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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10 Responses to Who has Authority over Visual Culture?

  1. saraumland says:

    This makes me think of the Native American exhibit that many of us saw on the Rochester field-trip. Constructed in the 1960’s or 70’s, no sign of collaboration from the tribes who items the museum displayed where found. The exhibit was aged and outdated compared to what we are used to now regarding cooperation in Native exhibits. Many museums are still working to collaborate with Naive people that the exhibits stem from, seeing the 1970’s exhibit compared to Laura’s outlook as a curator gives a renewed hope in this issue. The problems of no collaboration in museums are far from over, but there is growth around us is happening.

    Conducting oral histories from communities, tribes or social groups that allow for saved testimonial to give context for present and future use. Having programs that include representatives from tribes or groups to present their stories and knowledge to the public instead of the museum staff presenting it themselves.

  2. at01lang says:

    I find it very interesting that it was not until 2008 that the Pick Museum practiced significant discussion with Native American communities regarding the display and representation of their cultures in the institution. On the surface it seems late, but I find it an important reminder that what we now sometimes think of as an obvious and proper development really did only come into being within the last several years. As to the question of how museums can further allow for self-representation, I think embracing the broader spectrum of personal identities and groups that we have seen grow in an expand in a climate of greater social empowerment and plurality. Whereas historically there have been a small number of umbrella definitions people were placed under, there is now a far greater number of identities and a far greater ability for people to define or not define themselves, as they see fit. I think simply exploring identities that have become more recently public, and perhaps the conditions that shape their presence, would provide museums numerous forums through which to explore issues of self-representation.

  3. thankyouluke says:

    How do you feel about objects, perhaps of religious or cultural significance, that were legally bought from a tribe and are on display in museums? I feel like this is tricky. In the past, many European settlers bought or stole man objects from numerous First Peoples, so if they legally bought them do they have the right to display these objects anyway they want? I personally say no, but what about legally? Sometimes, the law is tricky!

  4. pnorman02 says:

    I really like the idea of collaboration between museums and groups that are struggling to represent themselves and their history. It not only offers the community an opportunity to help design and offer their stories for an exhibit, but also keeps the museum relevant to their surrounding communities. What better way to get people excited about going to a museum, than by including them in the representation of their own community or culture.

  5. hoffsm90 says:

    Really great post Karissa. This is certainly an interesting and important topic that needs to be addressed. These are some really great examples of increasing agency through visual culture. Museums certainly need to be a part of this discussion and work to include it when possible.

  6. I love that you explored how another culture responded to the issues discussed in the readings. I think that the trend toward sharing authority with communities and visitors is one way museums can avoid problems of agency. Including people’s opinions and voices in museum programming and exhibitions is a good way to encourage self-representation.

  7. emerbr84 says:

    Although it has taken far to long, museums are finally starting to take the place in society that they have always claimed to hold. With the integration of the voices of those groups presented in exhibits, museums are becoming more universally cultural institutions. They are now giving reasons for all people to walk through that door.

  8. mickcr says:

    I had the opportunity to work at a museum in California that had a great collaborative exhibit about the Washoe tribe that used to inhabit the area around the lake. The museum had taken the time to make labels in the language of the Washoe, take oral histories from leaders, and set up interactives based on activities the tribe used to do. The tribe leaders were asked to contribute the visuals and text. I think the exhibit was a great representation of collaboration and self-representation. I hope collaboration continues in other institutions, it is important for other cultures to be involved in how they are represented.

  9. joshdtaylor says:

    Lots of good points here! I feel that museums have to create their imagine with the public trust in mind. Much like the Strong Museum, they reinvented themselves only to have tremendous success. With so many museums in the field today, it is important for museum to stand out of the rest while not Disney-ifying themselves in the process.

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