Museums for the People, Rather than the Elites

Street Art Museum in Amsterdam

New Orleans   Ok, maybe it’s not the very highest thing on everyone’s list, but that doesn’t mean it is not important. Recently, we talked about the efforts to rid books like Howard Zinn’s Peoples’ History of the United States from school libraries and classrooms. We all know that’s wrong, but how about the constant efforts to erase peoples’ history, by just not telling it at all? Or, not making it accessible? Or, the constant elite cultural and political bias reflected in most museums of any kind? Well, it’s not a tidal wave, but there is at least a slow dripping of resistance and activism that is trying to imagine and implement a different kind of museum.

A recent article in the New York Times reported on a unique museum in London called the Museum of Homelessness, which not surprisingly does not have a physical building or location, which given the subject matter seems appropriate. The organizers see their museum as being “about doing something special, about creating events where you’re taken on a journey.” Their venues are often open spaces, including on the streets themselves, or in theaters, shelters, or temporary showings from friendly cultural institutions.

The Street Art Museum in a neighborhood of Amsterdam is another experiment along these lines. This novelty consists of 90 commissioned works in a 1.5 mile square area which are linked through a walking tour conducted by the museum. Another effort is the Museum of Joy in San Francisco which does pop-up operas at mass transit stations and hides happy experiences in gold colored Easter eggs in a dozen branches of the city public library. There’s also the touring Empathy Museum in a shipping container that looks like a shoe box and displays shoes, urging people to imagine themselves walking in the path of those lives.

These efforts have a common theme of bringing museums to people rather than waiting for people to come to them. There are other efforts, some of which we have discussed before, like photographic museums of city life on web and Facebook sites, including the ACORN Museum. There may not be a thousand flowers blooming, but there are definitely some sprouting up around the world.

This is all exciting stuff, but fragile, and perhaps unsustainable. Grants that might support such experiments are largely hogged by huge institutions and on the chopping block with the gutting of the Endowment for the Arts proposed in the current Administration budget. Giving large institutions their due, there are certainly curators who knock on the door of social change with some exhibits and programs, though that does eliminate the questions of access and audience along with cost, all of which are central in considering the collection and distribution of peoples’ history.

A lot of us aren’t throwing away any artifacts or remnants of the silent history of uncommon common people, but there’s still a long gap in knowing where to put them before they end up, like so many other things, in the dustbin of history.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail