Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Museum Dilemma: an Intern's Take

During the 1st panel of the Race and 21st Century symposium, we explored the issues facing museums: funding, controversy in lessons, and controversy in images. Often the Smithsonian needs additional funding apart from what is given by Congress. $1000 is needed per sq. foot of an exhibition. Many donors come from private companies who have the ability to deny project proposals in an exhibition. Its a sort of censorship, but what does the museum do? With all the constraints how can we address provocative questions? What exactly are museums attempting to do? In order to answer these questions, we must hear the voices of those in the field.

Paul Chaat Smith, the curator of the National Museum of the Native Indian, writes in his book Everything You Know about the Indian is Wrong that the museums are to create change:

Everything you learn teaches you that the Indian experience is a joke, a cartoon, a minor sideshow. The overwhelming message from schoos, mass media, and conventional wisdom says that Indians might be interesting, even profound, but never important. We are never allowed to be significant in explaining how the world ended up the way it did. In the final analysis, Indians are unimportant, and not a subject for serious people.

To understand why check out John Carpenter's failed 1988 science fiction movie called They live. An unemployed construction worker in a city finds a pair on sunglasses. He tries them on, and the world he sees through these shades is terrifyingly different from the one he knows. Ordinary-looking people are scary aliens. The billboards and telivision ads all appear to have been designed carrying messages that read OBEY and SUBMIT TO AUTHORITY. The dollar bill has no George Washington but reads THIS IS YOUR GOD. The ad for the movie reads: A rugged loner (RODDY PIPER) stumbles upon a terrifying discovery: ghoulish creatures are masquerading as humans while they lull the public into submission through subliminal messages. Only specially-made sunglasses make the deadly truth visible."

Sometimes people ask me: "Say what do curators do any way?" The answer is simple: we design, build, and distribute specially made sunglasses that make the deadly truth visible. Curating is humble work, and God knows it doesn't pay very well, but we are proud to be fighting the ghoulish creatures from outer space and their allies, the humans who collaborate with them for financial gain. But you know what, these sunglasses are nothing but trouble. Once you put them on, you are doomed. The ghoulish creatures from outer space have better weapons, better security, and have made deals with sellout humans. They run everything, and its only a matter of time- in the case of They Live, about 90 minutes, before you are hunted and killed. But this is why we fight. Hope.

I agree. With everything. This glorious country was build on the expulsion of native people. Forced diaspora is etched in the marrow of America. Jefferson was quoted for saying: "we need to move the savages in order to create our empire of democracy". Museums engage the populous so that a native american arrow head does not become a myth, shrouded in the disconnection between the era of Indian Wars and our days. We need to make it obvious that our objects today will one day be in a museum too. History is a continuum. We can prevent another Wounded Knee incident if we know our history. Museums do that. I want to be a curator so that I too can inspire those. I know it is an uphill battle. Working at the Smithsonian has opened my eyes to passions and emotions of scholars who feel it is important for Americans and visitors from other countries to know the truth. If people know the truth they will want to make a change because truth is not so peachy. So put on your glasses. Its time to open your eyes.

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