This blog post is very overdue, and so it’s going to be filled with messy, finals week thoughts. In a way, the questions that Andrea Burns asked in From Storefront to Monument: Tracing the Public History of the Black Museum Movement have been stewing in my mind for so long that pinpointing things to talk about has been difficult. Her focus on community, and the role that museums play in serving various communities, is a pertinent concern, especially in the aftermath of the recent election.
In her book, she talks about the genesis and development of various museums dedicated to serve African-American communities, such as the DuSable Museum in Chicago, the International Afro-American Museum in Detroit, and the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum in Detroit. For these museums, political and cultural developments in the 1960s led the African-American communities in these cities to create a public center for the celebration and promotion of Black history and identity. While the museums discussed in Burns’s book run into issues as communities, locations, and institutional missions change, they still had to grapple with how to maintain the original intention to serve local communities.
These questions have been on my mind, as museums and other cultural institutions have been releasing statements about their mission post-election. I already wrote about the Tenement Museum’s statement, and a few other museums focusing on specific ethnic groups have also released statements. For example, the Asian Art Museum strengthened its identification as “a museum for all,” and the Japanese American National Museum referenced WWII internment camps in a call for Donald Trump to be more inclusive and learn from the past. While it has been discussed, NMAJH still has not put out any kind of statement, and even though a statement promoting our mission in these contentious times is fairly innocuous, I wonder if the hesitation is about community, and whether a statement like that would be uniting or divisive. How would a statement released by this museum, which aims to represent all American Jews, be received by American Jews who supported and voted for Trump? I saw a lot of parallels to the objections to the creation of the national Museum of African American History and Culture, such as Charles Wright and John Kinard arguing that a federally-funded national museum would fail to hear and represent all Black voices and opinions.
I wonder if this is a problem that all national museums have, as opposed to smaller community-oriented museums: the larger a “target” group gets, the more needs and opinions and preferences that museum’s audience will have, leading to the potential for more people to be upset by a given decision. With the new NMAAHC building opened, there have already been criticisms by certain curatorial choices, such as the exclusion of Clarence Thomas. The Smithsonian responded to this criticism, explaining they simply cannot tell every story, but many are still upset by this.
This leads to questions about the relationship between museums and their audiences. Is it an institution’s responsibility to please every single visitor? Is this even possible? In the case of things like post-election statements, which is more important: staff members’ idea of ethics or visitors’ potential comfort?
I don’t think there’s a single correct or easy answer to these questions, but I also don’t think a museum can be relevant without trying to answer them.