The Museum of the American Other

Do ethnic-specific museums remedy exclusion or perpetuate it?

By Jael Goldfine


Museums, to me, have always been supremely pleasant and benign places—the marble-columned, high-ceilinged destinations of family vacations and elementary school field trips. Even as a kid, I could already sense something essentially, ontologically good about museums. Museums impulsively evoke big shiny ideas about scholarship, public good, education, community, and of course, diversity. What could be more benevolent or noble than the discovery and dissemination of knowledge? Than the preservation of heritage and history, or missions of education and scholarship? The answers to these questions seemed self-evident to me for a long time as, on a level detectable even to children, museums occupy a sainted and sacred position in the public mind.

This ethos may not be unmerited, or even necessarily misleading, however, it is perhaps distracting from critical conversation. It was not until recently that I began to recognize that, like all institutions involved in the project of representing human experiences, museums are deeply political spaces.

This past summer, like an obedient Washington D.C. intern, armed with wide-eyed trust in the city’s greatest not-so-natural resource, I visited a great number of museums. On a visit to the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), I first confronted the politics of ethnic museum and thus, of museums themselves.

This confrontation was as simple as a tour guide explaining to me that the very existence of the NMAI was fraught with controversy, both public and internal. The cognitive dissonance of this possibility struck me. What could be wrong with a museum dedicated to Native Americans?

My 12-plus years of 21st century public education had done its job—instilling in me an impulsive validation complex of anything having to do with diversity, or the appreciation and understanding of “other” cultures—a practice I was taught was important, without being taught why.

I didn’t then understand why I might visit a museum like the NMAI either with confidence, or with skepticism.

Ethnic-specific museums arose sometime in the 70s, out of an anti-racist activist, academic, and political response to museums’ lack of cultural diversity and sensitivity. This movement demanded remedy to the misrepresentation, if not total erasure, of non-white and non-Western experiences in the museum world. As Cliff Pereira, former chair of the Black and Asian Studies Association indicts, museums’ “imperialistic terms have not moved on into the 21st century. In fact, they haven’t moved to the post-colonial.” In this sense, ethnic museums have become a force in the decolonization of the museum.

For a long time, the art, artifacts, and history of indigenous and minority groups were apt to be found in natural history museums, displayed among fossils, dinosaur skeletons, and gemstones. Non-Western people were considered primitive—a facet of natural rather than human history, the objects of anthropological study, as passive as rocks and skeletons, and as frozen in time as fossils. This is, of course, consistent with the racist and ethnocentric ideologies that were internalized in the disciplines of history and anthropology themselves.

This ideology limited the relevance of these groups to the American public. If they were included in (human) history museums, it was only within a narrative of their interaction with the Western world. Until the late 1970s, the National Museum of American History (NMAH) exhibited all its Native American objects within exhibits about the colonization of the Americas: representing Native Americans exclusively within a narrative of conquest, and subsequent disappearance.

And a racist interpretation was, of course, if such groups were represented at all. In many cases, mainstream museums simply neglected to collect and study objects and artifacts associated with these groups, to tell even the broadest of stories about them. When the National Museum of History and Technology opened in 1964, it scarcely mentioned African-Americans, and its collections included no African-American or indigenous artifacts.

In addition, the un-shocking exclusion of cultural and ethnic minorities on museum staffs—from researchers and curators, to boards and councils, to administrative jobs—certainly played a role in the uninterrupted dominant historical narrative presented in museums.

So, ethnic and culturally specific museums seem like the perfect reparations for this exclusion and abuse. Identity-specific museums have become a powerful and prolific part of the museum world. National Museums of the American Indian exist both in D.C. and New York; Jewish museums can be visited in New York and LA; Michigan is home to the Arab American National Museum, the Chinese American Museum, and the Japanese American National Museum; and there is the National Women’s History Museum in Virginia—to name a few of the hundreds of ethnic and identity-specific museums that have sprung up across the country over the past 40 years. The Smithsonian Museum of African-American History and Culture is set to open on the mall in 2016, and a proposed D.C. National Latino Museum is currently in hot debate.

This intuitively seems like a positive trend—consistent with all the shiny rhetoric that, in my mind, left me complacently uncritical of museums for most of my life.

But what does it mean to take the stories of people of certain cultures and ethnicities, and put them in separate buildings from the museum called the National Museum of American History? Does this kind of division ghettoize non-white histories in the museum world, and within history itself? Does this place them even further outside of the American experience?

What stories will be deemed as too specific—those of Latina/o artists, black politicians, Asian-American activists, Native American leaders, Arab-American authors—for museum visitors interested in American history? Where do the paintings of Diego Rivera, scrapbooks from Japanese internment camps, naturalization certificates of Jewish immigrants from Ellis Island, the Treaty of Canandaigua, or an FBI “wanted” poster of Black Panther, Angela Davis, belong?

Surely such artifacts are imperative pieces of American history, critical for all American museumgoers wishing to learn about the nation’s history to see. And if we recognize the museum as a part of a project of national identity, as Fath Davis Ruffins, a curator at NMAH, suggests, could an African-American museum actually serve to “take African-American history and culture out of American history and culture?”

“What stories will be deemed too specific—those of Latina/o  artists, black politicians, Asian-American activists, Native American leaders, Arab-American authors—for museum visitors interested in American history?”

This line of questioning is only one that might complicate the neat and tidy solution to the colonial museum.

Another may ask: if ethnic museums play a role in the construction and expression of ethnic identities, will these specific museums reduce fluid and complex identities to essentialized narratives? There are 562 federally recognized indigenous tribes in America. African, African-American, Afro-Latino, and West Indian people living in America all have unique experiences and histories. The very word “Latina/o” as the chosen title for a museum brings into question whose stories it will tell. What of Americans who identify as Hispanic or Chicana/o? What of biracial Americans? Many critics are skeptical that ethnic-specific museums can fully embrace diversity within their own communities.

Essentially, the debate comes down to the question of whether or not ethnic-specific museums reproduce the very systems that they are trying to break down.

I believe they can do this, or they cannot. If their existence precluded “general” history museums from being inclusive, or enabled a loophole for museums to continue excluding and misrepresenting non-white Americans, then the reaffirmation of traditional hegemonies, which some consider likely, would indeed be the case.

However, they simply do not offer such a loophole—the same movement that produced ethnic museums also demands that American history must tell an inclusive story. And if a “general” museum fails to do this, it should be recognized as marked—and as ethnically specific as other museums—as White-American or European-American museums. For haven’t we always had ethnic-specific museums, that have simply gone unqualified due to the perpetual American confusion that “white” is not a race?

Some have said that we should simply demand that existing “mainstream” museums become equitable and inclusive rather than erecting freestanding museums to represent marginalized cultures. Proponents of this schematic have said that this solution will underscore the commonality and interconnectedness of all people.

Camille Akeju, Director of the Anacostia Community Museum, has said, “I don’t think we do ourselves justice by having a standalone identity. It will always make you vulnerable.” However, it seems that marginalized identities have historically been made most vulnerable when they are contained within white and western institutions: in the context of a museum, vulnerable to misunderstanding, tokenization, exoticization, essentialization, or erasure.

Discussing, paying attention to, and deeming racial difference as important is not the same as segregation, and does not essentially undermine human commonality—particularly when the traditional American approach to difference has been to ignore or subjugate it.

As Lonnie Bunch, director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, says, “Let’s take African-American culture and use it as a lens to understand what it means to be an American, the mainstream story of America shaped by race. A museum that’s separate really allows us to illuminate America in a way we couldn’t if we had a gallery and a half in the Museum of American History.” The stories of specific ethnic groups are too big to be contained in existing museum spaces, both logistically and theoretically.

Perhaps we have trouble swallowing the idea that something called a museum (quite literally, an institution) can be radical—remember those benign marble-columned, high-ceilinged field trip destinations I mentioned? However, radical identity politics gave birth to ethnic-specific museums, and they have the potential to be a part of change, more radical and visionary than adding in a few more info panels about Native or Asian or Jewish-Americans in a Museum of American History—which still largely tells a single American story, through the lens of a dominant identity. I believe these museums are crucial because they are an opportunity to pursue a depth and breadth in stories of specific groups; allowing for a level of true recognition and valorization of specificity, that would be impossible in larger museums. These museums return the agency of self-representation and self-determination to cultural and ethnic groups—a privilege dominant identities have always had. Most importantly, they, in conversation with each other and with the public, create a forum for conversation about the plurality of experiences in America—one that demands participation.

However, these museums need to do more than just exist. Each museum—and those who fill it with objects, art, and history—will have to answer enormous questions about, as David Schneer, a professor of Jewish studies at University of Colorado, sums up, empowerment versus commoditization, critical self-reflection versus cheerleading, insider versus outsider audiences, and plurality versus essentialism.

So, this was not the summer that I realized museums are corrupt with racist and imperialistic politics, but rather when I began to see museums as the product of human decisions and human mistakes. Go on and attend your field trips and indulge in your after-work fantasies—but do so critically, and with recognition that you are participating in the forum of the museum.

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