Toward Post-Critical Museologies in U.S. Art Museums

By Kletchka, Dana Carlisle | Studies in Art Education, January 1, 2018 | Go to article overview

Toward Post-Critical Museologies in U.S. Art Museums


Kletchka, Dana Carlisle, Studies in Art Education


n this article, I draw from a body of critical museological theory to document a paradigmatic shift in the practices and purposes of art museums in the United States. I begin with a narrative that, for me, brought into clearer focus a set of questions about the role and function of art museums in contemporary society and local communities in particular. I use the narrative here as a meditation on the radically shifting and interdependent positionalities of art museum educators and the communities they serve as they are shaped by traditional, object-based museum practices and then reenvisioned and extended by a more contemporary museological philosophy. I elucidate a set of conceptual frameworks, starting with the postmuseum (Hooper-Greenhill, 1999) and the reinvented museum (Anderson, 2012), to provide a foundation from which to envision post-critical museologies (Dewdney et al., 2013) that are human-centered, socially responsive, and informed by multiple voices and perspectives. I conclude with an example of how post-critical museologies are enacted in a U.S. context with a profile of the Columbus Museum of Art, an art museum in Columbus, Ohio, that embraces the tenets of a distributed museum and enacts a social, intentional, and post-critical epistemology.

Black Lives Matter at Penn State

In the winter of 2014, nearly 80 students at The Pennsylvania State University (Penn State) lay silently on the main floor of the busy student union for 45 minutes. Many were clad in all black with duct tape over their mouths and had "died" in response to the death of unarmed teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri (Ferguson) (Baldwin, 2014). In their silent presence, they made clear their mounting concern and righteous anger toward a legal system and society that permitted the demise of an innocent young Black man to go seemingly unchecked and without consequence.

Students staged similar events throughout the week at the building that houses most of the upper administration's offices, the largest library complex on campus, and a residential common area for students living on campus (Ruland, 2014). The organizers and participants of these events were student members of campus-wide organizations such as the Black Leadership Union, National Pan-Hellenic Council, Black Caucus, and National Council of Negro Women at Penn State (Baldwin, 2014). The locations that they selected were simultaneously well-trafficked by students, faculty, and staff and symbolically important to their message: Black Lives Matter (BLM). As the then long-time curator of education at the university art museum,1 I marveled at the courage of the statement while silently regretting that the museum, a site that self-identifies as both a cultural resource and a place that "fosters respect for diverse points of view" (Palmer Museum of Art, 2018), was not identified as an appropriate site of protest. Although the museum frequently offered exhibitions of contemporary art featuring artists of color and organized interpretive programs based on those exhibitions, it failed to cultivate the perception of the museum as an open, collaborative, and dynamic space for discussion. In this case, a relationship that would have enabled students to establish enough of a connection with and ownership of the museum to potentially stage a protest simply did not exist.

Questioning Authentic Engagement

This experience illuminates a marked divide between contemporary museological theory and practice, a chasm between the veneration and study of art objects and their use in the service of community engagement that has alternatively widened and narrowed since the American Alliance of Museums elucidated the importance of education and public engagement for public audiences in museums over 35 years ago (American Association of Museums, 1992). For me, it provoked myriad questions about the role of my university art museum as a forum for student dialogue: Why is the museum not viewed as a place where urgent social issues are discussed and debated? …

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