The Museum Metamorphosis

Ask any museum professional and they will tell you that the museum you see today is not your grandfather’s museum. Over the last century or so, the museum as an institution has seen a massive paradigm shift from a focus based largely on the collections held within the physical structure to the visitors who choose to patronize it. From the beginning of the 20th century, pioneers in the field such as John Cotton Dana of the Newark Museum of Art have sought after the engagement of the museum with its local community, and for the museum to become more accessible to the public both metaphorically and physically.  The museum would attain this accessibility through the context of community engagement and education, bringing us to the modern museum with these concepts at its core.

I spoke with Nicole Leist, Assistant Manager of Adult and Academic Programs at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York, and she had a highly positive view on the modern museum’s identity. Nicole believes that the move away from the isolated Ivory Tower museum has been a boon to the institution and has been one of sheer practicality. For instance, the Rubin Museum, with its extensive Himalayan art collection, would fail if it did not seek to engage its local community in Chelsea, which is almost entirely composed of non-Himalayan cultures. The story of the modern museum is one of nature; if the museum does not evolve with society then it will face extinction.

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Who Decides?

Who should define ethics in the museum field? For the Shelburne Museum and its then-Director, Brian Alexander, this was a fundamental question during a vicious media scandal in the mid-1990s. In order to raise money for the long-term care and storage of their collections, the museum, after careful research and consideration, decided to sell off several Impressionist paintings and sculptures to establish a collections endowment. For the AAM this violated the newly minted Code of Ethics which stated that collections could only be sold for “direct care of collections”. Mr. Alexander and the Shelburne did not agree with AAM’s vague definition of “direct care” and believed their actions were in the best interests of the museum and its long-term sustainability.

In the book Give Me My Father’s Body, the American Museum of Natural History’s numerous serious ethical violations including embezzlement, money laundering, grave robbing, lying, and general human indecency were relatively clear-cut. However, what happens when ethical dilemmas like the Shelburne’s are much more ambiguous? For Mr. Alexander, museum ethics exist on continuum, or a “sliding scale”. He believes that although museums should try their best to satisfy ethical guidelines of larger organizations like the AAM, not every museum fits into those guidelines the exact same way. At some point an institution must define for itself what is ethical and best for the museum within the larger framework. So who should decide what is ethical? The AAM? Specific institutions? The media? The public? Or some combination of all of these elements?

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Testing the Waters of Controversy

For much of the twentieth century museums and controversial topics were considered like oil and water, two things that should not mix. This, however, has changed. In today’s museums, tough topics are beginning to be discussed, as museums have realized that to serve the community, they as institutions can be a place of dialog, and even healing, for communities that have been through traumatic events.

The Detroit Historical Society is beginning to embark on becoming a place of dialog for the city, to help heal the old wounds in the community. In 1967, civil strife broke out, causing “riots” in the city. The aftermath of these “riots” is still felt in Detroit, almost forty years later, and the DHS has decided to do something about it.

I talked with Tobi Voigt, Chief Curatorial Officer of the DHS, and she described the exhibition the museum will put on in 2016 regarding the events of 1967. In the exhibit the museum intends on highlighting the stories of those who lived through the “riots”, and showing the relevant timeline of events. These will be the main focus of the exhibit, not objects or the museums collection, but the stories and facts. The exhibit will also have a room at the end of it for visitors to reflect about what they just learned, to hopefully facilitate healing within the community. This forward-thinking exhibit style, along with even the exhibit itself, was championed by Tobi and a few of her colleagues. This exhibit will be the museums “first test” in trying to tackle controversial topics, and hopefully one that is successful so that the museum may become a forum for the community of Detroit.

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Displays of Power: Consciously Creating Controversy in Museum Exhibitions

Displays of Power takes you through the details of six of the most controversial museum exhibits of the last fifty years. This text illustrates that even when museum staff have the best intentions, exhibits are not created or viewed in a vacuum. Museum staff can choose to consciously create controversy in the interest of fueling important discussions or bringing light to ideas that cause visitors to closely examine their perspectives on important issues. However, if audience reception or the social, political and economic context is not carefully considered when addressing controversial topics, the aim of the exhibit can backfire quickly.

Featured image

 Photo taken from the website of National Museums Liverpool

I spoke about controversy in museums with accomplished museum professional Ellen M. Snyder-Grenier, whose career path has lead her to be director of the exhibit design and publication firm, REW & Co.. Snyder-Grenier has worked on a few exhibits that featured content subject to controversy, specifically an exhibit about the impact of AIDS in Brooklyn at the Brooklyn Historical Society in the early 1990s, and on the Newark riots/civil disorders of 1967 at the New Jersey Historical Society, exhibited in the early 2000s. I asked Snyder-Grenier if she thought museums should be tackling controversial issues, and why – she answers with, “I think the bigger question is, ‘what are the important issues that we need to address?’ and if they are controversial – to some – so be it.” She goes on to describe the holistic approach the NJ Historical Society took when approaching the topic of the Newark Riots of ’67. Before beginning to design the exhibit, the museum brought in a group called, “Facing History and Ourselves” to work with the entire staff – the curators, exhibit designers, director, front line staff, custodian – to process and understand feelings, both their own and the feelings of others, about race. Snyder-Grenier concludes that controversial topics should absolutely be approached if they fulfill the museum’s mission, but with very careful, measured planning. She also mentions that timing is an important factor to consider – although the Newark riots happened about thirty years ago, the museum staff agreed that they needed to be approached delicately as it was/is still “a very deep, raw subject”.

Ellen Snyder-Grenier also pointed me in the direction of David Fleming, director of The Museum of Liverpool, and suggested that we examine his thoughts on social justice/controversy in museums as well. Below you will find two links to content Ellen suggests, but of course you can do your own Googling of his work as well!

The Political Museum by David Fleming

David Fleming – The Ideas Behind the Museum of Liverpool

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The Clear Ethical Line

Museum ethics are one of the most challenging things professionals in the field will face, but the ethical line is not always easy to identify. In the mid-1990s the Shelburne Museum recognized that their collection was not properly stored and in time things were going to deteriorate. The museum needed to find quick ways to raise money for the preservation of the collection. They created a committee to vet all possible avenues to raise the money. After extensive research, they decided to deaccession and auction a few impressionist paintings and sculptures from the collection. They estimated the return would be roughly 25 million dollars. At auction they got what they expected and created an endowment fund that still preserves and maintains the collection today. They however, faced serious scrutiny. The AAM felt they were violating the code of ethics they had set forth just a few years earlier. They argued that the museum was working outside the definition of collection care, even though the AAM, nor anyone else, could clearly define what collection care meant. Mr. Alexander stands by his discussion today. His actions, along with the support of the donors and trustees of the museum, ensured the long-term preservation and sustainability of the museum. There are others that disagree.

What do you think? Was the Shelburne Museum in the right? Did they act ethically? Sometimes it is as clear as a curator buying up art by a new artist that is going to be featured in their museum, but the line is not always so clear. What other ethical examples can you think of that don’t necessarily have a clearly defined line?

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