Celebrate Museums, Musings

Today, May 18, is International Museum Day (IMD). For more than two months, along with almost everything else in life as we’ve known it, the halls of the museums we love and enjoy visiting have been closed. I understand that, however, that they are one of the venues reopening as part of Phase I in many locations.

I’ve been going to museums since I was a kid. I lived in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, until I was twelve. Those years imprinted on me more than later years. The main public library was part of the Carnegie Museum complex; we spent lots of time at the library and thus the museums. I admit I really don’t remember much from them – art and natural history – but they must rest somewhere in the back of my mind.

The infrequent times that we traveled, museums were always on our itinerary. I distinctly remember the odd items sailors brought back from “the Orient” in what was then a small museum in Gloucester, Mass., or was it Salem? They are still treasured in the Peabody-Essex Museum. We also went to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s House of the Seven Gables in witchy Salem. In New York, I’m sure we were taken to the Met and the Natural History museums.

In my college days, I continued to visit museums. My summer of 1970 was spent crisscrossing Europe – the Acropolis and National Museum in Athens, the Uffizi in Florence, and the Louvre in Paris – midway through my undergraduate studies. That’s when I was introduced to the British Museum, as well. During a month break in London in 1971, I haunted the Victoria and Albert where I fell in love with Palestinian embroideries and more. I also remember an amazing toy museum in an old, old multi-storied corner building somewhere in the city.

Other travels in other years have introduced me to many, many more museums. These were the proverbial “busman’s holiday” since my chosen profession was in … museums. I learned so much. I’ve written about some of these encounters in these posts and will write about more as we move into the future.

My practice as a museologist was shaped by my academic training as a folklorist – one who is interested in and studies aspects of traditional culture that have persisted over the generations in groups of people. Because of this, I think I bring a special perspective to my work. My perspective actually is to have no perspective; it is to learn from the people with whom I’m working, to present their heritage, culture, art from their point-of-view, often using their words. The interpretive approach I have taken, almost since my first job, is drawn directly from the voices of the people whose stories I’m tasked to present.

This perspective relates to the 2020 IMD theme – Museums for Diversity, Equality, Inclusion. For years, these terms and others have been bantered around by museum professionals – community, inclusive, participatory, diversity, decolonialize, and more. These words and the associated concepts, one often sequentially replacing the other, are indeed valid because the voices and stories of many have not been well-represented in the hallowed museum halls. In fact, many people have felt disenfranchised from and unwelcome in what they consider temple-like, upper-class oriented institutions. They have not seen nor heard their stories in the displays nor have they seen members of their group in professional positions. For more than twenty years, this multi-sided state of being has slowly been turning around.

Hmmm, what started out to be a joyful celebration of museums, these amazingly necessary keepers of heritage that are found in some form or other all over the world, has turned into a musing about the state of the profession. International Museum Day often seeks to celebrate the activities of museums from the point of view of its annual theme. It also provides a day (which should be extended on beyond today) for museum professionals to reflect upon their practice, to reflect upon the job they do and for whom are they doing it.

Funny, as we all transition from our former “normal” of three-four months ago, to the great unknown coming next, we can also reflect upon the lives we live. How we treat those around us, not leaving out the environment. Like museums whose primary goals are to collect, preserve, and interpret (no matter what new-fangled language is used to express these actions), there is so much from the “normal” for us to preserve and there are so many new practices we will be faced with adopting.

If you’d like a glimpse of an unusual group of museum visitors in our Stay at Home time, google Kansas City Art Museum. Click on any of the videos about the … penguins.

Penguins from the Kansas City Zoo explore the museum during the pandemic shutdown, May 6 at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, MO.

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