The Naive* Display of Cultural Symbols

I know when someone that’s not you tries to tell your story, especially when you don’t look like the person who’s telling your story, they’re gonna screw it up!  And the only way to have it right is to have them as closely involved as possible.

Comedian and writer Aziz Ansari, Master of None

I was listening the other day to Terry Gross interview Ansari on Fresh Air.  The above was his response when Gross asked him why he had actress Lena Waithe co-write an episode where her character comes out as a lesbian, a story that echos Waithe’s own.  Ansari’s response made me think of the following events in the museum world:

1989: The Union Jack in an Exhibition about Africa

Toronto’s Afro-Caribbean community demonstrated and protested after the opening of Into the Heart of Africa, which examined the colonial origins of the African collections at the Royal Ontario Museum .The display of a large Union Jack, the flag of the UK, which covered the ceiling of the entry gallery of the exhibition, was a particular focus of outrage.  See further reflections in my May2012 post. 

1990s-present: Display of Klan Memorabilia

“In recent years, especially with the anniversaries of Brown v. Board of Education and various Civil Rights milestones, a number of history museums have placed images or actual robes of the Ku Klux Klan at the entrance of displays about the Civil Rights era. The intention, in the exhibits that I am aware of, is a sympathetic one: to highlight the racism and terrible impact of the Klan on the African American community, and indeed on American society in general.  On two occasions I have had African American museum colleagues say to me that the prominent placement of these powerful symbols is highly offensive and disturbing to many of their friends and family, reporting that many refuse to enter museums or exhibitions that display symbols of the Klan. In the cases I am aware of, the museum mounting the display, despite its good intentions, is still perceived by the Black community as mainly a white, mainstream institution, and it is my guess that what is being perceived is a lack of empathy – we white people simply do not understand first-hand the gut-wrenching impact such symbols have in the Black community.” Quoted from my May 2012 post.

May, 2017: “Slave Auction” mannequins in sales booth in Expo Hall at the American Alliance of Museums annual meeting

At the recent annual conference of the American Alliance of Museums in St. Louis, MO, a sales booth display of life-size mannequins of a white auctioneer and a shackled, bowed, black man brought complaints from Expo staff as well as conference attendees. According to reports from those who spoke with the CEO of the exhibit company, their intention was to display some of their best work.  They reported that the shackled figure was featured in a very successful diorama about slavery in the Lincoln Museum in Illinois.  A thoughtful discussion of this issue can be found here.


May, 2017:  The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, displays “Scaffold,” a sculpture intended to raise awareness of execution by hanging. 

After strong protests from the Dakota and other Native American communities in Minnesota, the Walker Art Center agrees to dismantle and rethink “Scaffold,” created by artist Sam Durant for a newly reopened sculpture garden. The sculpture was meant to raise awareness of executions by hanging in the United States, including the hanging of 38 Dakota elders in Mankato in 1862.

“Durant said he made a ‘grave miscalculation’ in how the work would be received and apologized for not consulting with the Dakota community.

‘My work was created with the idea of creating a zone of discomfort for whites; your protests have now created a zone of discomfort for me,’ the letter said. ‘In my attempt to raise awareness I have learned something profound, and I thank you for that. Can this be a learning experience for all of us, the Walker, other institutions and artists and larger society?’ ” MPRNews

What is going on here, and how can museums avoid these incidents that cause anger and hurt in communities that we wish to serve?

  1. Naivite*: Some may think that my use of the word “naive” implies an excuse for museums’ repeated missteps in the display of powerful cultural symbols. This is not the case.  While calling a child “naive” implies no judgment, to call an adult or an institution “naive” is not a compliment.  It implies a lack of concern and due diligence. This seems especially true of the calls for a “learning experience” by sculptor Durant and the Walker.  The examples above show that this lack of cultural awareness has been going on for a long time.
  2. Misunderstanding of concept of “culture.”Despite being cultural institutions, museums seem to think of culture in its most superficial sense, i.e. “highfalutin.” In our practice we don’t apply the term’s scholarly meaning– a system of symbols (learned meanings) by which we make sense of the world. (see work of anthropologist Dorothy Lee). Thus two people can look at the same object–say the Union Jack. One sees the British flag.  The other sees a symbol of oppression and degradation.  Each of these meanings is learned through experience. While very few people in the United States would miss the message of the bananas hung by nooses that were found earlier this year at American University in DC, a friend who recently moved here from another country had to be told why the use of this particular fruit and rope was so objectionable. The point of this is not to excuse museums, whose very existence is bound up in the interpretation of cultural symbols, but to urge us to stop being oblivious to cultural understandings that may be different from those of white America. We need to know what we don’t know.
  3. Impact of monolithic staffing These experiences highlight our much decried (but so far unresolved) lack of diversity and inclusion in institutional roles that make the choices and decisions about what is displayed and in what context. Involvement of advisory committees from involved communities is another option for addressing lack of cultural competency in museums, but we often assume that scholarly expertise or artistic licence will suffice in our decisions about what to exhibit and why.
  4. Reluctance to “do the work.”  Addressing the lack of inclusion and diversity in our institutions, breaking out of the bubble of white privilege that is so much a part of most museums, is a bit like trying to get out of a comfy bean bag chair. When hiring, making a recommendation, deciding on the next exhibition, organizing an outside advisory committee–it is just easier to use the contacts in the phone in our hands.  Pushing ourselves out of that chair to check the business card a colleague of color gave us at a conference, working the contacts that person recommends, making some cold calls to institutions not on our usual list–all of this takes time and effort.  But unless we hurl ourselves out of our comfort zone we will continue to work with the usual suspects, and be brought up short again and again when we “unintentionally” cause offense and harm by our lack of effort and cultural sensitivity..
  5. Indifference to placement and context. For institutions that are expert in design and interpretation, we seem unaware of the impact of design decisions on cultural interpretation.  The Black colleagues I spoke with about Klan memorabilia were not objecting to the display of such objects within the context of an exhibition.  It was their placement at the entrance of an exhibition, and in one instance, at the entrance of a museum, that communicated outsize importance and an appearance of privilege and insensitivity. I visited the entrance gallery of the ROM exhibition, and the impact of the Union Jack that covered the ceiling of the room was overwhelming.  Think of a Holocaust Museum with a huge swastika on its facade. I doubt such a thing will ever happen.  Many at AAM conceded that the figure of the enslaved man within an exhibition on slavery might have an impact quite different from that of its display without any exhibit context and as an object for sale.
  6. A lack of institutional empathy. At the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, and at the 9/11 Museum in New York City, barriers and warning signs alert visitors to possibly disturbing material.  The National Museum of African American History and Culture confronts slavery and the impact of racism and Jim Crow vividly and directly but in a way that respects its victims.  The controversy over the “Scaffolding” sculpture reminded me that the Minnesota History Center Museum developed an exhibition about the 1862 war.. I contacted former director Dan Spock, who confirmed:” We did things more comprehensive than just the exhibit, and we covered a lot more ground than just the hangings. We did many, many listening sessions, collected Dakota stories, changed our collections policies and made our Dakota holdings more transparent and accessible… All of this before opening the exhibit on the 150th anniversary. We formed a standing Dakota council with the intention of supporting opportunities for Dakota people to tell their own stories. The relationships we built endure to this day.”  Here’s the website.    All of these examples indicate a high level of empathy on the part of the institutions presenting difficult material, an empathy communicated through design, policy, action, and leadership. The oblivious and unknowing display of potent cultural symbols sends a powerful message of lack of empathy.  

For further insights into the emotional resonance of exhibits, see the article “Crying at the Museum,: by Stacey Mann and Danny M. Cohen in the Spring 2017 issue of Exhibition.


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