America 101: What would we include today?

When in London as a wide-eyed study abroad student, I thankfully had the good sense to visit a few museums.  I cited my “cultural enrichment” as a reason to blow off class in favor of hanging out at the Victoria & Albert or the National Portrait Gallery.  My youthful wanderlust took me as far away as Budapest and Bratislava, where my cousin and I visited everything from the museums at Buda Castle to a quaint Slovakian clock museum.  I marveled at the masterworks in the Prado and scratched my head at the Picasso Museum in Barcelona.  I even stood outside the Lourve one time (but didn’t go in–I hear the Mona Lisa is pretty underwhelming anyway).  All of these museums were amazing….and amazingly European.  They seemed almost to flaunt their cultural achievements and revel in their ability to capture so effectively the essence of their home.  It looks like Europe has some competition, though.  In his book Call the Lost Dream Back, Lonnie Bunch states his belief that the cultural institutions of the Middle East, an area experiencing a stunning influx of new museums, can provide “an important lesson in the role that museums can play in defining and constructing identity.”

Thanks to Skype, I was able to speak face-to-face with Kathleen Gallagher, CGP Class of ’98, who has firsthand experience with just how true Bunch’s statement can be.  Kathleen works at the Qatar Museums Authority, a national umbrella organization comparable to the Smithsonian.  Currently, Qatar is in the midst of a cultural revolution driven by His Highness The Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani.  Building a network of exceptional museums is an integral part of the Emir’s vision for a culturally sound and modern Qatar.  Due to the lack of museum training programs in the Middle East, Americans and other expatriates are hired to train and advise Qataris in museum work.  Kathleen is working at the Qatar National Museum as they develop an overarching vision for the museum.  The National Museum is just one of 17 proposed museums that are planned to open in the next ten years.

Qatar, much like the United States, has a complex and diverse history.  The domestication of the camel, pearl diving, and trade with India are just three examples of the many important facets of Qatar’s history.  More recently, Qatar’s struggle for independence, the effect of the discovery of oil and natural gas on its economy, and controversies over human rights have become pieces in Qatar’s historical puzzle.

Hearing about the challenges they face in constructing a national museum that strives to capture this diverse history while appealing to all Qataris, I began to think about how the Smithsonian approached these same issues.  Then I started down the dangerous road of “what if”: What if, like Qatar, we had to build our national museum system from scratch, starting today?  How would we define what is essential to the American story?  Would there be a need for a separate Museum of African-American History and Culture, or would we commit to incorporating that story into our national museum?  What do you think?


For this post I used:

Call the Lost Dream Back, Lonnie Bunch

Special thanks to Kathleen Gallagher for a stimulating and eye-opening conversation!

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2 Responses to America 101: What would we include today?

  1. eliznerland says:

    I really like your last question–what if we were to start our entire museum “system” over again? I wonder the same thing because, as American culture has matured and the focus has shifted, at least a little, from telling the story of rich white men to telling the stories of other American groups as well. At some level, this question goes back to what we talked about in class a few weeks ago: why can’t the Smithsonian tell the story of all American populations in one building? Furthermore, isn’t the story of slavery a major part of the American story? I agreed with Bunch on many levels, but especially liked his statement about how people must understand the evils of the past and understand why people held on to such evil ideals and sentiments in order to better understand our own national history, a history in which slavery plays a major role.

    • Bernie Gallagher says:

      What were your class discussions about the Smithsonian’s ability (or not) to tell the story of all American populations in one building? Was it about the prohibitive size and scope of the topic or about who’s history (with multiple interpretations and the ownership of the interpretations) or that politics (little p) of both internal and external forces are a reality to clear or hurdle? Or maybe it was the selection of or the selection processes to determine who are “all the American populations?”

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