Museums, Education, and Diversity: A Tale of Twin Cities

Article excerpt


In 1996 an exhibit in a staff area of the Library of Congress created controversy. "Back of the Big House," a collection of photographs of slave quarters on plantations, seemed to reflect and to reify the dissastisfaction of African-American employees with the institution (the Library of Congress) which they had already dubbed "the Big House" (Goldberger 26). A few years earlier the passage of the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act had forced museums to examine the sources of their collections and to question their involvement in the marginalization of Native Americans through exhibition selection, texts accompanying objects, and other aspects of display.

The national publicity surrounding these two events draws attention to the fact that museums are increasingly being challenged by members of the public, as well as by professionals. Critical analysis and self-reflection are apparent in the burgeoning number of theoretical works on museums to the extent that Routledge devotes a section of its art and architecture catalogue exclusively to museum studies. This body of theory derives from, and affects, exhibition practice. Theoretical works also provide methodologies for reading museums critically, especially with an eye to the roles of ideology, politics, and economics in museum culture. They explain how museums are implicated in the evolution of America's dynamics of race, class, and gender. Finally, these texts explore the structural relationships between museums and other major cultural institutions such as libraries or department stores. Thus, they may be relevant to educators in many disciplines - including sociology, political science, anthropology, women's studies, history, and, of course, art.

Indeed, the purpose of this article is to provide educators with an overview of current interdisciplinary research and pedagogy pertaining to museums. Many of these institutions are transforming their displays and educational programs as they gain an awareness of the ways in which their practices have reflected or contributed to inequities of race, class, and gender.

In particular, I will outline the major subjects of this decade's scholarship: the history of museums as powerful institutions as well as their relationships to other powerful institutions; the relationships of museums to their audiences or communities; and the (re)presentation of cultural "others" within museums. For examples of how these intertwined theoretical concerns are played out in institutions, I have drawn on four museums in Minneapolis-St. Paul - the Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the Minnesota Museum of American Art, and the Walker Art Center - to demonstrate how the mission of different museums influence the alternatives they adopt when dealing with similar problems and communities. Few cities the size of Minneapolis offer such a comprehensive range of art museums. Additionally, several of the museums in Minneapolis are renowned within the profession for their innovative approaches to exhibition and education. These institutions offer especially good examples of how museums may transform their practices to make them more multicultural.

In the last decade, researchers have studied the evolution of nineteenth-century European and American museums in the hopes of gaining a better understanding of current museum trends. In The Birth of the Museum, for instance, Tony Bennett considers similarities between nineteenth-century British museums, prisons, and popular expositions. He suggests that museums functioned as part of a system designed to induct the masses not only into "higher" culture, but also into certain codes of public behavior. Bennett's analysis of disciplinarity in museums is indebted to Foucault's work with nineteenth-century jails. Carol Duncan's Civilizing Rituals, on the other hand, traces the history of major European art museums back to Napoleon's opening of the Louvre to display war loot. …