Museums for Everyone

A few years ago, my former roommate and I were talking about our crazy college escapades.   I began reminiscing about how fun it was to have friends over every Sunday for dinner and a drive in my Volkswagen Bus to the foothills.   Turns out, those people who came over were MY friends and that, in fact, my roommate couldn’t stand them.   She was just being polite and put up with them because she did not want to cause strife. I was shocked!   I had no idea that she had a different perspective from my rosy memories. All these years, I had assumed that she had the same view.

Every rural museum seems to have the same type of exhibits – the general store, a blacksmith shop, and an early American living space, such as a kitchen or living room.   So with this week’s question of politics in museums, I was wondering what political statement bland and boring exhibits are making. Initially, my thoughts turned to the idea that stale exhibits are a critique on the lack of state funding given to historical endeavors – but then, after the readings, I thought about WHAT collections are displayed and realized what these exhibits are “saying.” Whose history is being portrayed with the lavish living room, the general store, etc.? And even though I assumed that they reflect our collective history, more than often, they reflect MY history as a white, middle-class American. And just like my roommate, I assumed that these type of collections speak to everyone’s experience.

When I was looking for political neutrality in museums, a few interesting points emerged. Museums have been using the same model for so long that the underlying messages are not considered political, even though inherently they are. For example, a museum chock full of ancient goodies usually don’t mention that many of the artifacts were looted by a 19th century rich European man.   Or, if pieces are donated to the museum by a wealthy benefactor (with a prominent acknowledgement to said benefactor), what message does that give to the masses that live at the bottom of the hill?   My quest for an article about museum neutrality continues.

My favorite articles this week came from the Incluseum and Museum Commons. I felt that these articles gave great concrete ideas on how to bridge racial gaps in America’s narrative within the museum paradigm.   While other articles encouraged people to show indignation via social media or by wearing a T-shirt, it seems like those ideas are a tiny and temporary Band-Aid for a gaping wound. The Museum Commons acknowledged the importance of giving people a chance to voice their concerns, but stressed the importance of having a trained discussion leader in charge of the meeting, lest the meeting makes things worse. In turn, the Incluseum actually gave people a voice to many community members, so they could work through the feelings together. Also, the Incluseum has tried to foster a long-term relationship with the community so that when a controversial event happens, they are already seen as a compassionate place in which to discuss, not an entity that is trying to seem relevant and “cash-in” on tragedy. Finally, their programs that show the various ways that Seattle is becoming more inclusive and collaborative between groups is a great way for people to learn about the many positives that are going on.

This type of collaboration is imperative in order to create a museum space that reflects all of our histories

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