Should Museums Rethink Black History Month?

As February draws to a close, and with it another Black History Month, I’ve been reflecting on how museums recognise this celebration of black achievements, contributions, and stories. In 2017, museums observed Black History Month in many different ways – from sharing relevant artefacts on social media, to black history gallery trails, to online exhibits, to special events, and more. I’ve enjoyed seeing more diversity on museum Twitter feeds recently (not to mention I’m a lifelong fangirl of Ella Fitzgerald):

Originally started in the United States as Negro History Week in 1926 by black historian and writer Carter G. Woodson, it’s transformed into an international movement observed by governments, cultural organisations, charities, schools, and businesses alike.

So it’s an easy win for museums trying to promote equality and diversity, right?

Actually, it’s not that simple. Not everyone thinks Black History Month is a good idea, and others suggest we need to rethink the way we celebrate it.

I grew up and continue to live in very multicultural neighbourhoods, and studied Black American and colonial histories at university. But I’m still a white female with no firsthand experience of what it means to be black. The best way for me to write about museums and Black History Month is to share the perspectives of others.

What I learned might surprise you.


Some people support museums celebrating Black History Month, but are disappointed by the approaches they have seen:

“If museums want to learn how not to respond, look at how Vice President Mike Pence responded when he twitted [sic] about Abraham Lincoln freeing slaves. He didn’t recognise what black people have done to win their freedom. Instead he perpetuated the white saviour complex, as if we have white people to thank for our freedom, instead of speaking on what POC have done. If museums decided to respond they should make space for POC to express their history and their truth. What I have noticed is many people who don’t understand the black experience tend to shut POC down but in order for museums to respond well they first need to listen to learn.” Dianna, a museums and community engagement worker in the UK

“Those first historians unearthed a great cast list of black figures from the British past, and many of the organisers of Black History Month began to place these biographies at the centre of their celebrations. But somewhere along the line those black historical figures morphed into black heroes. Black History Month…might be better called Black Heroes Month….while there is some impressive research going on into various aspects of black history, the celebration of heroes has at times limited our idea of what black history might be.”David Olusoga, a historian and broadcaster. Originally published in The Guardian.

While others are on the fence about whether museums should participate:

“If a museum is only highlighting black history for one month of the year, I think it can seem kind of patronising. It’s tricky though, because the status quo now is to celebrate it and so not participating could be viewed as unsupportive. Black History Month can seem tokenistic sometimes, but getting rid of it could send a bad message.”A museum visitor 

Some even think the concept of a dedicated Black History Month is detrimental to social justice:
“I believe that having a month for black history compartmentalizes the issue, as if once the month is over we can turn our attention away from it again until the next year…It is important to discuss issues of race in the context of current events throughout the year”  – Zia Hassan, a teacher in the U.S. Originally published in The Atlantic.
“There was always a focus on the civil-rights movement and it was as if black history stopped once Dr. King died…we rarely learned about anyone new from year to year, and we also didn’t get a context of different time periods.”Raquel Willis, a writer and activist in the U.S. Originally published in The Atlantic.

What I’ve found through my conversations and research is that observing Black History Month is far from an “easy win”. Museums and other cultural institutions need to think carefully about why they will celebrate it, how they will avoid being tokenistic and patronising, what they will do to involve black voices in their plans, and if diversity will be on the agenda the other 11 months of the year. 
Have you seen any good (or bad) examples of museums celebrating Black History Month this year? Please share in the comments below!

Museums are the Biggest Job Creator You’ve Never Heard Of

OK museums, it’s time to talk money.

I don’t mean admission fees or fundraising drives. I’m talking about all the money museums generate for local, national, and global economies. If you haven’t yet found a resolution for 2017, make it to spread the word that museums are important for the economy.

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Museums are non-profits, with most relying on grants, donations, and ticket sales to keep their doors open. Yet government funding to museums is being cut in many countries. It’s often seen as a ‘soft’ money-saving option, more palatable and re-election safe than cutting hospital staff or free school meals. Even as a museophile, I can’t deny that museums seem less essential than hospitals, schools, or roads. I often hear museum workers fretting that the impact museums have is unquantifiable, hindering their grant applications and fundraising drives.

The good news is that’s not true. Many of the economic benefits of museums have been quantified. Now it’s time for governments, industries, and individuals to recognise it.

I started thinking about this while completing a museum learning project, realizing how many people we had employed for just one 6-month venture on a tiny budget. Between the learning films we produced, the tablets we with used with students, the posters we printed, and photography and videography to capture the event, we employed at least 10 businesses and 9 people (that’s not including museum staff). The project also provided 2 volunteer opportunities.

In England, museums directly spend £1.45 billion every year. As for the money other organisations and individuals give to museums: every £1 invested in the industry produces £3 for the economy. So museums aren’t just great places to learn about money, like at the Science Museum pictured below, but to make money too.

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Phillips Economic Computer at the Science Museum, 2016. Author’s photo.

Sporting events like football, rugby, and – in my own neighbourhood of Wimbledon – tennis, are considered crucial to the economy because of the crowds they bring in. Yet UK museums attract over 100 million visits each year, more than all live sporting events in the country combinedAnd this isn’t just a case of nerdy Brits; US museums enjoy nearly twice as many visits per year as all major sporting events and theme parks combined. Take that, Disneyland.

Museums bring the vital lifeblood of funding and tourism to rural and suburban areas. They encourage regeneration of buildings, amenities, and communities that might otherwise be left behind. They are one of the biggest tourism stimulators in every country I researched for this post.

Museums are also important contributors to to scientific and technological innovations. For example, the Natural History Museum in London has in-house research labs studying molecular sciences, ore mineralogy, and more.

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Museums protect priceless buildings and objects, like this Bernini sculpture at Versailles. Author’s photo.

In England alone, the museum sector employs nearly 40,000 people in more than 2600 organisations, not to mention providing volunteer and internship opportunities. In the United States, museums provide more than 400,000 jobs and directly contribute $21 billion to the national economy each year. In Australia, 200,000 jobs and over $4 billion in direct economic contributions have not stopped their government from reducing funding to the sector by $100 million. Can any developed country really afford to jeopardize such a valuable part of the economy?

The UK creative and cultural sector accounts for 7.3% of the national economy, which is comparable to the financial services industry. If governments can justify spending billions on stabilizing big banks by arguing they are vital to the economy, a similar argument can be made for the heritage sector. Research shows that museums enjoy an average 80% satisfaction rate from their users. Can the same be said for the banking industry?

It’s time to change the perception that museums and culture are separate from economic concerns, or a drain on tax revenue. In an increasingly volatile world, the monetary and social value of museums is one of the safest investments a government can make.

Still not convinced that museums create jobs and boost the economy? Check out this awesome infographic from the American Alliance of Museums to find out even more ways these special places benefit everyone.

10 Reasons 2016 was Great for Museums

With all the lamentation about the past year on the internet recently (if I read “damn you 2016” one more time, I may explode from the repetitiveness), I felt inspired to highlight 10 great things that happened in the museum world this year.

1. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art re-opens after three year closure

After shutting (and demolishing) its doors in 2013 for a major expansion project, SFMOMA re-opened on May 14 2016 with three times more gallery space, 45,000 square feet of free public art space, and guaranteed free admission for visitors under 18 forever. Residents and visitors in San Francisco will be thrilled to have use of this great museum again, now better than ever.

2. Tate Modern’s Switch House expansion is completed

The massive expansion of London’s Tate Modern art gallery was finally opened to the public in June this year. The Switch House, as the new extension is called, adds 60% more exhibition space to the gallery and yet another architectural marvel to enjoy in central London. Here’s the best part – it’s still completely free to visit.

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The new Switch House extension at Tate Modern, August 2016. Author’s photo.

3. Xi’an Beilin Museum’s resident cats saved from eviction

OK, so maybe this story isn’t the most important museum development, but it sure is heartwarming. The Xi’an Beilin Museum in Shaanxi province, China is home to a beloved community of stray cats. But after a visitor complaint in July, the museum announced it would remove and re-home the animals. Luckily for the kitties, thousands of people joined an internet campaign to allow the cats to remain. Museum staff were “moved” by the reaction and reversed their decision. A small but memorable example of public activism informing museum policy!

4. Sir John Franklin’s missing shipwreck HMS Terror is discovered

Nearly 170 years after Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated expedition to find the Northwest Passage, Parks Canada and collaborators discovered the wreck of the HMS Terror in the Canadian Arctic Ocean in September. The Terror was the only remaining ship of Franklin’s still missing. The other vessel HMS Erebus had been found in 2014. The mission to find Franklin’s two ships, which are significant to Canadian, British, and Inuit history, began in 2008. I can’t wait until some of the salvaged artefacts will be ready for public display.

5. The National Museum of African American History and Culture opens at last

Thirteen years after the concept was authorised by then US President George W Bush, the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) was finally opened on September 24 in Washington DC by President Barack Obama, lead architect David Adjaye, and other influential figures. The museum fills a significant gap in the Smithsonian’s offer and is, in the words of President Obama, “central to the American story.” So far NMAAHC has received rave reviews. I personally can’t wait to visit next time I am in town.

6. France increases cultural funding to €2.9 billion

In October, France’s Minister of Culture and Communication promised to “substantially” increase funding for museums and galleries. She acknowledged that French museums are facing new challenges because of security concerns, and pledged a 5% increase in museum funding and a 12% increase for new object acquisitions. This new budget will be the largest ever dedicated to the arts in the nation’s history, and should hopefully help French museums attract more visitors.

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Still plenty of tourists (like me) at the Louvre, December 2016. Author’s photo.

7. Over 1000 heritage sites placed on Historic England’s protection list

From a women’s prison to Victorian lampposts to 18th-century artificial beehives, Historic England added more than 1000 new places to its growing list of protected heritage sites in 2016. This will ensure the survival of more historically significant places for future generations to learn from and enjoy.

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Brighton Pier, a protected historic site, August 2016. Author’s photo.

8. Feathered dinosaur tail is discovered in Myanmar

If you head straight for the fossil displays when you visit a museum, then this story is for you. In December Lida Xing and colleagues from the China University of Geosciences reported their discovery of fragments of a dinosaur tail in amber, complete with visible feathers! The fragments, found in Myanmar, are the first of their kind to be discovered in amber. Hopefully there are even more exciting dinosaur discoveries in 2017.

9. The Art Fund increases prize money for Museum of the Year award

UK museums will now benefit from a 40% increase in Museum of the Year prize money, the Art Fund charity announced in December. Adding to the existing £100,000 pot for first place, four runner-up museums will now receive £10,000 each. The Fund is also looking to support shortlisted museums to expand opportunities for visitors with autism and dementia. Thanks for spreading the love, Art Fund!

10. Vatican Museums appoints its first female director

Barbara Jatta, Italian art historian and long-term employee of the Vatican, will be the new head of the renowned Vatican Museums. At just 54 years of age (relatively young to be head of a large museum), she is more than 20 years younger than the current director, 77-year-old Antonio Paolucci. Hopefully Jatta will bring new, exciting perspectives to this traditional institution. The Vatican Museums includes the Sistine Chapel and is one of the largest museums in the world with 4.35 miles of exhibition space. The Vatican announced Jatta’s appointment on December 20.

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Vatican Museums entrance, July 2015. Author’s photo.

What other great museum news from 2016 have I missed? Add it in the comments or tweet me @aehibbins.

P.S. This list is ordered by chronology, not significance.

Mathematics is Mostly Friendly at the Science Museum

Mathematics is dull, confusing, and basically irrelevant to anyone outside of science and technology, right?

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Mathematics: The Winton Gallery at Science Museum. Author’s photo.

Wrong. I recently discovered this at a sneak preview of Mathematics, the much-anticipated new permanent gallery at London’s Science Museum.

This is a space for people like me. People who wish they knew more about math but are anxious they won’t understand. People who love museums and history but feel out of place at a science or technology museum. People – especially women – who weren’t encouraged to pursue math by their teachers, as if it were a secret club to which only a select few were invited. I’ve written about museum anxiety before, and Mathematics does an excellent job of making an unfriendly topic more accessible.

I’ve disliked math since my teenage years. I nearly flunked out in high school, even with an army of extra tutors. My grade 11 algebra teacher congratulated me for getting 52% on the final exam. For him, that was the highest an artsy hippy like me was expected to achieve. Like many others, I’ve carried this anxiety about mathematics into adulthood. I panic at anything beyond adding or subtracting historical dates. My restaurant tips oscillate between incredibly generous and unfairly stingy. I’m not ashamed to count on my fingers if needed. Bragging about mathematical ineptitude has even become a badge of pride for many arts workers.

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Phillip’s 1949 Economic Computer, which models how a national economy works using water to represent the flow of money. Author’s photo.

How refreshing then, that Mathematics is a departure from every expectation; indeed, from the typical Science Museum experience overall. Designed by Zaha Hadid Architects, the gallery is an otherworldly oasis of calm in a museum that is often crowded and noisy. It targets adults and older youth, a welcome expansion beyond the museum’s young family audience. Each object in Mathematics is carefully chosen to tell a story, creating an elegant, uncluttered space that doesn’t overwhelm. Because the gallery is organised by theme rather than chronology, it encourages visitors to choose their own path through the space. This cuts down on confusion, bottlenecks, and the need for additional signage.

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According to Zaha Hadid Architects, the gallery’s layout and curved sculpture were “driven by equations of airflow used in the aviation industry”. Author’s photo.

Mathematics has one surprising weakness: it is missing objects and stories from non-Western cultures. A 17th-century astrolabe from Lahore is featured, but Western, white, and male contributions tell most of the gallery’s story. Where are the navigational formulas of Polynesian seafarers? The number systems of the ancient Sumerians, who gave us the abacus and time measurements in units of 60? The long history of mathematical innovations in China? The geometrical designs of the Haida Nation and others? This missed opportunity is a shame, given how well-suited the universality of mathematics is for telling diverse, international stories.

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17th-century astrolabe made by Jamal al-Din ibn Muquin, with interactive panel explaining how it is used. Author’s photo.

Despite this omission, Mathematics is still a refreshing addition to the Science Museum and London museum circuit. As a math-anxious person, it encouraged me to connect with the story of mathematics. It asked provocative questions, and gave me new insights into familiar objects. It also changed my perspective on the Science Museum itself, as a place that can cater to adult audiences as well as young families.

In short, mathematics can be friendly.

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Enjoy the peaceful flow. Author’s photo.

What’s it Like to Work for…Museum Hack?

Last week I (virtually) sat down with Dustin Growick, Audience Development and Team Lead for Science at New York-based tour and consulting company Museum Hack, to have a transatlantic Skype chat about engaging with millennials and challenging the traditional museum experience.

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Public art in Austin TX, 2015. Author’s photo.

I must admit that I initially had a few reservations about the company’s unconventional approach to museum education. While I’m a big supporter of visitor interaction and play in museums, as an outside observer I found some of Museum Hack’s themes and strategies somewhat superficial. However, after drilling down into Museum Hack’s approaches and philosophy, Dustin started to convince me that they are making traditional museums more welcoming and accessible to new audiences.

“This is a place for you just like it is for everyone else.”

As a lifelong museum visitor and heritage professional, I’m not the target Museum Hack audience (and if you’re reading this super nerdy museum blog, you probably aren’t either). I learned from this interview that Museum Hack tours aren’t for people like me, they’re for the millions of individuals who don’t want (or know how) to engage with art, artefacts, and exhibits. Museum Hack programming may seem silly or frivolous on the surface, but it can act as a crucial gateway that many museums have struggled to provide for themselves. My chat with Dustin showed me the valuable role they can play to make people feel more comfortable in museums.

Here is an abridged version of my interview with Dustin, with minor edits in the interests of brevity and clarity:

Ashleigh: Could you explain in a sentence or two what Museum Hack is?

Dustin: Museum Hack is a band of renegade tour guides, but really young, really enthusiastic, curious, passionate New Yorkers who use the Met [Metropolitan Museum of Art] – well not just New York anymore, we’re in D.C. and San Francisco now – we use the museums as cultural playgrounds to lead 2 hour museum adventures. I don’t even call them tours, I call them “2 hour museum adventures” because they definitely subvert the expectations of what a museum tour would be. I think the primary two things that we focus on are:

  1. Telling tremendous stories. We focus on how you craft incredibly fun and engaging narratives that show people the points of personal relevancy that get them excited and bought in.
  2. We make sure everyone who comes on our tours gets to actively participate in the creation of the meaning of their experience. We try to give people agency. We recognize that if you are not already bought in, we want to give you some sort of agency to experience a place on your terms. So we do a lot of games, activities, and challenges that are interactive and social and allow people to take some ownership, so it’s not simply a unilateral delivery of information for two hours.

A: What do you do at Museum Hack?

D: I’m part of the Audience Development team, so my role – in addition to still doing tours at the Museum of Natural History and the Met 2 to 4 times a week – is talking to museums around the world about how we can work with them to help them get new audiences. We do that through professional development workshops…we work with museums to develop Young Professionals programmes, we work with them to reimagine what their programming and events look like…we’ll do talks and presentations as a “re-fall in love with your museum” type of thing, really anything that helps people rethink what the museum experience is and ultimately get new audiences through the door.

A: Very cool. So from what I can see, Museum Hack has a really strong focus on millennial audiences and getting them engaged with museums. Why do you focus on millennials, and what tactics do you use to engage them specifically?

D: We focus on millennials first because we are them. Everyone who works at Museum Hack loves museums, and I think a lot of us recognize that these are places that our friends aren’t going, and we don’t see a lot of people our age there. Museums do a great job engaging families, school groups, older people…if museums don’t do something now and start courting millennials, we’re the next generation of donors and docents, so we want to get people involved now.

Millennials are inundated with choices, so its not like the museum is just competing with going to a movie or an amusement park – you’re competing with Netflix, with hundreds of thousands of options of Yelp. We want to show people that this is a place that relates to their life, and we do that by giving them agency, and allowing them to create meaning within the experience…I think in most museums there’s still a unilateral delivery of information. If I’m not already really excited to learn about Byzantine brushstrokes, then I’m not going to come. We have to entertain and engage people first before we get to the point where they’re actually going to be bought in for longer term learning and love the museum. We do that by being fast-paced [and] through smart use of smartphones. Smartphones are a great tool for getting people to not only just socially interact more between each other at the museum, but also look closer at the art…millennials are going to have their phones quite literally in their hand at almost any moment, so how do you use that as a tool to get them excited and bought in?

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Rijksmuseum, 2015. Author’s photo.

A: Do you ever have issues with different museums you work with about using smartphones and taking photos in the galleries? Certain museums are still quite strict about photography policies.

D: For the most part the museums we work with recognise what we do and how we do it…Any museum educator or docent wants people to come and forge an immediate connection with a piece of art…and think long and hard about what this artist meant, and how they feel about it. If you tell someone to find something and go do that, it’s a non-starter. If you tell them to take their phone and find the weirdest looking face in this portrait gallery, take a picture of it, and come back…we pair people up with a thing called “Matchmaker,” where they make up the epic love story that brought these two people together. This is silly and ridiculous, but now these people are interacting; they’re both talking about different pieces of art; they have to look closer not only at the piece they chose, but also at something someone else chose; and, they compare and contrast and make up a story about it. Now they’re engaged, and relating their lives to the art…it starts with meeting people at their own likes.

A:  In your video on the Museum Hack website, you talk about leading tours that are “subversive adventures”. How do you make your tours subversive?

D: We subvert expectations of what a tour even is. We start that from the very beginning of the tour…everyone on the tour puts their hands in the middle, like a sports team, and we do a cheer….right from the get-go you’re setting the tone that we’re all in this together and this is going to be a social experience…we’re going to have a ton of fun, we’re going to do this weird thing together…it’s not going to be what your normal tour looks like. Adults don’t play games in art museums, but we use games ultimately as teaching tools.

Another way we subvert expectations is to tell the stories that either you won’t hear on tour, or you are specifically not allowed to hear on tour. We’re going to talk about the scandalous back stories behind the art, or the relations that happen between the people that made it, or why a particular curator has done this.

A: I find children are often given lots of opportunities in museum programming to engage with material in a way that is fun and interactive, but for adults it doesn’t happen that often. It sounds like from the start of the tour, you’re giving permission for adults to actually interact and have fun too.

D: Exactly…I think that’s one of the things that makes it work. We subvert that – whether it’s real or perceived – boundary to engage. “I don’t know anything about art, this is a very serious historic place, I have to leave my phone inside” – no, this is a place for you just like it is for everyone else. You can have fun in here, you can loosen up, and have a good time.

A: In a TEDx talk last year, your founder Nick Gray talks about tours needing to be more about storytelling and less about art history. Is there a risk of cherry-picking certain factual information because it’s more juicy or interesting, instead of presenting things in an accurate way?

D: Everyone cherry-picks, if you’re a docent you choose what you’re going to talk about. We cherry-pick what we find to be the most fun, salacious, hidden stuff because we want to tell mind-blowing stories to get people really excited. That being said, we also understand because we’re outsiders, it’s very important for us to be factually correct and not make anything up because we could get shut down very easily…or lose our credibility. During the training we have people fact-checking our guides…we focus a lot on making sure the things that are being said are true, but we absolutely cherry-pick.

A: You mention doing fun, quirky things and covering salacious material in your tours. Does Museum Hack ever deal with sensitive content where it might be difficult to present it in a fun and lighthearted way?

D: Yes, but not often. We know what the product we are selling is, and people know generally what they’re getting into. We couch this as a fun, crazy, wild museum adventure, so we’re not going to generally talk a lot about really heavy topics because it’s just a downer. That being said, sometimes someone will ask questions or a conversation will turn that direction…it’s not something we choose to talk about, because we choose to make it a fun, engaging time. Talking about slavery for half an hour probably isn’t going to get people that excited…there’s a time and a place for that conversation, and I don’t think it’s during one of our tours.

When we do choose to tackle a tough subject, we go headfirst into it. One of our staff members put together a “Bad Ass B*tches of The Met” tour. It’s all about how there are very few female artists on display here…we’ll talk about appropriation…we talk a lot about provenance of art, and who really gets the credit and where it comes from. Just because a curator put something somewhere doesn’t mean that’s the most important thing or that it’s the best thing to represent whatever they’re trying to represent. So we’ll definitely tackle those topics.

A: I’ve been in many museums myself where I don’t always agree with the info boards or interpretation. Do you ever get any pushback from your host institutions if you’re talking about their curation in a different way, or do they welcome it?

D: I’m not aware of any pushback…and I’d like to think of ourselves not as competing with them. The tours at The Met and the Museum of Natural History are amazing, they’re definitely for a self-selected group. We’re trying to reach a different group. There are times and places for both. I think they recognize that too.

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The Getty Center, 2011. Author’s photo.

A: Right now you guys do tours in the United States in a few major cities. Do you have any plans to expand outside of the U.S.?

D: There’s been a lot of talk about London, because obviously a lot of people would love to make that happen. Our next stop is Chicago…it’s on a city-by-city basis. We need cities that have large museums with large visitor bases from which we can draw ticket sales. Honestly that’s the reason I love to do these [professional development] workshops, because now I get to go to small cities and small museums where we could never set up shop, and share around what we do. Hopefully they can infuse what we’ve found to be best practices into their practice.

A: This is probably a really tough question to answer because it’s hard for me to answer, but if you had to pick a favourite museum that you enjoy as a visitor, what would it be?

D: One of my favourite art museums is the Dia:Beacon. It’s an old Nabisco cookie and cracker factory about an hour north of New York City. It’s been converted into a contemporary art space, and it’s awesome. As far as science museums go, the California Academy of Sciences hands down; it’s a science centre, a natural history museum, a zoo, an aquarium, a planetarium. The roof itself is a living roof…full disclosure that’s after the Met and the Natural History Museum here in New York, obviously.

A: Of course, that goes without saying. The last question I have for you is: how did you get into Museum Hack? What’s your background?

D: I was working at the New York Hall of Science, and I met…the first two guides of [Museum Hack] at a New York City Museum Educators Roundtable, and I heard about what they were doing at The Met. I asked why they weren’t doing this across the Park at the Museum of Natural History. They said they’d thought about maybe one day going across [Central] Park and I was like, you know what? I want to make that happen. So I created the tour programme we have over there from scratch…two years later here I am, still doing tours there but now I get to go to museums all over the country and all over the world. I’m going to Australia in October. Ultimately we’re in this because we f*cking love museums, and we want everyone else to f*cking love museums too. It’s been a crazy, wild two and a half years…it’s been a fun ride.

Thanks Dustin for giving us a great introduction to Museum Hack – we really love museums too.

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British Museum, 2015. Author’s photo.

 

The Brexit Museum: How Will We Interpret the Referendum?

Having recently relocated back to London for work, I’ve been caught up in the drama of the U.K.’s referendum on membership in the European Union. Like most Londoners and millennials, I voted to remain in the E.U. and was devastated to wake up last Friday morning to a narrow Brexit majority.

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Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin. Author’s Photo.

I consoled myself about this unexpected and (for me, at least) depressing result with a weekend jaunt to Dublin. As I soaked up some local military history in the National Museum of Ireland at Collins Barracks, and convict history at Kilmainham Gaol, I began to wonder how Britain’s E.U. referendum result and subsequent effects would be portrayed in the museums of the future. Many historical narratives about past developments appear logical, inevitable, and ultimately positive to modern eyes.

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National Museum of Ireland at Collins Barracks, Dublin. Author’s Photo.

Will the same be true for future Brexit exhibits? If the U.K.’s departure from the E.U. is interpreted negatively, who and what will be assigned responsibility by historians and curators of the future? What political, economic, and cultural phenomena will be associated with Brexit? In times of crisis, it is often difficult for contemporaries to predict long-term effects or assign greater meaning to their experience, regardless of how obvious those patterns may seem to subsequent generations.

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With this in mind, I would recommend anyone who is dealing with feelings of worry, stress, or sadness about the referendum result to visit a museum. as I explored Dublin’s many exhibitions about World War I, the Easter Rising, and the Irish Civil War, I realized my fears about a post-Brexit future were insignificant compared to these far larger upheavals. Soldiers at the Somme understood they were taking part in a significant event, but they could never have predicted the central role they would maintain in the heroic, tragic narratives of 21st century museums. Those fallen and wounded warriors would have been surprised to find a peaceful, politically-united France and Germany 100 years later. There is some consolation that the passage of time (and the work of historians) will provide meaning and value to the bleakest of circumstances, even if only future generations can benefit.

Museums are not only spaces for education and engagement; they can also provide clarity in uncertain times, put our troubles into perspective, and give us hope. In these anxious days, I look forward to making sense of Brexit with the assistance of future researchers, curators, and artists.

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The Spire of Dublin. Author’s Photo.

Raising the flag for National Reconciliation Week 2016: ‘Our History, Our Story, Our Future’

Neat to see the Australian National Maritime Museum incorporating indigenous reconciliation in such a tangible way! A great example of how museums can actively participate in social justice and community action. – AH

Australian National Maritime Museum

Sea rights flag. The Blue Mud Bay sea rights flag flying in Yirrkala at the Buku-Larrngay Mulka Centre

Each year National Reconciliation Week celebrates and builds on the respectful relationships shared by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and other Australians.

The dates that bookend the week are significant milestones in the Reconciliation journey:

  • May 27—Marks the anniversary of Australia’s most successful referendum and a defining event in our nation’s history. The 1967 referendum saw over 90 per cent of Australians vote to give the Commonwealth the power to make laws for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and recognise them in the national census.
  • 3 June—Commemorates the High Court of Australia’s landmark Mabo decision in 1992, which legally recognised that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have a special relationship to the land—a relationship that existed prior to colonalisation and still exists today. This recognition paved the way for land rights or…

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The Women’s Museum: Feminist History is Everyone’s History

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Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam 2015. Author’s photograph.

I am a feminist and a historian; I am also a feminist historian. Both of these concepts are still under-represented in museums. Why?

Although these terms might sound very similar, they are actually quite different things. The sociopolitical term “feminist” has many different definitions, but for me it means a real, actionable desire for equal treatment of all genders throughout the world – especially people who identify as female or transgender.

On the other hand, feminist history is commonly defined as an academic re-interpretation of historical events with a female perspective. This could include focusing one’s research on women from a particular era or phenomenon, or reconsidering a historic event or person through the lens of gender. For example, I consider myself a feminist historian because my research focuses on the experiences of female convicts transported from Britain to Australia in the nineteenth century. Although convict transportation has been well studied for decades, there is still very little research on female transportees, even though they represent about 20% of all convicts sent to Australia.

Finding women’s perspectives throughout history can be challenging. In many societies and time periods across the world, women were often prevented from obtaining the skills and opportunities required to appear in many written historical records, such as higher education, publications, legal documents, government and organized religion, or business affairs. These challenges are even greater for historians studying working class, colonized, or enslaved women. Yet despite these difficulties, feminist historians continue to offer new insights that enrich our understanding of the past. Feminist history does not necessarily seek to promote the cause of feminism itself, but rather to offer a richer, more balanced perspective of the past by exploring the stories of men and women.

Of course, there is still plenty of overlap between feminism and feminist history. Feminist history seeks to understand the impacts of women and gender roles in the past, while feminism strives to highlight the contributions and struggles of women in a gendered society in the present. Both seek equality: a more inclusive, balanced perspective of historic events on the one hand, and a fairer society today on the other.

Many people are still uncomfortable with the term “feminism,” even though they may agree with the movement’s values and goals. I believe it is for this reason that feminist historical research is still under-represented in museums and historic sites. Just as the old fallacy persists that feminism is only for females, the idea that women’s history is only interesting and relevant to women continues to hinder the telling (and funding) of their stories in museums. From the deterioration of a well-intentioned women’s museum in East London into a sensational Jack the Ripper experience, to a major all-female artists exhibition at Centre Pompidou in Paris falling flat with the press, many arts and heritage institutions still struggle to make feminist history engaging and accessible.

Yet this need not be the case: women’s history is everyone’s history. Women’s stories span nations, cultures, religion, class, race, sexuality, age, and ability. They are the histories of politics, economics, inequality, activism, injustice, triumph, violence, family, travel, and domesticity. Feminist history often gives particularly good insights into the personal lives and private households of the past, ultimately humanizing and deepening our understanding of all histories.

Women’s stories not only need to be highlighted in more museums and galleries; they also need to be marketed to broader audiences as part of our shared human experience.

The Frank Museum: Confronting Difficult Histories

During a recent trip to San Antonio, Texas, I had the opportunity to visit a few of the eighteenth-century Spanish Catholic Missions along the city’s Mission Trail – including the famous Alamo battle site and shrine. The Mission sites were a pleasure to stroll through on a sunny Texas afternoon: exceptionally well-maintained and restored, easy to find, and completely free to visit. They are certainly a must on any tourist’s checklist.

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Mission San Antonio de Valero, more commonly known as the Alamo.

These missions were first built as symbols of Spanish culture, religion, and imperial power during the period of European expansion into the Americas. They also represented the devastation of traditional cultures and ways of life for many indigenous groups . As I enjoyed strolling through the tidy lawns and well-preserved churches of each mission, I couldn’t help but think of the fear and suffering these walls must have witnessed in centuries past.

However, this narrative was not reflected in the numerous interpretive panels I encountered at each site. Large, illustrated, approachable signs placed strategically around each site gave introductions to the history and work of each Mission. The text detailed key dates and names in each site’s development, and an overview of the religious and administrative work that happened there. Yet I was disappointed by the lack of information about the negative impact Spanish imperialism had on indigenous communities; the interpretive signs described the “religious lessons” and “accommodations” provided to the local people in benign, positive terms. There was no mention of loss of land, disease, and oppression, nor the erasure of local languages, traditions, and beliefs that were an inherent part of European invasion and colonization of the Americas.

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Mission Concepción, San Antonio. Dedicated in 1755.

According to information on the National Park Service’s own website, many indigenous people were compelled to enter the Missions, convert to Christianity, and abandon their traditional ways of life in order to survive the changes wrought by Spanish expansion into their lands. I am by no means a Texas history buff, but such phenomena are relatively common in the histories of empire. Certainly life wasn’t bad for all those who lived in and around the Missions, but I had hoped the interpretive signs would paint a more realistic (and challenging) picture of what those institutions meant for the local populations. I have a high regard the National Park Service overall, so I was especially surprised by this apparent evasion of difficult historical narratives.

There are many examples of museums confronting difficult and disturbing histories head on. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. has famously illustrated the power of museums to bring awareness and empathy to extremely painful and complex stories. The International Slavery Museum in Liverpool is another excellent example of a museum that explores the connections between historical wrongs and modern inequalities.

I am a European Canadian living in Vancouver on unceded Aboriginal territory. I am conscious that the citizenship and the lifestyle I enjoy are the result of European colonialism and the displacement of indigenous cultures and societies. Yet for many years, I did not draw a personal connection between my country’s colonial past and my own life. My family came to North America from Britain at the end of the Second World War, centuries after the first colonists arrived in this land; a fact I once thought exempted me from any link with the decimation of many indigenous cultures. I now realize that those earlier colonial atrocities paved the way for my own relatives to emigrate easily from Britain to a former imperial holding, without needing to learn a new language or even swear allegiance to a different monarch. European colonization and its lasting impacts on indigenous communities are a part of my personal history and identity, as they are for North Americans of all backgrounds.

To use Aboriginal scholar Dr. Susan Dion’s term, no one is a “perfect stranger” to indigenous history and modern issues. Though difficult, museums and heritage sites have a responsibility to confront these distressing topics and challenge visitors to understand their own connections to them.

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Mission San José, the largest of the San Antonio Missions. It was completely restored in the 1930s.

 

The Interpretive Value of a Chair: A Personal Reflection

Great discussion of a simple yet crucial element for any gallery visit: a place to sit and ponder.

Art Museum Teaching

Written by Susan Spero

“For the understanding of a picture, a chair is needed.  Why a chair? To prevent the legs, as they tire, from interfering with the mind.”  –Paul Klee

I’m pushing myself, and I’m tired. There are too many museums in Washington, D.C., on my list, and I am running out of time before I have to fly to the other side of the country.  My foot hurts, too, because I twisted it walking on the capital’s irregular sidewalks; it is bruised badly, but I press onward as I am determined to squeeze in yet another museum. I’m driven. Foolishly, I thought my heavy travel-ready backpack would be ok for this last venture that somehow I could manage it well enough on my shoulders balanced against my back. But now in the Smithsonian American Art Museum, this backpack has become a problem as the guards—properly, I’ll…

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