The Enlightening Museum: Can Collections Combat Discrimination?

A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to visit the Portland Art Museum for the first time. Although on the pricey side of admission ($19.99 per adult), The P.A.M. left a lasting impression on me for many reasons; the spacious facility, friendly and knowledgeable front-line staff, extensive East Asian collections, and their superb temporary photography exhibition, Force of Nature.

Above all, the permanent collections at the P.A.M. conveyed to me a message of tolerance, respect, and celebration of difference: diverse cultures, backgrounds, identities, orientations, and forms of expression. As I walked through their American Art Gallery, I noticed the multicultural names and origins of many of the artists. Info panels next to each piece revealed that many of these venerated American artists came to the U.S. as immigrants or refugees, such as Albert Bierstadt, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, or Jan Matulka. Such works were displayed side-by-side with Indigenous and American-born artists. It got me thinking about Syrian refugees, and the unwelcoming attitudes towards them and other migrants being perpetuated by many public figures. Did they know that most of their country’s museums, galleries, and libraries are filled with the works of immigrants and their descendants?

Our next stop at the P.A.M. was the European Art Gallery. Here I came across an intriguing painting: created in the mid 1700s, it showed a masculine figure in female clothing. The work was entitled Il Femminiello, and the info panel next to it explained that some transexual and non-binary gender identities were accepted in eighteenth-century Naples. Thinking about the discrimination my own trans friends were facing in the twenty-first century, I wondered if people could become more accepting of different gender identities if they learned about this painting and its history.

guiseppe bonito, il femminiello, 1740-1760, oil on canvas.jpg

Finally we made sure to stop by the Asian Art Gallery, which featured an impressive collection of objects from East Asia and the Middle East. As I admired the exquisite illustrations from Iran, and the decorative vessels and mosaics from Iraq and Syria, I wondered what impact they might have on those who harbour Islamophobia or hatred towards Arabic peoples.

Bird Cage, iranian, 18th C, stonepaste with blue decoration under clear glaze.jpg

How might a visitor become more tolerant or enlightened from a museum or gallery visit? Even though such institutions are often criticized for focusing on Western, white, male, middle-class, and heteronormative narratives, I believe they still have plenty of lessons about diversity and equality to share. A visitor might learn that Andy Warhol was gay and from an immigrant family; that eighteenth-century Naples was accepting of transexual identities and cross-dressing; that Islam has inspired some of the most beautiful artwork ever produced; that modern-day Iran, Iraq, and Syria are the cradles of some of the world’s first complex societies and scientific breakthroughs.

Although I am not a resident, I love the United States. In fact, I share my life with an American. I find much of the gleeful America-bashing that prevails here in Canada to be hypocritical, ignorant, and insufferably boring. Yet it is true that much of the intolerant discourse that now circulates in U.S. media and politics does not seem to reflect the very foundations of the country’s greatness – diversity, courage, and acceptance. Imagine if Mark Rothko and the rest of his Russian Jewish family had been barred from entering the U.S. in 1913 for being religious minorities? Facing persecution and fear in Russia, he may never have become one of the most influential artists of the twentieth century, nor contributed to America’s postwar art boom.

Recently, the Mayor of Winnipeg, Manitoba publicly invited Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump north of the border to visit the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, so that he might “develop a more profound sense of compassion and tolerance for others”. Perhaps Trump and others of his ilk need not travel to Winnipeg to become enlightened; they can learn the same ideals of diversity and respect from their very own museums in the United States.

Museum collections already contain some wonderful tools to combat discrimination, hatred, and fear: museums need to recognize these assets and use them to effect positive change in society.

2 thoughts on “The Enlightening Museum: Can Collections Combat Discrimination?

    • Thank you for your comment! As a tourist, I was happy to pay the full admission and felt it was good value for the experience.
      That being said, I’m pleased to hear PAM offers opportunities for free or reduced admission. I think we both agree on the importance of making museums financially accessible for as many people as possible.


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