Photo credit: Wellcome Collection / Creative Commons
Samuel J. Redman is an Associate Professor of History and Director of the Public History Program at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. The author of two previous books about American museums and the sciences that flourished there in the 19th and early 20th century, this spring, he published his third book: The Museum: A History of Crisis and Resilience (NYU, 2022). A short book written for both scholars and a general audience, The Museum “explores the concepts of `crisis’ as it relates to museums and how these historic institutions have dealt with challenges ranging from depression and war to pandemic and philosophical uncertainty. Fires, floods, and hurricanes have all upended museum plans and forced people to ask difficult questions about American cultural life.”
It’s a thoroughly enjoyable read, and a few weeks ago, I sat down with Sam to discuss it.
Claire Potter: Why did you write a book about museums and crisis? Who is it for?
Sam Redman: I came to history from the museum world. My first two books were about museums—particularly museum anthropology. I was on a state of the field panel at the American Historical Association in January 2020, and an editor from NYU Press approached me about doing a book on what museums should be.
Then the world fell apart. By March 2020, we were dealing with quarantine and Covid closures. And I couldn’t help but think back to this question of what museums should do in a global crisis: it shocked me that there is little written about what museums did during the influenza epidemic of 1918. So, the book became six chapters about six moments in time, mostly the 20th century, when museums dealt with six crises.
CP: The book begins with the first Smithsonian Museum burning. It seemed like a disaster, but you suggest it was probably a good thing. Why?
SR: One definition of crisis is a moment of truth, a potential turning point. We often think of a “financial crisis” or “energy crisis” as a doomsday scenario. But in a crisis, we must make critical decisions, choose a course of action, and respond to evolving, sometimes upending, scenarios.
I became curious about that as a theme, and it turns out that, again and again, a crisis created change. The Smithsonian Fire was a tragedy that took place around the time of the Civil War. But it struck me that it was also an opportunity. It encouraged the Smithsonian to rethink how it constructed buildings to make them more fireproof and clarify its collecting and exhibition goals.
Similarly, the Great Depression was a calamity. Still, it led to the New Deal when the government hired many museum workers to rehab outdated exhibits and build miniature models, which were popular in that era. They also took care of collections in a way that helped museums later. World War II? It allows museums to study themselves because they’re not doing major exhibitions, or traveling, abroad. Then, after the war, grad students come back from the military and are working and studying on the G.I. bill. This means that museums have more research requests than ever before.
It’s almost like these fallow periods set the stage for big changes.
CP: And that first Smithsonian also wasn’t very good: it was disorganized and poorly cataloged. Why would a museum be like that in the first place?
SR: A lot of early 19th-century museum building was essentially about urban and national boosterism, not preservation. Americans had seen or known about older institutions in Europe or even the United States, and they wanted to duplicate them. But this was an era when academic disciplines and how we now think about the world were evolving. For example, there wasn’t a field of anthropology yet, and the sciences are still emerging as professions. So, what to put in a museum, what to preserve, and how to organize it are still open questions.
CP: How much do the solutions proposed during these crises reflect how knowledge is changing?
SR: The Great Depression and World War II are good examples of moments when experts are starting to become more influential in government and the broader culture. And museums were part of that: we see the rise of the curator as someone who contributes knowledge to modern society, and people were looking to museums for public statements.
CP: So, let’s talk about the museum’s links to imperialism. And not just imperialism abroad, but the theft of Native American lands and Native American objects. How does crisis push museums to rethink how they get objects in the first place?
SR: I explored this in my first book, Bone Rooms: From Scientific Racism to Human Prehistory in Museums (2016), which is about collecting human remains. In my second book, Prophets and Ghosts: The Story of Salvage Anthropology (2021), I focused on the notion that indigenous people around the world were at risk or “doomed to disappear.”
What became clear to me is that these ideas have a long tail. Collection practices typical of the 19th century–amassing vast amounts of material–continue into the 20th century. And crisis moments clarify what things should be brought in and how they might be acquired. For example, just before the Great Depression, museums are participating both in the practice of collecting through expeditions and opportunistic moments when objects become available in the art market. Unfortunately, a lot of the money for that dried up during The Great Depression, so museums took a stance of: Oh no, we don’t buy things.
But even during The Great Depression, they occasionally put together philanthropic funds to buy Native American objects that appear on the market. More recently, the crisis has been less economic than existential: philosophical debates about what a museum is and what to do with the legacy of this colonialism. In the book, I talk about some of the exhibitions Native and African American artists have done in museum spaces to call attention to those questions.
A flashpoint in recent memory was the statue of Teddy Roosevelt at the American Museum of Natural History, where Roosevelt is on a horse with a Native man and an African American man below him. That statue was just taken down following both protests and counter-protests and sent to a museum in the Dakotas. So, the conversation about colonialism has evolved, not just in terms of the collections and what we should do about them, but also about how we remember the museum’s history and represent it to the public.
CP: I love the idea that the Teddy Roosevelt statue has been offloaded to North Dakota. Blue states are now exporting their racist statues, and red states want them.
SR: As I asked my students, is it less racist in the Dakotas?
CP: Right. So, until quite recently, museums have been sites for nostalgia. But they’ve also been scientific. That’s an uneasy combination: one is about fantasy and the other about facts.
SR: Over the course of the 19th century, museums in the United States became some of the most important sites for research in the country. They produced some of the best biological and anthropological research. But by the 20th century, especially after the Depression, science moved into universities.
At about the same time, museums become more and more invested in public education and become symbols of public culture. But, not surprisingly, after the social upheavals of the 1960s, some people begin to see museums as outdated. That’s when you get episodes like the 1970 Art Strike when artists charge that museums like The Met aren’t diverse enough and aren’t engaging adequately with living artists.
CP: So, museums get to re-set their mission from that crisis. But they cannot hold onto their authority: the public makes more demands on them.
SR: Right, and each crisis can, I argue, stimulate introspection. What are we about? To what extent do we want to push the envelope and challenge the public versus creating bubble gum exhibitions that will please people, be nostalgic, and bring in a lot of visitors? I think a lot of museums are still trying to find that balance. So, for example, do we do the Lego Star Wars exhibition, even though we feel like it has very little to do with science? But we know it will bring in an audience, especially young people.
This modern conversation echoes what happened between 1900 and 1920 when museums tried to regain their footing. Museum attendance goes through the roof after the Spanish Influenza pandemic. I’ll be curious to see where museum attendance goes in the next few years here in the United States. Still, early indications are that people are going to museums again–more to local museums and smaller museums in their region or neighborhood, which is a good development.
CP: To shift topics slightly: does the trajectory of museums in the 20th century match the trajectory of how history evolved as a scholarly, written genre? Or are they very different practices that are merging somewhat as historians become more publicly engaged?
SR: The nature of the work is quite different, although it would be interesting for a future scholar to map changes or developments in overall historiography with those happening in museums. It was not until the 1970s that we saw social history having a significant impact on museums.
In addition, even though it can take years of archival research, it’s easier for a historian to come up with a cutting-edge idea and realize it. But a major exhibition might involve years of planning with many people to satisfy– funders, funding agencies, private philanthropy, the artists themselves, or their estates. An exhibition may involve a team of 40 or more people: designers, developers, fabricators, as well as curators.
So, even though museums respond to scholarship as it evolves, the pace of change is slower. But on the other hand, museums have the capacity to mount blockbuster exhibitions that can do more than books: draw attention back to certain issues, questions, or groups of underrecognized artists.
CP: Your penultimate chapter is about how museums respond to the culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s, something that’s relevant today. How do political struggles map onto museums?
SR: It’s probably always been the case that politics have influenced what we see in museums. Earlier in the 20th century, anonymous leaflets handed out on the street in New York City warned citizens about Bolshevik art in museums. But in the 1980s and 1990s, these controversies just exploded. There are debates about public funding through the National Endowment for the Arts and the Smithsonian’s efforts to display the Enola Gay. This B-29 airplane dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
Part of the problem with the Enola Gay exhibition is that the exhibit was revised, and revised, and revised in response to public criticism after plans had been leaked. But unfortunately, even when the curators stripped the interpretation back, when the plane finally did go on display, it was still tense and politicized. So almost despite the museum’s best efforts to be apolitical, the object itself is loaded with these political meanings.
I think the Smithsonian learned a great deal from that episode. The approach that emerged was to have a robust internal dialogue about what values and scholarship would be expressed in an exhibit, based on what their experiences are and their work with the community. And then: make a decision and stick to it.
CP: The Enola Gay dispute was also around when the Republican right came out and said: What’s happening in knowledge institutions is unpatriotic.
SR: That was heightened at the Smithsonian because it is a federally funded museum that we often think of as presenting the “official” history. We were having national debates about history, and people around the country felt differently about these issues. But nevertheless, they all get on a bus or station wagon and go to Washington DC. For their 10th grade trip or their family vacation.
So, the Smithsonian must be attuned to the wants and needs of the public. But does that mean acquiescing to points of view that are either heavily influenced by nostalgia or other political influences?
CP: In the conclusion, you write that museums should embrace those most committed to their ongoing existence as cultural institutions. Can you say more?
SR: We should think hard about who utilizes the museum and who works there. If you look at hurricanes like Katrina and Sandy, curators in New Orleans and New York City did hard work to preserve those collections. They deserve a lot of credit. But some people often don’t get credit for preservation: security guards, people at the front of the house taking tickets, and janitors and custodians. They are usually knowledgeable about and intimate with museums and the objects they contain. They see them every day. They were among the people that stayed behind and protected them.
Wouldn’t it be amazing if an organization like the Mellon Foundation funded workshops for people who work in museums but don’t have professional training or background in art handling, object conservation, and emergency response management? Of course, these workshops are commonly available to art curators and conservators. Still, there are many people who care deeply about museums that could be tied into these conversations. And by doing that, we can also make museums more resilient.
CP: Let’s move to a contemporary scene: Ukraine. It’s far from the only crisis in the last 20 years, but museums in Ukraine are being deliberately targeted by the Russian military by Vladimir Putin. How is the museum community going to respond?
SR: One thing that came out of World War II is the Smithsonian’s relationship with what became the State Department. The “Monuments Men,” a group of art historians, archeologists, and historians, were pulled into the United States military to help ensure the safety, and in some cases, the return, of looted art and other national treasures. That work has continued in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria in recent years. Museums, including the Smithsonian, have worked to give training and provide resources to cultural institutions in nations affected by war.
In war, water damage is typical. If you imagine shelling, you can lose a roof or the structural integrity of a building. But climate change also presents this problem. Hurricanes are a source of water, right? So are rising tides and water tables, but then also rain. Suffice it to say, water is bad for most museum objects. So, understanding how to deal with that as a conservation problem is critical.
There are international networks of museums working on that. For example, the amazing conservation team at MoMA in New York teaches workshops about this to institutions large and small. I would love to see not just State Department money but larger museums contribute to institutions in Syria, Ukraine, and elsewhere, institutions that need support–and quickly.
It can be a hard case to make. In the wake of the revolution happening in Egypt, many Egyptians took the protection of their core institutions into their own hands. But in instances like Ukraine or Syria, where there’s all-out war and destruction, museums come second to the crushing loss of human life and the destruction of people’s homes. That’s the tragedy that we need to foreground.
Ultimately, we hope to rebuild Ukraine, which includes reviving its cultural institutions: it will undoubtedly bring tourism and dollars. I know I have been much more curious about Ukraine since the war: I would love to travel there and soak in some of those places.
So, I hope that the international museum community can see this as a crisis moment worthy of their attention. And much like other crisis moments, it will be clarifying and an opportunity to build back stronger, more resilient institutions.
Claire Bond Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Her most recent book is Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020). This essay first appeared on her Substack, Political Junkie.
Samuel J. Redman is an Associate Professor of History and Director of the Public History Program at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.