We want to say thank you to our outgoing Guest Curator, Clodagh Brennan Harvey! If you missed a chance to see her fantastic artifacts, please stop by the Guest Curator Archive Page. You can also examine all of our past Guest Curator’s as well.
Welcome to our Guest Curator, Peter Tokofsky!
Law and Disorder: Reflections on Some Objects, and on Museums
Museums – Can they build back better?
In the aftermath of 2020, American museums face tremendous challenges. The Covid-19 pandemic and the associated economic slowdown, as well as renewed national attention to issues of racial and social justice, have profoundly impacted museums. Some estimates predict that almost half of all museums in the United States have already or will soon close permanently due to economic strains. Even institutions with rich resources are affected. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York eliminated over 400 staff positions and recently acknowledged that it is considering selling art from its collection in order to maintain financial stability, as a number of other museums have done recently. Questions about the future of public gatherings, capacity of gallery spaces with social distancing measures, and related issues generated by the pandemic not only necessitate new financial models, but also throw into question some basic assumptions about museum functioning. Just at a time when many museums have made significant efforts to become more accessible and serve as broader community resources, the possibilities for doing so have narrowed, at least temporarily.
Increasing national attention to racial justice, belated as it is, has fueled movements within museums and other arts institutions to address racial inequity and social injustices. The appalling lack of diversity among staff in many museums was already clear, and acknowledged in many instances. Several years ago, for example, the Getty Museum in Los Angeles appointed a committee to investigate and promote diversity and inclusion at the institution. The 17-member committee consisted of top executives and program leaders from across the complex organization. As it turned out, all 17 were white, prompting swift criticism from staff and leading to a slow and bumpy acknowledgement from the top that more inclusive and substantial steps would be necessary.
Critics have pointed to the lack of diversity in American art museum leadership for many years, especially among governing boards, which, rather than representing the institution’s stake-holders, are populated by an elite cohort of wealthy individuals, many of whom occupy positions at multiple institutions and whose main qualification seems to be their inherited wealth. At the other end of the spectrum, most people of color working in museums fill positions in the lowest-paid departments such as security, facilities, and education. An Instagram account titled “Change the Museum” reveals the impact of this disparity in power and influence within museums. Describing its mission as “Pressuring US museums to move beyond lip service proclamations by amplifying tales of unchecked racism,” the account has over 600 posts detailing everyday aggressions toward employees of color and institutional policies that deter diversity.
The lack of diversity in museums goes beyond staffing. The range of materials featured in museums guided by canonical narratives of (art) history remains extremely limited. The rise of outstanding art and history museums as part of the Smithsonian and elsewhere featuring the achievements of under –represented populations have helped rectify the inequity, as have, of course, folk art museums and related institutions. The growing willingness and interest in presenting a more diverse range of artists, as well as exploring the ways in which the production and acquisition of art and artifacts are deeply connected to white supremacy, should lead to a lasting transformation of museums. This process of re-thinking and re-installing museum collections will likely continue with new impetus in coming years.
However, one aspect of museum practice that contributes to what some people define as white supremacy culture, or at least to a culture of institutional authority which has cultivated the problems we are now combatting, continues largely unexamined. Regardless of what materials are presented and whether the team organizing the presentation is diverse, museums speak with voices of authority and position themselves as superior to their visitors. This is most clear in the texts on walls decreeing anonymous information. The goal of most exhibitions appears to be to inform the audience about someone or something they presumably don’t already know, but which, from the museum’s perspective, is important. “Important” is one of the most common words on art museum labels, but rarely do those labels explain why the object is important or who established it to be so. Museums order and present knowledge for visitors rather than engaging audiences in a process of knowledge formation. Most museum exhibitions can be summarized as “I’m going to tell you about something important which you should know about” or “This person/artist is important so let me tell you about them.” Folk art museums and folklorists do not get a pass on this merely because they inform us about materials created by different people and societies. We frequently find examples of this language of authority in posts and presentations by folklorists.
In the following descriptions of a few objects I am fortunate to possess, I endeavor to present them in a way that seeks to engage my audience with questions and issues that extend beyond the specific details of each. I propose a particular reading of this group of items in the context of the social challenges we face today. Each of these objects can tell other stories, as I hope they might for readers. Any story we tell with them has its own validity.
Recommended reading sequence:
1) “Sheriff’s Department Bus”
2) “If you got the blues…”
3) “Limozene” (painted car)
4) “Defiled: tweakin & geekin!”5) Berlin Wall Fragments
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