All posts by Yuanyuan Feng

Museums as Social Agencies and Their Autonomy

This week’s reading focus on the role of museums as social service, specifically their potential as social agents of well-being and social change, and examine how museums can adopt social work perspectives, methods, and practice in their field. I am very interested in the Richard Sandell’s discussion of museums and their social responsibility and how an increasing number of museums have been working on behalf of human rights and social justice.

I found a number of interesting articles talking about museums and social activism, like #blacklivesmatter. Yonci Jameson, an African American female activist involved in Minneapolis’s art culture, gave three recommendations for museums in her article “How Can Museums and Artists Help Advocate for Social Change?” The first one is One Word: representation; the second advice is Art Museums can Facilitate discussion on the intersection of art and activism; the final one is Museums could further advocate by facilitating community events. Similarly, Mike Murawski, in his keynote address to the MuseumNext conference in New York City, talked about the urgency of empathy, social impact, and social action in museums today, focusing on 5 actions: ACTION 1: Be More Local; ACTION 2: Recognize and Support the Movement for Black Lives; ACTION 3: Flip the Script (challenging the traditional museum authority and power relationships); ACTION 4: Have a Personal Vision for Change; ACTION 5: Build Communities of Action and Change. There are many other published articles and the ones spread on social media that are equally inspiring in the discussion of museums and social justice. Yet after reading the assigned book chapters and some of the online articles, the question of autonomy arouse my interest and attention:

  1. While we emphasize social responsibilities of museums and urge them to take a (political) stance in their exhibitions that explore social problems, how should museums maintain their autonomy and not fall to be the tool of social control?
  2. How do museums balance the urge to respond adequately to a diverse and rapid changing society and not be limited by “contemporary” issues and maintain its autonomy and something essential for the long run?

The Role of Government in Public Humanities Work

This week’s reading centers on the role of government in creating and preserving cultural heritage. Doris Sommer examines the government-sponsored creativity and takes the examples of mayors from Bogota, Curitiba, Tirana, and many other cities to show how government can play a significant role in reviving civic commitments in cities through art. Many of their practices are very impressive, and I like the idea of “artistic acupuncture” which values creative practices in the process of recovery. Yet I have a strong feeling that the astounding success of Mayor Mockus has more to do with his own personality and artistic/academic background than with the spirit of the local government. Sommer also acknowledges that his disarming sense of humor and his training as a Ph.D. student in philosophy contributed to his success. If individual understanding and practice of art and his/her own character are so important, then how to promote (if not copy) similar programs in other parts of the world with a less culturally active mayor, besides taking into consideration of local conditions both in cultural tradition and political climate?

Robert Janes’ critique of marketplace strategy and analysis of its practice and harms is very inspiring. His account of working at three different museums as directors and experiencing three different models of funding and government support makes me wonder the evolution of government involvement in cultural institutions. I would like to thank Rica for discussing the role of government in funding museums in the U.S. and sharing with me a Wikipedia link regarding how the NEA has changed over time. I also found another book chapter Government Policy Toward Art Museums in the United States by Charles T. Clotfelter, though it was published in 1991 and didn’t touch on the contemporary issues, this essay gives me a brief overview of public policies toward art, government support, and the practice of funding agencies like NEA and NEH. The questions I think would be interesting to consider are what are the differences in American experience in government support of Arts compared to its European counterpart? How about other parts of the world? What has been the effect of these various federal programs on art museums? What are the features in contemporary distribution of grants, such as the geographical pattern and size of the institution?

Significance of Mutual Development and Transformation

This week’s reading discussed shared authority between museums and community/participants. Janes points out the self-inflicted challenges Museum faced and emphasizes the significance of resilience. Frisch calls to enact a genuine dialogue between experience and expertise, between people working together to reach new understanding, employing new modes of digitalization to overcome the previous gap. Other essays adopt case studies of one certain community to demonstrate that community voices or their oral history of the past can challenge the official history presented by museums and enrich it at the mean time.

What drew my interest is the idea of “Three Agendas” and Janes’ understanding of the third one—about mental and emotional constructs in individuals within the organization. I agree with Janes about the importance of individual development, learning and transformation and how it is difficult to achieve and more negligible compared with the first two agendas. It is not uncommon to learn about visitors’ complaints regarding staff rudeness and even bias/discrimination, such as at the coat check or at the ticket office, though they gave positive feedback about exhibitions or programs in the museum. Matt also mentioned in class his unpleasant teenage memories/experiences about a rude ticket staff. In the visitor-centered age of museum, this disconnection between an individual’s actual behavior and the values, perspectives of an organization or vise versa can be very problematic.

This disconnection in the museum sphere draws a parallel (not a perfect one) with this week’s heated discussion over an Asian doctor being dragged off United Airlines flight, which arose outrage both in the US and in China. Though quite different in terms of violence and racism, the disconnection between the supposed values of the airlines and the actual perspective and practice of its staff and that of airport security can be disastrous. Harm of this disconnection also applies to other spheres, such as police brutality against African Americans, etc. Therefore, it is important for individuals and organization/institutions to come together for mutual growth and transformation in a genuine way.

On Museum Accessibility and Relevance

This week’s reading focus on museum accessibility and its connections with community/people. Simon argues that the key to connecting the needs, assets and interests of the community with the collections in museum is to unlock deep meaning and value for a diverse audience in a community. Vagnone takes HHMs as an example to show the importance and ways of finding common ground to serve the needs of individuals and expand community engagement. Falk examines how to enrich visit experiences and build connection between visitors and museums by targeting different types and needs of visitors.

My own experience visiting museums in D.C. during the Spring Break resonate with this week’s reading. Regarding museum accessibility, of all the museums I visited in D.C. last week, the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) is the most difficult and frustrating to get in: getting up early three times at 6:30am to register a same-day timed entry pass for individual visitors but found all the tickets sold out within 5 minutes. Fortunately enough I was able to visit the museum with a walk-up pass after a long waiting time. This experience of frustration (more than once) was shared by fellow visitors waiting with me that day, including local people, out of state visitors and international ones. Of course there are strong reasons for the museum’s popularity, and I interpret this difficulty in accessibility from two aspects: on the one hand, it might frustrate certain types of visitors as what Falk categorized as experience seekers, facilitators and rechargers, especially when these people are temporary visitors/tourists to D.C. On the other hand, it might create a scenario of high demand and short supply which helps promote the museum’s popularity and visitors’ desire to experience its exhibitions and programs.

That being said, I have to admit that NMAAHC is the most impressive museum in my trip. Echoing what Falk said about the most satisfying experience, my visit at this museum resonates with my fragmented existing knowledge of African Americans, providing me an overview of African American history, culture, community and activism. My over 30-minute wait to visit Emmett Till Memorial room and see his original casket connected me to our classroom discussion on this issue and greatly enriched my understanding of the impact of his tragic death on the course of civil rights movements and the nation, and its ongoing legacy to our current every-day resistance to racial injustice. I want to add that interactions among visitors can help build one’s connection or relevance to the exhibitions as well. My conversations with a few visitors at the museum, and my observation of fellow visitors, most of whom are African Americans, in the long waiting line to visit the Emmett Till Memorial room, and their expressions after the visit, greatly helps me understand the impact of Till’s case and resonate with the feelings and situation of African Americans.

This week’s reading and my visiting experience make me ponder over conflicts between the tradition of museum and its present day marketing: Shall we treat visitors as consumers and the marketing strategy is to motivate people to attend? Shall we adopt new technology like 3D films in the Museum of National History and 4D films in Newseum to attract visitors and enrich their experiences? If so, what is the difference between a museum program like this and the similar practice in Disneyland? I wonder how museums and cultural institutions maintain their own agency while adopting a market strategy to promote visitation, funding and community involvement.

On Cultural Patrimony

This week’s readings touched on the various facets of cultural appropriation, examining the definition and interpretation of the concept and that of culture, locating common themes, exploring diversity in these fields, discussing outsider misappropriation and misappropriation, as well as cultural patrimony.

I am particularly interested in the topic on cultural patrimony. There is a heated debate since 1990s over the ownership of cultural property, mostly between the schools of cultural nationalist and cultural internationalist. While the former believes that a nation’s cultural property belongs within the borders of the nation where it was created, the later argues that human beings have a common heritage and that cultural property is of interest to everyone where ever it is located. I have a mixed feeling every time I visited the Metropolitan Museum or museums alike that hold large collections of Chinese cultural/art treasure, which were never seen and more valuable/precious than those in the National Museum of China. One the one hand, I wish some of these cultural relics (and other looted antiquities) could be returned to China via restitution, donation, auction or whichever means available; on the other hand, I feel relieved and fortunate that these cultural objects were preserved, not damaged by the Chinese civil war, the Japanese invasion and cultural revolution, and my generation can still have access to these cultural heritage, even though they are out of the home land. I wonder what can be done to bridge the divide between nationalism and internationalism regarding cultural property.

There is an interesting article published in 2009 entitled “China Hunts for Art Treasures in U.S. Museums” which may help us understand cultural politics and the return of looted antiquities. It reveals that China’s campaign to reclaim relics plundered by foreign/western powers during the period between 1842 and 1945, is actually fueled by national pride and its targeted audiences are those back home, aiming at arousing nationalist sentiment. For those of you who are interested, the link is as below:

Objectification of People

Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett raises the question “What does it mean to show?” and explores the agency of display in settings like museums, festivals, world’s fairs and tourist attractions. This week’s readings and video all touched on how objects and people are collected and exhibited, and are made to display or perform their meaning.

The satirical video “The Couple in the Cage” criticized the objectification of African women in the 19th century. A parallel runs with this during this same period is the display of Chinese people (Chinese women in particular) in museums, circuses, and world’s fairs, which eroticized and objectified Chinese people and its culture, establishing a stereotype/framework within which the general public became familiar with viewing the Chinese and Chinese immigrants.

According to Sucheta Mazumdar’s chapter in the first major book covering women’s experiences in the United States published in 1998, for Chinese immigrant women, their history of being exotic and objectified began when American merchants brought a Chinese woman with bound feet to America for display in the 19th century:

The first recorded Asian woman in the United States was Afong Moy. Between 1834 and 1847, she sat every day surrounded with Chinese lanterns, vases, and Asian artifacts at the American Museum, the Brooklyn Institute, and other New York locations. She talked and counted in Chinese and ate with chopsticks to entertain the thousands who lined up to see her. Barnum’s Chinese Museum later brought over Miss Pwan-ye-koo and her maidservant with great fanfare. The small, bound feet of both women were a prime attraction. This objectification of Asian women and their portrayal as alien and exotic creatures is one dimension of American popular culture that has endured until the contemporary period. (46-47)

Here Mazumdar points to the fact that Chinese women were objectified and commodified in the 19th century America and the shows helped construct the earliest stereotype of Chinese women (East Asian women in general) as exotic and more sexually desirable.

Actually, Peabody Museum at Harvard holds a collection of New Daguerreotype Discoveries, and the National Women’s History Museum offers an online exhibit “Chinese American Women: A History of Resilience and Resistance,” both of which provide background information and research about the performance troop “The Living Chinese Family” in 1850 by famed circus showman P.T. Barnum.

Works Cited:

Mazumdar, Sucheta. (1998). “Asian Pacific Women.” In W. P. Mankiller et al. (Eds.). The Reader’s Companion to U.S. Women’s History. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Books, 43-49.

Appropriation of Memory

This week’s readings focus on the role of politics in commemorating the past. Emily and Catriona also raised the question of tourism in politicization and commercialization of history. What connects all this week’s readings is the idea that history, or sites of memory to be specific, can be constructed or “used” for political or even commercial gains. Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shizo Abe visited the memorial sites at Hiroshima and Pearl Harbor with an effort to face and commemorate the past, but more importantly to enhance the U.S.-Japan alliance because of the threat of “an increasingly aggressive China.” Sites of memory, especially those dark sites of death, violence, and atrocity, are supposed to commemorate the past loss first, and then teach and then other purposes of remembering, such as for political goals. These appropriation of historical sites and national memories for pragmatic purposes are problematic and controversial, just as Lincoln’s connection to racial justice. The biggest irony lies in the African American school girl’s answer to the question “who freed the slaves” –“Martin Luther King”—just in front of Lincoln’s statue. And the irony also lies in African American’s rejection of Lincoln in the late 1960s, an icon they themselves have constructed tactically for racial justice but abandoned for its uselessness later. I wonder, what are historians, curators and other professionals supposed to do in these appropriation of memories and sites of memories, especially when the use of national memory for political goals seemed positive and progressive?

Today is International Women’s Day. Protests, activism and strikes across the globe are going on right now for the ongoing fight for equality. Since we have talked about the sites of memory in the past few weeks and the Martin Luther King’s Day, I believe the discussion of “Dates of Memory” would also be interesting in light of political goals and tourism.

Revising Public History?

This week’s reading centers on public history and memory. Questions raised and discussed by Glassberg, Hall and others regarding how ideas about history change over time, how public memory is created, and how politics, public culture, academia and individuals play a role in shaping and reshaping public history are very inspiring. A recent issue in China about revising textbook language in relation to Chinese Anti-Japanese War can be a good example for this week’s topic.

China’s Ministry of Education announced in early January this year that starting in the spring semester of 2017, China’s textbooks will adopt the phrase “14-year Chinese People’s War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression,” marking a revision to the current wording—8 years’ resistance against Japanese Aggression, which has been adopted for over 70 years. Previously, the war’s beginning had been traced to the Marco Polo Bridge incident in 1937, and this revision states that the war actually started in the fall of 1931—six years longer than they had originally taught—when the Imperial Japanese Army invaded Manchuria. Then why made the change? How did it happen? And why now? This change in public history, in my understanding, is an intertwining of politics, popular culture, historians and individual/collective memories.

This revision is intended for political benefits. First and foremost to legitimate and highlight the Communist Party’s “core role” in resisting Japanese fascism. Previously, many historians both in and outside of China believed that the Nationalist party instead of the Communist party did most of the fighting, though the public was brainwashed to believe the opposite. This decision to add six years to the war will demonstrate that the communist party had begun to resist the Japanese in Manchuria as early as 1931, as many communist party members belonged to this Northeast Anti-Japanese United Army. In the current political climate, this revision is sought to promote patriotic education , encourage anti-Japanese sentiment and rally support for the party among young people.

This revision is also intended to justify the mainstream narrative of the communist party as the leading role in anti-Japanese war in popular culture. Apart from textbooks, mass media, TV series and movies all promote Communist Party as largely responsible for victory over Japan, downplaying the Nationalists’ heavy contribution. This revision will enhance the image of the Communists and their achievements in World War II, continuing the distorted narratives to their own purposes.

However, this revision is made with joint efforts from historians and scholars. Though the party exaggerated its accomplishment in the war, it is agreed among scholars that China’s resistance to Japanese invasion began in 1931. Considering the size of the Anti-Japanese War in both civilians and militaries involved and their casualties, as well as its significance during WWII, Chinese scholars argued that the generally believed beginning date of WWII starting 1September 1939 with the invasion of Poland is Eurocentric, and it should start with the beginning of the Pacific War in 1937, when large-scale anti-Japanese aggression began in China.

This revision is also accomplished with the support of people in Manchuria and welcomed by local history teachers. The previous official account of the war beginning in 1937 conflicted with local people’s actual memory and history living under Japanese invasion, who had started their resistance as early as 1931. History teachers at local middle schools also welcomed the revision and expressed how frustrated they once were to explain  to students the conflicts in public history between compulsory textbooks and their students’ individual family experiences.

Power Politics between History, Memory and the Nation

Pierre Nora coined the concept of Lieux de mémoire, or place of memory to designate those artifacts that where collective memory crystallizes and secretes itself in the 1980s. Nora’s project and concept, though initially created to analyze France and the French memory, helped stimulate a boom in the study of collective memory on an international scale. The French or the Lieux de mémoire model inspired reflection on national memory and discussions about its advisability of applying it to other places/countries, such as Germany, Italy, and Spain, to name just a few. In this introduction article “Between Memory and History,” Nora pointed out that French national history was a memory passed through the filter of history. Though his polarization of history and memory and his narrative of the demise of memory is often the target of criticism, his project and article helped readers rethink the play of memory and history, an interaction of two factors that results in their reciprocal overdetermination.

Silencing the Past by Trouillot is a study of history and power in the production of historical knowledge, and also a response to the debate over the nature of history being positivist or constructivist. Dismissing both views, Trouillot argues instead that history is a bundle of silences, pointing out that the past is silenced in the same process by which history is created. While emphasizing the function of power, Trouillot also suggests that the process can also be affected by explanation and change. 

What interest me most about this week’s reading is the power politics in creating and presenting history and memory. What are the relationships between history, memory and the nation? Taking into account what we have discussed in previous weeks about the public and museums, I wonder how historians and curators overcome their own limitations in representing the past? What role does moral responsibility play in the power struggle of the three? For national museums and private museums, what are their pros and cons in presenting history and the collective memory while not silencing some of the past?

What Is Public?


This week’s readings are important and inspiring. Both Jennifer Barrett and Michael Warner are one of the major figures writing about what constitutes a ‘public’ and their works outline the key features that may help us think about this concept and its development.

Jennifer Barrett’s Museums and the Public Sphere reflects on the history of the Museum and its link to the project of democracy as it emerged in 18th century France and examines a few key themes: the concept of the “public,” the contrast between the notions of “space” and “sphere,” ideas about vision and visuality, and the limitations and benefits of considering “community.” Barrett draws heavily from Habermas’ conceptualization of the bourgeois public sphere to begin her discussion, and refers to Tony Bennett’s theories of civic seeing to critique Habermas’ omission of the museum as a site of the public sphere. The author argues that within the context of museums, the term “’public’ suffers from a kind of philosophical poverty, rendering it at times almost meaningless” (43). Barrett suggests that using the term interchangeably with audience, nation, and community, museums and art galleries have failed to identify and address some key questions: “How then does the public participate in public culture; with what histories do the people identify; and what constitutes cultural institutions as public?” (43)

Barrett discusses the roles of the museum curator as public intellectual, one of the richest chapters in the book is very inspiring. And her book contributes to discourse on the role of the museum in society by exploring art, space, and visuality as significant components of the public sphere and the development of democracy.

Michael Warner’s article “Publics and Counterpublics” is equally (if not more) rich and suggestive. It revolves around a central question: What is a public? Warner begins with describing three senses of the word “Public,” and breaks his discussion of publics and counterpublics into seven sections, which were build on one another. He offers an extended examination of different facets of how a public or counter public is constructed.

One thing that I hope we can cover during class discussion is to offer some examples to help better understand these distinctions and why Warner tried to address that in this way.