My article on the history and philosophy of collecting at the National Museum of American History has been published in the Federal History Journal. The issue is freely available, here, and my essay is here. It’s a good issue: I especially recommend the article by Margo Anderson, “Public Management of Big Data: Historical Lessons from the 1940s.”
My essay was inspired by the 50th anniversary of the NMAH. I used to work there, and a former colleague asked me to write something. The director was eager to have the museum’s anniversary noted at various scholarly organizations, he said. I gave talks based on the research for this paper at the National Council for Public History conference last year and the Society for the History of Technology Conference in October.
But whether this was the kind of history the director had in mind – I don’t know. It’s fairly critical, both of the curators, and of the museum’s management.
I argue that the museum’s management was never able to figure out how to build and use the museum’s collections as a part of its mission. Curatorial prerogative was the watchword of the Smithsonian when the museum was founded. It has remained so, at least through the most recent of many hand-wringing “what about the collections?” reports, a decade ago. Curatorial prerogative has not shifted with the changing goals of the institution; that’s a managerial failing.
But perhaps the curators were fighting the good fight, and management misguided? My reading of the archives suggest that the curators never really figured out how the collections could be useful, either. In the early years, they adopted a philosophy of collecting based on natural history. But they were never able to make a good argument for history collections, beyond the small fraction that were put on display or, for a few of the curators, their own research. Not that they haven’t tried – I suggest that the material culture movement of the 1980s came out of an attempt to provide a rationale for all those artifacts.
At the urging of the editor of the journal, I added a conclusion looking at the recent past, and into the future. How might collecting philosophy change to make collections more useful? How might the smaller number of curators now at the museum cover the territory they need to? I suggest that taking advantage of new technologies to allow curators to connect the public with collections might help them make a case for collections in a way that the “potential research” argument never did.
It was a bit odd, and also fascinating, to write about a place where I used to work, and about a history that I had some connection with. What I wrote is not a memoir, though, like Bob Post’s recent book on the museum; I tried to keep my distance. But I kept thinking: I wish I knew this history when I was there. Working in a bureaucracy, in a big institution, one takes for granted the way things are done. Tradition, and the myth of a golden age, are powerful. Knowing the history – how it came to be that way – would have made it easier to question it, to think about how things might change.
Perhaps this essay, and other historical work on the museum, will help encourage new thinking not only about the past, but also the future.
Here’s the syllabus for my upcoming course, AMST1903I. It’s a history of museums, mostly American, history and science as well as art.
The syllabus includes links to many of the articles, but you’ll find some are behind paywalls.
Any feedback welcome!
I go to the American Historical Association annual meeting about once every ten years. The usual complaints keep me away: too big, too crazy, most of the sessions too far outside my interests. And the more specific complaint you’d expect from someone interested in public history and public humanities: too academic.
Just everyone I talked to had similar complaints. Even more important: they always have.
That’s one of the lessons from a fine talk at a fine session (now that I’ve got over the complaining): Rob Townsend’s talk on the early history of the AHA, in a session that looked at the history of public history. The organization has heard complaints for a century or so, ever since it got big enough and powerful enough to define exactly what counted as history, or more precisely, academic history.
The AHA, at its founding, included what today would be public history and archives, but in the 1910s and 20s it got into the business of policing boundaries. Archivists and local historians set up their own organizations, and the AHA narrowed its focus to, mostly, the research work of academic historians. It’s a typical story of professionalization.
Rob’s paper, the other talks at that history of public history session, and some provocative twitter discussions, got me thinking about boundaries: setting them, policing them, crossing them.
And once it was in the air, I saw it everywhere. We were all policing boundaries, or trying to open borders, or trying to work across various lines. True, I went to sessions that were mostly on the fringes of the academic history business – public history, digital history, museums – and it’s from the borderlands that you see the borders.
It’s in those borderlands, too, that battles happen. Even sessions designed to help cross boundaries could reveal treacherous terrain. A session of historians looking at history museums made clear to me just how difficult it can be to even see across the boundary, much less cross it. Why did these historians, many of whom had studied museums, or consulted with them, seem so oblivious to the parts of the museum that weren’t directly historical in nature: visitors, for example? Or perhaps well-meaning historians were crossing into my territory, raising my hackles? Was I defending my territory? There are two sides to fences, and you need two countries for a border station. Diplomacy is hard; but it starts with respect, not the assumption of empire. As Jesse Stumel tweeted, “Maybe we should stop thinking about inviting people into a tent and work to get ourselves outside tents. #AHA2015 #s158.”
And I did see some good progress in crossing boundaries. A session on scholarship beyond text showed historians working well with artists, creating comic books and historically informed abstract art that drew equally on the skills of artist and historian. Digital history, a field much concerned with definitions and making a space for itself, has begun to make its way into the mainstream of historical work: papers in a session on the history of slavery made strong arguments for crowdsourcing, GIS, and tumblr for new ways to answer important questions and reach new audiences. Digital humanities is finding ways to be both its own field as well as a set of tools for other fields. A session on archaeology and history made clear just how much could be gained from combining two fields in imaginative ways, though also the challenges of talking across disciplines. William Walker’s talk, on the ways that hybrid fields were created at the Smithsonian in the postwar era, suggested the possibility of new combinations: folklore/history, for example.
But there’s also something to be said for the freedom new fields offer. Denise Meringolo raised the question, in that history of public history session, about how public history might be different if it didn’t see itself as a sub-section of history, if it weren’t located in history departments. Will noted that interdisciplinarity is a key aspect of the development of public history. The public humanities program at Brown is, in some ways, an answer to the question of what public history would look like if were done by the generally more boundaries-crossing-friendy of interdiscipline of American studies. It may be that its success comes the relative ease of boundary crossing that Brown, and American studies, encourages.
There’s a balance to be struck here, between creating new disciplines and defending old ones; between taking ideas and tools from other disciplines and using them in our own. between between inviting others into our tent and getting outside it.
Going to the AHA, I suppose, is one way of getting out of my tent. Like a century of conference goers, I’m annoyed by the ways in which the AHA doesn’t put my work at its center, or even make it easy to visit. But like them, and like all visitors to foreign lands, you learn things. Doing the work of crossing borders can be worth the trouble.
Be back in a decade or so.
With thanks to @DDMeringolo @urbanhumanist @ProfessMoravec @Jessifer @rbthisted @MarlaAtUmass @willcooperstown and other #twitterstorians who shaped this through their tweets and talks.
I am pleased to join a group of distinguished museum folks in this statement about the role of museums in addressing contemporary issues. The public humanities puts community at the center of its theory and asks: How might cultural institutions be useful to community? The recent events help to focus that question. We should ask not what we should do now, but what should we have been doing all along to build the community connections we need to be useful now? –Steve Lubar
The recent series of events, from Ferguson to Cleveland and New York, have created a watershed moment. Things must change. New laws and policies will help, but any movement toward greater cultural and racial understanding and communication must be supported by our country’s cultural and educational infrastructure. Museums are a part of this educational and cultural network. What should be our role(s)?
Schools and other arts organizations are rising to the challenge. University law schools are hosting seminars on Ferguson. Colleges are addressing greater cultural and racial understanding in various courses. National education organizations and individual teachers are developing relevant curriculum resources, including the #FergusonSyllabus project initiated by Dr. Marcia Chatelain. Artists and arts organizations are contributing their spaces and their creative energies. And pop culture icons, from basketball players to rock stars, are making highly visible commentary with their clothes and voices.
Where do museums fit in? Some might say that only museums with specific African American collections have a role, or perhaps only museums situated in the communities where these events have occurred. As mediators of culture, all museums should commit to identifying how they can connect to relevant contemporary issues irrespective of collection, focus, or mission.
We are a community of museum bloggers who write from a variety of perspectives and museum disciplines. Yet our posts contain similar phrases such as “21st century museums,” “changing museum paradigms,” “inclusiveness,” “co-curation,” “participatory” and “the museum as forum.” We believe that strong connections should exist between museums and their communities. Forging those connections means listening and responding to those we serve and those we wish to serve.
There is hardly a community in the U.S. that is untouched by the reverberations emanating from Ferguson and its aftermath. Therefore we believe that museums everywhere should get involved. What should be our role–as institutions that claim to conduct their activities for the public benefit–in the face of ongoing struggles for greater social justice both at the local and national level?
We urge museums to consider these questions by first looking within. Is there equity and diversity in your policy and practice regarding staff, volunteers, and Board members? Are staff members talking about Ferguson and the deeper issues it raises? How do these issues relate to the mission and audience of your museum? Do you have volunteers? What are they thinking and saying? How can the museum help volunteers and partners address their own questions about race, violence, and community?
We urge museums to look to their communities. Are there civic organizations in your area that are hosting conversations? Could you offer your auditorium as a meeting place? Could your director or other senior staff join local initiatives on this topic? If your museum has not until now been involved in community discussions, you may be met at first with suspicion as to your intentions. But now is a great time to start being involved.
Join with your community in addressing these issues. Museums may offer a unique range of resources and support to civic groups that are hoping to organize workshops or public conversations. Museums may want to use this moment not only to “respond” but also to “invest” in conversations and partnerships that call out inequity and racism and commit to positive change.
We invite you to join us in amplifying this statement. As of now, only the Association of African American Museums has issued a formal statement about the larger issues related to Ferguson, Cleveland and Staten Island. We believe that the silence of other museum organizations sends a message that these issues are the concern only of African Americans and African American Museums. We know that this is not the case. We are seeing in a variety of media – blogs, public statements, and conversations on Twitter and Facebook—that colleagues of all racial and ethnic backgrounds are concerned and are seeking guidance and dialogue in understanding the role of museums regarding these troubling events. We hope that organizations such as the American Alliance of Museums; the Association of Science-Technology Centers; the Association of Children’s Museums; the American Association for State and Local History and others, will join us in acknowledging the connections between our institutions and the social justice issues highlighted by Ferguson and related events.
You can join us by…
- Posting and sharing this statement on your organization’s website or social media
- Contributing to and following the Twitter tag #museumsrespondtoFerguson which is growing daily
- Checking out Art Museum Teaching which has a regularly updated resource, Teaching #Ferguson: Connecting with Resources
- Sharing additional resources in the comments
- Asking your professional organization to respond
- Checking out the programs at The Missouri History Museum. It has held programs related to Ferguson since August and is planning more for 2015.
- Looking at the website for International Coalition of Sites of Conscience. They are developing information on how to conduct community conversations on race.
Participating Bloggers and Colleagues
Gretchen Jennings, Museum Commons
Aletheia Wittman and Rose Paquet Kinsley, The Incluseum
Aleia Brown, AleiaBrown.org
Steven Lubar, On Public Humanities
Mike Murawski, Art Museum Teaching
Linda Norris, The Uncataloged Museum
Paul Orselli ExhibiTricks: A Museum/Exhibit/Design Blog
Ed Rodley, Thinking About Museums
Adrianne Russell, Cabinet of Curiosities
Nina Simon, Museum 2.0
Rainey Tisdale, CityStories
Jeanne Vergeront Museum Notes
I enjoyed speaking with Melissa Rayner as part of Gale/Cengage’s GaleGeeks webcasts. You can enjoy a recording here.
(For those of you who listened closely and noted that I couldn’t remember the name of my favorite tool for visualizing collections: it’s viewshare, at http://viewshare.org/.)
Collecting for history museums is challenging work, and there needs to be more research and writing on both its history and how to do it. We need to understand how and why collections came to museums; what decisions that shaped collections they hold today? And we need to talk more about how to collect, how to train museum curators to collect, and how to evaluate collecting and collections. We need to share best practices.
Those were among the conclusions of a session on collecting technology at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History at the recent Society for the History of Technology meeting in Dearborn, Michigan. The session was one of several sessions, at a range of scholarly conferences, organized by the museum as part of its semi-centenary celebration.
There were four speakers:
- Steven Lubar: Ideologies of collecting at the National Museum of American History
- Kathy Franz: Collecting as Collaboration
- Peter Liebhold: Collecting through Social Media
- Allison Marsh: Engineering History: Making a Legacy Collection Modern
I spoke first, on the ideology of collecting. One of the challenges for the museum, I argued, was that the Smithsonian never developed a good way to evaluate curatorial collecting. Museum managers encouraged each curator to collect as he or she felt best, in the area he or she was most interested in, and (mostly) for his or her own research. The museum borrowed its ideology of collecting from the Natural History museum, and thought of collections as research tools for curators, not as public resources. That approach began to change in the late 20th century, but how, what, and how much to collect, and how best to make the collections useful, remains a challenge. (The Federal History Journal will publish a longer version of this talk in its January issue.)
Kathleen Franz, of American University, spoke next. She compared two large-scale collections. The Allen B. Du Mont Collection came to the museum in the 1950s, when the DuMont company went out of business. Kathy is in the process of collecting material from Univision now, for exhibition as part of the museum’s upcoming American Enterprise exhibition. Both represent important TV networks that are not part of the mainstream history of network television. Franz noted the intense collaboration required to collect documents and artifacts from a large corporation. The engineers, for example, are the experts in their work. One needs to work closely with them, to share authority with them, to jointly decide what artifacts the museum should collected — and to convince the firm to donate good materials.
Peter Liebhold, of the National Museum of American History, offered a second comparative study. The Bracero History project, about a decade ago, used extensive in-person collecting to acquire artifacts and oral histories from former braceros and their families. The Agricultural Innovation and Heritage Archive, part of the collecting for the new American Enterprise exhibition, used social media as well. Peter argued that social media’s a good start, but personal contact is still essential to collect good artifacts and good stories.
Allison Marsh, of the University of South Carolina, spoke about orphan collections at the museum — those without a curator. Focusing on the engineering collection, without a curator for the past decade or more, she asked two questions: how might the museum make these collections available, and how might the museum continue collecting in this important area? She suggested, among other things, ways that engineering drawings from the collection might be scanned and made available, and used for teaching, and urged that new staff be found to care for and expand the collections.
Allison’s talk was based on her article in Issues in Science and Technology, which is online here.
There was good discussion after the presentations, with questions and conversation about new ways to let researchers know about what collections are at the museum, taking advantage of new digital tools; the role of deaccessioning at different museums; issues of copyright and trademark in making collections available both online and in the museum; and how social media and curatorial expertise might best be combined to improve collections.
Here are my slides and my notes from a talk I gave at Mt. Holyoke College for the (long name!) Five Colleges, Inc. / Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Bridging Initiative in the Public and Applied Humanities. I greatly enjoyed the opportunity, both because writing the talk allowed me to look back over the past decade of the public humanities program at Brown, and also because it’s great to see smart people thinking through how public humanities might work for them and their students.
Lots of good questions and discussion after the talk. Some of the things I’m still thinking about… What’s the role of the state in this, either in the guise of state universities, or federal agencies, or more generally? How do undergraduates fit into this work? What’s the right balance of practical job skills and bigger-picture concerns? What role does activism play in the public humanities? And how to balance community heritage, on the one hand, with the difficult, hard to discuss questions that arise between communities. Thank you to all who attended, and asked good questions.
On a side note: I was particularly pleased to speak at Mt. Holyoke because it gave me the chance to see the Joseph ALlen Skinner Museum. One of the few eclectic everything-some-guy-collected museums at an American university, it’s got great opportunities for teaching – but also, of course, some real challenges.
Meet the museumbot.
Museumbots tweet random objects from museum collections, four or five objects a day. I know of three museumbots, and I’m sure there are more. @museumbot tweets Metropolitan Museum of Art collections, @cooperhewittbot, and @bklynmuseumbot their eponymous museums’ collections.
Here’s the last few objects from @museumbot, as good a sample as any:
It’s their randomness that makes museumbots so interesting. The two objects to the left are unlikely representatives of the Metropolitan Museum. A belt fragment? A dessert dish? Who knew? And those are not by any means the oddest things. From the past few days: “Preserved Goose in Half of a Wooden Case.” “Mangleboard.”
But these objects are in fact excellent representatives of the Met’s collections, better than the small percentage chosen for display. (Not completely representative, of course: these are objects that have been cataloged and photographed and so there’s already some selection process going on; the really odd and out-of-fashion things are still invisible.) That we think otherwise – the apparent unrepresentativeness of these objects – calls attention to something that’s perhaps not as obvious as it should be to museum visitors: the objects on display are not a random selection from the collection. Rather, they’re carefully selected, to tell a story, or to make a point.
There are five points at which someone at the museum makes a choice that determines what I see when I visit:
- What’s offered to, or available for, the museum? What seems, to the public, or to dealers in art and antiques, appropriate for a museum?
- What does a curator accept? What fits the collections, or the collecting plan, or upcoming exhibition needs? What can the museum afford? What does it have space for?
- What does a curator choose to display? And it’s not just the curator, of course: What does the conservator allow the curator to display? What fits in the space? What exhibits does the director approve? What could the museum raise funds for?
- What exhibits do I visit? What looks interesting on the museum map? What do other members of my group want to see? What has the museum PR department advertised?
- What catches my attention within that exhibition?
The museumbot calls attention to the necessity of making choices. The vast difference between its random choice and what I see in the museum points out that the choices have been made. True, it only changes from (3) on, but it does an excellent job of making clear the differences between what’s at the museum, and what I see on display.
What if we could design a museumbot for the other choices in this list? Could we tweet random things offered to museums, or turned down, to show the collections choices that curators make? Random things on display, to expand my notion of what areas of the museum I like to visit, or what catches my attention? Random objects in various departments? (That would be especially useful for a museum like the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History, where whole collections are orphaned as interests change.) How about a museumbot that pulled objects from museums’ deaccession lists and tweeted them, a @notgoodenoughforthemuseumbot?
The randomness of the museumbot calls attention to the choices that we take for granted. And they liven up one’s twitter feed. Just looked @BklynMuseumBot. “Bridge of Delight.” “Head of a Boy.” Who would have guessed?
(With appreciation to @tinysubversions, who wrote @museumbot, and to @backspace, who wrote @BklynMuseumBot and @cooperhewittbot. And to the museums, who have made their collections available for this kind of exploration. Thanks!)
I spent the last two weeks of June at Beautiful Data, a workshop funded by the Getty Foundation and run by Harvard’s MetaLab. I’m not sure why the name, “Beautiful Data”: but it seems fair, given that the workshop address both data about beautiful things and data made beautiful by its utility. The question for the workshop was what we might do with the newly available data about the collections in art museums.
The workshop was pretty intense. Twenty two participants, a half-dozen MetaLab staff, three or four interns. Twelve days straight, 9-6 each day. (I snuck away for the weekend.) Many outside speakers. Not many breaks. But the time was well spent, the discussion fascinating, the subject important.
The participants were an interesting bunch. Chosen from over one hundred applicants, they were pleasingly diverse: museum technologists, designers, curators, education specialists. They were mostly from art museums, but some were from museums of other sorts, and some were academics and librarians.
The staff and guest speakers were a remarkable group, some of the top people in the field of museum data visualization and related fields: We had presentations on graphics, cognition, public uses of data, libraries, and more. Among my favorites, from a public humanities view:
David Weisenberger, co-director of the Harvard Library Lab, spoke on changing ideas of authority (from objectivity to transparency, from settled to engaged, from certain to fallible) and on new ways of thinking about the work the library does, as the change that a collection works upon the user. The discussion got a bit theoretical, as many of them did, with citations of Heidegger (as a network theorist!), Lakoff, and Mumford. But the user was central to this work, which was very appealing.
Yanni Loukissas, a senior research at MetaLab, showed off his wonderful tree-ring visualization of the history of planting at the Arnold Arboretum and discussed what one might learn from it – and what one should not. He has learned to be cautious: often, the patterns in the data are epiphenomenon, artifacts of the data, not the history you’re after. I’m interested in exactly this kind of question, and so this talk, and talking with Yanni, was a highlight of the week for me. He knows how to get inside of the data, how to question it. He asked the question: what does visualization offer the humanities, and answered it three ways, looking at the relationship of data and narrative, the ways we evaluate data visualizations, and the politics of data visualization.
Jeffrey Shnapp, director of the MetaLab, asked the question: What would happen if you described objects as network of relations? He explored this in a course, Teaching with things, and in a range of visualizations. What if, for example, if instead of a simple photograph of an object on a museum’s website, you always showed a gif of it being moved, in someone’s hand? Or if you captured the conversation about the artifact? Or if you described artifacts with verbs, not adjectives? This discussion offered new ways of understanding the range of uses and meanings of artifacts.
Jeffrey Steward, director of Digital Infrastructure at the Harvard Art Museums, described the ways that these museums are living up to their new motto of “open” in making data available. I’m indebted to him for patiently explaining how to use APIs!
Rahul Bhargava, from the Center for Civic Media at MIT, talking about his extremely low-tech “data murals.” Community work at its finest, letting local groups tell their own story. The workshop: give a group kindergarten toys—pipecleaners, legos, bits of cotton—and ask them to visualize data. Quite remarkable, the way that changes group dynamics!
Many other speakers, too! You can search twitter for #beautifuldata to see more, or if you’re really interested, write and ask for my notes.
The second week of the workshop was devoted, mostly, to projects. Some wonderful work came out of this. Just three examples here…There were technical tour de force, like Richard Barrett-Small’s Colour Lens. Laresse Hall created beautiful small hand-bound books, and a video documenting her process of learning how to make them. Katherine DeVos Devine created a three-dimensional visualization of her processes for understanding the nature of transformative works of art as networked objects. Much of the work will eventually made public, I believe.
I’ll just briefly mention my project. Kristina Van Dyke, from the Pulitzer Art Foundation, and I considered how we might tell a new kind of museum history based on open metadata now being made available by so many museums. We talked about zombie artifacts in museums, and called our project “Museums of the Living Dead.” (Many thanks to Yanni and Matthew Battles for their advice.)
Kristina drew some wonderful pictures:
I created some conceptual data visualizations:
Together, it added up to quite a remarkable installation:
And you can see a more traditional explanation of our work here.