Museums, Part III

Museums have changed over the years, or at least what part of the public wants from museums has changed over the years. In Creating a New Business Model, Katherine Lee Reid is quoted commenting on the change she has witnessed within the museum in her own lifetime. She said, “Today the focus on the museum is on audience and the relationship of art to people. In my father’s day when he ran the museum, the focus was almost exclusively on the idea of art. This is a fundamental shift” (John Falk and Beverly Sheppard, pg. 379). This shift in how museums are perceived come to reflect the difficulties that present-day public historians face in the museum world. They must either adjust or completely change their business model in order to survive. The authors of the article explain how the outdated top-down business model common within many museums do not effectively take into count the customer’s in which they are meant to serve;this business model reflects the generation of Reid’s father. It is as the authors put it a “build it and they will come” approach (pg.382).  Museums that take this approach may count on large or exciting exhibits to attract their consumer base; by large or exciting exhibits I refer to perhaps a King Tut exhibit. In contrast, they maintain for a bottom-up model to be used. Through this model, Falk and Sheppard argue that the consumer must be emphasized through a system that takes the interactions of all environments or pieces of society into consideration.

Public historians must come to realize that the environment that they live in is in a constant state of change. By using a bottom-top model, public historians are able to create a model that is more receptive to change. Like all business models, it must be constructed to fit local conditions and be supported by the employees at the institution it is implemented in. without support from within, the chances of a business model succeeding, or any model for that model, is poor. A flexible business model will allow musuems the ability to handle unforseen situations such as the ups and downs of the economy in which they can thrive or die in.

Such as the business model must be relevant to the museum or institution that uses it, so too must the the artifacts be relevant to the consumer base those institutions cater to. In his article, Dan Spock presents an argument for this relevance. If the consumer base does not make a connection with the artifacts, the museum has failed. Many museums exist in order to serve the public. They accomplish this through both successfully perserving the artifacts and creating exhibits that draw in the public again and again. This is no easy task to accomplish, but this is a task that all public historians face.

The Business and Future of Museums

The terms “not for profit” and   “non-profit” always bring to mind one thing is that business entities such as these need to be able to sustain themselves financially.  They need to ensure that future funds can always come from numerous sources to be a vital part of the community.   Institutions (i.e. museums) need to have capital flow that is always coming in to take care of necessary expenses.  Capital has to be generated or gathered from outside sources so that salaries can be paid to those working at the institution.  Costs have to be evaluated from these funds so that the care of the physical structure of the institution can be taken care of.  Considerations have to be made to ensure that there is sufficient monies are in place to preserve and care for the materials that are kept in the institution.  Care and good business sense has to be used so that the themes of the institution are preserved as best as can be done with the funds that are given from the sources to run and maintain the institution.

I am in total agreement with the article that a business model is necessary and is in place so  when any question are asked about how the institution is ran, the person in charge can always refer to the business model that is in place.  Business models always follow the goal setting principle which is: plan, organize, and supervise and follow-up.  One must be able to stick to the business plan, yet be flexible to change the plan when the economy takes an upturn or a down turn.  Flexibility is the key to success here.

In the article, Museums and Libraries in the 21st Century, the themes seem to be taken directly from a university education class for students entering the teaching profession.  Literacy and accountability are the focal points of the article.  This makes sense because literacy and good leadership skills work well with each other so that the end goal can be attained.  Basic literacy skills are needed for those seeing the exhibits and good leadership in procuring and maintaining interesting exhibits will work best for the community’s social wellbeing.

Dan Spock anchored his blog post on the feeling of nostalgia.  His feeling for nostalgia seems to be the reason that museums exist.  So if the adage is true that we seek the past to unlock our future, then museums have an important place in our world to show the past and how it is relevant in our world today.

In the Futures of Museums blog, this blog has various writers show the futures of the museum system.  Some articles detail a bleak future like the movie, Blade Runner.  But the other articles seem to be more optimistic of a future like the one depicted in Star Trek.  I, for one, hope it is the latter.

Why don’t Historians Cry?

Perhaps historians don’t cry because they have little emotional connection with their subject.

Perhaps from years of logic, analysis and rational study we have trained ourselves against such purposeless reactions.

It was a scrumptious bit of irony that the name of the author defending nostalgia was Spock. On the other hand, in Star Trek VI, I believe it was that Spock actually seemed to develop an illogical response. Throughout the series, Spock served as both the logical informant and defender of human emotion. In In Defense of Nostalgia Dan Spock encourages the historian to remain in contact with that emotional connection to his subject, while also informing the public. He encourages museum workers (and by extension, I would suggest all public historians) to be both informant to the patron and defender of the his seeming irrational behavior. So, now that I have outed myself as a nerd…

So, why don’t we historians cry? Simply because it is illogical? Does emotion not have a place in a venerable institution that is the museum? Are we torn in the middle, knowing always that our reactions would be emotional if not for our careful analysis? Is it that internal conflict that keeps the tears at bay? Do we know so much about the past that we have, as Spock suggested, “Cauterized something in our own souls?” What might happen if a historian actually showed some emotion in a presentation? Should we not be moved to tears at the death of six million of a single ethnic group? Or the brutal torture of humanity that was slavery? Should we not despise the part of our own being that fears it might do the same in the same context? Yet it seems that these troubling emotions that we face, we tend to transform into anger and direct that toward the audience, as if they are the only beings capable of such atrocity. For me, I feel this is often the case. Somehow it is easier to believe that historians are wizards, somehow above that class of non-historical muggles with their absurd and uneducated approach to history, as if a story their grandpa told them could approach the edifice that is my own knowledge. But then I consider, if grandpa’s story of his childhood is not history, what is it? Is it fiction? Call it what you will, but I actually want to relate this to my current project which is oral history.

Historians talk about convergence of evidence, as if their job is more appropriately associated with criminal justice than humanities. Oral historians are repeatedly judged as lesser historians because they simply listen to stories, rather than do real historical research. This is a discussion in every oral history book I have read. The second discussion is a review of what history is. The difference between classical academic history and oral history is a matter of interpretation of the philosophy that drives the historian. It comes down to a basic understanding of whether the individual belongs in history or not. Spock touched on this issue too saying that history is discussed “as groups, as social classes” etc, and “rarely as individuals.” Yet the oral historian is entirely concerned almost exclusively with the individual. Most museum goers are not likely to tell their own story in terms of a social class, they will tell it in terms of what I will call the self-sun, the idea that history revolves around and acts in relation to me. Grandpa’s stories are a manifestation of my own identity. The activities that he took part in were not driven by a careful analysis of the circumstances, but his emotional reaction to stimuli. Likewise, his stories will be tainted with that emotion. Is that not history?–the telling of emotional reactions.

People want a museum where they can go to remember–a place they can experience, often emotionally, what their part is in this story of humanity. It is embarrassing for me to emotionally respond when my guide is a slate-faced, gray scale classifier. I at least want a place where my stories matter. I discovered recently, in searching through old Boise directories (for an entirely different reason) that my great-grandfather owned a business in a storefront on a street I drive nearly every day. The building is no longer there, but there is a story I have now. That is important to me. I would imagine that others are trying to find their connections as well. A museum, or a historical interpreter that cannot emotionally connect a person in relation to the history he is telling has failed to provide a useful experience for his audience. It would be great to have people who have gone through a museum provide a short description of what and how they connected, or if they did not connect. I have an inkling that most of their responses would be filled with “I” statements, and/or “My father told me…” or “An old family story goes…”. I bet few people would every give a dispassionate academic analysis of the old stuff in the museum.

Historians must find a way to relate emotionally, or at least provide a space for emotional reaction and connection within their discipline. Nostalgia must be made more central, stories must be told, people must be heard.

Public History Application Idea

Hi Everybody,

I found some inspiration for our Mobile App assignment and I wanted to share it with the class to see if anyone else might want to join me in brainstorming some ideas.

The Library of Congress recently published a “National Recording Preservation Plan.” available here:

In this doc, on page 30-31, they put out a list of software developments that they would like somebody to start working on:

” A collaborative effort is required to identify areas of greatest
need and to garner funding and support to develop the tools necessary in those areas.
Examples of software that would serve the audio preservation
community well include tools for the following purposes:
• Creation, extraction, and insertion of metadata into audio files and
the mutual exchange of that metadata with associated database or
collection management systems
• Conversion of proprietary EDL (edit decision list) formats of the
most commonly used DAW platforms to a standardized format
• Creation of integrity data when files are created or ingested into
a repository so that the data can be used to monitor the condition
and integrity of stored files
• Automated systems for file management, creation of derivatives,
and dissemination of assetsThe Library of Congress National Recording Preservation Plan 31
• Migration of digital assets throughout their life cycle as technology and formats become obsolete”

Please send me an email, or comment to this post if you would like to integrate these objectives into your App. At the first class, Niki and Ryan tentatively formed a group with me, so I would like to especially hear from those two if they see this post. My email address is, thanks!

Resources for February 11

Images from Mining the Museum

Comic book pages about Dina Gottliebova Babbitt 


NAGPRA case study

Reversing the Flow of Traffic in the Market of Cultural Property (read the section “Return of the Ahayu:da”)

(If you’re interested in the Ahayu:da repatriation by the Smithsonian, you might read this longer, much more detailed article about the transaction)

Notice of intent to repatriate under NAGPRA


Deaccessioning case studies

Little Bighorn flag at the Detroit Institute of Arts

Paintings at Randolph College 

Museum collections data

Reinventing the Museum – Week Two

This week’s readings offered an interesting examination of the ethical problems facing many museums.  The primary difficulty in dealing with these issues is attempting to determine what is ethical versus what is “legal”.  Ideally, the artifacts from Native American tribes should be returned to their rightful owners, whether that be the tribe itself or descendants.  Problems arise, however, when multiple tribes all lay claim to the same artifact or when there is no official, recognized group that represents the tribe in existence.  Do museums need to remove these objects from exhibits?  At what point does the educational benefit to the public outweigh the cultural traditions of the tribes?  If an item has no direct or easily discernible connection to a living member of the tribe, does it still need to be repatriated?

I also found the article on the issue of deaccessioning fascinating.  While all collections should be reevaluated in order to ensure that they are meeting the goals of the institution, I can see where problems could arise.  Something that could be viewed as having little to no value to a collection now could become quite a significant asset in the future.  On the other side, something that a museum elects to keep could later be found to be relatively inconsequential in the grand scheme of things.  Additionally, what if something a museum elects to deaccession is later found to be culturally significant to a group of people who demand that the item be repatriated to them?  Although I think we would all argue that the terms ethical and legal are very concrete, there appears to be a great deal of grey area surrounding them in the museum world that many people are trying to clarify.

Reinventing the Museum: Take Two

Many of the readings this week dealt with the ethical dilemmas museums are faced with in the 21st century.  These authors encourage museums to rethink most every aspect of their being.  According to the authors, existing laws have not sufficiently caught up with the times and museums must, of their own volition, strive to do the ethically sound thing when it comes to acquiring, deaccessioning, repatriating, displaying, and documenting artifacts.  The authors argue that museum leaders should feel compelled to act in an ethical manner in order to fulfill their goal to create “a society that respects and celebrates cultural pluralism.”  Many problems exist in the authors’ generalizations, particularly since ethics can be seen as a personal issue that individuals must contend with on a case by case basis.

As for repatriation, what happens if numerous Native American tribes lay claim to the same religious objects?  As for the museums, why should they be forced to give up valuable artifacts they have preserved for years?  How can museums continue to educate the public about the diversity that exists in this country if the only Native American artifacts that remain are seemingly insignificant (assuming, like the author, that tribes will only ask for items of utmost importance)?  If  the point of having artifacts in museums is to increase knowledge and showcase the artifacts to the most amount of people possible, how does repatriation serve those needs? The most ridiculous NAGPRA provision discussed in this article exists in the fact that objects, including human remains, can be retained “if a scientific study of national importance is being conducted” until the tests are finished!  How ethical…

The article discussing deaccessioning further delved into the differences between law and ethics in regards to museum artifacts.  I was pleasantly surprised to find out that “over 90 percent of the objects in United States museums have been donated.”  With this in mind, I see no reason why a museum should feel compelled to keep artifacts, storage space is only so large and  museums can only showcase so many artifacts at once.  Rather than muddying the waters with further legislative and bureaucratic hoops to jump through, I feel that museum curators and collectors should have the right to dispose of whatever artifacts they so choose.  Museums cannot be expected to keep every artifact donated to them just because they have possession of said artifact.  If museums discard important cultural artifacts, they risk losing clientele and much needed funding.  How can true diversity abound if museums are tied down to numerous laws and ethical codes disallowing them the cultural freedom necessary to educate the public in order to fulfill their missions?  These sentiments can be ascribed to documentation as well as displaying of artifacts within museums.

As for the article on acquiring artifacts, the author clearly feels that “there are gaps in the law” that must be accounted for by ethical decisions.  I understand that there are problems with museums actively seeking to pay for illegally obtained artifacts; however, if 90 percent of artifacts in museums are donated, I feel that museums should be able to accept artifacts, free of charge, without incessant research into how the previous owner obtained the artifact in question.  As for items museums already have, I see no reason to return each and every artifact to its “original owner.”  The older an artifact is, the more claimants there will be for ownership based upon prior ownership, ancestral ownership, national precedence…  Particularly in regards to artifacts a specific nation might have “prior ownership” of, who is to say that that entity was even a nation when the artifact was created? Who is to say that the artifact was not legally sold or bartered to a different national group or merchant? Who is to say that this nation will be able to preserve it well? (This is not meant to be Ethnocentric, but merely a historical realization; many documented cases of political regimes particularly in the Middle East and and Soviet Europe have purposefully ruined religious and cultural artifacts that can never be replaced).  Who is to say that the museum currently in possession, possession is 9/10 of the law, is not using the artifact in its best manner, educating the public about global history?

The most insightful article this week was the article on “Mining the Museum.”  At first I felt that I should copy this article and drop it off at the Idaho State History Museum, but then I realized that “only with the perspective and creative resources of an outsider could…[any museum] undertake as self-critical and creative a project as Mining the Museum.”  Having experienced the museum this past week, I realize that the Idaho State History Museum clearly falls outside of this realm.  I almost feel as if the Idaho State History Museum should be kept in its current state in order to continue to show future generations what museums used to look like.  In any case, anyone looking to transform this museum better contact Fred Wilson and a few more influential individuals if they hope to have any success.


Reinventing the Museum: Ethics

I found Deft Deliberations by Eco-Hawk and Monroe raised several questions for me.  I agree that NAGPRA was necessary and find it abhorrent that museums of the time engaged in what amounts to grave robbing.  It forced the profession to confront a not particularly shining moment of their own past and right that wrong.  Yet this particular legislation opens the door to some further issues.  What immediately springs to my mind is Kennewick Man.  The 9500 year old remains of K-Man sparked a 10 year court battle between local tribes and scientists over whether they should be studied or buried.  The knowledge that was gained through the study of this unique individual adds tremendously to the understanding of where we come from and who our ancient ancestors were.  Had he simply been buried, that knowledge would have been lost forever.  It raises the question of who history belongs to and how do we balance the needs of those who claim a direct link to the history with the needs of the public?  These are questions that we, as historians, must approach with respect and caution.

This leads directly into Mining the Museum.  The challenge of balance is faced by every museum in the world.  Who gets a say in how artifacts are interpreted, studied, and displayed?  Context is all important.  Without it artifacts become a jumbled collection that has little meaning.  Deciding what context should be used is part of the curator’s role.  When people find their historical beliefs challenged, the results can be educational, especially when those results include anger and denial.  Much can be learned by observing how visitors respond to the displays.  I believe that what Fred Wilson did opened to door to some difficult conversations about our past, how we interpret it, and how people cling to ideals of what the past looks like.  Mining the Museum is an example of a display that challenges people to view their belief systems in a new context.  By changing the way the material culture of the area was seen, the museum gave voice to people who had never really had their history examined in such a context.  I am glad that this article included both the positive and negative responses to Mining the Museum.  My favorite quote was from the engineer who stated that “a museum should answer questions not raise questions unrelated to the subject.”  I think that Mining the Museum both raised questions and answered them, and did so in a way that made museum visitors uncomfortable at times.

Reinventing the Museum, Scene II

Phelan, Monroe and Echo-Hawk focus their essays on museum ethics and repatriation of artifacts.  Both pieces discussed the inherent issues behind the accidental or purposeful acquisition of stolen artifacts and then the repatriation of said artifacts to their rightful owners. While the issue can often have black or white examples, I feel that the authors did not explore the gray areas quite thoroughly enough. I know both essays had a word limit and all the authors involved needed to get their point across very quickly, and therefore would like to see if they cover the issue better in other works. The gray area, in my opinion, is that of preservation of the artifact. Repatriation from US museum artifacts back to American tribes is pretty cut and dry, but what about museums like the British Museum that contain artifacts from all over the world? Greece’s Parthenon is beautifully displayed in its own section of the British Museum, yet Greece has been trying to get their artifacts back for many years. Many countries have stolen Egyptian antiquities that obviously belong to the country of Egypt. In many cases, however, the artifacts repatriation would end in the destruction or damage of the artifact. Greece is completely broke and Egypt is a military dictatorship at the moment. Returning any artifacts to these countries would not bode well for the artifact’s continued existence.


These are extreme examples, to be sure, but should there be some question of ethics behind the preservation of artifacts as much as to whom they belong? To be honest here, I’m not sure what the correct answer is. A Crow headdress may belong to the tribe, but they may not have the ability or motivation to preserve the headdress in a way that it would survive the test of time. Should there be some guarantee of preservation or care? Or do the ethics of returning items to the original owner overshadow those questions and thoughts? Dr. Zahi Hawass was instrumental in the repatriation of many artifacts back onto Egyptian soil, yet most of his work has been damaged, destroyed, or stolen with the recent turn of Egyptian politics. Is there ever a guarantee of preservation when you’re letting one of your artifacts move to another space? I’m very interested to hear what you all have to say about this issue in class or perhaps in different articles for class.

Ethics and Laws

There was some discussion in the readings this week about ethics vs. legality. This is a discussion that I frequently like to visit and consider in my own time. I find ethical considerations in general quite fascinating, mostly because it seems to be so important to peoples’ individualities. At the same time those individuals believe that their precedents are universal, or can at least be more broadly applied. This dichotomy seems to occur in many places—I am reminded of my own behavior saying that there are different historical interpretations to an issue, while at the same time ardently arguing for only one: usually my preferred interpretation. While there was a discussion in Deaccesioning about the difference between legal standard and ethical standards, it seems that most of those ethical standards derive from some legal basis. That is to say that when I consider it unethical to sell an artifact on the open market, I find the grounds for that ethic with an allusion to theft. Perhaps this is just the effects of growing up in a society that is completely saturated with the idea of law—a republic. Or perhaps it is something more. That is a discussion for another day, so you just read all of that to whet your appetite for what I really wanted to discuss: who owns the truth?


In Mining the Museum the question was asked, “Do museums have corners on historical ‘Truths’?” I believe this to be possibly the most important question that can be asked in consideration of public history. A shift has taken place in museums over the ages. They have gone from giant collections used mostly as bases for classification to interpretive devices (this was discussed last week). Generally truth is talked about in terms of interpretation. If that is the case, then it seems museums—and by extrapolation the historians working in those museums—are putting themselves in an extremely precarious position of dividing truth. If people trust museums to provide some sort of truth, and we as historians believe that truth to be a matter of interpretation, then are we not presenting a mere representation of the truth? And if this is the case and we are knowingly presenting something that is a matter of interpretation as truth, is that not deceptive? Is it then ethical to allow people to believe that what they are seeing is truth? The answer to this seems to be a disclaimer—a legal liability limiter. So we are right back at law versus ethics.


So this leads me to consider another issue and that is whether I am using law as a convenient cop out of the ethical quandary that is so often public history. In Deaccessioning the suggestion was presented to create written ethics standards. Perhaps ironically that sounds a lot like a legal codex. The discussion becomes further muddled when one realizes that it is extremely difficult to create ethical standards or legal standards for every situation. The ramifications for these questions crosscut every section of public history, from questions of artifacts—where they came from and who they belong to and how they were acquired—to administration—who owns the museum and their right to direct the presentation. While it seems that drawing a line between ethics and law is a solution, there seems to be a very practical and necessary relationship between the two and public historians ought to consider the cross-section or these.