Museums as "Trojan Horses"

Today, Katherine Blouin posted an article on Twitter with a pull-quote that made me smile:

Today's blog is about how museums, particularly university museums, not only can be Trojan Horses, but why we should. And it shouldn't be simply part of an "Uncomfortable Art Tour" but baked into every exhibition and every display we have. Its based on my own experiences as a decision maker for a university museum whose primary function is teaching and learning.

I am a museum director as part of my job. I wasn't trained in Museum Studies or in an Art History dept. Before becoming the director of my university museum, I had never held another position in a museum, but only worked in them as a scholar and taken students to them as a professor. So, maybe because I am not beholden to anyone in the museum world for my position, or because I don't have the same training in curation, I come at exhibitions from the position of a professor wanting to help other faculty and students at the university understand the topic of the exhibition from many angles. It's a university museum, after all. Which may be why, two years into my tenure as director, I was in a meeting with administrators when someone commented that they were concerned that the Board of Trustees or general public or whoever may start viewing the museum as the "activist wing of the college."

It took me a minute to realize what I had just heard. And then I looked at the list of past exhibitions since I'd become director and saw what they meant: I'd started with an exhibition called "The Human Condition" inspired by Hannah Arendt and pulled works from the collection that focused on issues of power, emotions, life, death, belief, beauty, and technology. One of the students working with us on the exhibition asked if she could write about colonialism and imperialism in the display of an imperial Chinese robe and of 'Big Mac', our Guna (Kuna) representation of General MacArthur. I said, "absolutely". That's why we put them under the heading of "power". We also had exhibitions on the Underground Railroad, abortion (guest curated by Melissa Madera, creator of The Abortion Diary Podcast),  the Guerilla Girls, the Black Panthers,  etc. And upcoming were exhibitions by LGBT artists and Af-Am artists.

My response was, "Ok. I can see your point, but we create exhibits based on faculty requests and input and on course offerings." We tried to get some of the more conservative programs and faculty to come down one year by putting up the pre-1940s political cartoons and our World War I material, including drawings by graphic journalist Louis Forain. We even had a faculty member exhibit of his photography of local coal processing plants (and the plant workers came to the talk!). But, on the whole, those faculty who tend to work with objects and visual literacy in their teaching, tend to be more experimental with their pedagogy. And I say this with the knowledge that the biggest users for our museum are not Arts faculty, but anthropology/sociology, modern languages, history, and even our biology and geoscience faculty. So, its a wide range of departments (over 20 different ones) over 120+ courses with over 2000 students (on a staff of 2.5, with 8-10 students interns, mind you) because we put our exhibitions together with curricular needs in mind and work with faculty who want to work with us.

But, I took the statement seriously. I don't want protestors outside my building, I don't want donors to refuse to give to us or the college, and I don't want to make the college a target for right wing groups--though it would be a great irony to have "free speech" folks come after us for clear academic free speech. I said to the administrators, "Well, we have a lot of great late 19th, early 20th century drawings of children. We could have an exhibit on childhood in the US." They liked this idea. It seemed safe to them. Little did they understand, I think, that in order to make this exhibition one that would speak across the curriculum to students and faculty alike, idealized drawings from Winslow Homer and Maria Cassat would not be sufficient.

This fall's exhibition (opening next week) is the result of my attempts to not seem too "activisty", while also re-enforcing the principles that MUSEUMS ARE NOT NEUTRAL SPACES and should not be seen as neutral spaces. They are spaces of conversation, of learning, of teaching, of exploration, and, yes, of conflict. To pretend otherwise is to misunderstand fundamentally the history of museums and history itself. It is, so to speak, a Trojan Horse, in that is hides the truth inside of it, a truth that can be dangerous.

The exhibition is called "Defining Childhood: Growing Up in the US (1860-1960)" and examines various realities and fantasies about "childhood" prior to the civil rights era. We use from our permanent collection the idealizing works that show children at play, out with their families in Boston Common or picking berries, and then juxtapose those with photography from the National Archives by:

Gordon Parks, the activist artist, writer, and director whose images focused on life in black neighborhoods in Chicago and New York changed our understanding of poverty.

Lewis Hine, whose photos of child labor helped to reshape labor laws in the US (which some now want to roll back):

Francis Benjamin Johnson; one of the earliest US women photographer who pushed documentary photography to be considered art photography and who extensively documented alternative schools for non-whites and the deaf and blind at the turn of the century:

The reality is that childhood did not and does not mean the same thing for all people in America. For some, childhood has always been about comfort and safety and innocence. For others, it has always had elements of fear and harshness and disease. Even in these conditions, however, we see hope and play and even joy. But to put up an exhibition on childhood that only provides the idealized vision of an elite artist would be to make the title mismatch the content, it would be to erase history, to erase the art that represents a part of the topic we don't want to see. If people are uncomfortable with what they see in a museum, it isn't because they are uncomfortable with some lie we are foisting on them for a political agenda, it is because they are uncomfortable with truths they may be unwilling to accept or didn't know about to begin with.

But that's what makes museums so important and what makes the way we curate exhibits and our permanent collections so important. Because by pretending that museums are neutral, that the objects in our collections don't have baggage and that museums themselves don't have histories of complicity in hiding atrocities or promoting elite Eurocentric white male narratives of the past and present, we contribute to the continuing oppressions and lies that support them. We shouldn't need an "alternative tour" to subvert the regular display or labels that only those self selecting folks who want that story will see. Our exhibition of objects should themselves always open up these conversations, should show the different sides of the narrative surrounding what they display and should be ready and willing to have that conversation with their donors, their boards, and, most importantly, their primary audiences. This new Guerilla Girls poster makes some suggestions on how to start (at least with #metoo--but it can extend to issues of race, class, disability, and sexuality as well):

Museums were developed to tell a single story of the triumph of Euro-American, male, elite superiority. But, if our goal really is educational, museums should be Trojan Horses sneaking into the gates of this narrative and dismantling it from the inside with every exhibit and every label we show. Because there is more danger in letting the fantasy of neutrality and white male elite supremacy to stand than of tearing it down and building something new.