Thursday, June 05, 2008

Museums: A Hot Bed of Liberalism?

I am biased. I admit it. I voted in the Illinois primary for Obama and will most likely do it again in the general election this fall. While I don't think I fit the cookie cutter mold of a card-carrying liberal, I have to admit that I support most of the things the Democratic party stands for. I know that these points of view inform my decisions in both my personal and professional life. But, I also work for a museum that discusses freedom--an subject important to all people no matter their political persuasion, yet simultaneously fraught with political implications and biases. In everything we do at the museum--exhibits, programs, professional development for teachers--we are extra conscientious to make sure our content is accurate and politically balanced.

But, then today I read this article from the Weekly Standard that was forwarded to me: and I was both disgusted and intrigued by the author's critique of a new exhibit about the Ancient Americas at the Field Museum. The author PJ ORourke lambastes the exhibit and says, "The ancient Americans themselves are not portrayed as savage or barbarous. The savages and barbarians are the museum's curators. They plunder history, ravage archaeology, do violence to intelligence, and lay waste to wisdom, faith, and common sense."

The man clearly has not taken a museum studies course or an anthropology class in the past 30 years.

But, despite his rambling, ill-informed, and often tangential tirade, the message that I take away here is that he--indeed many people--are threatened by the forces of what has been dubbed "revisionism"--school of thought that reexamines past truths, questions the greatness of past leaders, give credence to unheard voices, and retells history itself. It is a force that logically started within universities and has made its way into museums. And while it has uncovered a trove of unrecognized history and elevated the stories of the marginalized, it has itself marginalized the mainstream and devalued or discredited the accomplishments of great leaders by pointing out their humanness and holding them to unachievable standards. Many conservative individuals are angered--perhaps rightly--about the short shrift given by historians and curators to the accomplishments of white people, while simultaneously think that the faults of traditionally the marginalized (indigenous peoples, slaves, etc) are downplayed and their accomplishments over hyped.

Unfortunately for people like me who wish to examine the legitimate concerns about the problems of revisionism, it is frequently difficult, if not impossible, to discern between the actual issue and the cloud of obvious racism, hatred, and ignorance with which the arguments are made. But, if we museum professionals truly wish to practice what we preach and live the lofty ideals of "Excellence and Equity" and other manifestos purporting the inclusiveness and welcoming of diverse viewpoints, should we not also include political affiliation as part of the diversity?

Vituperative attacks on museums such as Mr. O'Rourke's arise from a sense that those who hold conservative points of view are not valued as visitors and that their world views are not only out of style, but simply wrong. When museums don't at least address concerns such as these, it fuels the widely trumpeted notion that universities and museums are places run by the liberal elite. While I don't believe that it is necessary to validate wrongly held views, simply acknowledging points of view can help facilitate productive discussion and debate.

Do you know the political allegiances of the people in your museum? Have you conducted visitor studies asking about political affiliation? Should political balance be something that museums include in diversity initiatives?


Anonymous said...

Well, with all the education Curators are now generally required to have, how can we not be raving liberals like our friends in academia? Right? /sarcasm

Anyhow, the article is a little crazy. In both art and anthropology, we've been moving away from progress narratives for a long time. The journalist seems to be missing the point of the problems inherent in the standard progress narratives, which may be a fault of the exhibition (I've never been to the Field Museum), or it may be that he wasn't really reading the labels, and missed that part.

Interesting, though, that he does not like the "We're not sure" answers from the curatorial voice. Would he prefer the curators pick one explanation (perhaps one from the 50's?), and go with it, whether it's right or not?

Chris Larry said...

You must understand PJ O'rourke. He is a right wing satirist who loves to poke fun at liberals. He was a converted 60's hippy, wrote for Rolling Stone and has made a mint being a genuinely funny right leading comedy writer.

Chris Larry said...

That being said, I don't agree with the article, or maybe I agree with him, I just don't see it as a problem/bad thing. Liberal, empathetic, thoughtful, pluralistic people are drawn to careers in academia, k-12 education, museums etc because of the skills sets and interests needed. Hey somedays I wish I had the brains/abilities to manage hedge funds, but alas I am in the field I am in....

Emily said...

Also, as a Field employee myself, I'd like to add that O'Rourke has some major inaccuracies in his article. I'm sure it was all done for humor, but that's just bad journalism. And infuriating.

Rent to Own in Cavite said...