Who has Authority over Visual Culture?

In Maurice Berger’s book, For All The World To See: Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights, he describes the evolution of visual representations of African Americans from the racist depictions in the 1930s to the empowered images during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. The visual culture of the Civil Rights Movement reveals the ways in which African American’s were gaining agency over their representations in popular culture.

The 1960s saw multiple struggles over self-representation in media and popular culture. Laura McDowell-Hopper, current curator at the Pick Museum of Anthropology and former curator at the Mitchell Museum of the American Indian, highlighted that imagery and agency over visual representations were just as important to the American Indian Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. When asked about the lasting effects of the movement in museums, she discussed that museums have just recently begun to give Native American peoples agency and authority over their objects, narratives, and images. Laura mentioned that before she started at the Mitchell in 2008, the museum rarely involved local American Indian peoples in their exhibitions or programs.

The struggle over self-representation and visual culture of minority groups did not begin or end with the various rights movements of the mid-20th century. Museums continue to be a battleground where the fight for agency over visual representations occur. Collaboration is one solution to interpreting contemporary history and allowing for self-representation. How else can museum professionals further allow for self-representation in their institutions?

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The Pathways of Contemporary History

The idea of what constitutes contemporary history is one for which there remains much ambiguity. National standards say it is fifty years before something enters the historic realm. But when we consider the very idea of “the past” as experiences at any point and time that somehow shaped what came after, those responsible for studying, interpreting and drawing connections to history must broaden their focus. Notions of time elapsed and separation should not become so arbitrary that we overlook compelling issues; rather than content alone, it is how something is explored that truly underscores its significance as “of the past.”

I spoke about contemporary history with Ilene Frank, chief curator of the Connecticut Historical Society. She said one of the real challenges for museums is interesting people in matters separated from their own experiences. With contemporary history, more people are opened to a past that can recognize and understand through the course of their own lives. It creates what Ilene called “pathways to the past,” where people see the significance of their own experiences by understanding how it relates to larger networks of historic issues in contemporary history.

Of course, if we are not careful, this can become a trip down nostalgia lane. Perhaps the greatest challenge of contemporary history is interpreting difficult facets of what people still remember. There is no easy answer here, but is the challenge of doing so that opens museums to pathways that can intimately link so many to a deeper appreciation of the past.


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Contemporary History: Ratings to Rebellion

From the Detroit Historical Society Collection.

From the Detroit Historical Society Collection.

Contemporary History is a particularly compelling focus for museums. Almost by definition, it allows for a wider sharing of audience members’ own stories and more obvious connections to current events. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s is still a part of the country’s living history, whether contemporaries actively joined in marches or just witnessed progress from their own homes.

Popular entertainment of the ‘60s played a pivotal role in social change. Movies and T.V. shows with black actors, producers, and writers gradually humanized black lives for white audiences. They gave black entertainers and public figures a platform to reclaim their identity from the dominant forces that defined and subjugated them. Progress in film and television was, and continues to be, slow, often giving the public what it was prepared to see rather than challenging it. Museums need to avoid the same trap.

Museums are another realm of expression and public identity. They choose how to represent history and which stories will be told. Tobi Voigt of the Detroit Historical Society feels that sharing contemporary history in museums can be a way to shift that authority. As for making exhibits relevant, “Fortunately or unfortunately, the subject matter made the case for us,” Voigt said. The 1967 social upheaval in Detroit (which some call a riot, others a rebellion) was prompted by police brutality. Coming up on the 50th anniversary, Voigt believes it is time to talk about what lessons the city did and did not learn.

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Neglecting the Little Guy?

This week, we read Nina Simon’s The Participatory Museum and discussed the myriad of ways museums can encourage visitors to engage, participate, and contribute. Simon’s book is full of rich examples highlighting the different levels of visitor participation. Examples vary from exhibits that allow visitors to rank their favorite objects and artwork to exhibits that visitors can create themselves by contributing personal objects. Simon mostly uses examples from medium to large museums and cultural institutions; at the end of some sections she emphasizes the applicability of participatory practices at smaller organizations. For instance, even a museum with limited space and a small budget can create a profile badge for visitors to choose an answer, “YES” or “NO,” to an opinion poll – one method Simon emphasizes as effective for participation.

For my interview, I spoke with Heather Cunningham, a curator consulting at Morven Museum and Garden in Princeton, NJ. Heather and I discussed her experience with participatory exhibits at the Newseum in Washington, DC and at smaller institutions like Morven. One criticism Heather had of Simon’s book was her focus on larger institutions. Although she does consider smaller museums to some extent, Simon neglects to consider the low foot traffic many small museums experience. Can these participatory practices work if there  few people to participate? I think Simon would argue that they would still work – participatory exhibits would draw more people in because visitors want to participate. What do you think?

Here are two examples of participatory exhibits Heather worked on at the Newseum. The first (on the left) is an opinion poll on the media’s reaction to Ferguson. Visitors could place a small dot under the answer, “Yes” or “No.” The second (on the right) is a timeline of historic events in the news. Visitors could add post-it notes to the timeline with personal events.

Newseum Opinion Poll                  Newseum Timeline (1)

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Using the Past as a Tool for the Present

After reading selections from the book Silent Travelers by Alan M. Kraut it is apparent that populations that came to the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries took a majority of the blame for disease and epidemics that struck America. Public health officials, American-born citizens, and even American doctors lacked understanding of their different methods of medicine and culture, further marginalizing immigrants from society’s mainstream. The question is, how should a museum use the experiences of the past to tell the difficult stories that are taking place now?

When presenting information about a previous epidemic like tuberculosis or polio, one can open up a conversation about current issues and events taking place in the United States. The prejudices that Alan Kraut addressed in his book are similar to the issues that new populations face in the United States today. Cultural differences that Americans don’t understand are still feared, leading to stereotypes and blame. This theme runs throughout history, and I believe it is the responsibility of museums to do their best to explain and diffuse these differences through telling the stories of past groups who experienced the same difficulties.

If done correctly, museums have the ability to create a safe space for discussion and understanding of controversial societal issues, whether it’s the Ebola crisis, HIV, AIDs, or the introduction of a refugee population to community. I believe that this will help museums become a forum for difficult topics, allowing for greater understanding of the changes that are happening around us.

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