Timothy Luke has a unique and interesting perspective when it comes to museums. While some of the debates he presented have been familiar to me, other arguments about the underlaying political agenda of museums have been really thought-provoking. I think Luke does a good job of exploring the ideas behind controvercial exhibits and proving his argument with them, but he seems to forget that the vast majority of musems around the country are small or mid-size museums that rarely have these heated debates reagarding exhibit content. I don’t know if this weakens his thesis, but it does seem to show an area that he could have at least tried to explore. More than anything, it makes the constant tight-rope walk of exhibit curation seem a little more daunting.
The chapters about “The Crossroads” exhibit and those at the National Museum of American Art and The Autry Museum were particularly interesting to me. All three exhibits that are discussed are ones that are very well known in the museum world. Just saying the words “Enola Gay Exhibit” to a curator will often get a reaction. I think because of a few things: first, it was a well researched exhibit depicting history that’s important to our culture. Second, the lesson curators wanted people to walk away with (the consequences of dropping the bombs, how that related to the Cold War and its relevancy to life in 1995) was a good one. Third, museums have to be as objective as possible, and choosing words like “vengeance” when it comes to war doesn’t show impartiality. While I think everyone understands the gravity of dropping the bombs, I also know that people don’t want to be made into the bad guy when they thought they were being heros. It all goes back to the balancing act that museums have to perform everytime a new exhibit comes along.
I say this with complete awareness of my bias– I’m a little sad to read that, because of Luke’s arguments, people are now questioning the objectivity of museums. This is the theme I keep coming back to I guess– there is a very fine line that museums have to find, balancing between visitor appeal and historical accuarcy. We always have to ask ourselves “How do I make this relevant? How can I say what needs to be said in just a few lines of text? What artifact will reflect this topic?” I can confidently say that it would be impossible to have an exhibit that everyone was happy with. Despite all of that, I don’t know a single professional that would purposely make an exhibit that was completly bias or one-sided. No exhibit is perfect or can show every aspect in a complete way, which is one of the hurdles museums have to overcome.
Timothy Luke’s book, Museum Politics, intellectually pushed me this week. Despite having a love for museums and attending them across the US and Europe, I never thought or viewed them through a political ideological lens. While Luke’s stylistic approach was rather combative, he brings up relevant questions and issues in regards to museums, culture representation and history.
The two readings that resonated with me were chapter one, “Politics at the Exhibition” and chapter two, “Nuclear Reactions.” These chapters prompted me to ponder how one could successfully balance a national narrative of celebration with a new social history methodology that brings forth untold or formerly unwanted stories. Luke provided ample examples of where exhibitions were unsuccessful at this bridging, but I wonder if there are instances where this was successfully done. And if so, what were their strategies or techniques? More than anything these readings encouraged me to think about what kind of methods have previously been employed and what can be learned from them. It seems more than anything both sides of the cultural spectrum need to be open to opposing interpretations, and energy should be put forth toward solving the problem, not running farther to the left or the right.
A side thought of mine this week was about history in our public school education. Chapters one and two made think about whether or not our education system is facilitating a variety of historical perspectives, e.g. Japanese WWII perspective. Surely introduction of historical diversity would foster the ability to cognitively understand the importance of coupling celebrative and realist perspectives. Wishful thinking, perhaps.
The theme I found interesting for this week’s reading was that museums are places that perpetuate political and ideological agendas of particular people and institutions. According to Luke, their exhibits, and sometimes their entire collection, portray one set of values. This came as a surprise to me, since I figured museums were objective, and picked exhibits that would appeal to the widest audience.
The other part of this reading that I found interesting was about the exhibit that explored the West and the various ways that it has been romanticized. The dichotomy of the real western frontier and the hollywood version are concepts that I have come across before, but that helped me read this book because I understood better how the museum was criticizing the inherent view of the West. It also reminded me of the West as a place, and as a concept. That’s where the Virginian comes in comparison to this reading, where an Eastern writer portrays “western” values and the epitome of a man, and how that gets perpetuated through time. I honestly want to keep my inherited visions of the West, while at the same time understanding the truth and how the preconception I have was started.
In addition, I am very interested on the role museums play to create the “ideal” citizen by what they display and the values that the artifact/artwork perpetuates. The concept of museums as places that sterilize and purify the versions of history or values they want to portray intrigued me. This is just a side note, and not a fully developed concept in my mind that I can express eloquently. I have come across schools as places that create the “ideal” citizen, so I am intrigued how both work together since school children visit museums (or did at one time) to tag team the creation of responsible citizens.
Timothy W. Luke’s interpretation of museum politics in these chapters gave an inconclusive view on how a museum should be handled. As of yet I do not think he answered the question on what is the “right way” to manage museum politics. He makes several points that illustrate questions that curators and historians should ask about themselves. He states on page 3 “the curators pose as unseen seers, and then fuse their visions with authority.” It is a “power” that, I believe, is being misused by historians and politicians to display an “Americaness” vision of U.S. history. He demonstrates the attempt to fix this misuse in the varying museum exhibitions that have been denied in major museums or quickly closed. I am troubled by the idea that there is a “right way” to display history. Luke explained that several of these exhibit’s scripts give attention to several different sides of the story but I have to ask is it possible to include every aspect available? I do not think so. After reading the grant proposal for the Boise wiki, I believe that if we can see continued success with local wikis it can be translated to museum wikis. Similar to the idea of the Historic Saranac Lake wiki, I would hope that we could create interconnected local museum wikis. This then would allow for those wishing to contribute or those that believe a certain aspect of an exhibit was missing to include their thoughts, memories, or research of the topic. Perhaps in the un-edited world of wiki we could overcome the politics that limit new and “offending” exhibits.
I agree with LauriAnn that Luke (what a wonderful name!!) somewhat overstates the case for the importance of museums. Rather than being “venues where many key cultural realities are first defined,” museums seem to reflect cultural realities that have long since been defined and integrated into the dominant forms of power. Instead of being an engine at the forefront of cultural reality definition museums could be better understood as the cultural caboose.
This is seen in both of the controversial exhibits Luke provides as evidence. The revisionist interpretations in both “The West as America,” and the proposed Hiroshima exhibit had long been created and defined by such popular discourses as Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States and by social history in our own profession. The reason for the controversy associated with these exhibits was that each side had substantial power behind it-the conservatives so just happened to be running congress at the time of the Hiroshima exhibit.
Luke also appears wide of the mark on the nature of entertainmentality and its relationship to museums. Entertainmentality-which Luke defines as practices that keep us held in some mutually prespecified manners- likely is much different in a democratic and free market society-where institutions must compete for people’s time, votes, or money, than it is described by Luke. The voluntary and competitive nature of American entertainmentality is anything but confinement/containment/occupation. Because of the democratic-in the political sphere-and the competitive-in the economic and temporal spheres-museums have to provide historical narratives and cultural artifacts that reflect the ways patrons want to spend their time, votes, and money. Museums have to be both democratic and competitive to succeed in a politically and economically free society.
On a final note: The usefulness of Foucault needs to be reexamined by academics in the humanities and social sciences. I realize he can help us justify our social value when confronted by the natural sciences-discourse anyone-but otherwise using Foucault seems little more than profoundly self-serving.
I struggled to accept the original premise of this book that Americans’ derive their understanding of history from museums. Most of the examples given about controversial museum exhibits seemed to predate the rise of easy access to information via the internet. I love history and I cannot remember the last time I went to a museum. I feel like most Americans derive their understandings of history from high school or college experiences, political versions of history, and television/internet.
I found the chapter about the Fred Harvey Museum fascinating. It seemed to encompass the problem that faces public history of all kinds. History must be marketed, commodified, and sold to a general audience in order to justify funding it. In the case of the Harvey Museum, Native Americans of the Southwest had their diverse cultures condensed into one compelling story of turquoise jewelery, pottery, and kachinas that favors the traditions and material culture of some tribes over others. The controversial exhibit of “The West as America” shows that a “wrong” interpretation of history can be just as bad as trying to tell a more nuanced and diverse story of the Southwest. The stories behind why we need these narratives of rugged western artists and mysterious Indian basket weavers can be as compelling as the truth. I would be interested to see a positive example of a museum exhibit that was able to convey a more accurate or reflective version of history that appealed to the public; Timothy Luke did not really give any examples in the chapters we looked at.
This book/work/project/treatise by Luke so enriched my “thinking process” regarding the importance of “museums” to culture–and, indeed, “culture” to museums. While (perhaps) the most practical use I obtained from the selected chapters was the implication that (we as) public historians should not write in Luke’s “style” if we wish our work to appeal to a broad/public demographic/audience-ness, the book does make some important points amidst all of its Andersonian jargon.
I must admit that I have never given much thought to the symbiotic relationship between culture and museums, despite my enthusiastic belief in the importance of museums. This book was valuable to me because Luke articulates (if you can call it that) exactly why they are important and how our cultural and political identities are formed by our museum experiences–and vice versa.
It seems like an impossible task to reconcile what museums feel they need to impart with the differing political views and agendas of the public. I can’t help but think that museums should attempt to remain as neutral as possible in their portrayals of the past. Though it is noble to want to foster an aura of intellectualism among museum-goers (“But I want them to think!” the Smithsonian curator implied during the debate over the Enola Gay exhibit), a simple, balanced presentation may in fact do that better than any number of controversial interpretations which just serve to “induce rage,” as Luke states.
Like it or not, the existence of museums depends on their patrons, and thus they must cater to what the public wants (such as commodified Native American material culture), or doesn’t want (such as reminders of their country’s historical imperfections). As Luke notes, the artifacts themselves are “cenotaphs” of the past; the only way to avoid conflict is to allow the public to interpret the contents themselves. Blatantly advocating certain interpretations of the past–no matter how accurate they may be–seems only to endanger museum attendance (and tax dollars). In the end–though perhaps I am being naive–the public is more likely to be inspired to learn and think critically about an exhibit if the information is presented impartially. Is it possible to create a completely impartial exhibit? Perhaps the cyborgs of the future will be able to do a better job of it than human curators…