September 3, 2020
I saw this op-ed on Artnet news via Twitter written by post-graduate Interpretive Fellow at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Aaron Ambroso, titled “Museums Are Being Tasked With Radically Transforming the Way They Work. Here Are 6 Practical Steps They Can Take to Do That”. This is an interesting piece because it is important that museums should transform the way they work, and it is important to hear multiple perspectives on what is going on in the museum field. What also drew my attention to this piece was the responses to this op-ed. A number of tweets argued that the misconception that “all museums are art museums” was present within the piece. It is a misconception that is spread both within and outside of the museum field in webinars, newspaper articles, et. cetera. The problem with implying that “all museums are art museums” is not every advice, suggestion, or guideline fits with all museums, and by talking about museums in general while only highlighting the art experience it alienates other history, science, natural history, children, and many more types of museums that are working on transforming the work they do. I decided to take a closer look to see for myself what Ambroso had to say about museums transforming the way they work and where the misconception came from.
Since the op-ed was released on Artnet news, which is an extension of Artnet (the leading online resource for the international art market, and the destination to buy, sell, and research art online), it seems that the intended audience for this piece is art museums. The title of the piece and the arguments made within the piece, however, suggests that it addresses all museums. As I read the piece, I noticed that Ambroso discussed museums while heavily using examples of art museums. For instance, he stated that
Museums around the country have done pathbreaking and important work addressing issues of political neutrality, and many have made explicit discussions of race, sex, and class a central part of exhibitions and programming. Yet still too often, museums display works of art with an exclusive focus on qualities that are supposed to speak in universal ways, or with blinders about the way art objects may be read in problematic ways by disadvantaged communities.
For example, is it best to emphasize a 16th-century British portrait’s technical and formal qualities? Or should we recontextualize 16th-century symbolic objects, which were closely tied to the upper nobility, to better understand the historic inequality of the present? Too often, issues of technique and formal composition can be seen as implicitly neutral—as if they do not evince a particular perspective with an implicit value system.
The previous statements might make sense for art museums, but it may not make sense for other types of museums such as history, science, natural history, and children’s museums.
In response to the steps presented in the op-ed piece, I have mixed reactions to what was being presented in the piece. I agree that it is important for museums to connect with the community museums are located in. Ambroso pointed out the importance of connecting with the community:
Museums must go beyond the expertise of curatorial and education staff and understand themselves as interacting with specific communities across often fraught social and geographic boundaries. Many museums have come a long way in co-creating with indigenous communities. But there are also communities only miles away from museums that may feel as far away socially as people from another continent.
My concern is with the section that Ambroso labeled as “Let’s Be Neutral, Please”. While he pointed out that museums need to continue to question the history of neutrality and acknowledge the active role they play in stage-crafting the art experience, I think the title of the neutrality section was misleading since it could be easily misinterpreted as his suggestion that museums should be neutral.
Ambroso’s op-ed expressed interesting points that are important for art museums to consider when working on transforming their interactions within the community and within their walls during these hard times. If opinions are shared on what museums in general should do when reforming their practices, they should reflect on how they can be applied to all museums and not one specific type of museum. When articles are written about museums and webinars are presented for museums, it is important to develop the information that apply for all types of museums not just art museums. Every museum has not only their focused subject matter their exhibits, programs, and collections support but they have their own budget sizes, communities they serve, locations, et cetera that any specific advice or guideline does not apply to their needs.
I recommend reading the piece to see more of what they wrote on reforming museums in the link below.
Hi Lindsay, thanks for your thoughts! I certainly was thinking about just art museums while writing this article, and definitely do not want to extend the points I made to all museums. My experience has been mainly with art museums, and so that is what I was writing about. I do think, however, that I often just say “museums” in the article, as if talking about museums in general. Thanks again for your thoughts!