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Why Museums?

This week’s readings brought me back to a question I’ve been pondering throughout the course: Why do we assume museums have some innate radical (or even social) mission they have yet to unleash?

Silverman, Janes, the House Museum “Anarchists” and others we’ve read seem to take for granted the notion that social engagement extends from the museum idea. We talk about universities in a similar way. I understand that these writers are calling on museums to take up a more progressive mission than they generally pursue, but the basic premise is that museums and social change fit together naturally.

That seems to contradict what we’ve learned about museums. The histories we’ve encountered in class suggest that museums, in origin and actuality, are fundamentally elite and elitist. The more established and influential the museum, the more likely that is to be true (i.e., The Smithsonian). They rely on corporate and foundation money–both elite sources. They hire people with elite educations. And as we learned from the museum mission statement last week, they are largely organized around elite property: “the things of the world.”

I entirely agree that museums have social and political potential.  Like universities, they house resources and knowledge that add value to social justice projects. But it seems to me that it is very difficult for a museum to do much of anything useful politically without acknowledging that disrupting social structures represents a conflict of interest for all elite institutions. For instance, if a museum’s goal is “knowledge sharing,” it must recognize its historical reliance on the monopolization of knowledge production. This is the first step toward considering how those histories linger (for example, in the practice of regularly hiring students from schools like Brown).

I like Emily’s concrete recommendation that museums simply open up more space for self-organized publics. But what this does is actually absent the museum apparatus so that other community work can take place.

This seems like a useful metaphor for how elite institutions can do radical work more generally: by sharing their resources and stepping out of the way.

Instead of asking museums to change, should we be building alternatives to museums entirely? By attaching the high-minded ideals of social learning and historical dialogue to the museum form, don’t we risk reinforcing elite authority (per Mullen)? When is the social good museums can do worth that risk?

Radical Transparency in the Corporate Museum

Janes’ chapter on Debunking the Marketplace made me curious about alternative ways museums (and other non-profit institutions) might convey the relationship between their funding needs and their programming.  Janes observes that the financial work museums perform burdens them with “myriad complexities and pressures that have nothing to do with the inherent purpose of museums.” (99) He then annotates a (fictional) museum director’s daily schedule with a series of “reality check” descriptions designed to illuminate the power of political and financial decisions in day-to-day museum stewardship. (101)

I am wondering what this exercise suggests about the potential of radical transparency to change how people understand the state of arts funding (and other non-profit projects).

I very much admire a model set forth by journalist Naomi Klein. On the website for This Changes Everything, a recent film and book collaboration between Klein and her husband, she offers “An Explanation of Speaking Fees.” On the page, she explains how paid speeches fit into her family’s income now that she writes independently and is also responsible for paying researchers and production staff. The full version is quite interesting, but here are some highlights.

…The truth is that I only do a handful of such speeches a year and they subsidize all this other unpaid or marginally paid work. Not just for me, but for an amazing group of people who are also working hard on things that are valuable but not economically valued in our current system.

I sometimes hear from students or professors at a school who are upset by the fees quoted—how can I preach anti-capitalism while getting paid thousands of dollars to speak? Why won’t I donate my time to “the leaders of tomorrow?” (That came from an MIT professor, who presumably draws a hefty salary). There is sometimes an assumption that if I was paid a fee once, I must be getting it every time I leave the house (rather than a few times a year). Others assume that if I turn down a speaking request it must be because of the money—and not simply that I have surpassed the number of days I can reasonably spend away from my three-year-old.

I get it. I remember being shocked as an undergrad that anti-establishment writers who I loved were being paid thousands of dollars to speak at my school. And as a writer, I fervently wish that there was a way to make my work consistently available for free, whether books or speeches. I just haven’t figured out how—not with the kind of overhead that research-intensive non-fiction carries.

Klein has a different incentive than most museums to clarify her finances because her professional writing comes from an explicitly anti-capitalist framework. But given that museums see much of their work as community-oriented (or at least not-for-profit) it is interesting to imagine how this level of transparency might change the relationship between museums and the public.


Institutional Vulnerability

I was delighted by Robert Janes’ invocation of vulnerability as a “prerequisite” for institutional change. However, his treatment of the term seems deeply under-developed in light of his critique.

Janes notes, rightly, that vulnerability “does not come easily” to institutions. (58) But the problem is not just that vulnerability is challenging or uncomfortable–the problem is that museums and other institutions are, by design, hostile to vulnerability. Janes draws out many of the reasons why in assessing anxieties about funding, professional clout, political controversy, visitors, and organization. In order to be durable long-term, museums must rely on financial sponsorship, maintain some sort of recognizable brand, and furnish a set of deliberative and logistical patterns that can be consistently communicated to a rotating staff. All of these encourage museums to project coherence and institutional self-confidence. Questioning the museum requires critique and revision, and therefore, the willingness to admit imperfection.

While Janes’ explanation does track the relationship between the institutional culture of museums and their aversion to self-criticism, he drops the concept of vulnerability at its first mention. Instead, Janes continues in the usual language of museum bureaucracy, critiquing the structure and hierarchy of museums. I think this misses Janes’ biggest insight (and one we’ve encountered before): the disconnect between the technocratic function of museums and their higher ideals of learning and cultural exchange.

For me, framing this challenge in terms of vulnerability opens up the possibility for a museum to think of itself less like an apparatus and more like a human (flawed, self-doubting, always changing). Asking museums to imagine themselves in human terms might encourage them to worry less about external validation, and more about internal coherence, self-awareness, and most importantly, to focus on human interactions over data-points.


Rethinking the “House” in Historic House Museums

I appreciate the premise of the Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums, but I can’t help but wonder if the focus is misplaced. The book encourages a broad reconstitution of house museums that involves neighborhood integration, diversity, community service, and local “relevance.” While the principles of the book are worthy, (and perhaps carry transformative potential) I am disappointed that the guide seems to accept the basic format of the Historic House Museum.

The Forward to the book notes that historic buildings often become museums automatically. As a result, “questions about the intersection between community needs and the history of the building go unasked: For whom shall we preserve this historic house and how will it serve the local community? Why should members of the community care about this house and how can it serve a vital role to its public.” (12)

Yet over the first few chapters, the authors offer their guidance almost entirely in terms of museum operations: staff outreach, community and business partnerships, visitor marketing, and educational programming. Moreover, they repeat the same vague ideas pushed by the museum visionaries they critique: acknowledging socioeconomic difference, talking to community members, and looking for “unexpected” collaborations. (67) This might lend itself well to house museums in their current form, but I’d say it falls short of the overhaul they propose.

I think a more radical (and arguably, more “anarchist”) model for house museums would carry forth the guide’s critique of use, rather than execution.

One example is the preservation of black schools in the rural south. In order to revive the spirit of black schools that white-led policies forced closed during desegregation, black community members later repurposed the school spaces for contemporary community needs—adult classrooms, Head Start programs, and meeting spaces. In addition to making the schools into historic landmarks, they fit their function to the ongoing struggle of local black communities. These historic schools promote shared ownership, immediate relevance to the daily lives of local people, and direct community participation. They completely erode the proprietary ownership of culture, knowledge, and material objects that the Anarchist’s Guide critiques.

If the authors hope to build a world “that no longer derives knowledge from objects, looks to institutions for answers, or defines reality through materiality,” then asking what a community can do with a house may be better than asking what a community can do with a house museum.  (51)


Are Objects Ever Enough?

After reading Clifford, I am thinking back to our conversation about the role of dialogue and “voice” in the presentation of cultures. Our readings last week problematized the primacy of visuality in museums and other institutions representing “culture.” Clifford’s essay on “Museums as Contact Zones” reinforces the shortcomings of objects as cultural ambassadors.

Clifford observes that when Tlingit guests came to the Portland Art Museum, they interacted with museum objects through memory and performance. The objects themselves did not represent Tlingit culture, the objects instead served as prompts to oral histories and other modes of telling. He suggests throughout the essay that interpretation gives objects meaning, offering examples like the New Guinea Sculpture Garden, wherein the people featured became “practicing artists” rather than “specimens on display” through their active creation of the site. (196) Clifford concludes the article by proposing that museums working to reckon with histories of conquest and cultural appropriation aim for co-curation rather than consultation with people whose artifacts the museum houses.

The bigger question this all raises for me is whether it is ever possible to ethically represent a culture through material culture alone. Clifford writes that when legacies of colonialism and other “asymmetrical” power relationships shape museum collections, the objects “could never be entirely possessed by the museum.” (194) Without human interlocuters, are objects ever enough?

The Story of the Nacirema

Reading about the Couple in a Cage resurrected for me a similar pedagogic project. When I was in middle school, our class read a story about the “Nacirema.” It described the culture of an “exotic” North American tribe in language clearly designed to scandalize us. (I don’t remember all the details, but I do remember that in the account, the Nacirema went to see a man who “carved holes in their teeth.”)

The big reveal at the end of the story is that the people in the story are American, or “Nacirema” spelled backwards. (The man who drilled holes in teeth was a dentist.) Whatever the context in which we read the story, it is one of very few classroom activities that stands out from my K-12 years.

I did some research on the Nacirema and learned that the original story, “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema” meant to satirize anthropological writing. Much of the story fixates on Americans’ obsession with looks. (The article contends, “The fundamental belief underlying the whole system appears to be that the human body is ugly and that its natural tendency is to debility and disease.”) If the internet is to be believed, the story is still used for teaching in fields where intercultural communication takes place.  (Here’s an updated version from the Huffington Post mocking modern American dating, wherein the women wait obsessively for men to contact them through a loud “horn call.”)

I wonder about the implications of this approach to empathy: rather than humanizing the other, othering the self.  I think cultural self-awareness and criticism are among the most important goals of education, but using this lens also perpetuates the often problematic focus on visual and aesthetic difference. What positive work does the story of the Nacirema do? What risks does it bring?

Is “Public Art” Possible?

Erika Doss’ framing of statues and memorials as “public art” made me rethink our previous discussion on art and publics. I was suspicious then and continue to wonder whether the concept of “public art” is a contradiction in terms.

Last time, we talked about the “right process” for selecting and installing public art. I take Hilde Hein’s definition, which rules out the many art pieces that are simply decorative assertions by private players in public places. Her definition favors the more intentional and social curation of art that “constructs a public” through a “shaping event.” (67-68) Still, I think it’s worth considering whether this kind of professionally-overseen “public art” is impossible. Here are a few contentions/problems I’ve been thinking about along these lines…

  • Public art invites ideological control. Doss observes, “the pace of commemoration has quickened, and the number of memorials has escalated, because growing numbers of Americans view public art as a particularly powerful vehicle of visibility and authority.” (37) This means that in the making of public art, public debates over history, values, and national symbols end in the final expression of the winner’s taste. And the winner, most likely, reinforces dominant racial, class, gender and political ideologies.
  • Public art appropriates public resources. In a sense, public art simply steals public space (and often money) for uses determined by a smaller segment of that public. For instance, a statue in a public park turns space previously available to members of the public for whatever uses they choose over to a specialized public that deems itself worthy of making decisions on the public’s behalf. So, the result is less public space.
  • Public art reasserts cultural hierarchy. The Mary Mullen argument: if public art (or commemoration) requires negotiation among private, non-profit, and government partners who manage public sites, it is more likely that the preferences of curators, academics, artists, and other “experts” will determine the outcome.

These problems certainly don’t gaurantee negative outcomes. And I think, on the whole, they are worth working through. But it is also worth recognizing that all of these elements, to some extent, undermine the public: less choice, less space, less participation. It is difficult to create or commission “public art” or commemorations because they exist organically. Public art manifests in graffiti walls, sidewalk chalk mosaics, the ephemeral memorials Doss studies, and street performance (like the Wisconsin Solidarity Singers). If we want to encourage art and commemoration in public, should we offer more blank canvasses for making, rather than making “public art”?

Glassberg on moving from production to reception

Glassberg’s attention to the reception of historical knowledge offers a helpful counterpart to our previous discussions on the production and reproduction history. It is easy for scholars to become so fixated on the meta-analysis of a given historic site (or classroom, or movie) that we forget that the narratives we identify are not always the narratives with which people walk away.

Glassberg’s article reminded me of a particular moment from a field trip I took in college. At a historical site in Ohio, my classmates and I went through a simulation of the Underground Railroad wherein we were the runaway slaves. As part of our early orientation, we were “sold” away–news we received from an Irish indentured servant who had previously worked above us in some supervisory capacity. My first thought had been that encountering this white ethnic laborer emphasized the racial hierarchy that conferred special privileges on European indentured laborers (the Irishman was working toward his release) while consistently reserving the most inhumane degradation for enslaved black people. But another man on our tour had taken that moment to tell his daughter, “See, that’s important to remember: Irish people were slaves too.” For him, the presence of an Irish laborer had neutralized the racism of slavery by positioning us as equals.

There is much to unpack in such an exercise, but I think it illustrates the extent to which our previous orientations to history condition the ways in which we consume new knowledge. Or, as Glassberg puts is, how learning “changes as audiences actively reinterpret what they see and hear by placing it in alternative contexts derived from diverse social backgrounds.”

This also speaks to what I think is a much bigger problem for scholars: it is much easier to assess the damaging, or heartening, messages communicated by a particular idea or cultural text than to account for the human responses they elicit. It seems to be especially difficult for historians, grasping for patterns and explanations in what are always more complicated histories, to grapple with incoherent and changing  ideologies, or to understand how people can hold multiple truths quite unbothered by their contradictions. Perhaps it is a matter of putting humans back into history (and history museums).

Animating History

Hazel Carby’s Forward to Silencing the Past puts forth a pithy summary of Trouillot’s thinking: “What history is matters less to Trouillot than how history works.” This seems profound. It strikes me that most people who are invested in history (including historians, activists, and public humanists) do seek to better establish what history “is.” They (and we) work to “correct the historical record,” pluralize histories, raise counternarratives, and recenter people written out of dominant historical accounts. In other words, what generally emerges from efforts to challenge the power imbued in history is more history.

Trouillot has no illusions about how the public generally understands history (he points out that whatever scholars do, most people will continue to get their “history” from the movies). He also raises the point that people hoping to contribute “new knowledge” must always contend with “the power embedded in previous understandings.” (56) Giving his own account of the Haitian Revolution as an example, he notes that he “bowed to some rules, inherited from a history of uneven power, to ensure the accessibility of my narrative.”

I firmly stand by the importance of new histories, and the need to struggle within the terms, institutions, and mediums set forth by previous history-makers. I believe, for example, that the changes in United States historiography since women and scholars of color have populated the discipline have genuinely transformed the academy, as well as the students who move through it.

But I wonder, if we experiment with the premise that what history is matters less than “how history works,” what alternatives emerge? How does it change the way we teach, or curate, or make art if the aim is to treat history not as a subject, but as an actor?

Publics as Elective

I found Michael Warner’s characterization of public participation as elective to be especially compelling. He suggests that when we refer to “the public,” we are really referring to a group of people with the potential to join publics. This implies that the constellation of services, organizations, and resources we think of as belonging to the public—public libraries, public schools, public information—are limited to those who actively join or seek them out.

Warner thus redirects our attention to the factors that circumscribe any given public (which includes all kinds of things, such as class, politics, culture, mobility, and time). Attending to these factors opens the possibility for people who seek to share public services to go beyond simply granting the public access to actually widening the publics they serve.

I wonder though, if Warner would support this kind of rethinking. Warner suggests that the most authentic publics are “self-organizing.” He writes, “Externally organized frameworks of activity, such as voting, are and are perceived to be a poor substitute.” If that is the case, is a library-going public—welcomed and marketed to by a government staff—as strong, in Warner’s terms, as the people who frequent a neighborhood Little Free Library?

Should the goal for institutions like museums and universities be to facilitate self-organizing publics? How is that possible?