guest post: university museums can take more risks — but they’re still risks

Today’s post for Campus Museum Week is by Gretchen Jennings. Gretchen is a longtime museum professional, having worked as an educator, administrator, and exhibition project director in a variety of museums – art, history, and science. She blogs at Museum Commons.

…museums and their staffs remain mostly timid. When confronted with public debate, we find that the most threatened have retreated….those who feel most public, and whose funding is most controlled by politicians, are most vulnerable to the pressure put upon them by the funders. That does not surprise me. However when the same institutions are led by courageous people, they create programs, policies and exhibitions that have led the world to change. (Elaine Heumann Gurian)

Adrianne’s call for guest posts on campus museums reminded me of something I learned while editing the Fall, 2008 issue of Exhibitionist (the journal of NAME, the National Association for Museum Exhibition), I discovered that when university museums are contemplating an exhibition on a “difficult” or “sensitive” topic they have some advantages over other types of museums.The theme of that issue of the journal was “The Unexhibitable,” and we had solicited articles about attempts (both successful and unsuccessful) to mount controversial exhibitions. Two of the articles were submitted by colleagues working at university museums, and their experiences inspire this post. You can find both articles, as well as the entire Fall 2008 issue, in the Exhibitionist Archives on the NAME webpage.

Jack Rasmussen, Director of the American University Museum in Washington, DC, wrote an article entitled “Botero: Abu Ghraib and the Economics of Censorship.” It describes his efforts in 2006-2007 to display Colombian artist Fernando Botero’s graphic paintings of Iraqi prisoners, inspired by accounts of the torture in Abu Ghraib prison. abu3_smallThe exhibition of nearly 100 works had been traveling since 2005 to museums in Europe, but attempts to display the paintings in the United States had been largely unsuccessful. Remember that this was still the height of the war in Iraq. There had been a small show at the Marlborough Gallery in New York, which represents Botero in the U.S., and an exhibition at the Doe Library on the Berkeley Campus of the University of California (another campus venue!). Otherwise, though Botero charged no rental fees for the show, no other museum in the United States took him up on the offer.

Despite an initial negative reaction to the Abu Ghraib exhibition by the American University Board and administration, Rasmussen persisted and won them over, writing, “American University decided it could take the heat for Botero: Abu Ghraib if it could tie the exhibition more closely to the curricula of its different schools.” He continues, “University museums are doubly insulated from the inevitable political pressures that will surround AbuGhraibtriptychcontroversial programming: there is ‘Freedom of Speech’ in America and ‘Academic Freedom’ on campus.” Rasmussen did face financial pressures, however. As he observes, most university museums are underfunded, and need to find outside monies. Rasmussen found a private donor, and there was no rental fee; nevertheless, the costs of shipping and display left his institution with a deficit.

And the local press was strangely silent. While the show at AU attracted worldwide media coverage, the Washington Post printed only a review by Erica Jong, who had seen the shorter New York version. (When I contacted the Post art critic about the lack of a local review, he said he had also reviewed the New York show and did not see any reason to write a second story.)

Andrea Douglas, Curator of Collections and Exhibitions at the University of Virginia Art Museum, contributed “Forming American Identities: Our Southern Legacy.” Her article recounts the considerable efforts of the University of Virginia Art Museum staff to create a series of exhibitions and programs that would allow for discussion and community-building around issues of race and discrimination. The University founded by Thomas Jefferson, with his own tangled relationship to slavery, and the city of Charlottesville, center of resistance to school integration in the 1950’s, appear to have a particular legacy of racial tension lying just below the surface of daily life.

The museum courageously decided to address this tension through year-long programming entitled Forming American Identities: Our Southern Legacy. Three exhibitions would be mounted over the year: The Legacy of Slavery: The Plantation in American Art; William Christenberry: Site/Possession (featuring artist Christenberry’s Klan Tableau installation); and The Dresser Trunk Project, 11 trunks filled with items related to how whites and blacks inhabited once-segregated spaces along the railroad line that still runs between New Orleans and New York City.

The museum developed associated lectures and discussions and made a concerted effort to recruit and train a multi-racial docent corps. This latter project involved a tremendous amount of frank discussion, the revelation of painful memories, and the building of trust between the museum and the local community. Although Douglas does not say this, I would venture that the university museum was perhaps the only cultural institution in this community that could have succeeded with this delicate project. Douglas goes on to describe efforts to travel the Christenberry exhibition with its Klan artifacts (displayed to show the savage and violent nature of the Klan) to other university museums:

We directed our solicitations to university museums, believing they would bring the necessary inter-disciplinary resources to the exhibition and were freer to engender conversations about race. However, may of the institutions we contacted did not take the exhibition, citing reasons such as fear of alienating donors; fear of branding the organization as controversial; or an inability to do the extensive community program that seemed to be required. In the South it seemed that displaying the Tableau could cause one to lose one’s job.

Nevertheless, a number of university museums, including Ol’ Miss, did take the exhibition, although it appears they did not attempt the kind of intense community involvement taken on by the UVA Art Museum.

You can read the articles in full at the site given at the beginning of this article. Reflecting five years later on the issues they raise, and on the continuing reluctance of most museums to take on crucial issues in our culture if they appear to be controversial, I think that university museums are in a unique position to tackle these kinds of topics because they have the following characteristics:

  • The tradition of academic freedom
  • An overarching board and administration (the university) that provides a measure of legal protection and moral credibility
  • Availability of multi-disciplinary resources to provide context to difficult and complex topics
  • An academic tradition of taking on complex discussions

There will certainly be difficulties and challenges in deciding to exhibit contested content, as these articles illustrate. But the authors and their institutions showed the kind of courage, persistence, and leadership that Elaine Gurian called for in the opening quotation. It would be wonderful to see more university museums follow their lead.

One thought on “guest post: university museums can take more risks — but they’re still risks

  1. Wow that was unusual. I just wrote an incredibly long
    comment but after I clicked submit my comment didn’t show up. Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that over
    again. Anyhow, just wanted to say fantastic blog!


Comments are closed.