All posts by Catriona Schwartz

Museums in a post-truth landscape

While reading Robert Janes’s Museums in a Troubles World I was reminded of a story I had seen earlier that morning. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer compared Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to Hitler as a way to justify American bombardment of a Syrian airfield, following Assad’s use of chemical weapons. Specifically, Spicer implied that Assad went where even Hitler dared not go—using chemical weapons on his own citizens. Numerous people on social media and from the press immediately fought back against this claim, including CNN’S Jake Tapper who suggested, “Sean, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, it’s just a few blocks away from the White House. Perhaps a visit’s in order.

What struck me about this comment was that the museum was being invoked as an authority on objective, historical truth. In today’s political environment, with the constant cries of ‘Fake news’ the truth has become more commonly accepted as political, just as much or even more so than it is considered objective or factual. That Tapper referred Spicer to a museum, rather than a textbook, or a documentary, or any other potential source of historical knowledge, is a sign that museums are seen (or have the potential to be seen) as a source of objective, apolitical truth, which is especially meaningful in the current post-truth political environment.

On the whole, Janes advocates for museums to fulfill a much more explicitly political purpose than truth-telling, but given that the book was written in 2009, I would be interested to hear his thoughts on the role of the museum as a guardian of truth in the current political environment in the United States. I would also say—and this is a point that Janes makes—that engagement, and pushing information or activism into the community, and into the public sphere, is a necessary next step—and a vital one to break beyond the information bubble museums might otherwise reinforce.

Strategies for Public Programs

When thinking about this week’s theme of Accessibility I was reminded of the article Professor Smulyan highlighted in the JNBC Weekly News email, “Museums in the Age of Social,” by Karen Mittelman. The article is about how museums can and should integrate technology and social media into their exhibitions, as well as how museums are increasingly being used as town halls and public forums. This later point was particularly interesting to me as it made me think about the different approaches museums take for their public programming. Many museums orient public programming around exhibitions on view, with the idea of increasing exhibition attendance through related public programs. This perspective prioritizes exhibitions over other museum departments and functions in a way that the Mittleman article seems to indicate might be less effective in the modern age. While different museums may find their audiences through different strengths it is important to consider how practitioners versus visitors value the different offerings of a museum.

In terms of accessibility, offering content that is relatable and relevant to visitors is one way to make a museum more accessible. By freeing programming from the constraints of exhibition themes, museums will vastly increase their ability to respond to the most up-to-the-minute trends, questions, and topics relevant to their public. Even when exhibitions themselves touch on contemporary and local issues, exhibitions can take many months or even years to plan and install—meaning that they cannot as easily address the latest issues in the public sphere. Flexibility and improvisation are perhaps not words closely associated with museums in general, however public program and education departments, amongst others, could more easily lend themselves to these concepts. This is not at all to say that museums should stop programming related to exhibitions, especially as there are many perennial themes in history, but instead a suggestion that museums not feel beholden to programs strictly related to exhibitions. Providing spaces for productive, public conversation helps the community and can also help the museum, by increasing a sense of connection between the institution and the public and in doing so increasingly the accessibility and utility of the museum.

Context and Spaces for Dissent

This week’s film and readings made me think about how context is so important to how people react emotionally and intellectually to what is presented to them. While the “Couple in the Cage” did provoke a range of reactions, there were numerous people that took the performance at face value, and did not object to the display of indigenous people in a cage in a museum setting. While this performance immediately reminded me of the long history of such displays at places like Coney Island (see Claire Prentice’s Lost Tribe of Coney Island in addition to the Fusco article) it also reminded me of the Yes Men. The Yes Men are a duo of activists/pranksters/performance artists who impersonate representatives of major corporations and speak at corporate and press conferences, as well as on TV interviews. Initially the Yes Men would present outrageously terrible propositions—for example posing as the World Trade Organization and promoting reinstating slavery in the US economy—and were shocked to find many people passively accepting these propositions, at least as audience members in a conference room where space for dissent was limited or socially taboo. They changed tactics and instead began posing as major corporations or government bodies and presented the policies that they would like to be instated. For example, they posed as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and announced they were accepting the validity of climate science at the National Press Club, and posed as Dow Chemical representatives on the BBC and announced they were going to compensate victims of the Bhopal Disaster with the $12.8 million dollars they would gain by liquidating Union Carbide. The response to these proposal was positive or neutral as well—although in the case of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce it actually led to progress on climate issues.

What I think both the “Couple in the Cage” and the Yes Men speak to is the willingness of an audience to accept what is presented to them in a formal context and how powerfully context can normalize ideas that might otherwise seem outrageous. Although the “Couple in the Cage” film and article offer only a snapshot of the reaction to the piece, they seem to indicate that repudiation of the concept was most frequently vocalized in the interviews and after the initial viewing. In other words, until viewers were directly asked their opinion they were–largely–not visibly or audibly condemning the exhibit, even if they later did so during the interview or called the museum privately to complain. The simple act of viewing an objectionable piece (without going into satire or perception of that piece as art), or similarly being in conference room or theatre listening to an objectionable presentation, does not offer room for vocal opposition within the realm of social acceptability. A challenge for public humanities practitioners then, would be to create spaces in their work where opposition and opinion are encouraged as socially acceptable–as well as to set the stage for empathetic responses.


What is the difference between a museum and a memorial?

One question that occurred to me while reading Adam Gopnik’s review of the 9/11 Memorial and Museum (officially titled in that order), was about how we differentiate between a museum and a memorial. In particular, I was struck Gopnik’s claim that “if there is an absolute case for a [9/11] memorial, the case for a museum is more unsettled.” What does a memorial do that a museum does not, and vice versa? While initially the differences should be obvious, the more I thought on this question, the more similarities I noticed between the two.

Both museums and memorials ostensibly deal in subjects from the past, even though the people and phenomena they reference may still exist in the present. For example a memorial to a civil rights leader might carry relevance to the civil rights movement today, and museum exhibits can reference contemporary themes. This past year for example, the Museum of the Moving Image held their exhibit: How Cats Took Over the Internet. Architectural memorials, such as the Lincoln Memorial show how memorials as well as museums can exist as physical spaces, rather than simply an object. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial and associated Three Servicemen Memorial and Vietnam’s Woman Memorial, show that memorials do not necessarily consist of a singular object, nor are they necessarily static. They also both rely on visual methods of communication as at least part of their project, although text is often included—for example in the form of plaques or exhibit labels. Both can be used in educational efforts and encompass varying levels of abstraction. They can also represent anonymity—whether in the form of objects of murky provenance or memorials for unknown soldiers.

So why, for example, is the Tenement Museum a museum and not a memorial to the millions of immigrants that worked, struggled, failed, triumphed, and made New York their home? Or any historic house museum that as perfectly as possible preserves the home of someone significant and deceased?

Above all, I think it is the element of the quotidian that differentiates these places. Not only in the themes they represent, but in how they are treated. Although every-day, personal objects were left at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the meaning of those objects and their placement there held a gravitas that a pair of 19th-century shoes presented at the Museum of the City of London would not. This is not to say that museums are unimportant but rather that they can be spaces for exploration of the unexceptional. While the subjects of memorials are occasionally forgotten, their creation was meant to confirm and symbolize the elevation of the subject, whether for the purpose of celebration, or grieving, or inspiration. While there are museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or the Victoria & Albert, or historic house museums in Newport that can relate to unique and important people and themes, memorials are made solely for the momentous, and the subjects must be deemed worthy of memorialization. This is why the Museum of the City New York, in its major exhibition on the history of the city, does of course have items related to momentous people (for example, Robert Moses’ badge) but also has simple objects related to very everyday life, like water buckets, cigar molds, snuffboxes, bath towels, and candy tins. Perhaps though, in this way, the museum can serve as a memorial to an everyday life that existed in the past.

On Period Pieces

Hamilton is an extremely interesting case study for this week’s theme of Denial, Myth, and Nostalgia. The selection of articles responding to Hamilton—both celebrating it and critiquing it—offer different perspectives on the validity of using myth in conveying history. One major underlying dilemma is whether to prioritize the truth (already in and of itself, potentially unknowable) over political or artistic purposes. Also embedded in this is the validity of using myth, nostalgia, or denial to tell stories about the past. None of the articles offer an outright condemnation of Hamilton, especially not of Hamilton as a Broadway musical with a uniquely minority-majority cast (although in good company with shows Fela and The Color Purple)—however those that critique the show take issue with the historical actors Miranda chose to centralize, the sort of ‘Founding Fathers’ chic subsequently reinforces, and the constructing heroes from the past.

These readings also reminded of conversations we have had in class and on this blog discussing films such as Hidden Figures, as well as critiques I have read of the film Selma, which for example The Washington Post claimed unfairly depicted Lydon B. Johnson, while the New Yorker argued it was in fact ‘more than fair,’ and the New York Times fell somewhere in the middle. Aside from arguments about the actual events that transpired, and the words that were spoken, at the heart of all of these debates again is the question of whether the political, social, or artistic ends justify the means—which range from re-writing the truth completely, cherry-picking which truths to tell, and how a story is framed and who is framed as the lead protagonist (especially when considering causality). The debate that rages over these issues also shows the importance that is being placed on popular culture as a source of historical fact. It is this last element that I think makes the strongest argument for prioritizing accurate storytelling. With this it is also important to note however that what is deemed accurate is very much under debate, and to most especially interrogate accuracies that conveniently reflect a mythos like the ‘Founders Chic.’

Narrative in the Public Humanities

For today’s post I am going to focus on Jacquelyn Dowd Hall’s article, “The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past” because I think it effectively highlights some major issues in the construction and use of historical narratives in public humanities and public history. While clear narratives can be an attractive way to package history, the process is rife with potential problems, and a failure to address these issues has very real stakes. The article focuses on how narratives about the civil rights movement have been distorted or simplified for various political and social purposes by politicians, historians, the media, and the ‘public’ who consume these narratives. Hall covers a lot of ground and a lot of potential pitfalls in producing history in general, but it seems especially relevant to history meant for public consumption. While Hall focuses on history manipulated by politicians, these issues are easily applicable to historians and producers of the public humanities who will have their own biases, backgrounds, and goals for their research and cultural production.

Inappropriate periodization, lack of historicization, a predilection for history with clear dichotomies and sharply delineated sides and goals that pass over the contradictions, intersectionalities and the grey areas that make up what Hall terms ‘hard’ history are just some of the issues at hand. It is also important to note that both the producers and consumers of these narratives are at fault in Hall’s telling. While she discusses politicians in think tanks purposefully manipulating narratives to suit their goals she also discusses a white public that is eager to accept narratives that support their preferred visions of themselves, their country, and their history.

What I found most compelling about Hall’s article is the sense of the stakes for these sorts of incomplete or outright incorrect histories. Hall argues that simplified narratives—ones that may serve a political service, that erase intersectionality, that focus on clearly defined players and timelines, and mostly especially those that offer a sense of closure—fracture the connection of the present to the past and give us an incomplete or incorrect perspective of the present. This, in turn, prevents us from addressing issues of inequality and injustice adequately in the present. Hall’s article is an effective rallying call for a telling of history that is both ‘true and effective,’ and to fight against ahistorical, anecdotal perceptions of the world today.

Can we collaborate with a ‘public’ and other questions about the public sphere

When considering the question of ‘the public’ that both Barrett and Warner dissect, I wondered about what these definitions meant for the possibility of genuine collaboration in public humanities. By Warner’s interpretation a public is very much separate from the sort of official organization a collaboration would require. Public is also defined very much in a receptive mode in Warner’s text, where the public receives and consumes discourse, or text that can be written, visual, or aural. If the public humanities, at its best, represents collaboration between institutions or organizations and the public (or perhaps even more radically, the production of humanities by a non-institutional public) this sort of definition of public, which is allergic to formal organization, seems to disqualify almost all forms of collaborative projects that might make use of varying sources of expertise.

Another question that arose from this week’s reading for me was the question of spatiality and the public. Warner’s definition of the public seems to intentionally lack roots in the physical world, instead existing in time but not space and remaining necessarily immeasurable. In Museum and the Public Sphere by Jennifer Barrett, the museum is a physical space that she describes as aiming (with and without success) to serve the public. This grounding in public space, and the very idea of public space in the physical realm seems to some degree at odds with Warner’s conception which holds limitlessness amorphousness as paramount to its definition. Both of these readings in conversation push me to question the benefits and deficits of a physically defined public, which by necessity limit the potential definition of ‘public’ for which the humanities produced can serve. In the digital age and with crowd-sourced cultural production the importance of physical public space seems perhaps less vital as a stage for public humanities but perhaps still serves a role in cultivating an audience—although both Warner and Barrett seem to dismiss the ‘audience’ as a less desirable and non-synonymous phenomena compared to the ‘public.’


Michael Warner, “Publics and Counterpublics,” Public Culture 14, no. 1 (2002): 49–90.

Jennifer Barrett, Museums and the Public Sphere (2011).