Book Review Essay

in Museum Worlds
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  • 1 Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand

What Is Public History Globally? Working with the Past in the Present. Paul Ashton and Alex Trapeznik, eds. London: Bloomsbury, 2019.

The Disobedient Museum: Writing at the Edge. Kylie Message. Museums in Focus series. London: Routledge, 2018.

A Museum in Public: Revisioning Canada's Royal Ontario Museum. Susan L. T. Ashley. Museums in Focus series. London: Routledge, 2020.

Anti-Museum. Adrian Franklin. Museums in Focus series. London: Routledge, 2020.

Collecting Activism, Archiving Occupy Wall Street. Kylie Message. Museums in Focus series. London: Routledge, 2019.

What Is Public History Globally? Working with the Past in the Present. Paul Ashton and Alex Trapeznik, eds. London: Bloomsbury, 2019.

The Disobedient Museum: Writing at the Edge. Kylie Message. Museums in Focus series. London: Routledge, 2018.

A Museum in Public: Revisioning Canada's Royal Ontario Museum. Susan L. T. Ashley. Museums in Focus series. London: Routledge, 2020.

Anti-Museum. Adrian Franklin. Museums in Focus series. London: Routledge, 2020.

Collecting Activism, Archiving Occupy Wall Street. Kylie Message. Museums in Focus series. London: Routledge, 2019.

 

The 2017 vandalism of two statues in Sydney's Hyde Park, which venerate key figures responsible for bringing the British colonial enterprise to Australia, is discussed in the opening chapter of What Is Public History Globally? As I write this, the statue of Captain James Cook in Hyde Park is back in the news headlines, as it is at the center of a protest against the numbers of Aboriginal deaths in police custody in Australia (Swain 2020). The protest was incited by the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man killed by police in Minneapolis in the United States on 25 May 2020. “Black Lives Matter” protests and demonstrations have struck up since Floyd's death, with disgruntled crowds calling for an end to police brutality and racism (Mohamed and Stepansky 2020). The unrest has escalated into a global interrogation of the continued memorialization of men known (for what is considered in the present) to have carried out violent, oppressive, and racist acts (Breuer 2020). During the Black Lives Matter protests in Sydney, police officers were pictured encircling the Cook statue—clearly in an attempt to dissuade protestors from toppling the monument.

Activism in response to the practices of democracy and representations of the past is not new. Public historians and museums have been among the most active participants in debates that center on sites of contested histories. The five books in this review are from the fields of public history and museum studies. What both fields of study have in common is that they are open to drawing on a range of insights and theories to develop responses to critical contemporary issues. Kylie Message, the series editor of the four Museums in Focus publications reviewed here, locates museum studies as being “a kind of boundary discipline” that “occupies the conceptual spaces that are typically assumed to exist “in-between” traditional disciplinary canons” (2018: 2). For Paul Ashton and Alex Trapeznik, as the editors of What Is Public History Globally? “there is no particular global mode or practice of public history. Like culture, public history comes from somewhere: it is local; it is from ‘around here’—a locality, region, state or nation” (6). The flexibility that distinguishes these fields of study can be seen as enabling, yet at the same time it has generated criticism that a lack of intellectual distance and rigor can confuse “topicality with historical relevance” (Message 2019: 29).

What Is Public History Globally? contends that public history is linked to the nation-state and that it is specifically rooted in American and British ideals of democratized knowledge. The chapters in Part I are organized alphabetically by nation (inclusive of the broader entities of Britain and Scandinavia), and they examine university courses and issues around the legitimacy of public history in these places. Yet the omission of scholarship from Eastern Europe, South America, and East Asia beyond China is significant in a publication that claims to be global, and when nine of the 24 chapters are contributed by Australian authors. Where many of the essays coalesce is in the reflection that established national identifiers are being eroded in the present. For nations such as Australia, Canada, India, and New Zealand, colonial legacies have come to lose their shine, and there is an impetus to use public history as “a tool for recovery” in South Africa. For Britain, Mark Donnelly explains that there is a kind of identity crisis that sees the widespread popular embrace of such television programs as Who Do You Think You Are? (WDYTYA). Interestingly, three other chapters in What Is Public History Globally? also refer to this program, which has spread to television screens throughout many parts of the world. Anna Green alerts us to how the popularity of the show has made a positive contribution to interest in family histories, yet, at the same time, she points out how the highly selective construction of the family tree in WDYTYA, driven by the goals of television broadcasting agencies, is only “a partial reflection of the myriad of genetic, cultural and social influences that shape who we are” (228).

Denis Byrne and Tracy Ireland each contribute excellent essays in Part II of What Is Public History Globally? which critically reflect upon the outputs of public history. For a field that is generally portrayed as being more accessible, emotive, and “for the people” than the discipline of academic history, there are challenges for public historians in working to remain true to these principles (see Dalley 2001; Kean 2010; and Schofield 2015). In “Affective Afterlives,” Byrne identifies an “ingrained tendency of heritage practice to subordinate the social significance of heritage sites to their architectural significance” (178). And Ireland's chapter on the archaeological archive of the President's House site in Philadelphia draws attention to how the practices of conservation have had the “unintended consequence of distancing the communities who have invested this [archaeological] material with memories” (195).

The concise essays make What Is Public History Globally? a publication that university students and professionals can delve into to explore the parts that interest them. However, when contested histories are featuring so heavily across mainstream and social media, a book of this kind seems removed from current debates. So, while the book's introduction, “The Public Turn: History Today,” presumably refers to the contemporary nature of public history, it also draws attention to how the measured processes of book publishing can diminish the timeliness of content that could be shared more efficiently and in “real-time” online.1

While What Is Public History Globally? examines historic developments within public history, The Disobedient Museum strives for future innovation within the field of museum studies. Message positions her book as a “protest against disciplinary stagnation” (2018: 9) and proposes that museums can make a significant contribution to understandings of social protest and reform when there is more critical engagement with the practice of writing. Message asserts that “if there is a presumption that museums ‘should’ be politically engaged, the same must be said of writing about museums” (6).

The Disobedient Museum is the first volume in Routledge's Museums in Focus short-format book series. Message sets out her aspirations for the new series by establishing the “disobedient museum” as a concept and as an approach. Disobedience, according to Message, “exists as an in-between/liminal term or site of resistance” to critically engage with the relationship between museums, politics and the broader public sphere (29). Message situates her work as being indebted to the museums as “social worlds” scholarship of Tony Bennett and colleagues (2017) and as being influenced by Christopher Whitehead's (2009) proposition that museums have played a direct role in the development of academic disciplines.

In a publication heavy with theoretical discussion, The Disobedient Museum effectively employs an introductory figure as a vignette to draw the reader into the discussion. The inclusion of “Person wearing ‘I can see November from my House too!’ sticker at Restoring Honor rally, National Mall Washington D.C., August 28, 2010” at the beginning of Chapter 1, launched a particularly engaging investigation into the politics of display and other activism-based interactions that museums were making/having in response to Donald Trump becoming the President of the United States. I appreciated the use of the figure (despite the book's primary focus on writing) as grounding for the dense theoretical discussion and felt that the introduction might have benefited from this technique too.

A provocative area of analysis was the description of “the disobedient museum” as occurring beyond the four walls of the museum, out in the streets and in the minds of people. This approach supports the view of “the disobedient museum” as being “a commitment to action (intellectual, physical, or otherwise) that is not constrained by boundaries”—meaning that it can occur within and beyond the traditional museum exhibition space (28). While it is straightforward to recognize the synergies that exist between political activism and the active role that museums can play in protest and political struggles through their collecting, their exhibitions and public programs, and sometimes through their public engagement after topical exhibitions close—I still struggled to conceive of places and events outside of the museum as being “museum-like” (4, 15, 28, 70, 81, 83). As a graduate of museum and heritage studies, who has managed heritage values in places (mainly outside of museums), the terminology of “museum-like spaces” seems redundant to me. I feel comfortable using museum studies scholarship to analyze the work that I do, but to describe rallies and marches held to protest the inauguration of President Donald Trump as being “increasingly museum-like” seems to me to be an effort to label (or even appropriate) something that does not require it (81). Nevertheless, The Disobedient Museum was an exciting read that set an agenda of “dirty thinking” for engaged modes of critique (35–38). By the end of the book, I was eager for more and looking forward to what else the Museums in Focus series had to offer.

A Museum in Public begins with a description of the author's experience of emerging from the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto, in January 2009, to discover a “Gaza protest” outside. Susan Ashley recalls how the protesters were “fixated on the Israeli consulate across the street” (3), and she makes a juxtaposition between the “agitated public scene” and “the cool, silent Crystal” of the new ROM building (3). In stark contrast to The Disobedient Museum, A Museum in Public provides a case study of a museum that establishes clear boundaries between raw public activism “outside” and a “genteel, polite and managed engagement” that occurs within the museum (4).

A Museum in Public surveys the “renaissance” of the ROM between 2000 and 2010. Ashley utilizes interviews from external commentators, ROM staff, volunteers, and visitors to give color to her argument that the public nature of the ROM was in decline despite a publicity campaign aligned with an extensive architectural redevelopment that promoted enhanced public engagement and access. A Museum in Public might be seen as subscribing to the “dirty thinking” promoted in The Disobedient Museum in its “critique from within” (Message 2018: 41), as Ashley positions herself as a ROM volunteer early on in the book. A Museum in Public also takes the activist stance that museums like the ROM have traditionally privileged an elite audience.

While A Museum in Public is a good publication within itself, I wondered whether a better fit for the Museums in Focus series might have been an in-depth analysis of the exhibition of the ancient spiritual texts of the Dead Sea Scrolls. This exhibition launched the new ROM galleries after the museum redevelopment in June 2009. Ashley does include a brief discussion of the Dead Sea Scrolls at the end of her sixth chapter, yet it only touches on the political fallout from the ROM hosting the exhibition, and misses the opportunity to interrogate the way in which the museum engaged with the politics unleashed and the broader public response. I found the brief mention that Ashley made of a correlation between the “historicizing effect” (71) of the curatorial approach of the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibition and that of the ROM's notorious Into the Heart of Africa of 1989 to 1990 (the exhibition that every museum studies student learns about) worthy of further examination. I also wondered whether a description of an aspect of the activism related to the ROM hosting the Dead Sea Scrolls might have made a better introduction—in the place of the inclusion of the “Gaza protest.”

A Museum in Public is heavily informed by Ashley's PhD from 2010, and the book still reads like a thesis where Ashley, at times, lets the scholarship of others overshadow her own analysis (see Ashley 2010). Yet in its revelation that the ROM had an activist rhetoric that was not backed up by its actions in practice, A Museum in Public provokes a wider questioning around the role and responsibilities of museums. How common is it for museums to promote a public mission that they do not, for whatever reason, follow through with? Is it acceptable in this day and age for museums to make distinctions between culture and politics? And are we now asking too much of museums? In this way, A Museum in Public inspires its readers to recast some of the taken-for-granted museum ideals and become part of extending the current debates.

The selection of the four Museums in Focus books for this review was made to showcase the range of scholarship that the series has to offer so far. In The Disobedient Museum, Message spent considerable time emphasizing how disobedient “borderwork” is preferable to direct opposition, and she went so far as to call out “the oppositional logic employed by ‘antimuseum’ language and tropes” (2018: 83, 90). So, when it came time for me to read Adrian Franklin's Anti-Museum, I was unsure how it would fit the agenda prescribed by Message. While Franklin does not address the critique directly, he does make it clear in his conclusion that antimuseums “do not constitute a unified, binary opposite” to “conventional art museums” (120). Still, he begins from the position that six case studies of antimuseums in the United States, Europe, and Australia are “deliberately opposed” to the founding principles and aims of Tony Bennett's (1995) concept of the “modern museum,” a term that Franklin employs interchangeably with “conventional art museum” (1).

According to Franklin, “heritage museums” are thriving because they have become more democratic spaces “converging with, rather than standing apart from, the communities” they serve. “The same cannot be said for art museums,” writes Franklin (3). He sees the emphasis that modern art museums place upon art history as being responsible for creating a “deadening” effect that works to disassociate the emotional responses of visitors from the art they view (7). In this way, Anti-Museum follows the “disobedient museum” in its disruption of traditional understandings associated with the canonistic terms of “museum” and “museology” (Message 2018: 3). In addition, Franklin establishes that antimuseums are extroverted in their links to social and political issues and that they have the flexibility to quickly respond to the changing world around them. The New Museum in New York, for example, provides a platform for marginalized contemporary artists, and champions interventions in its locale in urban development, gentrification, homelessness, and poverty (76, 73). Franklin showcases a further “disobedient” tendency of antimuseums to “readily breach their own museum walls” (12) with The Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Tasmania, Australia, holding dynamic summer and winter festivals. MONA is a private-funded art museum, located at the Moorilla Winery near Hobart.

Nevertheless, I struggled with some of the (oppositional) distinctions that Franklin makes, such as how conventional art museums are primarily valued by a minority social group made up of the educated elite (1). Only limited audiences would have the means to visit the “art brut” collection at the Chateau Beaulieu in Lausanne, Switzerland. The location of this antimuseum undermines the view that “unlike academic/conventional art, all people can understand or at least relate to art brut” (25). The reality is that only those who have the financial ability to get to Lausanne would have this opportunity. Then Franklin details his interactions with what appears to be a minority social group at the antimuseum of Marfa in remote Texas, where he joined a tour of 15 others who “were notably international, and most were working in the cultural economy and/or collectors of some kind” (53).

My issue with “antimuseum” rhetoric is that it infers that museums are part of a “celebratory march of progress,” when I, like others, see museums as social institutions “constructed in particular times and places and shaped by contemporary ideas, values and practices” (McCarthy 2018: 25). Franklin's scholarship left me wondering that if antimuseums are currently the “trendy” museums in all their outsider, alternative subversiveness, then does the act of trying to define what they are (and are not) have the effect of disrupting what makes them appear so divergent from other museums?

In Collecting Activism, Message returns to model what the engaged critical analysis outlined in The Disobedient Museum might look like. Thus, taken together with The Disobedient Museum, Collecting Activism makes a distinct contribution to a growing discourse of postcritical museology in exploring the theoretical context that frames the way writing about political activism occurs and then imbedding this theory within real-life practice (see Dewdney et al. 2013). Collecting Activism covers the efforts (and struggles) of a committed working group to archive a collection of items associated with the “Occupy Wall Street” movement of 2011. Occupy Wall Street was a demonstration initially based out of Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan, New York, that was against mainstream politics and Wall Street. The activists claimed that they represented “the 99 percent that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1 percent” (Message 2019: 1; see also Gautney 2011).

The affective descriptions of the interactions between Message and Amy Roberts, one of the principal instigators of the “Archives Working Group,” provide a close-up encounter with the ethics of cause-based collecting. Message examines collections as subjective assemblages rather than as objective sources of information, and she compares “insider” activist collecting with “outsider” institutions coming in and “helicopter collecting” (11). Collecting Activism promotes autoethnographic approaches as being suited to activist expression, and this is a feature of the book that is well utilized by Message.

I found that “the personal is political” (43) discussion, relative to the framing of liminal “disobedient” spaces within Collecting Activism, got me thinking about the role of individuals in museums and in politics—particularly in relation to the right to act on behalf of others. The Museums in Focus series is a call to action that places museum studies on the front-foot ready to engage, respond, and lead-out on discourses shaped by critical contemporary issues—the key for any future critical political writing will be the timeliness of the publication cycle of these short yet dynamic texts.

Paulette Wallace,

Victoria University of Wellington

Note

1

Many of the chapters in What Is Public History Globally? refer to 2017, yet the publication date is 2019.

References

  • Ashley, Susan. 2010. “Museum Renaissance? Revisioning ‘Publicness’ at the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto.” PhD diss., York University, Toronto.

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  • Bennett, Tony. 1995. The Birth of the Museum. London: Routledge.

  • Bennett, Tony, Fiona Cameron, Nélia Dias, Ben Dibley, Rodney Harrison, Ira Jacknis, and Conal McCarthy. 2017. Collecting, Ordering, Governing: Anthropology, Museums and Liberal Government. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

    • Crossref
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  • Breuer, Ryan. 2020. “Toppled Monuments: A Selection of Controversial Figures.” Deutsche Welle, 12 June. https://www.dw.com/en/toppled-monuments-a-selection-of-controversial-figures/g-53784734.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Dalley, Bronwyn. 2001. “Finding the Common Ground: New Zealand's Public History.” In Going Public: The Changing Face of New Zealand History, ed. Bronwyn Dalley and Jock Phillips, 1629. Auckland: Auckland University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Dewdney, Andrew, David Dibosa, and Victoria Walsh. 2013. Post-Critical Museology: Theory and Practice in the Art Museum. London: Routledge.

  • Gautney, Heather. 2011. “What Is Occupy Wall Street? The History of Leaderless Movements.” Washington Post, 10 October. https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/on-leadership/what-is-occupy-wall-street-the-history-of-leaderless-movements/2011/10/10/gIQAwkFjaL_story.html.

    • Search Google Scholar
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  • Kean, Hilda. 2010. “People, Historians, and Public History: Demystifying the Process of History Making.” The Public Historian 32 (3): 2538. doi:10.1525/tph.2010.32.3.25.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • McCarthy, Conal. 2018. Te Papa: Reinventing New Zealand's National Museum 1998–2018. Wellington, New Zealand: Te Papa Press.

  • Mohamed, Hamza, and Joseph Stepansky. 2020. “George Floyd: Thousands Turn out for Protests in US, UK: Live.” Aljazeera.com, 7 June. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/06/trump-great-day-george-floyd-remark-slammed-live-200605151040283.html.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Schofield, John. 2015. “‘Thinkers and Feelers’: A Psychological Perspective on Heritage and Society.” In The Palgrave Handbook of Contemporary Heritage Research, ed. Emma Waterton and Steve Watson, 417425. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Swain, Sara. 2020. “Black Lives Matter: Police Surround Captain Cook Statue as They Move on Banned Protesters in Sydney's Hyde Park,” 9News, 12 June. https://www.9news.com.au/national/black-lives-matter-rally-town-hall-sydney-police-presence/c81259da-8016-45de-ae49-42deabf23909.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Whitehead, Christopher. 2009. Museums and the Construction of Disciplines: Art and Archaeology in Nineteenth-Century Britain. London: Gerald Duckworth & Co. Ltd.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation

Museum Worlds

Advances in Research

  • Ashley, Susan. 2010. “Museum Renaissance? Revisioning ‘Publicness’ at the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto.” PhD diss., York University, Toronto.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bennett, Tony. 1995. The Birth of the Museum. London: Routledge.

  • Bennett, Tony, Fiona Cameron, Nélia Dias, Ben Dibley, Rodney Harrison, Ira Jacknis, and Conal McCarthy. 2017. Collecting, Ordering, Governing: Anthropology, Museums and Liberal Government. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Breuer, Ryan. 2020. “Toppled Monuments: A Selection of Controversial Figures.” Deutsche Welle, 12 June. https://www.dw.com/en/toppled-monuments-a-selection-of-controversial-figures/g-53784734.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Dalley, Bronwyn. 2001. “Finding the Common Ground: New Zealand's Public History.” In Going Public: The Changing Face of New Zealand History, ed. Bronwyn Dalley and Jock Phillips, 1629. Auckland: Auckland University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Dewdney, Andrew, David Dibosa, and Victoria Walsh. 2013. Post-Critical Museology: Theory and Practice in the Art Museum. London: Routledge.

  • Gautney, Heather. 2011. “What Is Occupy Wall Street? The History of Leaderless Movements.” Washington Post, 10 October. https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/on-leadership/what-is-occupy-wall-street-the-history-of-leaderless-movements/2011/10/10/gIQAwkFjaL_story.html.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kean, Hilda. 2010. “People, Historians, and Public History: Demystifying the Process of History Making.” The Public Historian 32 (3): 2538. doi:10.1525/tph.2010.32.3.25.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • McCarthy, Conal. 2018. Te Papa: Reinventing New Zealand's National Museum 1998–2018. Wellington, New Zealand: Te Papa Press.

  • Mohamed, Hamza, and Joseph Stepansky. 2020. “George Floyd: Thousands Turn out for Protests in US, UK: Live.” Aljazeera.com, 7 June. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/06/trump-great-day-george-floyd-remark-slammed-live-200605151040283.html.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Schofield, John. 2015. “‘Thinkers and Feelers’: A Psychological Perspective on Heritage and Society.” In The Palgrave Handbook of Contemporary Heritage Research, ed. Emma Waterton and Steve Watson, 417425. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Swain, Sara. 2020. “Black Lives Matter: Police Surround Captain Cook Statue as They Move on Banned Protesters in Sydney's Hyde Park,” 9News, 12 June. https://www.9news.com.au/national/black-lives-matter-rally-town-hall-sydney-police-presence/c81259da-8016-45de-ae49-42deabf23909.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Whitehead, Christopher. 2009. Museums and the Construction of Disciplines: Art and Archaeology in Nineteenth-Century Britain. London: Gerald Duckworth & Co. Ltd.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation

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