Within every crisis, come opportunities for re-imagining the future. That is what eight graduate museum studies students learned during Summer 2020 as part of Marjorie Schwarzer’s Summer Capstone course. The course was put together to meet the needs of those students who saw their onsite internship opportunities postponed as a result of the COVID-19 lockdown. Within eleven short and intensive weeks, each student envisioned, researched and authored a project which examined diverse possibilities for museums within the new realities of our times. As a group, they also demonstrated remarkable resilience and creativity, two hallmarks of professionalism in our sector.
On August 6, 2020, we presented our work over Zoom to over 100 audience members – faculty, professionals, students, parents, alumni — who logged in from far and wide to listen in and pose questions. We opened with the first group of presenters exploring new ideas for accessing archaeological heritage.
Zina Sotiropoulou transported us to the beautiful coastal waters of Greece in her capstone titled “Coastal Greece: An Open Museum for Snorkeling and Swimming with Goggles.” Zina examined the history and geography of these sites and proposed a series of doable and low-cost actions that could be taken to provide better access, interpretation and marketing of sites that already exist. “My hope,” she said, “is that this capstone will encourage the promotion of the underwater cultural heritage so the public can connect to it, learning and appreciating Greece’s culture, history, archaeology and identity.”
From underwater Greece, we flew up into the air to look at another heritage site: Stonehenge in the U.K. Just as Zina showed us how snorkeling is a relatively accessible and low-cost way to expand our understanding of ancient civilizations, in her capstone titled “Drone Technology as a Means of Accessing Cultural Heritage Sites: a Case Study of Stonehenge,” Jade Fogle argued that low-cost technologies like drones can aid our understanding of and access to dramatic above ground sites like Stonehenge. As Jade states: “Because it is relatively easy to use and affordable, drone technology has a remarkable potential to help museums further their public service missions. This technology already exists and has been used extensively by the military, then commercially in fields ranging from archeology to agriculture. It has also been used on an ad hoc basis by tourists and hobbyists as a leisure time activity, to document and self-publish videos, including those of global cultural heritage sites. By utilizing this technology more strategically, and with an emphasis on education, museums would be able to share places that speak to history, give us access to monuments of the past, and provide evidence of historical significance.”
Taylor Mordy took on the thorny issue of accessing information to archaeological (and other) specimens within museum collections that may have been acquired illegally. Her capstone, titled “Implementation of New Guidelines for Museums’ Provenance Research” drew its inspiration from two books. The first is Peter Watson’s The Medici Conspiracy: The Illicit Journey of Looted Antiquities: From Italy’s Tomb Raiders to the World’s Greatest Museums. The second is Hector Feliciano’s The Lost Museum: The Nazi Conspiracy to Steal the World’s Greatest Works of Art. How do researchers piece together often-hidden information to piece together the stories behind art with questionable ownership issues? Taylor found that there is no simple formula and that each object requires a different tactic. However by interviewing researchers who use a variety of methods, she was able to synthesize a methodology. Taylor also advocates that once the provenance of an object is pieced together that the information be published, a controversial idea that generated many opinions and ideas in our Zoom chat.
“Changing Mindsets” was the theme of the second group of presentations. Zooming in from New Delhi, India, Taarini Savara presented her paper titled “Indian Museums: Safe Spaces for the Visually Impaired.” Taarini explained that there exist laws within India to protect the rights of disabled persons, whose numbers have increased by 22.4% over the past decade. Yet conditions of poverty prevent many of those laws from being fully enacted, despite the growing numbers. How do institutions bridge this gap? There are many international examples that Indian museums can emulate. And the benefits are large. “My hope,” Taarini stated “is that this capstone will encourage the Indian museums which are embedded with colonialism in their history, to initiate and enforce a movement to “decolonize” the institutions. With the examples shared, I hope to propose plausible strides a nation like India can take in collaboration with prospective national and international stakeholders. This in turn would not only directly serve individuals with impairments, but also create shared models in the cultural realm that create shared experiences between the larger community.”
Some museums are trailblazers for decolonization and one, the subject of Iyari Arteaga’s capstone is the newly-named Museum of Us in San Diego (formerly the Museum of Man). In her capstone titled “Reimagining Museums: A Case Study of the San Diego Museum of Us to Envision the Future of a Decolonized and Anti-racist Museum,” Iyari reminded us that decolonizing is not an end-goal, but a lifelong process that involves acknowledging the harm that museums’ complicity in looting and colonial practices has inflicted, especially on BIPOC communities, and building trust with those communities toward the goals of inclusion, education, and healing. Iyari ended her presentation with questions about where museums are headed in the future. Citing Audre Lourde’s provocative quote, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” Iyari posed the possibility that the anti-racist, decolonized museum of the future could take on an entirely new form, one that we still haven’t envisioned.
Our final three presenters probed different aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Spending the summer in Paris, Laure Rigaud-Soares had the chance to cross-compare crisis management strategies in art museums in San Francisco and in France. She raised the important point that although museums may have shut their onsite galleries, through online programming, they served new audiences who may never have had the chance to explore the museum’s offerings. She also reminded us that the one certainty about today’s pandemic is that there will be another crisis in the future. It is vital, in terms of messaging to its audiences, that museums always be prepared and accept that the situation has changed. A dedicated crisis team must not only analyze the different types of potential crises that might arise but be prepared to act responsibly and confidently.
Sarah Wehlage posed several complex and inter-locking questions in her capstone, titled “Spring into Action: A Proposal for an Online Exhibition Detailing the Contributions of African-American Women during the Spanish Flu Pandemic.” Noting that today, in the United States, the pandemic is impacting African-American, Native American and Latinx populations in disproportionate numbers, Sarah wondered whether there were lessons to be learned about the toll of pandemics on people of color from history. Several little-known stories about the actions of African-American women deserve more consideration and Sarah developed a plan to use those stories to spark the telling and documenting of present day stories. The vehicle she developed is an on-line, interactive exhibition. Sarah hopes that her capstone will encourage museums and other cultural institutions to use issues in their communities as inspiration for exhibit topics and to continue digging for and surfacing stories for marginalized groups that often get lost and buried in the historical narrative.
The final presenter Laura Macias also drew inspiration from the lessons of the Spanish flu epidemic to develop a plan for an exhibition. Laura’s proposed exhibition is called Community Immunity and her capstone involved research into how to write labels that develop empathy as a way of motivating the public to care for each other. Laura addressed some of the more controversial aspects of public health, including vaccine hesitancy. Just as Sarah explored the possibility of an online exhibition, Laura also looked at alternative venues including transit hubs.
All of the students’ projects present fresh perspectives on access, truth-telling, communication and exhibitry. To read their papers in full, please contact the Museum Studies department. firstname.lastname@example.org