Thinking (and Reading) About Museums

Last week we explored the art of the New Deal era, from Holger Cahill’s exhibition writings to more recent works exploring the political dimensions of 1930s art. Today, we’ll be considering a topic that has played a seminal role in my professional and personal life: museums.

Celebrating the completion of my very first exhibition, the culmination of my internship at the Dallas Museum of Art back in 2010-2011.

Most broadly, the texts I’ve been working through are asking two interrelated questions: what functions do museums currently serve as cultural institutions, and just as importantly, what kind of work should they be doing? With the resurgence of Black Lives Matter in the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and far too many others, museums have been rightly called out for their complicity in maintaining white supremacy. As museum professionals reevaluate their missions and ongoing roles in society, it’s important to examine the values these institutions espouse through their exhibitions, programming, and outreach. In other words, what kinds of stories do museums choose to tell through the objects they display or the educational programming they put together?

While the phrase “museums are not neutral” may seem to be the latest hashtag on the cultural scene, scholars have long recognized the politicized nature of museums. As Steven Dubin and Timothy W. Luke both observe in their respective books, Museum Politics and Displays of Power, museums are inherently politicized institutions because of the authority we associate with them. Since museums are traditionally portrayed as preservers of knowledge and culture, they’re ascribed with an aura of trustworthiness that makes them ideal places for reifying social values or beliefs. To put it another way, museums sacralize the objects and ideas within them, providing a sense of legitimacy to whatever or whomever is brought within them. In the words of Indiana Jones, an object is in a museum because it belongs there, and in the eyes of society, museums are supposed to reify so-called normative values. When they depart from that objective to question longstanding beliefs, as the 1995 exhibition The West as America at the Smithsonian did when it critiqued a romanticized version of American Western history, they become controversial.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, the values traditionally ascribed to museums in terms of education and aesthetics are strongly linked to class, as Alan Wallach explores in his book, Exhibiting Contradiction. During the 19th century, art museums in particular became a means of affirming the taste of upper class patrons who supported them through philanthropy. As temples of objects, museums essentially sacralized the tastes of the wealthy by disconnecting works of art from their historical contexts, presenting them instead as seemingly timeless examples of beauty and good aesthetics. As our expectations of museums have shifted from the temple of art to the education/activist model, art museums in particular have slowly adopted revisionist histories with mixed results, as they are now expected to undo the timeless mythology they constructed during the 19th century.

More recent texts like Patricia Banks’s Diversity and Philanthropy at African American Museums complicate Wallach’s discussion of class by examining intersecting identities of race or gender. Focusing specifically on African American museums, Banks argues that upper-middle and upper-class donors support museums for different reasons depending on their race, gender, age, and involvement with culture. Donors working in the for-profit sector, for instance, tend to support museums because of the positive association it projects onto their business, as well as for the opportunity to network with related professionals, whereas nonprofit donors get involved for more individualistic reasons. White donors perceive African American museums as spaces for integration, whereas Black philanthropists value them as specifically Black spaces telling Black narratives. Art collectors specializing in Black artists patronize museums as a way of legitimizing their private collections while simultaneously confronting the overly white, male canon of art history. In short, the kind of work a museum does for the community largely depends on the person you’re asking, underscoring that museums participate in a dialogue with their audiences.

Yet other authors take a different angle to museums by examining their potential as sites of resistance or questioning. In Decolonizing Museums, Amy Lonetree explores several case studies of indigenous museums performing decolonizing work, with the Ziibiwing Center of Anishinabe Culture and Lifeways being considered especially successful. In particular, she explores how these institutions either do or do not center indigenous voices, including the use of indigenous frameworks of history, and confronting the ongoing trauma of genocide and other atrocities. In Lonetree’s scholarship, indigenous museums should be more than memorializing or reifying institutions. Rather, they should act as sites of healing by willingly confronting the traumas of white colonization.

While not overtly resistance-oriented in its subject matter, the contributors to the anthology Defining Memory make a case for smaller museums as alternatives to the imposing model of major institutions like the Met or the Field. By emphasizing a localized sense of place, highlighting quirky subject matter, or displaying collections with minimal interpretive texts due to limited staff or budgets, small museums, inadvertently or otherwise, can offer visitors greater autonomy in their own interpretive experiences. Additionally, they often highlight objects or subject matter that go against the perceived norms associated with larger institutions. Whether it’s a video recording of an Elvis sighting or the skeleton of a two-headed calf (or in the case of the Isle of Wight County Museum I visited before the pandemic, the world’s oldest ham), small, local museums often celebrate difference, an approach unintentionally in keeping with queer theory.

Still other authors argue for the potential of museums in taking a more radical approach to their work. In Curating Community, Stacy Douglas posits that museums should question and interrupt such western, liberal ideals as community, sovereignty, and autonomy. Focusing specifically on museums in South Africa, she posits that museums conventionally affirm individual autonomy as articulated in constitutions. Whereas constitutions are obligated to maintain questions of borders and sovereignty due to their role as legal documents, museums can and should actively question these ideas in order to get people to think about the interconnected, interdependent nature of existence.

As you might expect, I found this part of the list quite engaging. Given my interest in the Community Art Center Project, questions regarding what kind of work museums and galleries can and should do resonate with my research. As I’ve learned from the Roswell Museum’s early history, local and federal supporters had different answers to these questions, which affected the exhibitions and programming that took place there. Moving forward, I’ll definitely remember these readings as I continue delving into the museum history field.

More importantly, these readings have helped guide my ongoing thinking about museums as institutions. Whether I’ve visited them for fun, worked in them as a curator, or researched them as a scholar, museums have played a substantial role in my professional and personal life (especially my personal life, given that I met Brandon through the Roswell Museum). Yet as recent articles have pointed out, museums are problematic institutions given their complicity in white supremacy, colonialism, classism, and sexism. Should I decide to return to museums after the program, I’ll need to confront these issues in my work, and do my part to create more inclusive institutions. As I work on my dissertation, I know I’ll keep thinking about, and acting on, these questions.

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