The Inclusivity of Museums
"Are musuems designed to be more exclusive to certain groups over others?"
The twin concepts of preservation and interpretation are what form the basis of the museum, alongside the human tendency to acquire and inquire. Collections of historical objects are essential to what makes a museum. According to Professor John Beckmann in his book A History of Inventions, Discoveries, and Origins, the origin of keeping collections was to be found in the old customs of keeping curious and remarkable objects in temples. In such cases, objects of uncommon sizes or beauty and any other rarities are generally preserved in these temples to promote the knowledge of natural history. The choice of hosting these objects in a temple was to enhance their sacredness and antiquity based on the nature of the location. This then implies that museums should be treated as sacred temples of knowledge, allowing us to preserve whatever curiosities we have of the world.
All our lives, we have been taught that museums are landmarks that depict the pinnacle of human knowledge. That, within such buildings, lie dozens and dozens of artefacts that tell their each and very own unique story. Art and history, which are important aspects of our individual cultures, are typically documented within the confinements of these buildings, allowing us to interpret and create stories about our own origins. Museums help to preserve and showcase artefacts for the broader public so that we can appreciate their significance and learn new things about our own past in a non-book format. It almost provides us with a first hand witness of life in the past. Such things cannot be enjoyed or fully appreciated through digital means such as YouTube, or through the lenses of other people's Instagram posts. It even manages to provide another way of learning rather than relying on Google or textbooks.
The origin of the modern museum can be traced to private collections maintained by prominent individuals in the Renaissance era. A big portion of these Renaissance collections were indicators of social prestige and served as an important element in the traditions and nobility of the ruling families. However, over time a developing yearn for discovery and inquisition brought about a different meaning and purpose to collecting, as well as a much wider group of enthusiasts and practitioners. This interest for collecting curiosities was undertaken worldwide by groups as well as by individuals. Aside from including local artefacts, items imported from far flung parts of the empires would be brought in as well. These entire collections would normally be open to the public upon payment of a small fee.
Today, museums can be accessible to everyone from all walks of life due to the fact that a majority of these establishments are free of charge to enter. Museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art even operate under a “pay what you wish” basis whereby visitors get to donate whatever amount they see fitting. This all appears to be a great way to attract more people to visit museums since it means keeping knowledge accessible to anyone in spite of their socio-economic background. Regardless of this fact, there has been a steady decline in museum visitors each year. According to figures released by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, museums such as the Tate galleries, National Gallery, Victoria and Albert Museum and British Museum have only been able to collectively engage 47.6 million people from April 2015 to March 2016. This was a significant fall by nearly 1.4 million, the first decline in almost a decade. Bringing about the question and debate about whether or not museums are designed to be for everyone? And if so, why are less and less people willing to visit such establishments?
When examining the inclusivity of museums, it is important to note the many invisible barriers to visitors feeling welcomed. Although a large portion of museums have been explicitly identified as public institutions, there is evidence suggesting that museums are designed to be more exclusive to a specific group of people. Exclusion has been deeply embedded in nature of museums, from the artefacts that certain museums decide to host, to the people in charge of said artefacts. Institutionalised racism possibly plays the biggest role in all this as it is just as inherent in museums as it is anywhere else. Thus, creating a complex system of social exclusion at work between people of colour and low income households.
Museums often seem to cater toward an elitist culture in which those considered upper class are the typical museumgoers. This generally applies to people with significant amounts of expendable income and leisure time, which normally tend to be those with a privileged background. Many others from minority ethnic groups who are not as privileged tend to have more intense working hours with little to no free leisure time for themselves. Aside from that, these groups often feel unrepresented as well because of the Eurocentric narrative that is typically used within most museums. Which brings us to the controversy towards many of the foreign artefacts contained within institutions such as the British Museum.
The British Museum was the first national public museum in the world. From its opening in 1753, it granted free admission to all 'studious and curious persons'. The founding collections mostly considered of just British and medieval artefacts up until the recruitment of Sir Augustus Wollaston Franks in 1851. Franks expanded the collection in new directions by bringing in prehistoric, ethnographic and archaeological relics from Europe as well as East Asia and the Middle East. The establishment currently boasts over four million objects in their museum collection with ten curatorial and research departments. These departments range from British and European history to African, Asian, and Middle Eastern antiquities. However, there has been an ongoing controversy regarding the eligibility for the British Museum to host such artefacts.
This controversy stems from the fact that a large portion of the foreign antiquities such as those from the Asian collections are ones that have been looted during time periods of strong colonialist presence. The most notorious offense would be the ransacking of the Old Summer Palace in Beijing by British and French troops. In 1860, these invaders managed to torch and level as many as 200 buildings, stripping the nearly thousand-acre site of sculptures, silk robes, jewelry and even Pekingese dogs, which at the time were unknown to the people of Europe. This destruction was called for by James Bruce, whose father had called for the removal of the friezes from the Parthenon in Athens sixty years ago. Many of these pillaged artefacts still sit within the walls of the British Museum instead of being returned to their home countries. Thus, further imposing the presence of colonialist narratives and Western ascendency within these educational institutions.
A prime example of such narratives within a museum would be the Victoria and Albert Museum’s possession of Tipoo’s Tiger. This artefact is known for being one of the most popular and intriguing objects within the museum. Tipoo’s Tiger is an eighteenth century semi-automaton created for Tipu Sultan, the ruler of the Kingdom of Mysore, South India, from 1782 to 1799 (Victoria and Albert Museum). This almost life-sized wooden automaton consists of a tiger mauling a prostrate figure in European clothes. Concealed within the body of the tiger is a pipe organ which operates the movement of the European soldier victim’s arm, moving it up and down. This organ even emits noises to imitate the wails of the dying soldier. This imagery is meant to symbolise India’s power and resistance against the idea of British colonisation. Tipu strongly resisted attacks by the East India Company army but was brutally killed during the Siege of Seringapatam in 1799. During this attack, the tiger was discovered by the British in the music room of Tipu’s palace. The tiger was then shipped to London and now stands as a reminder of Britain’s colonial past while existing as an irony to the nature of the museum itself.
These cases of museums withholding stolen heirlooms are unfortunately not limited to just places like the British Museum or the Victoria and Albert Museum. It even applies to many other museums in the Western world. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization has estimated that 1.67 million Chinese relics are held by 200-plus museums in 47 countries (Meyer). Almost on a monthly basis, there are new cases calling for the “repatriation” of antiquities from American museums to their countries of origin (Tharoor). As countries like China and India continue to grow on a geopolitical stage, their demands for the restoration of looted artefacts have consistently grown as well. Greece has even demanded for Britain to return the Elgin marbles which are on permanent display at the British Museum. Greece are even willing to construct a museum specifically for the purpose of housing these precious treasures.
Some museums are defending their right to house such large collections of foreign treasures by classifying themselves as “universal” or “encyclopedic” museums. In 2002, 18 major museums released a “Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums.” Through the Declaration, these museums wish to stress the vital role they play in cultivating a better understanding of different civilisations and promoting respect between them. Museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Getty Museum, and the British Museum were among some of the signatories. However, one thing important to note is that most of these establishments are located in the West, with over half being found in English speaking countries. Moreover, it is important to note that all of the directors of the ten signatory museums located in English-speaking countries are currently white men. This speaks volumes regarding the type of people who are privileged enough to define what is or is not considered universal.
Although the concept of creating universal museums is a noble idea in theory, it has proven to be more of a Western luxury in practice. A quote by Dan Brown encompasses everything about the state these universal museums are in fairly well, which is that “History is always written by the winners. When two cultures clash, the loser is obliterated, and the winner writes the history books.” Thus, further implying the false assumption that only institutions in the west can preserve the world’s cultural heritage. Citizens of places like London, New York, and Paris will clearly be the ones to benefit from universal museums while those living in more remote parts of the world like Vientiane will never have the opportunity. This defence of universal museums reeks of Western privilege with further evidence that colonialism is still alive in the art world.
So what is the solution to making museums more universal and accessible for everyone? The question always arises about whether or not major museums like the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art should repatriate the looted artefacts in their collections. Although doing so may help repair the integrity of the nations which these items originally stolen from, it would not necessarily create any significant improvements towards the inclusivity and accessibility of museums. Having cultural representations in museums are the best method we can get to understanding a different culture without physically leaving our own country. If all museums were to operate under a legal ruling to return any foreign artefacts to their respective places of origin, this would make it complicated for the public to learn more about other civilizations outside of the typical book format or through the internet. One would have to travel to access such information which would costly and inaccessible for minority groups with less privilege.
Instead of just using repatriation as the only viable solution, museums can also look into recruiting a more ethnically diverse range of staff and board members. Many museums today provide poor representation of the artwork or artefacts they showcase because of their lack of staff diversity. Even in a city like New York which is known for its racial and ethnic diversity, the percentage of people of colour serving on boards remains strikingly low at most institutions. Some elite Manhattan museums and arts groups still continue to employ overwhelmingly white staff members even as they try to attract a broad cross-section of visitors. Sixty seven percent of city residents identify as members of minorities, yet only thirty eight percent of employees at cultural organizations belong to those groups. Currently, most ethnic minority employees are given jobs such as maintenance and security whereas white employees typically have the roles of being in charge of curating. This merely acts as another example to how institutionalised racism plagues the museum industry.
For museums to have a broader narrative than one that is Eurocentric, there needs to be more recruitment of ethnically diverse board members and curators. Museums with a majority of white staff members cannot host large varieties of ethnic minority collections without sometimes making the institution come off as insensitive. It may even make the people from that minority group feel misrepresented because of the way the staff is unable to relate to the collections themselves. An instance of such cases would be the time a curator in charge of the Asian collection at the British Museum made a statement online stating that they found Asian names terribly confusing. What makes this statement so offensive is that complexity of names in the Celtic, Roman, and Greek collections – which also have equally confusing names to some – are not even questioned because of their link to Western culture. Having a more diverse member of staff would also help decrease disparaging tones and narratives for collections representing minority groups. Establishments like the British Museum still use the word “oriental” on their website to describe their East Asian collections. The term “oriental” is one that is outdated and can often be seen as disparaging, which matches the traditional and outdated values of such museum with predominantly white staff members.
Museums in New York have already taken this approach of hiring a more ethnically diverse staff to solve ethnic minority inclusion problems at the museum. This is due to the mayor’s cultural plan to increase diversity in museums. Other major museums in other parts of the world should take the initiative to proceed and do the same. However, there is the consequence that some institutions will merely follow this requirement for the sake of tokenism. On the other hand, it also can lead to the dilemma of museums recruiting someone for the sake of their ethnicity to hit a quota or for the belief that they can genuinely make a difference to the institution. At the end of the day, museums have to ensure diversity in both staff and visitors so that it does not depict a territory for only the privileged members of society.
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