Museums and Relevance in 2017
Put yourself in the position of John or Josephine Q. Public. In the current economic chaos, the bank is foreclosing on their home, they have lost their jobs, and the city just reduced their public services. In referring to the National Endowment for the Arts and the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the House Budget Committee recently argued that “The activities and content funded by these agencies…are generally enjoyed by people of higher income levels, making them a wealth transfer from poorer to wealthier citizens.” Isn’t your research or the position you aspire to a museum professional just another example of this wealth transfer? What do John and Josephine Q. Public get for their tax dollars that fund your research/position?
This year, Doug McQuirter, a graduate student in the History Department wrote a compelling response that is particularly apt for the current socio-political climate in the U.S. Here is his essay:
The specter of hyper-capitalism Robert Janes (2009), the malignant fast capitalism warned of by Randall H. McGuire’s Archaeology as Political Action (2008), or any of the political positions espoused by the Paul Ryan House of Representatives espouse a knee-jerk reaction against any form of wealth transfer from the wealthy to the poor. However, this statement turns the argument on its head; a reverse Robin Hood, transferring wealth from the poor to the rich. It is a brilliantly framed obfuscation of anti-intellectualist thought. How better to sell fund-cutting than to present it as protecting the poor from egghead intellectuals and their myriad ways of burning money with pointless research.
Social scientists are in the same tough position that history and humanities researchers are in, namely, they are not curing diseases or building rocket ships, so who cares if Richard III is found in a parking lot or if Nat Turner suffered from mental illness. Non-STEM research, and for the terms of this question, museum/anthropological research is crucial for studying social cohesion and resolving the problems of the past. Museums provide learning but also leisure for all. If Josephine Q. Public is not a museumgoer, then this is going to be a tough sell. Museums, after all, do not cure diseases. However, the intellectual stimulation that museums provide, no matter how abstract it may seem at first glance, is crucial to the health and well-being of the community and greater society. Seeing the Enola Gay at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum can be a simple stop-and-glance, but it can also be a target of a field trip for fifth graders learning about war and its cruelty. Viewing the ceremonial clothes at Chucalissa could be something to give cursory attention, but it might also trigger vivid memories of a family member for a burgeoning fiction writer. These are the hard-to-grasp reasons why people must go to museums, and this is why tax dollars must continue to fund them.
Museums for the most part provide an optional, supplementary role in education. They are an option. They provide extra context. Nothing about museums requires one to go. The Ferrell and Medvedeva reading (2010) point to reasons why minority populations do not visit museums. The population is changing, and those who are becoming more prominent do not visit. This must change and ideas need to flow on how to include underrepresented groups. Nevertheless, assimilation of immigrant communities does not occur without bringing their stories and histories into the grand narrative. Museums provide the structure to present these histories. The Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration exemplifies a successful insertion of telling the immigrants’ stories.
Why should museums use tax dollars then? Robert Janes put it best by stating that museums are public sector but they are increasingly reliant on private sector means (2009: 16). If museums received more money from state and federal outlays, then one could easily bet that they would give up the private-sector development game. That would be true with anyone, but museums do not produce widgets, nor do they involve a great amount of personal interactions with many other people. Tours can successfully cope with one or two docents. Therefore, there is not much overhead to speak of in the average one-room county historical society museum. Unless they are the Met or the Getty, they are not going to generate income on name alone. They are not public companies, beholden to shareholders. They are about as public as one can get without being a government agency. They conserve and present national treasures, products of human ingenuity, and bravely examine social problems. If the hyper-capitalist’s run their ideas to their logical conclusions, then there would only be a few museums that presented historical documents and objects more in the style of the National Archive, only fee-based. It would be pay-as-you-go. Objects would be in storage to save money, only to come out if someone wanted to view it and pay a fee. Ferrell and Medvedeva’s research on future trends would be rendered useless, as very few people, other than those with time and money would want to go through the bother of this. Museums, therefore, establish and maintain the sanctity of citizenship, by creating and maintaining a healthy dissent and critique of the grand narratives that drove this country for so long. A worry for the future is that people are not going to care about these critiques, and live in their pseudo-historical fantasies and conspiracies. Museums that practice critical thinking and are socially activist are a way to counter these dangerous practices and habits. They are also pressure release valves for dissenters and skeptics of the official grand narrative. While Josephine Q. Public, for example, may be politically opposed to the mission of the National Civil Rights Museum, its existence and its attempts to demarginalize the history of civil rights and bring it to the foreground of the narrative is healthy and necessary for social cohesion. She would be hard pressed to argue with that.
Farrell, Betty and Maria Medvedeva. 2010. Demographic Transformation and the Future of Museum. American Association of Museums.
Janes, Robert R. 2009. “Museums and Irrelevance.” In Museums in a Troubled World. Routledge.
McGuire, Randall H. 2008. Archaeology as Political Action. University of California Press.
Contact Doug at hdmcqrtr(at)memphis.edu