The reading for this week prompted me to differentiate between two distinctive paradigms of the museum’s role in social justice: social and political commentator and active agent of social change. Lois Silverman’s The Social Work of Museums really brought this distinction to the fore. Her argument that social workers should serve as key museum staff members reified the active role museums could have in affecting social change within their own walls. The other paradigm is brought forth in Richard Sandell’s “Museums and the Combating of Social Inequality”. There he demonstrates how museums can utilize their exhibitions to reflect their social and political positions, and provide commentary on major social and political events. While I am not making a value judgement, to me this seems a more passive role than Silverman’s strategy.
The New York Times article “Museums Chart a Response to Political Upheaval” further underscores the difference between a museum’s role as social/political commentator and agent of social justice, as it charts various museums’ responses to the Trump administration’s social/political agendas. One example the article describes is the Guggenheim Museum’s response to plant Yoko Ono’s “Wish Tree” in front of its building for passers-by to write down their wishes for the future and hang them on the tree. In this case the “Wish Tree” was implemented in response to the tense political environment and to promote inclusivity, allowing the whole public to contribute to the art piece (Bowley, 2017). The “Wish Tree” is a symbolic endeavor to reflect the Guggenheim’s response to Trump’s inauguration and seems to fall in the social/political commentator camp. Another cited museum response is the New York Historical Society’s plan to open an exhibition on immigration and its programs that help people learn “what they need to know to pass a Naturalization Test and become a citizen” (Ibid.). In this case, the Society is actively confronting the Trump administration’s immigration policies by aiding and educating immigrants about the citizenship process.
Bowley, G. (2017). Museums Chart a Response to Political Upheaval. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/13/arts/design/museums-politics-protest-j20-art-strike.html.
While Nina Simon’s The Art of Relevance presented compelling and important arguments, I was left thinking that the solutions she advanced did not address the complexity and nuance of different types of museum visitors. In her dichotomy between ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’, Simon differentiates between museum visitors who are regulars– the ‘insiders’–and those who need to be given the ‘key of relevance’ before even thinking of visiting the museum–the ‘outsiders’. In addressing the issue of relevance, Simon offers suggestions for motivating ‘outsiders’ to visit and become invested in what the museum has to offer. She writes, “to be relevant you need to cultivate open-hearted insiders, who are pleased to let new people in even if it requires a little change” on the terms of the ‘outsiders’ (65). While this sounds nice in an ideal world, practically the museum needs to make sure it is relevant to all its patrons: ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’. ‘Insiders’ are probably not going to have the open-hearts that Simon suggests cultivating, as they too see themselves as customers who expect to receive the services they seek. Furthermore, while Simon focuses on ways to expand the museum-visitor population beyond the small and homogenous ‘insiders’ group, she does not recognize the dependency that museums may have on their ‘insiders’. Those ‘insiders’ may be donors, key supporters and/or steady, regular visitors of the museum, whom the institution cannot afford to alienate. In this sense the museum must remain relevant to its ‘insiders’, while expanding its relevance to ‘outsiders’.
The non-profit I worked for last year made this very mistake. Although not a museum, the organization–unintentionally–followed Simon’s advice and attempted to make its mission more relevant to the younger generation, so to expand its membership. However, in employing this very tactic the non-profit alienated its older and committed population who felt they were being neglected. As most donations came from this older, more established membership, the organization suffered financial losses and had to reconsider its future activities. While I completely agree with Simon’s emphasis on the need for museums to reach out to their local communities and become relevant to a more diverse population, I feel that her quick and overly optimistic assumption that ‘insiders’ would adapt and be on-board does not reflect the complexity and difficulties involved.
Susan Scafidi in “Misappropriation and the Destruction of Value(s)” explains that beyond its obvious exploitative nature, misappropriation “can [also] … impoverish the cultural development of the source community itself” (105). The example she provides is a legal case in New Mexico in which a local newspaper flew over a Pueblo religious ceremony, interrupting the ceremonial dance, to take pictures, and then misrepresented the event as a pow-wow (104-106). She writes, based on a comment from one of the dancers, “[t]he group may ask itself, ‘Why bother to unite in dance (or song, prayer, procession, etc.) if we will only be interrupted and put on display?’” (104-105). In this case, misappropriation may have caused the group to feel that this meaningful, metaphysical ceremony had lost some of its significance and potency.
Scafidi’s characterization of misappropriation reminded me of an article I read earlier today on the New York Times, which prompted me to think that it is also possible to misappropriate pain and trauma. Titled “White Artist’s Painting of Emmett Till at Whitney Biennial Draws Protests,” the article discusses the controversy surrounding white artist’s, Dana Schutz, painting of the open-coffin photographs of Emmett Till. Black artists, among others, have protested against a white woman painting such a painful loss and the racist hatred it represented for the larger black community. The article quotes Hannah Black, a British-born black artist, who wrote on Facebook: “‘The subject matter is not Schutz’s…White free speech and white creative freedom have been founded on the constraint of others, and are not natural rights. The painting must go.’” This article left me with the following questions: Does a white artist have the right to capture a painful trauma that ‘belongs’ to the black community? Can she do the trauma justice in her art? Meaning, if Schutz cannot identify with the pain of Till’s murder, can her painting authentically reflect the extent of trauma? Or is she misappropriating this pain and thereby undermining its depth and gravitas? Later in the article, Schutz is quoted stating: “I don’t know what it is like to be black in America but I do know what it is like to be a mother… My engagement with this image was through empathy with his mother.” Does this change anything?
While I was extremely disturbed by the visitor responses to “The Couple in a Cage” described in Coco Fusco’s article, I would like to focus on Fusco’s analysis of children’s reactions to the exhibit. Last week in our class discussion on memorials, I believe Rica brought up the constant refrain of ‘educating future generations’ connected to the purpose of memorializing and questioned if it is the current generation’s way of deflecting guilt. As if the current generation is claiming that they themselves do not need the memorial for commemorating atrocities, but rather it should function as an educational tool for future generations.
Interestingly, and relevant to this discussion about future generations, were children’s responses to “The Couple in the Cage”. Fusco writes, “[f]or all the concern expressed about shocking children, we found that their reactions have been the most humane” and “[b]oys and girls often asked their parents excellent questions about us, prompting ethical discussions about racism and treatment of indigenous peoples” (16). In this respect, children were able to honestly approach their feelings of discomfort and confusion and question the exhibit, rather than their adult counterparts who either ignored their feelings of discomfort or behaved as colonizers.
These two different conversations about the next generation, prompt me to question how and why do adults build up mechanisms of defense in dealing with uncomfortable situations and guilt. How does utilizing the excuse of ‘educating the next generation’ and concern over “shocking children” shield and ironically infantilize adults/the current generation? What can public historians do to counteract this shield and force adults to face and deal with uncomfortable feelings?
This week’s readings on memorials by Erika Doss and Scott Sandage were really thought provoking and made me reconsider past readings from previous classes, especially Trouillot’s Silencing the Past. What I would like to address is the inherent nature of the memorial. It is a material, physical object imbued with complex and conflicting memories of an important event or figure meant to outlast the constraints of human mortality and memory loss. To stand the test of time, memorials are unchanging, fixtures of the national or communal landscape; a rigid and tidy keepsake of memories meant to be viewed from a distance. And, yet, what puzzles me is that the very nature of the events or figures that we tend to memorialize is their significance and the reverberations they send into the future. If we memorialize a moment in time, do we shift the responsibility of remembering onto a material object and shrug off the burden and the implications of these memories? Once a memorial is constructed and finalized, do we then write off that memory and its future consequences?
Trouillot discusses this problem when he addresses Disney’s potential slavery-theme park. By making a theme park to commemorate slavery, Disney, he posits, was rendering slavery to an isolated and distant time in the past, not an atrocity that has had continuous consequences into the present. A theme park in of itself is meant to serve as another realm of reality, but is not our American reality still impacted by the legacy of slavery?
Sandage’s also grapples with this problem, as did we during Matt’s presentation on MLK, when he writes, “King’s induction into the pantheon of official memory threatens to construct a new national savior whose work is, of course, finished” (165). Does King’s memorial serve as proof that the civil rights struggle can now be relegated to the past? This, I believe, is the dangerous nature of the memorial; it tends to freeze a moment in time.
In her article “The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past”, Jacquelyn Dowd Hall writes that remembrance is inextricably tied to forgetting (1233). By picking out the details to remember, we implicitly choose what to remember and what to forget. And, she elaborates, that the generation of meaning attached to the memory is artificial and politically manipulated (1239). Those who have the political upper hand to interpret the collective narrative are the keepers of the historical memory.
While Dowd Hall addresses the theoretical and political aspect of memory and history, David Glassberg in “Public History and the Study of Memory” focuses on the practice of making-history and collective remembering. He attempts to tease out how different audiences, for example local communities and the nation as a whole, negotiate different versions of history.
Although Dowd Hall and Glassberg tackle the politics, players and give and take involved in the making of history and memories, I am wondering how historians would address remembering that which is too difficult to remember, yet cannot be forgotten. By that, I mean, how does a group, be it a nation, community, family, collectively remember and shape a narrative around a trauma? How can they create a coherent memory of that which is too painful to remember? Can we ever properly remember and retell the history of slavery, the Holocaust? And, how do historians negotiate the memories of the victims vis-a-vis the memories of the perpetrators?
While reading Trouillot’s Silencing the Past and Nora’s “Between Memory and History”, I was reminded of a poignant moment I had in an undergraduate history course about modern international crimes. Like these readings, we were discussing memory versus history and the possession and appropriation of memory. Breaking from his scripted lecture, the professor, spontaneously and indignantly, brought up the Salem Witch Museum in Salem, MA. While at first seemingly irrelevant, he went on to explain that he was a Quaker and that his multiple great-grandmother had been accused of being a witch and was burnt at the stake. He therefore found the ‘Disneyfied’ Salem Witch Museum to be repellant and trivialized his ancestor’s pain.
In that moment, I understood, more than I would over the entirety of the course, the difference between memory and history, as posed by Nora. To me, the Salem witch trials was an unfortunate moment in American history (amongst many others), but was surveyed with a horrified, yet detached ‘otherness’; what Trouillot describes as seeing the past as fixed (147-148). Yet, to my professor, this moment in time was not merely another moment, but was one that had been shared through his family’s collective memory, a trauma passed down through generations. Being able to see this history through his eyes made it authentic in that his memory was, what Trouillot explains, the “vital connection to the present” (143). In this respect, Nora’s interpretation of memory as “a perceptually actual phenomenon, a bond tying us to the eternal present” (8) is what Trouillot calls “historical authenticity” (148). To not silence the past we must address honestly the past’s repercussions in the present. Like the Salem Witch Museum, the slavery themed Disneyland would have trivialized the past, not because of possible inaccuracies, but because it would not have addressed the implications of slavery in the present day.
Thinking through our conversation last week about publics and museums and the interrelationship between the two, I found Hilde Hein’s Public Art: Thinking Museums Differently thought provoking in its argument that museums can learn from public art methods. Hein explains that public art is created with the intended purpose of instigating discourse about important social issues among the public (64, 89). In this sense, the art itself is not an aesthetic product, but rather a process in which public reaction and discussion is embodied within the art itself (90). Recognizing public art’s positive impact on the public, Hein argues that as museums attempt to distance themselves from their paternalistic, top-down tradition, they should embrace the public art model (18). In fact, she posits, museums in of themselves are public art in so far as they are public places that spark public discourse (17). Like the ephemeral nature of public art, Hein writes that museums should not offer undeniable truths, but rather should present less rigid and more fluid narratives that promote exchange between visitors and the institution (18).
While Hein provides a convincing viewpoint, I was left wondering if it is practically possible for museums to embrace this methodology. Public art, according to Hein, is mobile and temporary, while museums are bureaucratic institutions with expenses and responsibilities to their donors, board members, and invaluable collections. Therefore, while public art may be a jumping off point for thinking through how to improve the museum experience, I think it is also necessary to highlight and recognize their fundamental differences.
In thinking about what constitutes the public, I was reminded of an experience I had when volunteering at a local museum last year. As a volunteer, I felt neither a part of the formal, full-time paid museum staff nor a member of the general public. However, when I received a complaint from a visitor, I was forced to reckon with what constitutes the public and where as a volunteer did I fit in. Although I personally agreed with this visitor’s complaint, did I, as a representative of the museum, have to maintain a professional distance? It felt inappropriate to echo his indignation, and yet, wasn’t I a part of that same public as soon as I finished my shift?
Thinking through these questions as I read Jennifer Barrett’s and Michael Warner’s works, I realized that my questioning of what constitutes the public in this instance embodied the very argument Barrett and, in a sense, Warner were putting forth. The museum, as a public space according to Barrett (25), facilitated a discourse between this visitor and myself around how it should represent the world, and through this discourse ‘a public’ came into reality (Warner 414). Furthermore, my questioning of the term ‘public’—a “slippery and mutable” term (Barrett 21)—ensured ipso facto that it was not being taken for granted or exchanged for incompatible terms such as community.
The visitor in this situation, I now realize, was not merely voicing his complaint, but rather was contributing invaluable information about the museum. According to Barrett this give and take is essential to the new reflexive nature of the modern museum that advocates “multiple ways of interpreting the world and its history” (19-20) and views the visitor as a contributor of knowledge about the museum collections (20).
Although Gregory Jay’s article, “The Engaged Humanities”, looks to the future of public humanities while Mary Mullen’s “Public Humanities’ (Victorian) Culture Problem” looks to systemic issues of the past, in essence I found they both argued a similar point: the need to reexamine the relationship between public humanities and the public. Is the public humanities department an extension of the university —an institution of the state that shapes public culture along authorized institutional culture—or is it on equal footing with the public, receptive to its co-authority and unique designs? In other words, to whom are the public humanities accountable: the public or the institution? While both contend with these questions, Mullen criticizes Jay for “uphold[ing] the university’s traditional institutional authority” despite his call for reforms of the public humanities. Yet, in my opinion, Jay is not proposing maintaining the “university’s traditional institutional authority”, but emphasizing the need to re-situate public humanities within the confines of the university and the public. Does Mullen’s criticism stem from the belief that the connection between public humanities and the university should be severed? If not, how do the public humanities gain independence from the universities they are beholden to?