Intern Weekly Response: Podcast Nation 2019

Posted on June 20th, 2019 by

Every week we’re asking our summer interns to share some thoughts and responses to various experiences and readings. This week we asked them to read both Podcasting In 2019: An Introduction for Museums and Tasting Together: Podcasts And Meaningful Community Engagement, then select a museum-related podcast and share their reviews, in preparation for creating their own podcast episodes later in the summer. To read more posts from JMM interns, past and present, click here.


Podcast: SpyCast from the International Spy Museum

~Intern Megan Orbach

After reading Podcasting in 2019: An introduction for Museums and Tasting Together: Podcasts And Meaningful Community Engagement and listening to a couple SpyCast podcast episodes, I found myself deep in a world I have never been in but am newly very interested in. Firstly, I have not explored the world of podcasts way too much yet and seeing the plethora of podcasts that exist solely in the museum world was very eye opening for me.

 

The first thing that I realized was that podcasts are a unique way to reach an audience, especially in that one can listen to them almost anywhere, even in the car on the way to work. Further, they are perfect for those who are less visually inclined but are stronger audibly.


The podcast I listened to is run by the International Spy Museum of Washington D.C. Their unique subject matters made it both fascinating and difficult to relate to the initial reading I did.

The first episode I listened to was about an organization called Hostage UK & US. The episode tells the story of this international organization that works to help the families of hostages who are, of course, impacted by their family members’ captivities. I found it intriguing how and why the Spy Museum chose this topic to discuss on their podcast. Throughout the episode I understood that the museum seems to do a lot of work pertaining to counter-terrorism and may have chosen this subject because it, many times, overlaps with hostage situations. Further, I also enjoyed how they were telling the story of the operation with the founder in the room; it made for a much more contextually accurate and descriptive story.  

 

The second episode I listened to was about “An American’s Path to Al-Qa’ida”. It detailed the story of a non-Muslim American who decided to convert into Islam and eventually ended up joining Al-Qa’ida. It was extremely interesting to listen to as it is certainly not an ‘every-day’ type of story. This story also relates to counterterrorism which is likely why the museum was interested in it as well.

 

In both episodes, I liked how the host/interviewer in the podcast was present but really allowed the guest to tell their stories, and made sure to ask questions that guided the guest instead of choosing topics or speaking points for them. More than that, I liked how the episodes didn’t seem too edited and filtered; it was very raw and true to the actual recording.

 

I believe the relation between the Spy Museum’s podcasts and the reading about the food podcast is that they both are in existence and were made to tell stories and to allow voices to be heard, potentially also serving as the only platform some are able to or asked to speak on.

This makes sense because, as the reading points out, museums exist to tell stories and many times, to give voices to stories. Image: Spy Museum, Washington D.C. Via.


Podcast: Art Palace from the Cincinnati Art Museum

~Intern Mallory  Connaughton

Podcasts are a great way to engage people who may not know a lot about a topic, or who may be unable to have access to certain materials. For museums, podcasts can provide outreach to those out of the area, showcasing what the museum may have. But it also provides museums with a new way to tell the stories of the various artifacts. It can be challenging to start a podcast, as some of our weekly reading pointed out, but once the first few episodes are out it can become incredibly natural and fluid to produce.

The podcast I listened to is “Art Palace”, which is produced by the Cincinnati Art Museum.

Two to three episodes come out every month and each episode is hosted by Russell Ihrig.

Every episode also has a guest. The first half of the episode involves talking to the guest, the second half has the podcast has them walking through the museum, looking at and discussing an exhibit that Russell picked out in advance.

The tag line for the podcast is “The podcast where we meet cool people and then talk to them about art”.

The podcast not only discusses pieces featured in the museum, but it also involves talking to the guests about their jobs, feelings and opinions on the topics brought up. Guests are mostly from outside the museum, although in some episodes there are other members of the museum present as the guest. Across the episodes, the listener slowly learns more about the various pieces and exhibits within the Cincinnati Art Museum.

Personally, I love podcasts. I listen to a lot of podcasts, all discussing different topics and some focusing more on stories then facts and history. One of the things I love the most about podcasts is how they can approach knowledge heavy topics and deliver them in a fun narrative way – while still educating the listener. But before this, I didn’t really listen to podcasts produced by museums. Through this project I have found several podcasts that I’ve added to my ever-growing list to listen to. But “Art Palace” really stood out to me. To start, I’ve always loved art museums and art history has been a hobby of mine – especially through college. But “Art Palace” also has an interesting dynamic, with the host and the new guests every episode. It provides the listener with not just a fun new interaction, but also with someone who the selected exhibit was picked for – which provides a new type on insight to the topics discusses, not just people who specialize in art.

Museums benefit from podcasts. As someone current in school with little to no time to travel, hearing about the exhibits and unique features of different museums makes me look more into the specific museums and their exhibits, curious to visit. Podcasts are still a very new platform, although it has a huge fan base – which is still strongly growing. But the way that podcasts can engage such a broad and vast audience and bring new information to those who don’t have direct access is amazing, and the industry is just going to keep growing.


Podcast: Museopunks from the American Alliance of Museums

~Intern Elana Neher

The podcast that I listened to for this week’s response was a podcast that I have listened to on and off for a few years now, Museopunks. The show was started in 2013 by Suse Anderson, an assistant professor of Museum Studies at The George Washington University and Baltimore resident, and Jeffrey Inscho, the former Web and Digital Media Manager at the Carnegie Museum of Art. Inscho has since left the museum sector and the podcast. Museopunks is produced by The American Alliance of Museums.

The tagline for the show, “the podcast for the progressive museum,” encompasses what the show is about perfectly. Each week, Anderson brings on a variety of museum professionals to discuss the issues facing museums today, particularly the issues of the “progressive museum” and how museums are moving into the future.

As a student who spends much of her class time studying museums and discussing similar issues, this podcast feels like sitting at discussion panel or in a seminar class with some of the most educated, experienced, and innovative people in the museum world. I felt engaged for the entire hour listening to the different perspectives of the museum professionals, but I also felt like I was a part of the conversation. A discussion panel at a conference puts people up on a stage, separate from the audience, but this podcast feels much more intimate.

The format of a conversation within a group allows Anderson to select a wide range of guests with interesting and different perspectives on the topics that will be discussed within the episode. Anderson’s selection of guests lends itself to interesting conversations that both the listener and guests themselves can learn from. In each episode, guests brought up facets to each topic that I had never considered and, after each episode, I felt like my knowledge on the topic had broadened and my opinion about the issue had become more informed.


Podcasts: Museums in Strange Places from Hannah Hethmon and Museums of Lost Objects from BBC Radio 4.

Intern Ariella Shua

According to the two articles we read this week, podcasts are the perfect fit for museums. Hannah Hethmon and Ian Elsner, who both run museum-focused podcast series, wrote Podcasting in 2019: An Introduction for Museums. They provided a guide for the inexperienced and curious: they know that this works. The Jewish Museum and Archives of BC (JMABC), a Canadian institution, wrote about their successes with trying the new medium out. They found that by making their podcast recordings part of a larger community-focused initiative, they were able to increase interest in JMABC programs and their own Oral History Collection.

Edison Research reports that over 44% of Americans have listened to a podcast. And that number keeps growing, year by year. If that’s the case, Hethmon and Elsner say, then museums who want to stay relevant need to become part of the trend. They need to choose a niche topic that relates to their institution, use a hook that makes it sustainable over a number of episodes, and put in the work — often inexpensive, but time-consuming — for a good product. JMABC, only staffed by 3 full-time workers, was able to do it. And Hethmon’s website lists dozens of other museums and non-profits that have also stepped into the world of podcasting.

After reading the two articles, I decided to venture into the world of museum podcasts. I wasn’t going to be a producer, but a listener: the audience that all podcasts desperately crave.

I decided to listen to a few episodes of “Museum of Lost Objects.” The podcast primarily focuses on ancient Iraqi and Syrian artifacts that have been destroyed or ruined. 18 episodes were released between February 2016 and July 2017.

I should mention that I’m not a dedicated podcast listener. I have tried out a few over the last year. However, I tended to want a visual medium for extra context or let my mind wander and missed half of the episodes. The one exception came when I listened to Hethmon’s Museums in Strange Places episode on the Sandy Spring Museum in Maryland. A class I was in had visited the museum and then listened to the episode afterwards. My familiarity with the museum helped keep me interested in the behind-the-scenes information.

Hethmon invites anyone to add podcasts about museums or related fields to her Podcast Directory. Museum of Lost Objects, which is run by the BBC, is not included in the list.

I chose Museums of Lost Objects, despite not knowing the lost objects, simply because I was intrigued by the subject. Near Eastern archaeology and history always draw me in. I listened to several episodes: “The Winged-Bull of Nineveh;” “Palmyra: Temple of Bel;” and “The Genie of Nimrud.” All were a manageable length at 11 and a half minutes long.

Almost immediately into my first episode, I was frustrated by the same issue that I normally have with podcasts. The episode focuses on the Winged Bull of Nineveh, an ancient sculpture in present-day Iraq. Its face was bulldozed off by the ISIS in 2015. It sounds fascinating, and I was glad to hear about it. But if the episode hadn’t had the small thumbnail picture of the Winged Bull, I wouldn’t have known what it looked like. The narrator of the episode used a great physical description, but it wasn’t enough to get a sense of the size, scale, and awe that the statue truly evokes.

I also felt disconnected from the episode as a whole. I love Near Eastern archaeology, and the narrator and the subjects he interviewed were pleasant to listen to. But there was a personal connection lacking in the production. Most of the “Winged-Bull” episode was the narrator speaking, with some interviews peppered in. I felt like I was in class, being lectured to by a professor.

The Winged Bull of Nineveh is used as the thumbnail of the first episode of “Museum of Lost Objects.” Without the picture, I wouldn’t have been able to fully conceptualize the sculpture, even though the narrator described it in the episode.

It wasn’t until halfway through the first episode that I realized what part of the problem was: a museum wasn’t running the podcast. BBC Radio 4, a British media company, produced the episodes. Despite the title, no museum was linked to “Museum of Lost Objects.” The narrator, a journalist, did not work directly with or around the items he was describing. It contributed to an impersonal vibe overall.

Despite my dissatisfaction, I listened to a few more episodes. As though they knew my criticisms, the other episodes improved on “Winged-Bull.” “Palmyra” mostly consisted of an interview with a woman whose father died protecting the ancient city. “Genie” included fun pop culture references to Aladdin and Lord of the Rings. Both felt a lot more interactive as a result, like they mattered to those working on the episode on a relatable level.

Today’s entry into the world of podcasts was similar to my previous endeavors. I’m interested in the subject at hand, but quickly will zone out. It needs to be more than just an interesting topic: those working on the episode need to keep the viewers in mind while they’re writing, recording, and producing.

And museums (real ones, not the BBC) — I encourage making podcasts. I really don’t understand the obsession. But if done well, someone will listen.


Podcast: The Schmooze from the Yiddish Book Center.

~Intern Hannah Balik

For this assignment, I decided to listen to a few episodes from The Schmooze, The Yiddish Book Center’s podcast, which aims to display conversations with Jewish culture makers, as well as explore stories related to Yiddish literature, language, and culture. The Yiddish Book Center boasts being the first Yiddish Museum, and this podcast is an extension of their mission of celebrating and regenerating Yiddish and modern Jewish literature and culture. Previously to listening to these episodes, I was aware of the Yiddish Book Center and some of their programs (mainly their Steiner Summer Yiddish Program, which one of my friends from college is currently attending) but had not explored their website or any other information about them.

This podcast was a great welcome to the Center and what they care about. The first episode I listened to was episode 0221: Inside ‘Hankus’s Closet,  in which host Lisa Newman sits down with Hankus Netsky, who has worked with the Yiddish Book Center since its beginnings in the 1980s.  In this episode, Netsky discusses a closet near his office at the Center which over the years has accumulated a mix of non-literature donations including sheet music, manuscripts, and records. Netsky was given the task of exploring the contents of this closet, and found many treasures inside of it, including original manuscripts of music by popular Yiddish musicians as well as Yiddish musicals. This podcast episode is a great example of what makes podcasts a great medium for museums to utilize: the ability to tell new stories that would otherwise be untold. These treasures have been sitting in this closet for years, as they were determined to be not of the main focus of the Center, and thus pushed aside. This episode ensures that these objects are remembered, even if they are never going to be shown in an exhibit or put on the shelves of the library. This episode shows that the Center understands that there is important history in all objects which deserve to be told, even that doesn’t fit its focus, which is literature.

I also listened to episode 0219: Considering Jewish Children’s Literature, which featured Meredith Lewis, who works for the PJ Library, a non-profit aiming to provide Jewish and interfaith children with free books and music related to Judaism to enrich their Jewish education. The recording of this episode took place during Tent: Children’s Literature, the Center’s week-long retreat for writers and author-illustrators of books for children. Already, we can see a strong connection between the podcast and the values of the Yiddish Book Center, including the celebration and preservation of Jewish identity, and youth education. This is an opportunity to hear from a person passionate about this topic in an open conversation in what it means to distribute Jewish related literature and books, and what it means to raise Jewish children in 2019. The Yiddish Book Center has their own vast library of Children’s Literature, so this conversation fits well with their mission, but is not something that would have been able to occur without the podcast medium. A conversation like this would historically only happen at a lecture or a conference, which would take place at the institution. Turning this conversation into a podcast, however, makes it much more accessible to people regardless of schedule, location, or affiliation with the institution.

 The Schmooze podcast serves as a great example of how podcasts are a great medium for museum enhancement. It gives the opportunity for museum professionals to give a wider audience the ability to learn more deeply about the holdings of their institution, as well as showcase the people who are working to further scholarship in Yiddish studies. Hannah Hethmon, in her article ‘Podcasting in 2019: An Introduction for Museums’, says that podcasts benefit museums in three ways: organic reach, intimacy, and a dedicated audience.  Podcasts are a direct line of contact between the audience and the museum staff, and allows for a more diverse range of topics, by the fact that it is published weekly or bi-weekly, much more often than exhibits rotate. They also allow for the space to discuss topics brought up in exhibits, but that perhaps cannot be fully explored in that setting, and allow for the opportunity to hear conversations with experts on their field of study, diving deeper into topics that followers of that museums or institution are familiar with or would be interested in.

Hethmon states that podcast listeners are hungry for new and complex information, more than they can get from a Wikipedia article or a Twitter feed. Museums are the perfect institutions to fill this knowledge gap. Museums are institutions filled with vast knowledge, and stories about real people, which are often complicated and interconnected. Museum professionals have the task of telling these stories in a way that is digestible and accessible to the public. Podcasts are just another way for museums to accomplish this goal. After all, what is the point of having a museum full of history if not for people to hear, learn, and grow from this information? The important part of museums is the stories and lessons that they hold, not the buildings they exist in. Podcasts can be supported and made stronger by blogposts, and in-person programming, which also help to boost museum engagement.

Yiddish Books, from the Yiddish Book Center Website.

The Schmooze podcast worked in engaging me. As someone who doesn’t live near The Yiddish Book Center’s campus in Amherst, Massachusetts, this podcast allowed me to connect with the center and learn about their collection as well as the preservation and scholarly work they are doing. After listening a few episodes, I took the opportunity to explore the Book Center’s website, and stumbled upon the many resources they have to offer, including their digital Yiddish library, their collection of Oral Histories, and their Yiddish language learning resources, which I am definitely going to utilize. I am now subscribed to the podcast and look forward to listening to their new episodes while I work out or clean my apartment.


 

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Working at a Museum- What Does That Actually Mean?

Posted on June 18th, 2019 by

Blog post by JMM intern Ariella Shua. To read more posts from JMM interns, past and present, click here.


Easily the worst question I’ve gotten in college — after “what do you hope to do one day?” and “since you go to Hopkins, are you pre-med?” —  is “what are you doing this summer?”

Until you’ve locked down exactly what you’re doing for three months of supposed freedom, the correct response, I’ve learned, is to laugh and change the question.

Oddly, after a few weeks, the reaction changes. Finally something falls into place, and you suddenly have a plan for the next few months. Once you do have a response to the dreaded question, you look forward to it. Since I’m writing this post, you can guess that I currently fall into the second category.

So, what am I doing this summer? The easy part of the answer: I’m an intern at the Jewish Museum of Maryland. I’m primarily working with the Education and Programs departments.

The hard part of the answer: what does that actually mean?

Well, the difficulty behind that question is part of the reason I chose to work here this summer.

Let me give some context. I’m a rising junior at Johns Hopkins University, where I’m majoring in Writing Seminars. As of this spring, I decided, I’m also minoring in Museums and Society and in Marketing and Communications.

It was a long journey before I decided that that would be my path through college. I always knew I wanted to study writing but didn’t have many plans beyond that. I’ve done marketing previously and enjoyed the experience, so decided to add a minor in the subject. As for museums, though, I was mostly just curious when I signed up for my first classes.

After taking three museums courses at school, and visiting dozens of museums throughout my life, I suddenly knew what I wanted to do after graduation. I want to work in museums. The problem was, I didn’t know anything about how that worked.

Enter the Jewish Museum of Maryland. My goal for myself: learn how museums function and decide if I want to work in one someday.

This summer, my job for JMM is pretty broad. For Education, we’ve been working on a curriculum for the Jews in Space exhibit. After a crash course in outer space and how it relates to Judaism, we had to design a teacher’s guide to the exhibit. It was really exciting! I never knew that Jewish people had so much of an influence in space exploration and science fiction, or that astronomy and astrology meant so much to Jewish religion. Even after going to Jewish school for thirteen years, this was completely untapped territory for me.

The original “Jews in Space” exhibit at New York’s Center for Jewish History. In May 2020, it’s coming to JMM!

Working at a museum, I learned from Education, is about taking fascinating, important, and entertaining information and presenting it so that it’s accessible to anyone.

For Programs, so far we’ve primarily been planning for the Jonestown Festival. The Festival is an annual event hosted by JMM celebrating the history of the historic neighborhood, one of Baltimore’s oldest. This year, the theme revolves around Hamilton. While planning events and entertainment for the Festival, I have a great excuse to dive back into the mini-Hamilton musical obsession I had two years ago. (Shoutout: Jonestown Festival is this Sunday, June 23rd, at the Star-Spangled Banner Flag House from 12-4 PM.)

Working at a museum, I found from Programs planning, is about inviting visitors of all ages to discover history and society by making it as exciting as possible.

JMM also takes the interns on trips to museums and institutions around Baltimore. So far, we’ve visited the Walters Art Museum and the Star-Spangled Banner Flag House. While both were great, I especially loved the Walters visit. We got a behind-the-scenes tour of the Manuscripts and Rare Books collection hosted by the museum. As a Writing Seminars major who also loves museums, this was about as amazing as it gets. The curator showed us a dozen of the Walters’ most interesting rare books. One of my favorites of these was a copy of Aesop’s Fables from the 1400s. On the outside, though, it couldn’t look less like a copy of children’s stories: it’s bound in an old copy of the Talmud!

Aesopus moralisatus,” a copy of Aesop’s Fables, printed in the mid-1400s. The stories are bound in a page from a 12th-century edition of a Talmud. We saw this book, along with many others, during a tour at the Walters Art Museum.

Working at a museum, I saw that day, is also about preserving special items, even if they don’t seem important while they’re being made. One day, they can be about the coolest items imaginable (at least to me).

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been discovering a lot about how museums work. Behind the scenes, there’s a ton of planning that goes into every decision. And so far, I’ve enjoyed learning all of it!

Hopefully, it will go well enough that I’ll have an answer to the worst possible question that is posed to college students.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




Intern Weekly Response: Museums and Neutrality 2019

Posted on June 13th, 2019 by

Every week we’re asking our summer interns to share some thoughts and responses to various experiences and readings. This week we asked them to read a pair of articles by Gretchen Jennings on museum neutrality and find a third related article to explore and reflect on. To read more posts from JMM interns, past and present, click here.

The two articles presented were “The Idea of Museum Neutrality: Where Did it Come From?”and “Thoughts on Museum Neutrality: A Question of Balance.”


From Intern Hannah:

Desmond Tutu said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

The issue of neutrality in museums is a complex one. We want to believe that when presented information, it is just information: unbiased, factual, and true for all. However, that has not historically been the case. Museums in this country have played the role of representing those with the most capital, and thus ability to make museums and memorials, meaning: land owning (i.e. formerly slave-owning) European men, which silences the voices of those oppressed by this group.

Nathan Sentance, in his article Your Neutral is Not Our Neutral, brings up the way that American natural history museums have historically presented Native American peoples as “primitive savages”, which lead to the oppression of this group, as it framed them as “inferior and in need of Western civilization.” This phenomena of bias being disguised as neutral fact is still an issue in our museums and memorials. Part of neutrality is understanding that we are not past these atrocities we are displaying, and we cannot talk about them in the past tense. Neutral is not the same at normative – museums should not be expected to follow societal fluctuations on certain events and topics, but truly discuss them as they happened and continue to happen. A sense of hope and closure is often the objective of museums, but that is not neutral, as most hard topics we are discussing do not have a clean end or triumphant victory. We do not live in a static world, and every event or phenomena has consequence in some way. We cannot be neutral in our remembrance, as that often means siding with oppressors by saying their story is just as important. The stories of oppressors are important to remember, only so we can make sure they are not recreated. There is a difference between lauding and presenting a mistake in history to learn from, and museums and memorials often mix up the two.

Banners at a town hall held at Cooper Union, New York, on January 26, 2019. Source.

How do we know if we have bias? No human is truly neutral, as we all have our own implicit social ideas about right and wrong, and what certain objects or symbols mean. One person, or a small group of people from the same institution or background examining an object does not lead to a neutral examination. When telling a story, in a museum setting, or in any educational setting, it is necessary to tell whole stories, with whole truths. This means turning to marginalized groups who were affected by the objects and manuscripts presented in museums, as they are often stolen stories, or have the danger of being mistold.

As a person who is just starting my career in museums, this is a very important thing for me to keep in mind as I move forward. What is the most amazing about museums to me is their mass appeal. Museums are a very accessible way to learn new things. They are open for people to enjoy whenever they want for a small cost (or ideally, for free), people can explore expert made exhibitions on topics they perhaps didn’t know much about before through easily digestible captions and writings. In a country with extremely weak and frail public education, and an administration who does not seem to want to change this, museums are our best fainting chaise, smelling salt, and Gatorade. However, these museums do nothing for our community if they are teeming with bias. This bias is not very easy to see, especially if you don’t know to look for it. It is so easy to ignore or simply not see any bias in museums because of the way that exhibitions are set up to seem factual.

The Empathetic Museum Maturity Model: Source.

There are initiatives such as the Empathetic Museum Maturity Model which challenges museum professionals to turn to their own museum and check its biases, involvement in the local community, and the makeup of their staff. Part of white privilege is not realizing that you have white privilege, and the liberation from that is of the upmost importance when we, as museum professionals, are trying to tell full, complex, diverse stories. Museums are not a snapshot of the past that we can look at and throw away. They are a wealth of information on all the ways that history has gone both right and wrong, and it is our responsibility as museum professionals to strive towards exhibits and projects that show the true story, including all that happened, and how that affected the rest of the community, world, and the decedents of the people who were affected.


From Intern Ariella.

 What exactly is museum neutrality? It’s a tough question to answer, in part because every museum interprets the concept of neutrality differently.

Gretchen Jennings and Dan Spock, in the articles above, agree that neutrality is difficult to enforce in museums. They agree that the goal behind staying neutral is unclear. Spock goes so far as to say that it can be damaging to the museum and its reputation.

The Brenham Heritage Museum has a different, more controversial take. According to a blog post titled “Museums Have Never Been Neutral, But They Should Be,” the author explains that museums were never invented with neutrality in mind. The earliest museums were collections of objects that their wealthy owners wanted to show off. And once museums took a more studious approach to their collections, they told whatever tale the institution wanted to tell. In Western culture, this typically gave respect only to the racial and cultural group that was overwhelmingly dominant. Today, as museums aim to correct their mistakes from the past, they are more open about expressing their more progressive views in exhibitions themselves, as well as through statements and social media.

Where the Brenham Heritage Museum differs, though, is in its analysis of neutrality in practice. The author feels that museums should always seek to tell the truth. Leaving out any piece of the truth, they say, is an act of cowardice. And this is a mistake made by museums that promote an agenda through their institutions.

From the Brenham Heritage Museum. As the blog post’s author explains, “We like to remind people our county was once under the rule of Imperial Spain. It’s not always popular to talk about such things in the county Texas was created in.”

At the same time, Brenham’s author feels that museums shouldn’t show support for “evil” ideas: “We will not give them a voice.” Brenham uses the KKK as an example of what types of ideologies are evil.

I agree with the Brenham author that museums should always present the full truth, while also ignoring viewpoints that are dangerous and unsubstantiated. But I don’t think that doing these things equals neutrality. Consider a science museum. It wouldn’t present a display about climate change and throw in the view of a climate change denier with equal weight as that of the scientist’s accepted studies. Nor should it do so in the name of presenting a fair view of the subject. A fair view can’t get in the way of presenting the truth.

Forced neutrality can even contribute to confusion for visitors. While on a visit to the Jerusalem Underground Prisoners’ Museum, the terminology used on labels, brochures, and explanatory materials kept changing. Sometimes the former prisoners were referred to as “terrorists,” sometimes as “militia fighters.” The attempt to hide what the museum thought about the topic got in the way of my experience: I didn’t know what the facts really said.

A reconstructed room from the Jerusalem Underground Prisoners’ Museum. While the museum was informative, I wasn’t sure what type of message it was sending, because the terminology kept switching in an attempt to present a neutral view.

Instead, museums should try to present as many of the facts as possible, in as balanced a way as makes sense. The science museum should present climate change deniers as a viewpoint, but not as one that’s respected by most. Museums should focus on the facts, and if the facts are sometimes provocative, that’s even more reason that they should express them.


From Intern Elana:

One of the first things I realized in my museums studies courses was that museums are made by people. I had always known that museum staff, such as curators and designers, pick out objects and use text, placement, and design to interpret them, but it had never occurred to me that those people had motives, biases, and opinions behind those decisions. As Gretchen Jennings explains in her article, most people believe that museums should be neutral and have a duty to do so. However, this brings up the idea of what “neutral” in the museum context even means at all. Does “neutral” mean unbiased to most people? If this is true, then museums can never be neutral as there is always at least one person’s voice, typically many people’s voices, conveying a message through an exhibition or program.

The Enola Gay, via.

Otherwise, does the public perceive “neutral” as a political term? This idea is brought up by Jennings in the article, “Thoughts on Museum Neutrality: A Question of Balance?” and was not one I had thought of before. Her idea of “balance” was intriguing to me, especially due to the contentious nature of that word in museums themselves. Jillian Steinhauer similarly engages with this idea in her article, “Museums have a duty to be political.” Both agree that museums are moving to a more inclusive place where they are presenting narratives that have previously been excluded from museums, especially due to their exclusive, privileged past, and are “balancing” the perspectives that are presented by museums. In this regard, “neutrality” or balance in political narratives is beneficial, but I do not see this as the way the public likely means “neutral.” Some even argue that presenting such underrepresented narratives is not neutral.

Robert Mapplethorpe Exhibition, via.

Whether the public concept of “neutrality” is unbiased or political, the issue does not wholly lie with museums themselves, but with the public perception of museums and its ideas about them. It is key to educate the public on the idea that museums are created by people with the goal of telling a story or making an argument based on fact, like non-fiction books or documentary films, and the people behind them have biases and motives just like any author. Creating an understanding of this concept in society would be beneficial to museums, so they could engage with more “non-neutral” narratives while the public would benefit from looking at exhibits more critically.


From Intern Mallory.

One of the best things about museums is being in an environment where facts are presented showing all sides of a topic, allowing for the viewer to form their own ideas and opinions on the matter. It was what always made me love museums, learning new information about topics I had never even heard about. This neutrality at museums, placing facts and information out for public viewing in an unbiased way is an idea what has been around for centuries.

The idea of neutrality is still associated with museums today, although it is becoming more challenging to truly remain neutral. Sean Kelley’s article, “Beyond Neutrality”, highlights the issue of neutrality in modern day society regarding the Eastern State Penitentiary. Kelley states that “I had concluded that our version of ‘neutrality’ was mostly taking the form of silence. As a coworker said at the time, ‘Oh, we talk about race and the US criminal justice system every day … our silence tells visitors exactly what we think about it’”.

The Big Graph, Eastern State Penitentiary. Via.

This idea of silence voicing the opinions of the staff at museums can be seen across all museums. If only part of a topic is covered then that says something and can be interpreted as a bias on the subject. The design and placement of artifacts within an exhibit can have bias interpreted from it. While exhibits and programs can state facts, the silence that lingers between can show the unspoken opinions, ruining the neutrality of the environment. At Eastern State, they are removing the word “neutral” from their mission statement and programming, as remaining “neutral” would remove a side of the stories they present. They installed a piece which they call The Big Graph. This graph gives statistics about the US justice system and prisons in America, tracking changes over time. Eastern State wanted to show how the incarceration system in the US wasn’t working, specifically mass incarceration, and this graph was the way to show it. Feedback from visitors referred to this graph as neutral even though the staff had some doubts about being too blunt and straying from neutrality with the installation. While this can be seen an non-neutral, the staff and board of Eastern State all voicing their opinions through the Big Graph and the exhibit partnered with it, the feedback called it “neutral”, maybe because it told all the information, not just one side of the story.

Prisons Today exhibit starting hall, Eastern State Penitentiary, this exhibit was paired with the Big Graph, looking at mass incarceration in society. Via.

The concept of neutrality in museums will continue to be tested, raising issues far into the future, “Neutrality is, after all, in the eye of the beholder” (Sean Kelley, “Beyond Neutrality”, 2016). It will always seem off, each person taking their own side in the matter. The absence of narratives from the past will always impact the neutrality of a museum, pieces missing from every story. And this will always lead to a critical eye claiming a museum isn’t neutral. Going forward, while neutrality should still be used to provide information in a welcoming and open environment for all, neutrality should not prohibit placing certain things within an exhibit. By doing so, the exhibit becomes non-neutral and blocks a voice of the narrative. Neutrality shouldn’t hinder the presentation within museums.


From Intern Megan:

After reading Gretchen Jennings’ two articles about museum neutrality, I read a third called, “Museums Are Not Neutral” by Lindsey Steward who is a museum educator and professional. All three articles left me to think about the word, “neutral” itself; while everyone can look up the meaning in the dictionary or online, does everyone agree as to what it truly means? Another question that really caught my eye from these articles was whether or not a code of neutrality in museums and subsequently, for example, not standing up for (or standing against) various social justice issues, can be considered a firm stance in and of itself. In short, is being neutral a decision to stay silent on issues or is it in fact an essential part of reporting facts and being accurate?

A piece from the Jewish museum in Rome, February 2019.

As a development intern at JMM, I feel like this issue is particularly interesting because I have the privilege to observe and contribute to the inner workings of a museum. Further, after visiting other museums as well, I can see that everyone in the museum world thinks differently and has their own rightful opinions, including myself. This relates to the question of neutrality because it helps to demonstrate how difficult it can be for groups of people and individuals to stay completely neutral. In addition, I believe this subject is so complex because, as mentioned, not everyone does in fact agree as to what being neutral means. If different people have different definitions, it makes it difficult to argue whether or not it is a correct stance to hold or if museums are already neutral or not. I think that the first step of tackling this topic is coming up with a recognized and established definition of neutrality as it relates to museums.

Details from a tour of the grand synagogue in Rome, February 2019.

(I chose these images based on a couple past museum experiences I have had.)

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




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