How the financing of museums is intertwined with the people the museums serve is a crucial issue in museum exhibit design. Museums which are nationally financed or supported by private donors, museum members, educational institutions, and international funds, should give rights in equal measure to all members of our society and should not create an “elite” group of people at the top whereas other people are kept out of the museum and their interests are not served. The mission of a museum is to enlighten and educate all of society, including provincial people. When these people cannot go to a museum, the museum should go to the people and different minority communities and try to get them interested to participate in museum exhibitions. The social and political elite that exists in the United States, in particular, is promoting white male domination over the national American culture.
Art museums often cater to an elite group of people. In the article “In the Crossfire of the Culture Wars: The Art Museums in Crisis”, Cuno and Cabot state, “Art museums are by their very nature elitist – and I don’t mean catering to the socially privileged, but rather elitist in the sense of being of interest to only a relatively few (perhaps twenty percent of our population)” (Cuno, Cabot 3). Because of this museum elite (the word comes from the Latin eligere, meaning to choose or select), a process of exclusion exists in which minorities are excluded from positions of power. This exclusion is also responsible for keeping people of color from being part of museum boards of directors or other privileged organizations. A study performed in England also reported that minority populations are underrepresented in museums and galleries. The minority populations in this study included black Africans, black Caribbean, Indians, and the Chinese. From their perspective, they wanted to see more examples of their cultural heritage presented in museums.
Some museums in the United States are known to contribute to the “health of human communities”. One such museum is the Strong NationalMuseum of Play, Rochester, New York, which collaborated with the community, mostly common, ordinary people, and not the elite present in the museum infrastructure and the privileged visitors. The museum reached out to them by asking them what kind of exhibit should be set up that is of interest to them in particular. The Strong National Museumended up putting together exhibitions dealing with AIDS, the Cold War, Racism, Alcohol, and Drugs. Other museums have done similar things as this museum. They include the William King Regional Art Center in Virginia and the James Michener Museum of Art in Doylestown, PA, that reached out to the needs of their communities and forgot about their elitist nature.
Other examples of museums reaching out to all groups of people in their society exist in Africa, and they consulted the people about what exhibits to include (Guttman 2000). In Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, the local museum asked the community to bring old photographs to display in the local art gallery and had a very popular exhibit because it put on display past memories of people’s lifestyles. Also, the Tanzania Village Museum attracted attention to itself because of its annual event during which two separate ethnic groups show their own culture to each other by explaining to the visitors the purpose of their cultural objects, organize meetings about their history, and they share food and music. One of the best-known African programs is Zebra on Wheels. People from the national museum organize exhibitions in rural schools by bringing a van filled with artifacts to the school children. The Africans also had the idea of the Museum Without Walls, and this example was followed by the American museums. Kaila and Economopoulou discuss the necessity of museum conversation with various ethnic and social groups that were excluded from the museum circle. Thus, the African museums reached out to the villages and rural communities and brought the museum to the people.
In conclusion, American museums should follow the example of African museums and should have special programs to reach different communities; especially the people who can’t afford to come to the museum. Furthermore, there should not be any privileged groups over represented in the museum since it belongs to all society.
Cabot, John Moors and James Cuno. “In the Crossfire of the Culture Wars: The Art Museum in Crisis.” Harvard University Art Museums Professional Training Occasional Paper 3 (1995).
Drenttel, William. “David Wilson and the Museum of Jurassic Technology.” I.D. 44:1 (January/February 1997) 78. https://www.jhwd.com/wrwdjur.html. Accessed April 28, 2003.
Economopoulou, Helen and Maria Kaila. “Museum Education in Greece: The Case of Educational Programs.” Prelude 44: 23-33.
Guttman, Cynthia. “African Museums on a Meet-the People Mission.” Unesco Courier. http://www.unesco.org/courier/2000_04/uk/signe.htm. Accessed May 1, 2003.
Hooper-Greenhill, Eilean, reviewer. “Cultural Diversity: Attitude of ethnic minority populations towards museums and galleries.” BMRB International. http://www.gem.org.uk/culture.htm. Accessed February 20, 2003.
Weil, Stephen. “The Museum and the Public” (lecture at Teachers College, Columbia University). April 2, 1997.
Strong National Museum
Rochester, New York, USA
James Michener Museum of Art,
Doylestown, Pennsylvania, USA
Village Museum, Dar el Salam,
Tanzania, Africa Neighborhood
Museum Without Walls, Barrio Logan
San Diego, California, USA
Author: Rozalia Mos