Rethinking History

I have been at my "new" job for about 2 months. It is going well, and I am starting to settle into a groove. I'm still working from home, which is nice at times, distracting at others, but overall pleasant.


I have been working primarily at "catching up" on recent scholarship, as well as forging relationships with my co-workers, and with teachers and other educational specialists.


It has been a crash course in new ideas, techniques, and "lingo".


Lately, I have gone down a rabbit hole in learning what museums have been doing recently. By this I mean beyond the surface exhibits, school programs, and collections care.


It is a deeper self-examination to look more closely at what museums do, and how we do it, as well as our past transgressions.


I never realized back when I was in museum school just how museums came into being. I knew it, but I don't think I truly "understood", and why it was important to look at that history.

From Ferrante Imperato's Dell'Historia Naturale (Naples 1599), the earliest illustration of a natural history cabinet

Museums may have started as "cabinets of curiosities", like the oddities you used to see at carnivals rather than what we would identify as museums today. But eventually they became similar-- a collection of artifacts displayed to look at and perhaps to learn from. They are vaguely comparable to what you may see today, but with a twist...it was a playground for the wealthy.


Some of the earliest museums were private collections, not open to the public, but a narrow group of people. Friends...and what we may call today, "influencers". Eventually, these collectors, "donated" their collections to form the museums of today, with the intent they become institutions of education for the masses.


However, many still see museums as decadent buildings, glorifying donors and the wealthy, with objects that often times were taken (illegally?) from their original locations and owners.


For example, sitting in the British Museum is the Beard of the Sphinx. Yes, the ancient sculpture guarding the pyramids of Giza in Egypt. The sculpture with the head of a man and body of a lion.


The Great Sphinx of Giza

It is believed the beard fell off long before the British Empire "gathered" Egypt into its colonial empire. Colonial authorities brought it to London to sit in the British Museum, where it has been for 200 years. The British Museum states it was "acquired" in 1818.


For many years, the Egyptian government has been trying (unsuccessfully I might add) to have the Beard returned. Not only, because they feel it is part of their history, but also because the Sphinx's head is precariously leaning without it.





The Beard actually helped to stabilize the head, and kept the head from falling off for millennia.


And yet, the British Museum refuses to return it.


Other examples are families (primarily Jewish) who are trying to have returned artwork that they had prior to the Holocaust. The Nazis looted their belongings and stashed them away. After the war, many items were sold off, purchased by museums when their original owners did not come "claim" them.


Today, there is a "repatriation" of some of these works.


The same can be said for Native American collections.


Again, some...but not all.


This isn't to say that we should close all museums and give back the objects to their original owners or countries of origin. I'd be out of a job.


But there does need to be a middle ground. A way to make both sides happy. A way to preserve objects, allow people to learn about and from them, but also respect the original makers and nations of origin.


Which leads me to the rabbit hole I found myself down the other day.


I came across the "hashtag" #MuseumsAreNotNeutral.


What???

Yes we are! We present "the facts" and primary sources and objects, and let our visitors decide for themselves. We don't pick sides.


"Only the facts ma'am." as Sgt. Joe Friday would say on Dragnet.


Oh how wrong I was.


I have since learned (and I do agree upon much reflection), that by "remaining neutral" we actually were taking a side: the side of the status quo, which oftentimes is not welcoming or comforting, or in some cases just plain hostile to visitors.


Part of "educating the masses" is presenting facts but, let's face it, with "our" personal bias.


I may think I am being neutral in how I share an artifact, or tell a story, but it is my point of view. It is my voice. My side. My vision.


So if this is the case, then what?


My personal feeling is that we should acknowledge our biases while presenting the stories we are trying to tell. But part of me also really wants the objects themselves to tell the story...which can be hard.


A lot of Native American artifacts are actually located in art museums. We display them as "ethnographic art", not as the utilitarian pieces which they may be.


Is this wrong? They are really beautiful.


I don't know the right answer.


I do know that the more I research this idea, which includes reading about DEAI (Diversity, Equity, Accessibility and Inclusion), the more scrambled my brain gets...but also recognizes that there is a lot of work to do.

2018 Met Gala. Courtesy New York Times

Museums have been, and in some cases still are, the playground of the wealthy. Luckily (?) the museums I work for are state owned and operated. We don't have to go seeking funders for exhibits and operating expenses. We don't have to have Galas to celebrate those who gave us money that year, and accept their checks for the next.


The Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute benefit is more like the Academy Awards: tuxedos, designer gowns, celebrities, red carpet and all.


But, we do have dramatic stories to tell. We now think more about the voices (who's perspective), and the "centrality" (what or who is spotlighted in the story). We think more about challenging our visitors--to make them really think about the things that happened here. To think more critically about the objects and what they can teach us about the past.


In the recent Keynote address at the 2021 American Association for state and local history, Ohio State University History Professor Dr. Hasan Kwame Jefferies told the story about a student in one of his Intro to US History course. The young white man told Dr. Jefferies that his grandmother had warned him about "those liberal professors" and to be careful they don't "indoctrinate you". The student then said,


I realize that you are not trying to change my mind. You're just trying to open it.

And maybe that is something we all should be doing. Opening our minds a little more. Just because you are exposed to an idea that you are uncomfortable or don't agree with, doesn't mean that you have to agree with it. You just need to be aware, and to realize that not all of us are going to agree.

But having a tolerance for alternative ideas is ok. But, having a better understanding of the past mistakes and injustices, and acknowledging them is better.


I have always known that history is messy. And I think that is why I like it. I like that I get to learn about the past. And I enjoy it even more when those stories make me uncomfortable and question.


And I will admit, I like those stories more than I like today's news.


They are all related, and in the museum world, the old adage "we must learn about history or we are doomed to repeat it," still rings true.


It's time to open our minds more and our mouths less, and learn about more than just one side of the history story.


Because history is more than just one side of the story...even if we don't have an object or artifact to show for it. It is all our stories woven together.





















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