82. Statues and Museums

Welcome to Museum Archipelago in Your Inbox, which does exactly what it says on the tin. Museum Archipelago, your audio guide to the rocky landscape of museums, is hosted by me, Ian Elsner.

In the wake of the racist murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Black Lives Matter protesters in Bristol tore down a statue of Edward Colston, a prominent 17th Century slave trader. Protesters rolled the statue through the street and pushed it into Bristol Harbor — the same harbor where Colston’s Royal African Company ships that forcibly carried 80,000 people from Africa to the Americas used to dock.

In this episode, we examine the relationship of statues and museums. Why do so many call for statues of people like Colston to end up in a museum instead of at the bottom of a harbor? Looking at examples from Dr. Lyra Montero’s Washington's Next! project in the United States, American Hall of Honor museums for college football teams, and statues of Lenin and Stalin in Eastern Europe, we discuss the town-square-to-museum pipeline for statues.

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Gallery Continues ⏭️

Dr. Lyra D. Monteiro provides some very helpful context for the “slippery slope” argument against removing statues like Colston’s on this episode of Museum Archipelago released on March 16th, 2020.

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Archipelago at the Movies 🍿Night at the Museum 3: Secret of the Tomb (2014)

Archipelago at the Movies is bonus series available only on Club Archipelago. Each episode, we dive deep into a movie about museums, and try to understand out what it says about the museum landscape.

The third installment of the Night at the Museum trilogy opens with a shot of an American-British archeological expedition in Egypt in 1938. Because it's a joint expedition, we're told, the objects are shipped out of Egypt and divided up between the Natural History Museum in New York and the British Museum in London. I admit I was a little excited when I watched the first scene: maybe the movie will finally comment on colonialism in museums?

It does not. 

Instead, Night at the Museum 3: Secret of the Tomb (2014) recklessly upholds vague notions of museum neutrality and colonial collecting while making a few confusing points about the importance of family. It's a terrible movie, but thanks to returning guest Ian Kelly, it's a great episode of Archipelago at the Movies.

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80. British Museum Curator Sushma Jansari Shares Stories and Experiments of Decolonising Museums

Welcome to Museum Archipelago in Your Inbox, which does exactly what it says on the tin. Museum Archipelago, your audio guide to the rocky landscape of museums, is hosted by me, Ian Elsner.

The British Museum’s South Asia Collection is full of Indian objects. Dr. Sushma Jansari, Tabor Foundation Curator of South Asia at the British Museum, does not want visitors to overlook the violence of how these objects were brought to the U.K. to be held in a museum.

So for the 2017 renovation of the South Asia Collection, Jansari, who is the first curator of Indian descent of this collection, made sure to create unexpected moments in the gallery. She highlighted artifacts bequeathed to the museum by South Asian collectors and presented photographs of a modern Jain Temple in Leicester, where she’s from.

In this episode, Jansari talks about giving visitors the tools to think about the colonial interest in items in the collection, why she started her excellent podcast, The Wonder House (subscribe here), and how not to let the decolonization movement’s momentum evaporate.

“The incredible energy that decolonizing museums has right now… it's quite easy for that to evaporate. Every single movement has its moment, and unless we embed these kind of knowledge and approaches, it's going to evaporate.” - Sushma Jarsari

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Gallery Continues ⏭️

In episode 39 of this show, we examined the history of the British Museum. The story centers around collector Hans Sloane, who assembled an encyclopedic collection of specimens and objects from all around the world. Funded by his marriage into the enslaving plantocracy of Jamaica and aided by Britain’s rising colonial power and global reach, Sloane’s collection became the basis for the British Museum.

In this episode, James Delbourgo, author of Collecting the World: Hans Sloane and the Origins of the British Museum discusses how Sloane’s idea of universal public access to his collections remains radical to this day.

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Archipelago at the Movies🎟️ - National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets (2007)

Archipelago at the Movies is bonus series available only on Club Archipelago. Each episode, we dive deep into a movie about museums, and try to understand out what it says about the museum landscape.

This week, we’re watching 2007's National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets. The protagonists can't handle the accusation that their ancestors may have done something wrong; it goes against how they see themselves and their country.

Instead of examining his assumptions about the great man theory of history, Benjamin Gates (Nicolas Cage) chases clues through Paris, London, and Mount Vernon, all while charming tourist cops, a Confederate sympathizer, and the U.S. president himself. Special guest Rebecca Reibstein returns to the show to deconstruct this wild ride of a movie. This episode of Archipelago at the Movies🎟️ is now available on Club Archipelago.

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79. The Future of Hands-On Museum Exhibits with Paul Orselli

Welcome to Museum Archipelago in Your Inbox, which does exactly what it says on the tin. Museum Archipelago, your audio guide to the rocky landscape of museums, is hosted by me, Ian Elsner.

The modern museum invites you to touch. Or it would, if it wasn’t closed due to the Covid-19 outbreak. The screens inside the Fossil Hall at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC say “touch to begin” to an empty room. The normally cacophonous hands-on exhibits at the Exploratorium in San Francisco sit eerily silent. 

Museum exhibit developer Paul Orselli says he’ll be reluctant to use hands-on exhibits once museums open up again. But he hopes that future hands-on exhibits are more meaningful because museums will work harder to justify their inclusion.

In this episode, Orselli predicts what hands-on exhibits could become, the possibility that the crisis will encourage museums to adhere to universal design principles instead of defaulting to touchscreens, and how Covid-19 might finally put an end to hands-on mini grocery store exhibits in children's museums.

Our visitors could rightfully think that we are insensitive. Not only to those design constraints and those design considerations, but insensitive to them as people who want to have fun and want to be safe. - Paul Orselli

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Gallery Continues ⏭️

In this episode, Orselli talks about how the emergence of touchscreens as the default interface for digital interactive media in museums runs counter to the principles of universal design. For some background on universal design and how it differs from accessibility, listen to my interview with Dr. Sherril York, executive director of the National Center on Accessibility and part of the team that renovated the White House Visitor Center in 2012.

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Museums and Podcasting: Examining Cultural Power

Back in October I presented my talk, Museums and Podcasting: Examining Cultural Powerat a conference called Sound Education. I outlined the reasons why museums are still seen as trustworthy and why I think that won’t last. Over the past week, I put together the video and I was pleasantly surprised that I made some good points. Take a listen!

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78. How Museums Present Public Health with Raven Forest Fruscalzo

Welcome to Museum Archipelago in Your Inbox, which does exactly what it says on the tin. Museum Archipelago, your audio guide to the rocky landscape of museums, is hosted by me, Ian Elsner.

Museums across the globe (including every museum ever featured on Museum Archipelago) are now closed because of covid-19. Some of those shuttered galleries presented the science behind outbreaks like the one we’re living through.

As Raven Forrest Fruscalzo, Content Developer at the Field Museum in Chicago and host of the excellent Tiny Vampires Podcast points out, the fact that museums are closed is an important statement: they trust the scientific information.

In this episode, Forrest Fruscalzo discusses the people that make up public health, how museums can be a trusted source of public health information, and examples of museum galleries that incorporate public health.

Museums closing I think is a really important statement that they're making: that they trust the scientific information that is being put out there. - Raven Forrest Fruscalzo

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This episode of Museum Archipelago is proudly sponsored by Pigeon 🐦, a real-time, intelligent platform that uncovers the power of wayfinding for your museum, enabling your visitors to maximize their day at your venue. To learn more about how Pigeon can help your museum, listen to the episode or read their blog post, Does Indoor Navigation Enhance Visitor Experience in Museums? A Primer on Museum Management Technology.

Gallery Continues ⏭️

This week's episode underscores the difference between museums that make science part of their mission and those that don't. That difference reminds me of one of my all-time favorite episodes: Faith Displayed As Science: How Creationists Co-opted Museums with Julie Garcia. The episode features a study of Creation Museums around the U.S. It ends up being about museology and how we signal our values in a museum context, which seems particularly relevant today.

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Now Free: National Treasure on Club Archipelago!

I'm releasing our Archipelago at the Movies 🎟️ on National Treasure for free this week for anyone who needs an extra hour of museum content while being indoors. And this is a good one: the most dramatic moments of 2004’s National Treasure take place at museums across Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and New York City, but the movie (and Nicolas Cage) go far deeper on issues of public ownership, provenance, and museum tour groups than the action-packed plot suggests.

For Club Archipelago members, the episode on 2009’s Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian is out now!

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77. Trump Asks, “Who's Next?” Lyra Monteiro Answers, Washington’s Next!

Welcome to Museum Archipelago in Your Inbox, which does exactly what it says on the tin. Museum Archipelago, your audio guide to the rocky landscape of museums, is hosted by me, Ian Elsner.

This is one of President Trumpʼs tweets following the violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 12, 2017. Trump took the opportunity to argue against movements to remove statues of Confederate generals like Robert. E. Lee, which live in prominent public places in U.S. cities.

Dr. Lyra D. Monteiro had heard Trump’s slippery slope argument before—from academics, museum designers, and public officials. So she created a response to that argument in Washington's Next!, a participatory commemorative experience focused—not around a Confederate statue—but around a statue of George Washington in New York City's Union Square. The statue celebrates the idea that Washington brought freedom to the country, but Monteiro figured out how many people of African descent Washington was enslaving on the date he’s depicted in that stature: 271.

In this episode, Monteiro describes how commemorating those 271 people became central to the project, how passersby reacted, and the subtle ways that public monuments have power.

The idea of how do we make visible the enslaved people who are invisible at all of these sites of memory that were about white supremacy when they were created. And still are. - Lyra Monteiro

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Gallery Continues

In perpetration for this week’s episode, I went back and listened to a classic Museum Archipelago: 25. The Museum of Socialist Art in Sofia, Bulgaria is Figuring Out What to Do With All the Lenins. The audio is a bit early-days, but I’m proud of how it holds up. The episode now includes a full transcript.

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Museum Archipelago on #MuseumHour Next Monday

Tune into #MuseumHour at 20:00 GMT on Monday, March 23rd to watch me host Museums and Podcasts: Examining Cultural Power. The last time I hosted #MuseumHour (back in 2018) was one of my favorite hours on the internet and I’m excited to do it again.

And if you need more museum content before then, the latest episode of Archipelago at the Movies 🎟️—Night at the Museum 2: Battle of the Smithsonian—is now available without needing to leave your home. Stay safe.

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