Editors’ note: NPQ keeps track of what is going on in the operating environment of nonprofits largely through its daily newswire. A team of volunteer writers and staff produces around seven newswire stories and one feature a day—and these track, over time, developments in practice, policy, philanthropy, and movements. The newswires are informed by those that have come before, as well as by research and the practice experiences of the writers. With this process, NPQ keeps readers up to date on emerging ideas and forms of action. This article traces our coverage over five years of the evolution of a field in flux: museums. The newswire stories within highlight the role of museums in supporting status-quo narratives and provide a sense of how ideas about and accountability in museum curation, repatriation of art and artifacts, and leadership and influence have developed over this relatively short period.
Readers will find other related articles on narrative from the winter 2018 edition of the Nonprofit Quarterly below this article.
Museums, as repositories of historical artifacts, contain interpretations of culture, history, and the natural world, traditionally through the lens of the monied class. In this way, dominant narratives and cultural perceptions are reinforced to the visiting public with “authority” and “gravitas.”
Recently, activists have begun to apply increasing pressure on a number of leverage points in museum systems: leadership and curatorial staff, financial backers, and the institutions’ narrative habits, as well as the provenance of institutional holdings. The question becomes, “Whose knowledge is it?”—and, by extension, “Whose world?”
WHAT DOES A NEW PRACTICE ENTAIL?
Questions about the colonialist tendencies of museums are very active in that world and have been for a number of decades; but recently, the volume and persistence of questions has increased, and calls for a process of cultural decolonization have taken center stage. A recent article in the Journal of Museum Education is called “Inclusion Requires Fracturing.”1 It discusses the fact that the process of decolonizing museums—and in this case, the author, Swarupa Anila, is discussing art museums—requires more than merely additions to exhibits or special exhibit spaces:
Polyvocal representation, participatory and co-creative community-engaged interpretive practices can be powerful tools toward inclusive, reparative work in art museums. However, these tools can only ever be partially liberatory because they merely disrupt and fracture known museum practice. What becomes possible if the tools become strategies that are integrated into all aspects of museum practice? Within broader museum systems, similar work must infuse collection, curating, operations, hiring, staffing, and echo throughout all functions of the museum. There is great opportunity in new collecting practices to release artistic expression and cultural representation from long-held taxonomies; we can seek and create different ways of seeing and thinking to unfix what seemed fixed. Interpretive planning, as a relatively young field in art museums, and the work of educators in interpretive development can be vulnerable within institutions where stable ground is sought and practices become institutionalized as foundational. But in that yet-unformed space may lie the strongest opportunity to push for and achieve next practices in equitable cultural representation, identity formation, and critical reflection. These activities do not merely redress past wrongs but exploit the power of the art museum to design more generative, engaged, luminous, and joyful futures.2
WHO OWNS OUR STORY? THE PROBLEM WITH MUSEUM-BASED NARRATIVE
Many larger cultural institutions in the United States are, at least in significant part, supported by an elite class of donor members of which many share a dominant worldview, and this may cause a narrowness of approach to the exhibition of art and history. Some public, private, and individual funders have begun to push accountability regarding the inclusiveness of the arts. One large initiative NPQ reported on in 2017 was New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s, which links all of the city’s cultural funding to the diversity of employees and board members of those institutions. This followed the release of a report, funded by the Ford Foundation: CreateNYC: A Cultural Plan for All New Yorkers.3
This, explained Robin Pogrebin of the New York Times, “puts pressure on the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Carnegie Hall, the American Museum of Natural History and other preeminent institutions that are led largely by white male executives and power brokers from Wall Street, real estate and other industries.”4
New York City spends more on arts and culture than any other city in the United States—and more than any single state. The budget of the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs exceeds that of the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. The city has been funding the arts since the nineteenth century, but until now, City Hall has never embarked on a comprehensive review of where all that money goes and what it does.
Darren Walker, the Ford Foundation’s president and a major proponent both of the arts and racial equity, has said, “Some part of this is going to be disruptive. That is a good thing, if it produces a fairer system.”5 But pressure is not only coming from institutional supporters of the arts. A year later, a high-dollar donor couple made their contribution to the Metropolitan Museum dependent on a less colonialist approach to the exhibition of the art of Native American people—and they made that gift conditional on the placement of the art in the American wing rather than the galleries for Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, so it would be seen as part of this country’s narrative.6 But depending on enlightened individual donors to make these points leaves the ownership of narrative in their hands, and sometimes those hands have an interest in controlling the narrative. Corporate sponsorship of museum exhibits is eliciting numerous environmental protests across Europe. A newswire report by NPQ