The subject I am going to deal with is the museum as agent of change and agent of stability in multicultural societies. I will do this by talking about different ethnic and culturally-specific museums in the US. Let’s begin by distinguishing two typologies of museums as it follows:
The encyclopedic model: outside in
The encyclopedic museum celebrates a grand kaleidoscope of cultures. In the United States the encyclopedic model is traditionally an art museum, and its perspective is usually framed by curators from outside the many cultures included. The net effect of the encyclopedic museum is of a “mosaic” of aesthetic achievements. At its best it is a grand recognition of the world as multicultural and cosmopolitan.
The ethnic or culture-specific model: inside out
Ethnic or culture-specific museums are museums of living communities and are dedicated to the ongoing pre-sentation of the achievements and struggles of a single ethnicity or culture. In the United States they are usually a combination of BOTH art and material culture museums. The perspective of this kind of museum always comes from inside the culture represented. Ethnic and culture-specific museums frame their own narratives, celebrate themselves, and prioritize their own values. Ethnic or culture-specific museums are always educational at their core and all of their professional staff are educators by definition.
History of the old model with respect to multi–culturalism
American encyclopedic museums can be seen as multicultural at first glance. But that is a fashionable word from the last quarter century and is not really what these museums are about.
The most expansive and successful of all of the American encyclopedic museums, the one that sets the standard for all of the others, opened its doors in 1870, and is, of course, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. It has become, over the last almost century and a half one of the great achievements of the East Coast, and indeed, of American cultural life. The Met represents in its extensive galleries civilizations from the most ancient to the most contemporary. Maybe a better word would be “displays” these cultures. It is irrelevant to the Met whether the cultures are extinct, disappearing or on-going. The goal has always been to gather together and to be able to exhibit a “heterochronic” and “heterospatial” mosaic of the world’s arts. This ongoing effort has aimed to be as comprehensive as possible and of the finest artistic quality. Consequently at the Met one can encounter, study and enjoy artistic production at its highest levels from all over the world. Greece and Rome; Ancient Egypt; Babylonia; India; the indigenous and aboriginal arts of New Guinea and Australia; Old Master European painting; pre-Colombian gold; the sculpture of Africa and Asia; one could go on. The museum is dazzling. It is a kind of multicultural paradise – in a horizontal kind of way.
But, these collections were not given by or informed by living communities. With the exception of the globalized contemporary artworks they were given to the museum or purchased by it with the impetus and the money and the choices about what was displayed and collected coming from OUTSIDE the cultures that were represented.
The great collections of what was once called primitive art were gifts from the Rockefellers; the Old Masters were left to the museum by wealthy and generous families such as the Lehmans. The curators who formed its collections emerged out of the wealth and cultivation of the United States or Europe. The Metropolitan, the model for all of our encyclopedic museums, was, on its most idealistic level a way of demonstrating that this new country was made up and energized by peoples coming from all over the world. That legacy mattered to the founders of the Met because it was a demonstration, through the public museum, considered to be a kind of free university for the education of all citizens, that we recognized that fact of America as microcosm. Because people from everywhere came to the United States and settled there it was important that their greatest creative accomplishments could be seen and appreciated in New York. The creation of the Met was, therefore, many things, but above all it was meant to be an EDUCATION in “cosmopolitanism” – a philosophy propounded and defended by Princeton philosopher Anthony Appiah. Appiah’s cosmopolitanism insists that the highest value of civilization(s) is to share its greatest aesthetic accomplishments throughout the world.
But, more than a cosmopolitanism or multiculturalism was at stake. This museum (and museums emulating it all over the United States, in Detroit, in Chicago, in Cleveland, in Minneapolis) was also a display of opulent riches – a trumpeting of the ability of the USA to purchase samplings of the most astonishing artistic -creations from the largest possible pool of artistic production, in effect to capture them. And so, wealthy American tycoons – from the Rockefellers to the Wrightsmans – bought these most elite possible objects of art back to America from the whole world. Even as it showed off the ability of American wealth and power to corner the market, the Met worked to convince the world at large that the United States wasn’t only about selfish and private ostentation. It wanted to prove that there was, indeed, an overriding civic institution that meant to share what it had purchased with everyone who entered the doors of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Normally, the art was purchased legally and ethically, but sometimes, most notably when it had to do with archeology, objects were brought back by what are now, increasingly, considered dubious means. But, the museum was born in different times. And, those times will not come back again.
Still, the Met was not evenhandedly multicultural. Not by any means. Significantly, and with great impact, the Met, the epitome of the American encyclopedic museum, educated everyone who entered its lobby to its way of thinking by virtue of its display strategy. The Met impressed upon its visitors the hierarchy that was believed to be America’s principal heritage. The Met communicated the pre-eminence of the heritage by which the United States was to be guided in its identity, its laws, its ethics, its philosophy. This impression was made in this museum, not as in school, with words in books, but rather by means of the visual. The display strategy reminded all visitors that Americans descended predominantly from, and were, in the mainstream, the heirs of the Western world. To this day the visitor enters the temple of art and, turning immediately to the left is immersed in Ancient Greece and Rome; to the right in the glory of Egypt. Straight ahead is a Renaissance Spanish courtyard; the hallways are lined with Byzantine treasures; and at the end of the main axis is the European Middle Ages.
Climbing the very grand staircase, we encounter the glories of the European painting tradition. All the rest, off the main axis is fabulous – the New Guinean, the Pre-Colombian, the African, the Asian. But all the rest is, implicitly, commentary. And that was the multiculturalism of the East Coast!
Let’s fly now, over the vast Middle West, extending a respectful bow to Chicago and its fabulous Art Institute, and land on the other coast, the West Coast, where we will stop and visit the Met’s upstart counterpart known as LACMA. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art is Los Angeles’ own ambitious encyclopedic museum. It was launched as an exclusive art museum almost one hundred years after the opening of the Met. A parvenue from the perspective of the East Coast, much collecting has been accomplished in Los Angeles in the relatively short time of about forty years since it broke away from the LA County Museum of Natural History and Art, and dedicated itself to art alone. Here, too, as in the Met there are treasures plucked from the whole world and given or sold to the museum: Iran and Africa; Japan, India and China; the European Masters; Mexico, the ancient and the modern. And, in exactly the same way as happened in New York these works of art were given and purchased, largely with the same goals as at the Metropolitan. The works of art or the means to buy them were afforded the museum by the emerging aristocrats and tycoons of LA with, it should be said (as in New York) significant help from the local government: the founders wanted to show off the city’s wealth; to declare its cultural maturity and respectability; to demonstrate by their purchases and collections as a whole that LA is a microcosm of the world. And by doing so hailing the value of cosmopolitanism while giving a respectful nod to the multiculturalism of the city.
There are plans, it should be said, to alter the display and the emphasis at LACMA to better reflect the distinct origins and different cultural reality of the West Coast. Within a few years, the current director, Michael Govan, assures, when you enter LACMA, you will encounter first Pre-Colombian to the left and Korean to the right. Japanese art already has its own pavilion. The changes are meant to distinguish LACMA from the Met and to reflect that LA is considered to be a significant Latin American city and that it lives on the Pacific Rim. It is also meant to emphasize the notion that we are a city of NOW.
Therefore, a new museum of contemporary art has recently opened within the museum complex and underlines that idea of contemporaneity. So, the idea is, through the museum, to distinguish one encyclopedic museum from another; one city’s potential for wealth and power from another by its principal axis of influence: in the case of New York, Europe; in the case of Los Angeles, the Pacific Rim. And finally, to subliminally always push (whether it is true or not) that LA is the city of the future; New York, the city of the past. In all cases, the money and the power comes from outside of any of the represented cultures.
The ideal, the great museum as multicultural showcase, with collections and exhibitions for all, directed from the outside of the cultures represented served long and well. And, obviously it needs to continue doing what it does. It is, along with the institutions of the library and the university, the best means for preserving the cultural DNA of humanity. But, something happened in the sixties and the seventies to register the need for different kinds of museums in our cultural landscape in the United States. It happened in New York and it happened in Los Angeles and it happened all over the US.
What was it that occurred? What happened was that the people who were displayed in the museums began to rebel. They wanted to decide how they were represented. They wanted to tell the story, collect the art, frame the narrative, determine the nature of their influence from the INSIDE.
So, the Met, responding to a demand that it be more multicultural (this may be when the word multicultural gained currency) and to tell “other” stories, put up a major exhibition of the Harlem Renaissance. They inaugurated this show in the late sixties. Although the subject matter was different than its normal exhibitions, the Met followed all of its old patterns – and had it curated from OUTSIDE the African American community. After the opening, all hell broke loose; the Met’s world turned upside down with the rage that emerged from INSIDE the African-American community. It was in the zeitgeist, it was the full blown sixties.
The rage at the Met more or less coincided with the birth of the Studio Museum of Harlem in 1968. The Studio Museum in Harlem was the first museum in the U.S. devoted to the contemporary art of African-Americans. It was birthed from the inside; that is, it was curated by people from within the culture. The Studio Museum of Harlem was soon followed by the Museo del Barrio wherein the Puerto Rican and Caribbean cultures of New York insisted on telling their own stories THEMSELVES.
A new model was born. That model swept the United States and was replicated, in various forms, in museum after museum. It took special root in Los Angeles in alternative institutions – actually they were more art centers with gallery spaces than actual museums. In LA this came to pass in the early seventies, where culture after culture clamored to tell their own stories and to get out from under the big roof of the Encyclopedic Museum – especially at first, in these alternative spaces, reflecting the Latino/Hispanic/Chicano experiences.
Important to this understanding of why the old idea of the encyclopedic museum is an aging model is the normative reality that most of the things given and or on display in those museums were gifts of the rich and powerful. They were chosen by the establishment; the narratives were structured by them; the values the collections or shows had were determined by them. They were made by outsiders to the communities that the objects represented; and they were put into the storyline the museum needed them help tell. They were never tales told by the insiders themselves. They were never grass roots initiatives. And, it should be noted that, given our tax structure in the US there always came a time in the life of our cities when it behooved the rich and the powerful to donate their own collection to their museums – when they would actually be able to make money off of these donations, or at least better preserve their wealth.
The fact is that, even if it were still the desired model, the old model cannot be repeated today from scratch. The works are too expensive to buy in quantity and, furthermore, are not available; the mores and laws have so changed that most of the works that represent the most cosmopolitan ideal would be impossible to export or to import given new ways of understanding cultural patrimony. Our time of globalization has only increased the awareness of localities that they must preserve their own heritage or lose it in the great maw. The imposing old model, is now set in its character. It is mostly a completed adventure – it will continue, with gaps to be filled in and strengths, and directions to change, but its purpose will be to emphasize and lessons to teach the lessons we have established of the encyclopedic museum.
But, now, the new universe of museums that has been forming is an explosion of examples of the new model – and demands an entirely different set of assumptions. This is the model I would like to discuss today.
Ethnic specific and culture-specific museums
For the last thirty years, the ethnic or culture-specific museums have been multiplying like topsy in America. I want to talk now about the emergence and the strengthening of that new model. The ethnic-specific or the cultural-specific model is, it should be said, based on a completely different notion than the old mosaic or what we call now the multicultural model – where each encyclopedic museum has galleries dedicated to representing the best of the “other” cultures whose stories they tell. Rather than the presentation of the museum as a world in microcosm, made up of a mosaic of cultures, the new model claims that the particular ethnicity or culture is the center of its own universe and it assumes the responsibility for telling you, the visitor, what it will pass on. It emanates from the INSIDE; it is the voice of the people themselves. I would like to discuss only one of the principal types of that model here. There are, it needs to be stressed, many other variations on this museum model, but I will highlight this special one, and that is the Hyphenated American museums.
America is lucky to have its share of what I call Hyphenated-American museums. Hyphenated Americans are Americans who still cling to their original identities even as they embrace America – and as America embraces them. The embrace, though, is only truly tight and reciprocal in this new type of museum when collective America feels that the American side of the equation is at least as equally weighted as the ethnic side. So, Hyphenated Americans have always existed: for example, Greek Americans and Italian Americans. We see the evidence of that in their food: the baklava and pasta that permeated the United States. As I mentioned we saw the evidence of their positive influence every time we entered the Metropolitan museum. Greeks and Italians have, it becomes clear, no need for ethnic-specific museums. They are the ethnicity that powerful mainstream America has long claimed as its foundational culture – along with all of the countries in Europe that greet you with their art at the top of the Met’s grand staircase.
But the museum side of the “other” American experiences began in earnest, as a kind of movement, in New York at the end of the sixties and the early seventies when the whole world seemed to be in revolution. In all cases these museums came out of dynamic living communities; they are not museums of historical relics. They do not represent disappeared cultures.
I will present here, three especially successful such museums in California; a new and daring one in Dearborn Michigan; and finally I will mention an odd situation about museums of the Latino or Hispanic experience in the United States.
Before, I want to point out the characteristics that seem to identify all of the museums that have been extremely successful. They are remarkably consistent in displaying these characteristics … In all cases,
– They identify themselves as American museums.
– They have a unified, coherent and agreed upon clear narrative, framed from the INSIDE to transmit to their audience.
– They have had UNIQUE struggles and challenges in White Anglo Saxon America that they had or are overcoming.
– They are dedicated to spreading greater understanding of themselves to the outside world.
– They want to keep their histories alive for their children who are (they both fear and celebrate) being absorbed into the larger American experience.
– They want also to be known for their achievements.
– They have a strong desire to be both particularistic and universalistic.
– They have significant collections or the potential to get them donated or purchased.
– They are most often combined history museums, art museums and cultural centres. They are always safe gathering places.
– They collaborate with other hyphenated American museums – on their own terms.
– They can call upon political and financial help from the Federal and State governments, and/or from corporations from OUTSIDE their communities.
– They have received significant help (money and contributions of works) from INSIDE their own ethnicity and culture.
– They are ongoing, dynamic and living communities that have re-rooted in the United States.
Four successful models
Let me briefly discuss the four successful museums of this model. Firstly I will talk about the Skirball Cultural Center and Museum of the American Jewish Experience. It fits all of the criteria for the successful ethnic and culture-specific museum. Looking at their self-description, the Skirball Museum insists that it is an American Museum and it does have a coherent and clear story line that it wants to transmit to both their inside audience and to the outside audience as well. In the case of the Skirball the unified story is America as “refuge” – of America as place of aspiration for all who came there – The Skirball’s is an optimistic story. It is inspired by the parallels between Jewish values and American democratic principles.
The Skirball’s programs, exhibitions, and curricula, exist in a communal symbiosis with other cultures. They are inclusive even when they are describing a particularistic history and objects particular to the culture and religion. The Skirball collaborates constantly with other hyphenated American museums.1
In their long history, the point is made throughout the museum, Jews have never existed in a vacuum but in the uniquely hospitable climate of the United States, Jewish life has flourished. The parallel is made to Spain in the era of conviviencia. Above all, the museum is dedicated to spreading understanding and ecumenism among its visitors. It constantly emphasizes that it is a safe place for all peoples to be together.
Notably, although Jews have had special struggles in White Anglo Saxon America, very little space is given to Anti-Semitism or even to the Holocaust. This is a museum about optimism, less about the struggle than about the successes and about the achievements that have been possible for Jews in the US. Such success ranges from Einstein exhibitions to the current exhibition about Bob Dylan.
The Skirball reflects Jewish desire to keep the memory of becoming American alive for their children who are, inevitably, being absorbed into the larger American experience.
It is a collecting institution and frames its story through the objects it collects, displays preserves and interprets.
Thinking about the characteristics of success, The Skirball has developed a significant political voice within the US so as to have received significant support from the government. Federal and State governments. Every one of the successful ethnic specific museums has gotten important grants to help them get started and to continue from the larger world as well as from their own.
A second example I would like to mention is The Japanese American National Museum, known as JANAM. JANAM, is also adamantly an American museum. Like the Skirball, it has a coherent and unified clear story line that it works to transmit to its inside audience and that it wants to transmit to the outside audience as well. Unlike the Skirball, the core story that JANAM wants to communicate is the most painful part of its history in the United States.
In the case of the Japanese American National Museum it is the story of “camp.” This is absolute core – The Japanese American Museum wants to memorialize the concentrations camp period in which, during world War II their property and money was confiscated and they were transported to concentration camps.2
Japanese Americans had special struggles in White Anglo Saxon America. They want that struggle to be known by their own people and the outside world and want to frame the story themselves. They want to foster greater understanding about their humanity and about its violation in their case. They want to use the museum to educate and to herald America’s ethnic diversity so that their difference cannot be used against them and others again. It is a kind of a defense against a repetition of that sordid part of American history.
JANAM wants to keep its people’s histories alive for their children who are, inevitably, being absorbed into the larger American experience. Intermarriage is almost completely taking over the community and they are afraid that, without the museum, they will lose their history.
However, JANAM is not just a “victim” museum. It is a celebration of Japanese American culture and uses the arts, too, as a way to celebrate those achievements. Like the Skirball it is a combination history, material culture and art museum.
JANAM want also to expose its significant achievements and its dynamic life in contemporary America – and a strong new arts initiative has become one of their chief vehicles for getting that message across.
Great artists, most notably Isamu Noguchi, receive beautiful exhibitions at JANAM. So are younger more contemporary artists given a chance to show at the museum.
JANAM has significant collections around which they can tell their story. It collaborates with other Hyphenated American museums, most notably in a program called Finding Family Stories. It is a big cultural center, gathering place, a safe and secure place and for the community.
The political voice of JANAM is important to bring out here, as that voice has helped it raise the money from the government for its museum. Two points: First, after years of lobbying the Japanese community received an apology from the United States. That came with restitution money from the OUTSIDE and was given back to the museum from members of the community for the building of the museum. With other grants from the OUTSIDE, from private non-Japanese Foundations, the museum broadened its activities in the presentation and preservation of Japanese American art. And finally, money has come from INSIDE the community itself, from the Japan Foundation and from many private individuals.
And, just to ward off any idea that these are isolationist museums, JANAM has recently created the National Center for the Preservation of Democracy. This is to use the community’s particular situation to inspire and educate all people to live by democratic principles. JANAM understands itself as one way of improving America, through the prism of a museum, so what happened to them will not happen again to any ethnicity or culture again in the US.
Among these new museums the California African American Museum is one of those that stand out. CAAM began with a coherent, unified and clear story line from the African American Perspective – the core was the history of slavery in the United States and then of the Civil Rights Movement. But, that story line is now growing to include other examples of the larger Black experience: It has evolved to include Africans who have migrated to US recently and do not share the history of slavery or the Civil rights narrative but do share a racial reality and a perspective that is special to the largest possible Black story. One of the big challenges of the African American Museum now is to build a larger racial perspective on Black material and creative life in the world at large.3
AFRO-AM functions in much the same way as the Skirball and JANAM, in its balance of inclusivity and particularity; of presenting struggle and achievement so I will not review the principles that guide these very successful museums.
There is a difference though that is always brought up about other hyphenated American museums and the Afro American. And that is that all the other ethnicities and cultures celebrated in those museums came voluntarily and looking for refuge or opportunity. African Americans did not come willingly. The founding reason for the importance of their culturally specific institutions, and especially of the California African American Museum, was to discover the history of the people who became Black Americans in California. It allowed them, in a way not possible in any other American institution for them to embrace the totality of who they are. To celebrate their own perspective and then to share it and to show that they also share in the ever growing arena of the larger culture in which they are struggling and flourishing.
CAAM has been able to develop a political voice which allowed it to gain financial support from the Federal and State governments. Unlike either the Skirball or JANAM, CAAM is a State museum, supported by State money. Like both of them, it is a collecting institution and collects everything from old kitchen items to high art – according to their own narrative. The staff – indeed all educators at heart – point out all the time that in their culture, art and history are not separate from each other. They are linked. The exhibitions all need to be grounded in their own perspective. And, that perspective is changing, becoming more hybridized, larger and more globalized.
And finally it is essential to refer to The Arab American Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. Differing from the above mentioned museums, this is a museum not in California, but in Michigan that has taken on this challenge, very recently, in an extraordinary way: The Arab American Museum, opened in May, 2005.4
The Arab American Museum has had special struggles in White Anglo Saxon America. Until 9/11, these struggles many have been somewhat ordinary struggles in the United States (remembering that by far most Arabs in US are Christian Arabs) but after September 11 everything changed for them. With the level of hostility and suspicion so high, it was perceived that Arab Americans, like so many immigrant groups before them, might be able to spread understanding and defend their essential and shared humanity through the vehicle of a museum of their own.
As Ambassador Bader Omar Al-Dafa from Qatar said at the inauguration: “After September 11, which was a horrible occasion, the media here played a negative role in portraying Arabs and Muslims and relating them to terrorism. Yes there are some, those who committed this horrible act. But those are few. They do not represent the whole of the Arab and Islamic community all over the world. I think part of the message of this Museum is really to give the American people, especially the younger generation, a different picture about the achievements of Arab Americans – in politics, sports, entertainment, business and art.”
This museum is modeled very closely on the other museums we have already discussed. The permanent exhibition, like the other museums of this type is presented in sections such a as “Coming to America,” “Living in America,” “Making an Impact” – just as they are. The temporary exhibitions celebrate artists and great achievers in the Arab American environment. And, as always, the museum struggles to maintain a healthy balance between victimhood and successes – between a bad past and a good future. Like the others, it is also art centre; cultural centre; gathering place; safe place. As all of the others, this museum is basically a public place created by insiders and made for insiders and outsiders alike to demonstrate the humanity of the Arab American in the light of the shared immigrant experience: As they say in their own mission:
The Museum brings to light the shared experiences of immigrants and ethnic groups, paying tribute to the diversity of our nation.
As the other museums have, the Arab American Museum has been able to develop an economic and a political voice that allowed it to gain economic support from, in this case, major corporations. Being in the state of Michigan it is the auto makers that have given a lot of money to the museum. And, contrary to received opinion the Federal government helps support this museum as it does with all of the others simply by the system of tax relief for those who give to this museum.
And, like the other museums of its type, in order to succeed it also had to receive significant help (money and contributions of works) from their own ethnicity and culture – and, so it has, from local Arab Americans and from the Arab world at large.
Numerous other museum of this type, such as the Chinese American Museum and the Korean American Museum exist in the United States. There is, however, as of this lecture in 2008, no major hyphenated Latino museum featuring artists of Latin American descent living and working in California. (There is a Latin American museum called MOLA but that is different – that is dedicated to art made by artists living in Venezuela and Guatemala and Mexico and throughout Latin America) But, there is no museum of the American experience shared by Mexicans, Guatemalans, El Salvadorans, Colombians, etc. in Los Angeles – itself one of the world’s largest Spanish speaking cities. There are many reasons for this gap, but the most notable is, the lack of a coherent, agreed-upon unified story about that experience of coming to and settling in the United States. All of the other characteristics we have discussed exist in these communities, including the access to money, but without a unified story it just has not yet come into being. So far, the communities of Mexicans, Guatemalans, El Salvadorans have had to content themselves with alternative spaces that grew up in the 1960s – the Plaza de la Raza and Self-Help Graphics (currently defunct) and the many whole and partial projects and promises to build such a museum that have long been in the air and subsequently dissipated.
A final word about an outsider encyclopedic museum that is trying to do an insider show. LACMA just opened a brave new exhibition, within its encyclopedic purview, called Phantom Sightings.
This, the first Chicano exhibition at LACMA in decades, is described by the museum as post-Chicano – representative of a new generation that operates outside of either a social movement, or an identifiable ethnicity or culture. It does so, according to its insider curator, within the intensified white noise of global media and a multifacial, multilinguistic urban street culture. This exhibition may signal, one never knows, the end of the wave of ethnic and culture-specific museums that I have been describing and the beginning of museums and exhibitions that display hybrid ethnicities, hybrid cultures, and the rise of the global nomad whose home is a paradox without borders, “sin fronteras.” These exhibitions will be mostly representative of the moment; the people they represent will be those whose hearts are in a constant state of shattering and recomposition. A new model of a museum within a museum might be in the making again. We’ll wait and see.
Dieser Text erschien zuerst in: Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza (Hg.), Los Museos en la Educación. La formación de los educadores. Madrid 2009, S. 389–399.
1.) Cf. Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza (Ed.), Los Museos en la Educación. La formación de los educadores. Madrid 2009, p. 108, fig. 1.
2.) Op. cit., fig. 2
3.) Op. cit., fig. 3
4.) Op. cit., fig. 4
[Dieser Text findet sich im Reader Nr. 2 auf S. 133.]