Museums & Crisis: October Update

In my last update about my Museums & Crisis course, I talked about our initial foundations unit and the adjustments I’d started making in response to student interests and needs. Now that we’ve had a few weeks to get into the course’s primary contents, let’s take a look at what we’ve been doing.

We first spent some time on decolonization, discussing topics such as repatriation, decolonizing exhibition and collections management practices, and giving agency to Indigenous voices. Through readings, Zoom seminars, and other media, we looked at how tribal as well as colonizing museums have endeavored to address decolonization both within and outside their exhibition spaces. Throughout this unit, I’ve tried to emphasize two points: 1) that decolonization is an ongoing, incomplete, and imperfect process that must center Indigenous agency (Indigenous scholars and activists such as Brandie Macdonald and Amy Lonetree need credit on this point), and 2) that Indigenous communities are not monolithic, so there is no simple, straightforward solution to the question of decolonization. This latter point seemed to especially resonate with students while watching a brief video on NAGPRA, where some of the Indigenous interviewees explained their reasons for not wanting human remains returned to their community. The video complicated their perspectives on repatriation by showing that decolonization isn’t as simple as giving something back with an apology. In the intervening period between the seizure of remains or objects and their return, geopolitical boundaries have shifted, cultures have changed, and identities have evolved. Repatriation doesn’t enable you to turn back the clock and pretend that the intervening century or so of colonization hasn’t happened. Rather, you have to address the initial trauma and the ensuing generations of experience that have resulted from it.

More recently, we’ve been taking a look at race in museums, with discussion topics addressing both what museums have done to address race while also recognizing the incompleteness of their work. As Elaine Heumann Gurian observes, when museums do address questions of representation and diversity, they tend to focus on the most superficial aspects, whether it’s collecting works from artists or color, staging special exhibitions, or hiring more diverse staff members. While this work is important, it risks being little more than performative in nature because it doesn’t necessarily address the infrastructural issues underpinning systemic racism, which requires reassessing the museum itself as an institution. In other words, the museum operates on the assumption that the current model of operation is fine, and that all we need to do is add to that when what we really need to be doing is transforming the museum itself as an institution. As LaAutry S. Autry asks, what is the nature of curation, and what would it look like if it centered people instead of objects? Why do museums assume a hierarchical staff organization is best, and how does that potentially interfere with long-term, meaningful relationships with underrepresented communities? Are museums willing to relinquish their authority if it offers more equitable representation?

One of the ongoing challenges of the course is the question of wellness among my students. We’ve been living in a pandemic hellscape for more than two years. A lot of my students have experienced college in a virtual or hybrid environment, and not of their own choosing. And that’s just the pandemic: they’re also living with climate change, systemic racism, a culture that stresses productivity and profit at all costs, a political systemic that can’t seem to agree on anything, and more. As Annie Lowrey opines, Generation Z has arguably never seen the American system work, and it shows. They’re stressed and uncertain about their futures, and that anxiety comes with them to class.

I can’t fix all of these issues, but I have been trying to address my students’ wellness. Within the last few weeks, I’ve started doing check-ins with them to gauge their stress level, and now include breathing exercises and stretch breaks in the class schedule. I’ve also been adjusting the course materials by exchanging texts for podcasts, videos, and other media so that they’re not reading all of the time. It’s not much, but I hope it communicates that I’m listening to the students and taking their concerns into account regarding the course materials.

All that said, the students are still getting involved in a variety of ways. The current event presentations have been a great way for them to connect what we’ve been reading about in class to what’s happening in the world. I admire the depth of their analysis and the multifaceted ways they’ve been able to connect their events with our class discussions, whether they’re sharing TikTok videos documenting visits to the National African American Museum, covering the ongoing strike at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, dissecting the challenges following the repatriation of Benin bronzes, and more. In other words, they’re doing what I hoped they would do: take advantage of current social media platforms to connect their classroom materials to the world at large.

In terms of discussions, the students definitely seem to do best when we’re focusing on videos and related materials rather than textual readings. This may stem partly from a generational difference, with Gen Z generally preferring visual media to text, but I think they also liked being able to see and hear the authors in the videos and podcasts. It makes the experience feel more direct and real in a way that text-based documents can’t always capture. But the students are arguably most engaged when we’re discussing materials that relate to their own experiences. During one of our decolonization classes, one of the students began describing a recent visit to the National Museum of the American Indian. From there, students began comparing the Smithsonian museums to one another, noting how differences in audience, marketing, and location all shaped their interpretation of these places and the types of messages they purported to share. The resulting discussion was so lively that I stopped consulting my discussion questions altogether and simply let the conversation go. A week later, I invited Maria DiBenigno at Highland to share her experiences at the historic site and their work with its Council of Descendant Advisors. Again, I noticed this discussion was more animated, with students being able to ask DiBenigno directly about how the initiative operated and what challenges accompanied this much-needed work.

The main takeaway I’ve gotten from these sessions is that students seem to get the most from the class when they can apply the course materials directly to their own museum experiences. When it ties into their own memories of museum encounters, the course is at its most relevant. If I ever offer this course again then, I’d consider reshaping it to focus exclusively on regional museums and institutions, places that students have either visited or are likely to visit. Heck, maybe I’d even organize a couple of field trips so they can apply what they’re learning on-site.

It’s definitely been an ongoing learning experience for me, but hopefully, the students are getting something out of it.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *