Courting Controversy in the Museum

Whenever I remember, I participate in weekly chats on twitter under the hashtag #museumedchat. It’s a time when people —  mostly museum educators — can discuss a number of salient topics. These topics usually involve museum education, such as storytelling and different age groups, but can also sometimes include larger themes like accessibility and diversity/inclusion.  Being primarily left-leaning, many participants also use these chats as ways to improve their activist efforts within a museum context, such as anti-racism.

However, it is a huge jump to discuss social justice in museums on twitter, to implementing ideas in the museum itself. One week, I simply asked: especially as junior staff, how can I actually implement ideas that may provoke doubt, controversy, or backlash? One of the most common responses I got was support from coworkers and upper management.

So it didn’t surprise me that Ken Yellis, in the reverse, describes the committee process and related internal politics as a significant reason for why provocative exhibits don’t happen more often. Yellis lists a number of reasons why museum staff is often ill-equipped to implement and deal with potentially controversial ideas:

1) Museum workers, especially at taxpayer-funded institutions, may worry about offending constituents, and thus losing their funding.

2) Museum workers might prepare for, or try to provoke, a different reaction than the one visitors end up having in a given exhibition.

3) Museum workers might simply shy away from implementing anything that would require defending or explaining, whether out of laziness or fear.

4) Museum workers may try to actually implement an unconventional idea, but this idea gets lost within a maze of committees (especially board committees) and eventually fizzles out.

These reasons, and others, result in museums failing to take their place within the national conversation most relevant to the museum’s mission. By not joining this conversation, museums risk allowing visitors to go on misunderstanding key parts of national history, which often ends up supporting forms of systemic oppression. Instead, by challenging visitors and pushing them into their comfort zone, museums can illuminate nuanced and complicated parts of the past, help develop visitors’ critical thinking skills and opinions, and challenge hegemonies within the museum’s space.

So then, how can museums — both individual staff members and whole institutions — take risks and embrace controversial topics? For one option, Yellis suggests that museums prepare themselves to defend their choices against confrontations from visitors. However, this would require knowing how visitors may react to a given exhibit, which can be difficult to predict. Thus, museums should not force visitors into a specific viewpoint; instead, let objects speak for themselves, as they will ultimately overpower any direction given in their labels. This might be helped along with focus groups and other outside perspectives, to act as example visitors.

Another option, which is simultaneously both more dangerous and more rewarding, is to simply take risks without much regard for their consequences. One particularly notable example for why this option works is Fred Wilson’s Mining the Museum. Obviously this wasn’t a spontaneous exhibit; plenty of planning and considerations went into it. But the immediate reaction was harsh, with many staff members resigning afterwards due to public backlash. Worried staff may have ended up not following through with the exhibition. And yet it still happened, and it remains one of the most influential and monumental exhibits ever.

So, what does this mean for me, and other social justice-minded Emerging Museum Professionals?

First, that the “us against the world” feeling is common — that activism and boundary-pushing seem difficult because they are.

But… that can’t be an excuse. Shying away from activism and controversy allows misunderstandings and generalizations to remain unchallenged, not to mention white supremacy and other hegemonies that have been upheld and maintained by museums in the past. Museum workers — regardless of rank — must take those risks to affect real change. This might be mitigated through strategies like anticipating visitor reactions, pro/cons lists, and similar analyses to prevent to coworkers and board members, as a way to circumnavigate the committee barriers that Yellis outlines.

At the end of his article, “The Architecture of Racial Segregation,” Robert Weyeneth wonders about the dangers of interpreting segregated spaces. How might these spaces be misconstrued? Would they support racist viewpoints? But then he described one woman’s experience at seeing separate entrances to a movie theater in North Carolina, at how the shock of seeing that space reminded her of humanity’s capacity of hatred. Moments like those should be our goal.

Robert Weyeneth, “The Architecture of Racial Segregation: The Challenges of Preserving the Problematical Past,” The Public Historian 27 (Fall 2005): 11-44

Ken Yellis, “Examining the Social Responsibility of Museums in a Changing World,” Artes Magazine (November 13, 2011),


Interpreting the Olympia!

Last week in Material Culture, we took rowboats out onto the Delaware River — or at least the part of the Delaware River that lies directly adjacent to the Independence Seaport Museum. It was a lot of fun to be out on the water, and a great workout since I had never rowed with two oars at once, only paddles. We observed the land from the water, and discussed the USS Olympia from the outside.


Several of my classmates out on the water, with some privately-owned boats in the background.

I immediately noted how small the Olympia looked from the outside. Maybe it’s because you’re viewing the entire ship from up close; it looks contained and finite.

The USS Olympia

The water also acted as a social space, like a cul-de-sac. Individuals’ boats lined the pier, and my boat-group had fun commenting on what the boats were named. There were also other people around that we could interact with, including workers on the Olympia and tourists at Spruce Street Harbor Park.

Today, we contrasted that experience with a visit on board the Olympia itself, and my perspective was exactly the opposite. The ship seemed cavernous and infinite, probably because we were seeing only a small part of it at a time. We also visited the engine room, located about 14’ below the water line, so invisible from the perspective of the row boat. We also could only see the water through tiny and narrow windows, drastically limiting our vista and making the ship seem huge in comparison. This also cut us off from other boats and individuals that were nearby, since we could see so little at a time.

While on the Olympia, we met with Kevin, the Assistant Curator, who described how parts of the warship have been preserved, restored, and/or rehabilitated. We also discussed how its history has been interpreted, and the complications of doing that. We were asked to look at how spaces were interpreted, what was successful, and what could be improved. And given that a large part of my job at NMAJH is designing educational materials for students (mostly public school, middle to high school), that was my imaginary audience.

My immediate thought was that the ship had hardly any interactive elements. In its interpretive goal of 1902-1911, the Olympia would have been filled with activity — hundreds of crewmen shoveling coal, working the steam engine, operating machines, firing weapons, etc. That sense is lost in the ship’s current state, with empty and practically static hallways. I’m sure this is mitigated through the use of costumed interpreters, but visitors — both children and adults! — having things they  would be able to touch and manipulate would bring sailor life and work to life. This is already done in one area: one table has a display featuring several dozen kinds of knots, and the table is strewn with different kinds of rope, so that visitors can try to make the different knots. In addition to this, visitors might try laying on replica hammocks, shoveling coal, turning wheels and handles, or other activities that replicate jobs that sailors had on the Olympia.

Visitors can use the ropes to try and copy the knots on display

Kevin spoke about wanting to interpret how social class is delineated on board, primarily through space. Officers had nicer and more private lodgings located in one area of the ship, while seamen had group lodgings in a different area, separated by doorways. In a schoolgroup and particularly with younger students, docents might try to replicate the Draw-A-Scientist Test, which reveals stereotypes of scientists in addition to social biases. For example, students could be brought to the ward room, or the Captain’s Lodging, and ask students to draw who they think might occupy that space. This can be repeated in different spaces, such as the engineers’ quarters, and drawings can be compared to illuminate social differences such as class between the two groups, and lead into discussions of how these differences are separated and maintained, both on land and on sea.

The ward room, which was a social space for those of a higher rank

To be honest, a lot of the Olympia’s history falls outside of my interests and expertise, so it’s difficult for me to think of how I would interpret the Olympia’s military history, and particularly its history of imperialism. The social life and daily function on the ship is more interesting to me, and I think these two interpretive elements — interactives and discussions of social stratifications — might interest visitors in new ways.

Damage vs Distinction: Rescuing Documents from a Church Basement

Earlier this week, YIVO made an incredible announcement: a new trove of Hebrew and Yiddish documents were found in a church basement in Vilnius, hidden there by Jewish intellectuals during the Holocaust. These documents, around 170,000 pages total, include valuable artifacts such as letters by Sholem Aleichem and a postcard by Marc Chagall. The bulk of documents describe everyday life in what used to be the center of the Jewish world before the Holocaust decimated Jewish life in Eastern Europe.

While reading this article, I couldn’t help but think of this week’s Archives class, where we discussed disaster preparations. In an archives, disaster can strike from something as simple as introducing new documents, such as if they contain mold, mildew, or bugs. YIVO archivists, in preparing to process these documents which have been hidden in a basement for over 70 years, will have to go through many of the processes and precautions we discussed. This is a likely risk for these documents given Lithuania’s climate and the fact that it can get extremely hot in the summers. That amount of heat, especially in an enclosed space like a basement, can exacerbate deterioration speeds.

First, archivists would have to assess any damage and risk — this may include the aforementioned spores, water damage, faded paper and ink, or paper deterioration. Based on the determined value and scope of damage, archivists would decide if they should be preserved/conserved, or microfilmed and discarded.

While helpful for remote access, digitizing as a form of preservation is not always the best option, as files might incur loss, digital formats become outdated, and pricing for storage and migration can build up very quickly.

Once archivists determine that records are valuable enough to transport to YIVO’s archives, they can be isolated and freeze-dried to kill potential mold, mildew, or bugs. Doing this in isolation of past acquisitions and cleaning down surfaces such as tables can help to ensure that no contamination occurs. If they aren’t doing minimal processing, removing metal and adhesive from documents can also prolong their lives.

While this can seem like a lot of work, this discovery in Vilnius will prove to be an immense boost to research about Eastern European Jewry. Ensuring that these documents are safe and preserved will also ensure that this boost lasts for a very long time.

Preserving in the Face of Danger

In the past few weeks, North America has seen an incredible number of natural disasters, including hurricanes, earthquakes, and wildfires. While figuring out how to take care of basic needs such as food and shelter, museum workers and archivists have been struggling to figure out how to best take care of their collections. In one recent example, the home of Peanuts creator Charles Schulz was just destroyed in a wildfire, presumably along with many artifacts that still remained in the house.

Meanwhile, archivists in the United Kingdom’s National Archives have been dealing with a very different kind of struggle — digitizing their collection and working towards a goal of becoming “a digital archive by design.” By last year, the Archives had made 230 million documents digitally available to the public, compared with 600,000 documents physically available.

The concurrence of these two news items makes one wonder of the possibilities of digitization as a precaution for destruction. What would the implications be if an archives were destroyed, but all documents had been digitized?

Probably the most glaring issue this brings up is that of permanence. which James M. O’Toole has argued has changed meaning over the years. Whether this quality is interpreted as keeping the documents fixed in time, preserving the information as separate from the physical document, or the intrinsic value of the documents themselves, digitization calls permanence into question through potential issues such as duplication, file loss, or access to an internet connection.

That said, wide-scale digitization cannot replace the appeal of original documents; O’Toole describes how, as technology advanced and microfilm usage increased in the early 20th century, so did concerns about preserving deteriorating documents. While digitization provides many important benefits beyond convenient preservation, such as wider access, it cannot compare to the visceral experience of handling original documents.

So how would the UK’s National Archives fare, for example, with damage to documents given its massive digitized collection? Some may argue, as Schellenberg does, of the importance of a document’s intrinsic value, and that research done without it is weaker. Others, as O’Toole notes, are more concerned with maintaining an information-rich society, in which case the digitization would suffice.

All in all, while digitizing documents should not be an archive’s main defense against potential destruction, it’s a technological process that vastly increases access and ease of research.


O’Toole, James M. “On the Idea of Permanence.” The American Archivist 52, no. 1 (1989): 10-25.

Sulek, Julia Prodis. “Peanuts creator Charles Schulz’s widow flees Santa Rosa fire, home destroyed.” The Mercury News, 12 October 2017.

Trendall, Sam. “How The National Archives is digitising 1,000 years of history.” Public Technology, 5 October 2017.


Archives as a Site for Political Action: Argentina and the IHRA

Last month, it was announced that a large collection of WWII-era documents from Argentina would be turned over to President Benyamin Netanyahu. 5 terabytes’ worth of digital newspapers, telegrams, letters, etc will be used to help investigate how much Argentina assisted Nazi war criminals after the end of WWII. Several notable Nazi leaders, such as Adolf Eichmann, were found to have escaped to Argentina after the war, despite the country supporting the Allies. This is a tremendous opportunity to clear up a country’s participation in the aftermath of WWII and potentially work towards making sure war criminals do not have similar ratlines to fall back on in the future.

While reading this article, I was intrigued that these records would be given from one president to the other, as opposed to from specific Argentinian archives to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). At the same time, I was impressed that President Mauricio Macri was giving the records at all.

The article makes clear the main reason why the articles were delivered president-to-president: this was an opportunity, besides initiating a new area of Holocaust research, to renew diplomatic relationships between the two countries. In addition to receiving the documents, President Netanyahu spoke about their common allies and enemies. This falls in line with our class discussions about how politics and related factors might influence a donor to give documents to one archive over another. In this case, giving the documents directly from one president to another acts as an opportunity to strengthen their allyship.

As repositories of memories, archives can play a powerful role in how a governmental body is seen and understood by others. In some cases, such as Guatemala’s national archives regarding the National Police as described in Kirsten Weld’s Paper Cadavers, records are destroyed or otherwise hidden in order to protect a dictatorship and other wrongdoers. In Weld’s book, non-governmental actors stumbled upon the archives and had to restore and process it, in order to settle the past. On the other hand, despite Argentina playing some kind of role in the escape routes for Nazi war criminals, by turning over archival records, they are acknowledging their errors and supporting the investigation.

“Argentina Turns Over Tens of Thousands of Holocaust Documents to Israel.” The Jerusalem Post, 13 September 2017.

Weld, Kirsten. Paper Cadavers: the Archives of Dictatorship in Guatemala. Durham: Duke University Press, 2014.

To See Or Not To See? Personal Papers and Privacy

Obtaining the records of a famous scholar, writer, or other personality is often a cause for excitement. Having a notable person’s papers accessible can open the doors to new kinds of research, as well as increase usage at the archives. But it can also create stress — particularly in terms of navigating the issue of privacy.

Archivists at the Harry Ransom Center, a library at University of Texas at Austin, recently acquired the papers of Michael Ondaatje, author of The English Patient and other works. This collection includes handwritten manuscripts, journals, audio recordings, and correspondences. Ondaatje wrote letters to many other famous authors who are still alive, such as Margaret Atwood, and Ondaatje is still alive as well.

According to the SAA’s Code of Ethics, archivists must protect the privacy of living people represented in the archives, in order to not embarrass them. However, it’s unclear what that privacy looks like, and to what extent it should be protected. Archives tend to approach this issue according to their own guidelines, with some archives tending towards completely open access, and other archives completely restricting records involving living people.

So how does the Harry Ransom Center treat Ondaatje’s papers? While the article does not say, the HRC archivists might have reached a privacy agreement with Ondaatje which defines who can access which records, and when. This could have involved making the journals accessible while restricting the letters, or putting a time delay for when letters can become unsealed in the future.

It’s also possible that no privacy agreement was reached at all. In that case, it’s up to the archivists to decide, which may involve intense research about the papers’ subjects, creating standards for what constitutes privacy and potential embarrassment, and plenty of difficult decisions.

However, it is unlikely that Ondaatje’s papers came with any major privacy concerns. Privacy issues often come up with personal correspondence, and Ondaatje’s papers are primarily connected to his work. The letters described in the article primarily involve his writing and their adaptations, leaving less room for sensitive topics and secret confessions. That said, because Ondaatje is still alive, if he adds more papers to the acquisition, the issue of privacy may have to come up again and again, increasing the risk of embarrassing others.



Hodson, Sara S. “In Secret Kept, in Silence Sealed: Privacy in the Papers of Authors and Celebrities.” The American Archivist 67, no. 2 (2004): 194-211.

Krause, Suzanne. “Archive of Michael Ondaatje, author of ‘The English Patient,’ acquired.” Cultural Compass. 25 September, 2017.

Points Made Later: Reconceptualizing the Knife as a Folk Object

(Let’s see how many knife-related puns I can sneak into my blog posts this semester?)

This week in class, we read a selection of articles that presented different approaches to studying material culture. One particularly fascinating article, which may prove useful as I embark on studying my object, was an excerpt from Henry Glassie’s Pattern in the Material Folk Culture of the Eastern United States. In this excerpt, as part of a larger exploration of folk scholarship in the United States, Glassie attempts to define what a folk object is and how to study it.

According to Glassie, folk cultures exist within or in proximity to a larger society. When studied in other geographic areas such as Europe, folk cultures are often easy to outline, homogenous, and defined by specific oral traditions. In comparison, the United States has experienced such immense patterns of migration that the typical understanding of folk culture does not necessarily translate. He thus defines folk culture as an unpopular, or smaller, tradition in proximity to a larger society. Folk objects thus come out of that smaller tradition and often have an equivalent within a larger society. For example, Glassie compares a modern farmer using oxen and yoke in the field as opposed to a tractor. Despite having the more advanced technology, the farmer may choose to use the oxen and yoke due to family or cultural tradition, unfamiliarity with the technology, a personal preference, etc.

While Glassie’s article focuses on objects from their conception — similar to Prown — he ultimately focuses on objects as “alien.” For example, he describes how the best way to study the construction of a folk object is through observation of the process. It’s easy to assume that modern historians are not familiar with some of the craft techniques associated with common folk objects, like whittling or basket-weaving. He also explains how many folk objects are deliberately commercialized — Lancaster County immediately came to mind. While the degree or intention of the folk object does not change, it takes on a quality of voyeurism, where the value of the object is its folk status.

So, how does this remind me of my knife? While it was (presumably) crafted around the turn of the 20th century when it was used on the Gazela, it was later used to cut the ribbon when the Gazela was opened to the public. Speaking with Craig Bruns, the curator at Independence Seaport Museum, I learned that other artifacts have been employed in a similar manner for milestones. In this case, because the knife has some kind of connection to the Gazela, it was deemed worthy of cutting the ribbon. It takes on this voyeuristic quality (although then again, don’t all Museum-exhibited artifacts?) as well as a commercialized quality that I’m sure could have made for a great photo-op. Additionally, the knife is immediately identified as coming from a unpopular/uncommon tradition, as celebrants could have used contemporary or more-common tools such as scissors (giant or otherwise!) to cut the ribbon. Its traditional and unpopular origins lends the knife, and thus the ribbon-cutting ceremony, an air of authenticity that resembles the usage of many actual folk objects.

Now of course, Glassie also clarifies that an object cannot become a folk object through use, or lose its folk status through disuse. However, using Glassie’s writing to contextualize the knife’s place within Gazela‘s opening ceremony helps to explain the knife’s use decades after its original creation and usage.

Once I do more research into Gazela and late 19th/early 20th century knife making, I could try to argue whether it’s actually a folk object or not according to Glassie’s classifications. In the meantime, though, I’ve been trying to take his cue and learn about knife carving…

Henry Glassie, Pattern in the Material Folk Culture of the Eastern United States (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1968), 1-17.