them. The idea never got off the ground because many felt it was outside of our mission, but I still think it would be an interesting experiment in accessibility. I’m curious about the opposite of the question Claritza raises in her blog post: what if we kept the location the same, but radically rethought the type of programming we offer to make ourselves more accessible?

Labor in the Museum Field

The arguments raised in Amy Tyson’s The Wages of History made me think about the current discourse amongst museum professionals about leaving the museum field, mostly due to issues surrounding labor. I wanted to highlight a couple of really thoughtful and recent pieces about this issue…

It’s Brave to Quit the Museum Field: Part One

Leaving the Museum Field

In her epilogue, Tyson gives a few recommendations for how leaders at organizations like the Fort Snelling History Center can support their “public history proletariats.” I think her most powerful recommendation is to treat “frontline workers like they are truly an organization’s most valuable asset.” (176) Solicit feedback from them. Let them express their opinions without fear of retaliation. Value your frontline staff! I appreciated Tyson’s recommendations, especially since I do want to be in a leadership position one day.

To bring in a more personal note, the issue of labor in the museum sector and the way it is devalued is deeply infuriating to me, and I think it is critically important for us as future leaders to think about the ways we can break this cycle. I’m sure all of us who have worked in the cultural sector have experienced this: many of us have worked an unpaid internship or held a job in the culture sector where we were severely underpaid. I hope to brainstorm some ways we can break this cycle!!

World War II Memorial in Providence

The WWII Memorial in Memorial Park was dedicated on Veteran’s Day, 2007. It is comprised of a giant rotunda, two walls of veteran’s names, and a small wall commemorating how many people each town in Rhode Island sent to war, as well as multiple benches placed around the rotunda and in front of the name walls. The language in the memorial revolved mostly around the refusal to forget those who lost their lives. The benches in front of the names walls highlight the (American) values people presumedly died fighting for: freedom of speech, freedom from want, etc.

I had dragged my boyfriend along to this particular memorial and asked him later what emotions he felt while walking around the memorial. He said he felt a certain admiration and thankfulness for the veterans the memorial was dedicated to. I think this plays into Doss’s chapter about the emotion of gratitude and war memorials; by erecting memorials as a way to express gratitude to veterans, do we instead normalize war by upholding a “cultural nationalism embedded in historical amnesia” that erases the horrors of war? Why elect to create war memorials that are just “empty pile[s] of stone” rather than humanize veterans and remember their experiences more truthfully? Are memorials like these erected to create a national unity in times of need?

The Production of Silences in Non-Academic Spaces

“ The fact that history is produced outside of academia has largely been ignored in theories of history” (Trouillot, 21)

Last winter, I wrote a paper for a local journal examining a disease epidemic that occurred in Oregon from 1830-1833. During this 3 year period, primary source documents claimed that between 75 – 90% of the Native peoples living in Oregon died because of this epidemic, which was historically thought to be a malaria epidemic. Long story short, my paper presented a counterpoint to this traditional narrative, which has been accepted as part of Oregon’s history for years: for a number of reasons that I’ll leave out for the sake of brevity, it’s scientifically not possible for malaria to be the cause of such widespread and fatal epidemic.

I think silences entered the historical production of the narrative around this epidemic quite often. Silences entered the production when the recordkeepers of the time, white re-settlers, may have improperly recorded the event. Silences entered the production when the narratives were being made and Native perspectives on the epidemic were left out. And silences were further created when the incomplete version of the story was put up on the walls at the Clackamas County Historical Society. Regarding this epidemic, there had to be other sources, other facts, other perspectives (most likely from an indigenous one) that were lost in the historical production of the greater narrative.

I’m really interested in this concept and thinking about how history production in non-academic spaces and by non-academic people may create more spaces for silences to enter the production, especially at local historical societies that are populated by the history enthusiasts we discussed in prior classes. I think that there is a lot of value in having non-academics participate in history production, but I’m curious if there is a way to prevent the further creation of silences in the production of history by non-academic people. Thinking specifically in regards to CCHS/MOOT, the museum I used to work at that featured the incomplete story of the 1830-1833 disease epidemic, what do we do to curtail the production of silences?

On Working with Communities

There are two key points I derived from the Painted King on working with communities that you are not a part of: slow down and listen, and recognize your role as an expert outsider. I think Wharton expertly navigated this project in his role as an expert outsider who slows down the process and takes time to listen to the Kohalan community. One notable manifestation of this is how Wharton never takes a stance on whether Kamehameha should be gold or painted; he recognized that this was the community’s decision to make. It’d be interesting to think about these two points in regards to past case studies we’ve looked at this section (the Tate, the Met, MOOT, and History Colorado) and think about what these exhibits would have looked like if we, the expert outsider, had taken the time to slow down and listen.

Resources and Shared Authority

I think one of the questions that is being asked in class today is how do we share authority? How do we do it well? What resources do we need in order to execute a community curated project?

MiJin Hong briefly reflects on co-authorship at a leadership level in an article for the Pew Center’s series on co-authorship. How can museum leaders make room for co-authorship in their leadership styles? How can they do this at their institution. Hong is in favor of a more entrepreneurial approach to co-authorship work: experiment often and don’t let your ideas not reach fruition because of a lack of resources. The Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Scotland is highlighted as an example of this. Kelvingrove was once “revered” by their community, but now they are struggling to engage their community members. Hong uses the Kelvingrove, I think, to illustrate that this work can be done at the smallest museums for relatively no cost. Kelvingrove just used a paper form to solicit feedback from the staff and the community and made changes accordingly.

I do think though that this feeds into this vicious cycle of devaluing museum professional’s labor; they are expected to do groundbreaking work with none of the resources to do it. I understand that Hong may have been trying to be optimistic by highlighting Kelvingrove and showcasing that anyone can do this work. But I’m tired of being expected to make radical changes without resources of any kind: money, procedures, evaluations, committees, time. I think that when discussing the rules for “how to share authority” today, making sure proper resources are in place before we do this work is an important one to think about.

What Should a Museum Preserve?

Gonzalez brings up the question of what should we preserve in a museum: the objects or the interpretive framework that privileges a white experience over all? I think Fred Wilson’s “Mining the Museum” was a great example of what an exhibit looks like when objects are preserved, rather than just an interpretive framework. In this exhibit, Wilson avoided just representing and giving space to the African American perspective and expertly critiqued prior curatorial decisions made by the Maryland Historical Society by showcasing the objects they had tried to forget about.

I’m hoping to discuss this question of what museums should preserve a little more in class and hope we can relate it back to some of our prior museum experiences. I also want to examine the the intersection of representation and othering in a museum and think about the ways microaggressions manifest in museum exhibits.

Reflecting on Repatriation Work in Small Museums

I think Steven Conn’s piece on repatriation and NAGPRA was interesting. There were definitely some parts in it that I wholeheartedly disagree with, but that can be discussed further in class. For this blog post, I wanted to offer some reflections on my professional work with NAGPRA and repatriation, specifically in a small museum setting, since Conn focused more on the theory of NAGPRA.

While I was working on finishing up my bachelor’s degree, I was able to learn more about NAGPRA and repatriation in small museums two ways: as a student in a class that examined repatriation and NAGPRA from an academic perspective and as an employee at a museum that was in the process of repatriating a set of funerary beads. I’m attaching a link to the website my fellow classmates and I created that offered information and resources about how small museums in Oregon can navigate the repatriation process, which can seem to be quite a daunting undertaking if you work at a small museum. Here’s the link:

I wanted to also reflect more about the professional side of repatriation. NAGPRA, for those who may be less familiar with this piece of legislation, requires that any museum that receives federal funding complete an inventory of its collection and pass on that information to locally affiliated tribes. The idea is that tribes will recognize any objects that are of cultural significance (often times, objects used in sacred ceremonies), objects that are considered funerary and were likely buried with someone, or any human remains. If there are any objects that could be NAGPRA-violating, a tribe could initiate a public proceeding and request for the object to be repatriated.

I think NAGPRA is a piece of legislation that has really good intentions and is often times effective. But in the small museum sector, I know that, unfortunately, repatriation and NAGPRA-compliancy is not a priority. Part of this stems from the fact that only museums that receive federal funding (except the Smithsonian) are required to comply with NAGPRA. The logic I have often encountered is that because small museums are very unlikely to receive federal funding, they often think that they have no legal obligation to repatriate any NAGPRA-violating objects. With no legal obligations to fulfill, the only reason a small museum would repatriate is that they feel a moral/ethical obligation to return these objects home. This was the approach we had to take when convincing our board of directors to let us repatriate the funerary beads in our collection. We had received an IMLS grant before, but because the money had already been paid out and we didn’t have any other plans to seek federal funding, we technically did not have that legal obligation to repatriate. It is unfortunate that there are people who are deeply hesitant to the idea of repatriation. The attitude of “once we repatriate one indigenous artifact, we’ll have to repatriate all of them” is still fairly commonplace in Oregon, even though I would argue that Oregon is one of the more repatriation friendly states.

I want to emphasize here that I believe repatriation is an absolutely necessary process for any museum to undergo in order to become a more socially responsible institution. I’m curious to what everyone else thinks about the ways we as future cultural professionals could reverse this long-seeded disinterest in repatriation at the small museum level.

What Should a Museum Be?

I think Hilde Hein proposes a number of qualities museums should be, but not necessarily are. Museums should be more experiential. Museums should be more ephemeral and less static in the stories they tell. Museums should place more value on their publics than their objects. Museums should be for the publics and created in collaboration with them. And most importantly, I think, museums should recognize that they can indirectly but powerfully influence people’s thoughts and opinions, a responsibility that should be taken seriously. One of my favorite quotations was on page xxiii: “Collectively and individually, [museums] should stand firmly, but not fixedly, behind what they choose to say – and they should say something.”

There is one comment Hein made that I wanted to draw attention to. In the conclusion, on page 158, Hein states that she “avoided discussion of the museum’s legal and financial responsibilities and the areas of management and governance.” I’m curious as to why she purposefully avoided discussing these aspects of the museum. Do these obligations and responsibilities hinder a museum from being able to experiment with implementing  Hein’s model? Would one not need the support of museum leadership and financial backing to implement these ideas in the first place? I’m curious to hear what other people thought about why she would not want to talk about this, especially if she is a proponent of seeing this model implemented.