In the News

National Museum Of African American History And Culture Celebrates 1 Year

Windsor Johnston, NPR
September 24, 2017
"It's been one year since bells tolled along the East Coast, welcoming the newest Smithsonian to the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Since then, the museum has attracted more than 3 million people of all races, colors and creed from across the nation and around the world — averaging about 8,000 visitors daily.

"This has become more than a museum. This has become a pilgrimage site," said Lonnie Bunch, founding director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, in an interview with The Associated Press.

The one-year celebration is highlighting the various aspects of African-American history through music, dance and storytelling. Exhibits at the museum range from the glass-topped casket used to bury lynching victim Emmett Till to a fedora owned by late pop superstar Michael Jackson.

Many of the artifacts come from people's homes and personal collections — like freed slave Joseph Trammel's tin wallet, handmade to protect his freedom papers.

"Because you have these collections, it allows people to open up and to share stories to find memories," Bunch told the AP. "I've heard many times people say, 'I forgot, but once I saw a segregated door or once I saw that washboard it brought back those memories.' "

More here. 

Multimillion-dollar project to update, restore and conserve historic hall at American Natural History Museum

Marsha Lederman, The Globe and Mail
September 25, 2017

"The Hall of Northwest Coast Indians is the American Museum of Natural History's oldest hall. A centrepiece on the New York museum's main floor, it is a treasure trove of totem poles, masks, rattles and other objects – most of them from Indigenous peoples in Canada.

On Monday, the museum announced a multiyear, multimillion-dollar project to update, restore and conserve the hall and enrich the interpretation of its exhibits. Representatives from the Haida, Kwakwaka'wakw, Nuu-chah-nulth and Tlingit communities were to be in New York for the announcement.

"We've been talking about this possibility ever since I arrived at the museum in 2001," said Peter Whiteley, the museum's curator of North American ethnology, in the division of anthropology, in an interview with The Globe and Mail. "This hall, while it did have some cosmetic changes in the late fifties and early sixties, is pretty much the same as it was in 1910, so we are absolutely thrilled that this is happening."

The renovation will see a number of items currently on display come down, with other pieces brought in from the museum's collection – all done in consultation with First Nations.

The hall, which opened in 1899, is a museum highlight and a top tourist destination, but it was also a game changer in the field of anthropology, with its revolutionary approach by anthropologist Franz Boas. This is where Boas made his argument for cultural relativism in museum interpretations of Indigenous cultures – with objects from each nation viewed within the context of that nation's particular culture. Boas grouped the works by nation rather than chronology or function. So you don't find a hodgepodge of spoons or masks from different communities grouped in one case. Crucially, this was a challenge to the prevailing approach of representing societies in evolutionary terms – on a trajectory from "primitive" to "advanced."

"It's an absolutely iconic hall in the history of anthropology – in the history of American intellectual life," Whiteley said."

More here

First African Contemporary Art Museum Opens in Capetown Amidst Controversy

Fredrick Ngugi, Face to Face Africa
September 24, 2017

"For a long time, contemporary African artists have struggled to find the right platform to showcase their work. They have always relied on foreign museums to exhibit their talent and make revenue.

But this is set to change with the launch of the first African contemporary art museum in Cape Town, South Africa. The Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art was officially opened Friday, September 22, at an event that was presided over by the renowned South African Archbishop Desmund Tutu.

The museum has been characterized as Africa’s Tate Modern(an institution that houses England’s national collection of British art, and international contemporary art). Zeitz is the creation of the renowned British architect Thomas Heatherwick.

The arts center occupies a nine-storey building that previously served as a grain silo in Cape Town. Heatherwick, with the help of three local architecture firms, has transformed the building’s original cylinders into huge tubular shapes that stand in the middle of the BMW Atrium, the center’s main hall.

Zeitz Museum features more than 100 galleries, a sculpture garden on the roof, and six research centers dedicated to Art Education, Performative Practice, Curatorial Excellence, Photography, Costume Institute, and the Moving Image."

More here

It’s a Diverse City, but Most Big Museum Boards Are Strikingly White

Robin Pogrebin, August 22, 2017
The New York Times

"Mayor Bill de Blasio gave New York’s museums and arts groups an ultimatum last month: Take steps to make your staff and leadership more diverse, or risk losing part of your city funding.

The cultural organizations are starting with a mixed record. In a city known for its racial and ethnic diversity, the percentage of people of color serving on boards remains strikingly low at most institutions, and some elite Manhattan museums and arts groups employ overwhelmingly white staffs even as they try to attract a broad cross-section of visitors, according to data collected by The New York Times.

Becoming more diverse is clearly possible, the results also show. At the Studio Museum in Harlem, 82 percent of the board members are people of color, compared with 25 percent at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and 10 percent at New York City Ballet. Minority staff members also account for 66 percent of employees at the Brooklyn Museum, which prides itself on reaching a diverse audience, while they make up about 41 percent at MoMA PS 1.

The Times asked for the information from the cultural groups to get a snapshot of where they are starting. City officials, in assessing diversity, are also looking at categories like people’s gender, sexual orientation, age, and whether they have a disability. The Times focused on data specifically about racial diversity because increasing it is perhaps the biggest challenge for many of these institutions.

The information reflects findings in a study last year that city officials called “troubling”: While 67 percent of New York City residents identify as people of color, only 38 percent of employees at cultural organizations describe themselves that way."

More here

Smithsonian’s African American History Museum Releases Statement on Charlottesville and Confederate Memorials

Beth Py-Lieberman, August 20, 2017
Smithsonian Magazine

"Lonnie G. Bunch, the Smithsonian's founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, has released a statement on behalf of the museum following the tragic deaths at Charlottesville on Saturday, August 12, 2017.

Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old paralegal, was killed when a car driven by a sympathizer of the Ku Klux Klan drove his car into a crowd of protesters. Two Virginia State Troopers, H. Jay Cullen, 48, and Berke Bates, 40, also died when their surveillance helicopter crashed during the white nationalist rally.

"Recognizing the history of violence in support of white supremacy," says Bunch in a statement, "is only part of fully understanding the events of recent days."

Bunch, who has often taken an assertive stance in the court of public opinion, has long practiced a tradition of bringing historical analysis to events of the day, wrote in Smithsonian magazine: "The Smithsonian is the great convener, bringing diverse points of view into contact. A primary goal of the museum is to help America find whatever peace it can over issues of race.""

Read more here

Paris's Centre Pompidou to Open Satellite Branch in Shanghai

Katerine McGrath, Architectural Digest
July 19, 2017

"A little bit of Paris is landing in Shanghai. The Centre Pompidou in Paris has just announced its long-awaited cultural partnership with Shanghai's new West Bund Art Museum, which will host a satellite gallery for the Paris museum in the Chinese cultural capital. The wing is to be called the Centre Pompidou Shanghai (West Bund), and already has 20 exhibitions slated over the course of the initial five-year run.

The collaboration was cemented by the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between France and China, with the hopes of inspiring future cultural communication between the two countries. Works from the Pompidou's collection will be on display at West Bund, and over time the Pompidou is expected to show some of China's most amazing masterpieces as well. The Pompidou hails this as a "first step" in the collaboration between the two institutions.

Construction of the West Bund Art Museum is already under way, with a scheduled completion date of 2018 and an opening in 2019. The David Chipperfield–designed structure will live on the bank of the Huangpu River as part of the West Bund Museum Mile. Other museums on the seven-mile stretch of land include the Long Museum, the Yuz Museum, the Shanghai Center of Photography, the Tank Shanghai Art Park, and the Start Museum.

The deal has been under negotiations for over a decade, and, now that it's signed, the partnership will commence in 2019. This isn't the first satellite post for the Pompidou, which already boasts a series of branch galleries in Málaga, Spain; Metz, France; and one planned for Brussels. When it first opened in 1977, the Paris Pompidou was applauded for its revolutionary design that places its mechanical and system infrastructures on the outside of the building, painted in vibrant hues. The museum is home to some 12,000 works of art and is considered to be the second most important collection of modern art after New York's MoMA."

More here

Canada: In an era of ‘fake news,’ people are turning to museums for facts

Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press, The Star
July 9, 2017

"During peak tourist season, thousands of people stream into Canada’s national museums each day — and this summer is already shaping up to be even stronger than usual in Ottawa, thanks to Canada 150 celebrations.
But the spike in visits isn’t just about the summer.
Museums say it’s also about a quirk of the present age: a proliferation of false information online that has made separating fact from fiction all the more a challenge.
That’s leading people to increasingly seek out museums as a primary source of information and in turn leading institutions to think a bit differently about how they do things.
“There is so much — for lack of a better term, I will call it noise — there are so many different stories: ‘What is news? Is it fake news? What’s going on?’ ” said Fern Proulx, chief executive officer of three of Ottawa’s national museums.
“Museums are a trusted source of information. We need to be prominent in that space.”
The three museums Proulx oversees — Agriculture and Food, Science and Technology and Aviation and Space — collectively rebranded themselves last month as part of their effort toward renewed relevancy.
Their new moniker is Ingenium: Canada’s Museums of Science and Innovation, a nod to the human ingenuity behind their extensive collection of more than 100,000 objects and hundreds of thousands of books, historical photographs and archival documents."
More here

A Noose at the Smithsonian Brings History Back to Life, The New York Times

The New York Times, Lonnie G. Bunch
June 23, 2017

"The person who recently left a noose at the National Museum of African American History and Culture clearly intended to intimidate, by deploying one of the most feared symbols in American racial history. Instead, the vandal unintentionally offered a contemporary reminder of one theme of the black experience in America: We continue to believe in the potential of a country that has not always believed in us, and we do this against incredible odds.

The noose — the second of three left on the National Mall in recent weeks — was found late in May in an exhibition that chronicles America’s evolution from the era of Jim Crow through the civil rights movement. Visitors discovered it on the floor in front of a display of artifacts from the Ku Klux Klan, as well as objects belonging to African-American soldiers who fought during World War I. Though these soldiers fought for democracy abroad, they found little when they returned home.

That display, like the museum as a whole, powerfully juxtaposes two visions of America: one shaped by racism, violence and terror, and one shaped by a belief in an America where freedom and fairness reign. I see the nooses as evidence that those visions continue to battle in 2017 and that the struggle for the soul of America continues to this very day.

The people responsible knew that their acts would not be taken lightly. A noose is a symbol of the racial violence and terror that African-Americans have confronted throughout American history and of the intensity of resistance we’ve faced to any measure of racial equality. During slavery, one of the main purposes of lynching was to deter the enslaved from escaping to freedom. But lynching did not end with slavery; it was also a response to the end of slavery. It continued from the 1880s until after the end of World War I, with more than 100 people lynched each year. So prevalent was this atrocity that between 1920 and 1938, the N.A.A.C.P. displayed a banner at its national headquarters that read simply, “A man was lynched yesterday.”

Lynching was not just a phenomenon of the American South or the Ku Klux Klan. And in many places, as black people fought for inclusion in American life, lynchings became brutal spectacles, drawing thousands of onlookers who posed for photographs with the lifeless bodies. This collective memory explains why the noose has become a symbol of white supremacy and racial intimidation."

New Yale Partner Faulted for Handling of Tribal Artifacts

Leslie MacMillian and Tom Masberg, The New York Times
May 10, 2017

"A 210-year-old seminary here that is in the process of joining Yale Divinity School is coming under fire from federal regulators for failing to follow a law designed to ensure the return of sacred and other special artifacts to Native American tribes.

The Newton Andover Theological School has a collection of 158 Native American items, including locks of hair, wampum belts, “peace pipes” and finely beaded ceremonial garb, mostly gathered in the 19th century by Christian missionaries. For about 70 years, the artifacts have been housed at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass.

But the museum alerted the United States Department of the Interior two years ago when the Newton school, which is struggling with low enrollment, proposed selling some items to raise money. Officials quickly warned the school that a sale would violate a federal law that says any organization that receives federal funding must make every effort to return any spiritual or culturally significant items it holds to the tribes.

Last week, federal officials sent another warning letter to the seminary because it still has not complied by sending inventories of the items to tribes, as required.
“Is Andover being negligent or incompetent?” David Tarler, a federal official tasked with enforcing the law, said in an interview. “Are they confused about the law but acting in good faith? I can’t answer that question.”

School officials said they “abruptly pivoted” after the initial warning in 2015 and decided that no sale would take place. They blame delays on the difficulty of searching spotty historical records to determine which objects might belong to what tribes."

More here.

‘Encyclopedic’ Brooklyn Museum Vies for Contemporary Attention

The New York Times
April 30, 2017

"Brooklyn’s time may have come. But what of the Brooklyn Museum’s?

With art enthusiasts and donors increasingly enamored by contemporary art, and the borough now officially hot, the Brooklyn Museum is struggling to preserve and promote its identity as a serious encyclopedic institution that spans thousands of years. As leaders there are finding, it isn’t easy to attract paying customers with historic collections.

While many museums with comprehensive collections face similar challenges in keeping up with trends, the Brooklyn Museum is also facing serious financial pressures. To deal with a budget deficit of about $3 million, the museum has undergone two rounds of buyouts and halted acquisitions.

The museum’s board seems to have bet on a contemporary emphasis by choosing a new director with a background in that field, Anne Pasternak. Yet she needs to find her own balance between recent art and the museum’s vast holdings in pre-20th-century work."

More here.

Native America’s Necessary And Imperfect Law, Chip Colwell for HuffPost

Chip Colwell, HuffPost
April 28, 2017

"In the spring of 1872, the skull of an Apache woman was dug up from the earth. The year before she had been among 100 Apaches massacred by a vigilante group from Tucson, who believed her people, the Aravaipa and Pinal bands, had perpetrated a series of raids. (They were likely committed by unrelated Chiricahua Apaches.) The woman’s skull was exhumed by a U.S. Army surgeon named Valery Havard who hoped the skeletal remains could serve the new science of anthropology. He signed his name on the side of the skull and deposited it in the collections of the Army Medical Museum. The skull was later transferred to “America’s Attic,” the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History where it would stay for more than a century.

In 2013, the Smithsonian relinquished the woman’s skull to a group of Aravaipa Apache descendants for reburial. This would not have been possible except for federal laws guiding a process called repatriation—the return of human remains and cultural items to their homelands. For decades museum administrators and Native Americans clashed over the fate of collections—debating whether such objects honored humanity’s common heritage or they violated the human rights of Native Americans. These federal laws have done much to help end the war. But too many battles continue on.

Valery Havard’s action was not unique: Since 1620, when Pilgrims first plundered an Indian grave out of curiosity, Americans have habitually collected Native American remains as curios or objects of study. That habit became federal policy in 1868 when the U.S. Surgeon General ordered military personnel to collect skulls from battlefields, cemeteries, hospitals, and graves. Indian bodies soon became a cornerstone of American museums, used to build racial hierarchies that purported to show Europeans as intellectually and emotionally superior."