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Point of View: Museums Must Be More

Category: Museum Magazine
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The “Our Universes” exhibition was part of the 2004 opening suite of core installations at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC.

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2021 issue of Museum magazinea benefit of AAM membership.


ICOM’s definition of “museum” needs to take into account how the practice has changed and where it is heading.

For the past two years in the global museum community, one issue has generated an immense volume of discussion and associated passion: the International Council of Museums’ (ICOM) definition of “museum,” adopted in 2007, and whether it needs to be altered or should remain the same.

The current provision is the following: “A museum is a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment.”

The descendancy of museums, from their origins in Western Europe and subsequent history in the United States, is clear. They are the direct offspring of the European Enlightenment and Western rationalism, defined by the binary division of “culture” on the one hand and “nature” on the other, with the collateral creation of disciplinary subdivisions that have been with us for literally centuries.

Apart from the wellsprings of its substantive beginnings, the definition seems quite “internal” and “internalized.” Yes, reference is made to being in the “service of society,” and hopefully it “communicates and exhibits” to the public for its “education, study, and enjoyment.” But even within the words of the definition, let alone a century and a half of museum practice, the operating assumption undergirding the “knowledge” and “content” to be addressed is that it occurs inside the museum and is to be communicated unilaterally to the public—the originating and long-standing vision of the museum as the “temple on the hill.”

Let me cite a contrasting vision. The words, stated in 1990, belong to then-Secretary Robert McCormick Adams, head of the Smithsonian, about the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI):

This is [a] … national museum that takes … the authenticity … the vitality … and the self-determination of the Native American voices … as the fundamental reality … it must represent. …

[W]e move decisively from the older image of a museum as a temple with its superior, self-governing priesthood … to a forum … committed not to the promulgation of received wisdom but to the encouragement of a multicultural dialogue.

His words were museum-specific. But Secretary Adams’ comments and their relevance went far beyond the NMAI, and my observations here do, too. Indeed, they reflect the motivating factors and results of the vast changes in museology and museum practice as the 20th century has become the 21st.

What Are These Changes?

Turning first to the “what,” a pivot to the historical and societal context is helpful. What happened in the museum community was linked to, and then in turn reflected, the “multiculturalism movement” in the United States that occurred during the late 1980s and 1990s. In that era, marginalized cultural communities, frequently minority and of color, challenged—often successfully—their continued marginalization. They strove to become recognized and respected threads in the fabric of America’s cultural tapestry. The movement evolved in various forms and affected an array of existing institutions, social, political, and economic.

In the museum community, it manifested itself in the promotion of the “ethnic-specific museum” as an alternative to the reluctance, historically, of many mainstream and encyclopedic museums to address the misrepresentation of marginalized communities with consistency and diligence. At inception, the NMAI was an example of this museum typology. The first prong of its maiden mission statement was the invocation in interpretation and representation of first-person Native voice as expert and authoritative—in addition to other sources of third-party curation, which had been the historical norm and practice.

The entire 2004 opening suite of core installations at the NMAI’s principal public facility on the National Mall in Washington, DC—“Our Universes,” “Our Peoples,” and “Our Lives”—was driven by this interpretive approach and methodology. At the time it was recognized as highly innovative museology, and in the same breath often subjected to withering critiques as the anti-intellectual product of unlettered curators who sat beyond the walls of the temple.

Over time, this interpretive deconstruction of old paradigms and the reconstruction of new ones vaulted the walls of ethnic-specific institutions and began permeating encyclopedic museums of all typologies. The Autry Museum of the American West’s 2017 exhibition, “La Raza,” is an exemplar. It addressed one of the most tumultuous periods in the civil rights history of the Chicano/Chicana community in Los Angeles from 1967–1977 through the lens of the photographers employed by the legendary publication of the same name. The show was co-curated by the Autry’s chief curator and Luiz Garza, who was a La Raza photographer and remains a prominent member of the Latinx community in contemporary Los Angeles.

The Autry lens is “intercultural” as well as “multicultural.” The exhibition “Empire and Liberty” addressed, to the surprise of many visitors, America’s Civil War and its considerable impact on the American West. There the cultural voices were multiple and often first-person: white, Native, Chinese American, and others. Many different stories and perspectives were presented, all of them authentic, all of them based upon authoritative and multiple voices.

Why Are These Changes Occurring?

The “why” of the interpretive practice I have just described is as important, or more so, than the “what.” The premise is simple yet complex: on a global basis not all systems of knowledge descend neatly and categorically, as historically most museums in Europe and the United States do, from the Enlightenment and Western rationalism. Indeed, based on a global perspective, very few do.

New Zealand academics Penny Allan and Huhana Smith emphasize this point with respect to the Maori community in New Zealand in an article they wrote for MAI Journal: “. . . importantly a . . .  Maori approach to science is not based on the dualistic assumptions of a Western science epistemology. The distinctions or separation between professional scientist and non-scientific stakeholder, theory and practice, subject and object, start and finish, past and present are subsumed by a holistic approach that considers a whole-of-person and a whole-of-system theory of knowing.”

Thus, the inclusive engagement of curatorial “voice,” especially the first-person voice, with respect to knowledge systems that fall outside the realm of Western thought is more than a gratuitous political gesture. To the contrary, if museums are to communicate knowledge most fulsomely, completely, and accurately, that inclusion is essential.

A Transformation Ongoing

The foregoing “what” and “why” of my discussion segue into the final component of my argument regarding museum definitions—namely, the impact of what I have already addressed on the very fundamentals of museology and museum practice in the 21st century. In a sentence: the times have changed, and museum definitions need to adapt, not to the exclusion of all that has been but to the inclusion of what might also be in the future. The popular, conventional, and historical public perception of museums as principally worthy cultural destinations to visit occasionally needs to be altered, in definition and practice, in the name of sound epistemological practice, social relevance, and broader public connection and impact. In short, the 21st-century museum can and should be far more than a stop on the tour bus route.

I return to Secretary Adams’ declaration for support of this proposition. His, for its time, was a material recasting of museology, museum practice, and conventional interpretive curatorial and interpretive methodology: the demise of the temple on the hill with its self-appointed priesthood, the explicit invocation and affirmation of first-person and multiple curatorial voices and their authority, the recognition, and endorsement of distinctive and differing knowledge systems and their validity.

All of the foregoing turned conventional museology and museum practice on its head, from top-down to bottom-up, inside-out to outside-in, bilateralism instead of unilateralism, dialogue instead of monologue. That wholesale transformation in approach is seminal and has direct impact on the very nature of the museum as a community-connected, multivocal gathering space and place of broader civic and societal import “committed not to the promulgation of received wisdom but to the encouragement of a multicultural dialogue.”

If the era of COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter has taught us nothing else, surely it has demonstrated that currently in the United States—and we are hardly alone—we struggle to find and implement civic and social space. We desperately need gathering places for discussion, discourse, debate, even controversy; forums and safe places for unsafe ideas concerning cultural history and human experience, past and present. As defined and described above, museums can serve as a notable and valuable chink in that contemporary armor of political and social polarities and the disabling cultural and historical gloom they engender.

The museum as counterpoint, although not able to do everything, can do something—and a very important something. That hope should be the social, museological, and institutional aspiration of all museums and how they define themselves and their future in the 21st century. Museum definitions that fail to consider and, indeed, embrace a future of continuing societal relevance and impact put museums at risk of becoming public institutions diminished and distant in history’s rearview mirror.

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