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

Intern Weekly Response: Museums and Neutrality

Posted on June 14th, 2018 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.”

“Museums are Not Neutral. Nothing is Neutral.”

-Intern Cara Bennet

As Gretchen Jennings notes in her blog post, the debates surrounding museum neutrality are complex and often revolve around how we define “neutral.” Museum professional Seema Rao joins the debate in her blog post “Are Museums Neutral? Or are they Neutered?” Rao argues that any choice a museum makes negates its neutrality. Museums reveal bias in the items they choose to collect, the stories they choose to tell, and the way they choose to tell them. Rao explains that “Any history is based on decision and interpretation. When you present that history, you are supporting those decisions. You might not see those decisions. You might believe those ideas to be facts, but assuredly, other facts have been left out.”

Museums are not neutral. Image via.

The objects and stories that are excluded say just as much about a museum’s biases and values as the objects and stories it includes. Instead of striving for the unattainable goal of neutrality, museums should strive for balance. By acknowledging that there are multiple perspectives to every story, museums can become spaces for critical discourse. Museums can educate visitors just as much by challenging their perspectives and sparking conversations as they can by teaching them facts.

Nothing is Neutral.

Cara selectedAre Museums Neutral? Or are they Neutered?By Seema Rao as her third article.

“Choosing the Story:

-Intern Alexia Orengo Green

When a curator chooses the pieces that are going to be exhibit, the curator selects how the story is going to be told. The curator must choose which artifacts contribute more to the story that is intended to be told. If there is something that impacted me from the first article by Gretchen Jennings regarding museum neutrality was her definition of “neutral”. Jennings writes: “Perhaps what neutral means is “normative,” i.e museums should reflect and represent-but not question-what already exists.” This definition made me a little uncomfortable because as a history major, my professors have taught me to question what we know, to ask who, what, and why constantly. By questioning what we know, we can learn new things and discover new narratives.

Exhibition from the Eastern State Penitentiary. Image via Pixabay (CC0 Creative Commons).

I believe that museums should display what we know and challenge the visitor just as the Eastern State Penitentiary did.  Their exhibit regarding mass incarceration in the United States as is showed on the third article I selected, interacts with the visitor by putting him or her in a “thought-provoking” position. By doing this, the visitors are neutral while learning about a new topic while at the same time questioning what they thought they knew. This notion also goes with Jennings second article in which she concludes that the new trend of needing museums to give a sense of “closure” takes away the neutrality.

Hall of Remembrance from the United States Memorial Holocaust Museum. Image via WikiCommons (Public Domain).

In the museum world as it can be seen with these three articles the topic of neutrality is important. As an intern, I believe the best way to be neutral is to research and look at the evidence in a non-bias way. By doing this, one can notice details that would not have seen otherwise. The museums’ work is to take the evidence that was gather and create a narrative that engages and challenges the public. The museums’ work is not to give “closure” to the visitor like Jennings said or to only represent what we already know.

Alexia selected Merritt, Elizabeth. “Beyond Neutrality.” American Alliance of Museums, Center for the Future of Museums Blog. August 23, 2016 as her third article.

“Intentional Non-Neutrality”

-Intern Marisa Shultz

To speak of my experience in the history classrooms of my upbringing is to speak of dates, names, trade routes, maps, wars, and amendments — namely a factual foundation, the who, what, when, where, and sometimes why. To speak of my experience in college is to speak of debate, engaging research, and dissecting the perspectives of other historians — namely, interpretation, or how we choose to understand and remember historical figures and events. While the former provided the necessary knowledge and information, the latter challenged me to understand history as commentary; time and time again, historians engage in intellectual battles over how a particular figure or event should be remembered.

Let me give you an example: John Brown, one of the most controversial figures from Antebellum Untied States. In 1859, Brown led a raid on a Federal Armory in Harpers Ferry in what is now West Virginia. Brown’s goal was to encourage slave uprisings in the local area, and to secede from the union to make a slavery-free country. Ever since Brown was captured and hanged that very year, historians have debated almost every aspect of Brown’s life, and have depicted him as a martyr, a terrorist, a religious zealot, a delusional lunatic, and a desperate man looking to make a lasting mark on history. In these interpretations of Brown’s life, he was still a failed businessman, the head of his family, and the raider of the armory. These facts do not change, but the interpretation does. This is the core of historical debate and controversy.

A small selection of books I own that debate the legacy of John Brown’s life.

A small selection of books I own that debate the legacy of John Brown’s life.

The historic firehouse of the armory, where John Brown was captured. The firehouse now stands close to its original location and is part of the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park in West Virginia.

Okay, so how does any of this relate to the questions surrounding museum neutrality? What I found so fascinating about the articles “The Idea of Museum of Neutrality: Where Did It Come From?” and “Thoughts on Museum Neutrality: A Question of Balance” is how they defined museum neutrality. Gretchen Jennings distances museum neutrality from “accuracy and… well-researched conclusions.” Rather, to Jennings, museum neutrality has the “connot[ation] of non-involvement, nonendorsement of any view.” Dan Spock on the other hand strikes a slightly different chord when he argues that museums should seek a balance in historical perspective – “acknowledg[ing] the absent narrations in the historical record”. For both of these individuals it is the presentation and interpretation of the exhibit topic that raises the ethical dilemma – should we recognize, allow, and even promote these interpretations, or should we not take a side in the historical debate? Both Jennings and Spock argue that it is essential to acknowledge and curate specific interpretations that are supported by factual evidence and strong research, as many of the historians of Brown have done in written form.

I was curious as to how like-minded museums were incorporating this concept into their exhibits, so I turned to Dr. David Flemming of the International Museum of Slavery in Liverpool, England. Flemming, in the article “Museums Taking Stand for Human Rights, Rejecting ‘Neutrality’” described that “you can’t dictate to people what they’re going to think or how they’re going to react. But you can create an atmosphere.” A museum cannot force its visitors to understand the artifacts and narrative in a particular way, but it can portray a particular interpretation, and thus help guide their visitors to potential conclusions. What is so essential here is that Flemming and the museum’s staff have determined their interpretation and have intentionally curated and designed exhibits and programs around the message and lesson they want to promote. It is this intentional non-neutrality, that is trying to leave the visitors with a call to action, that will undoubtedly influence and positively challenge its visitors.

Marisa chose “Museums Taking Stand for Human Rights, Rejecting ‘Neutrality’” by A. D. McKenzie for her third article.

“Objects Tell Stories”

-Intern Ellie Smith

Traditionally museums have been looked at as places where history and facts are displayed. But the reality of how museums function is much more complicated. Museums are responsible for displaying objects that have great cultural significance to many individuals and groups of people. These objects can tell the stories of people whose voices have been marginalized and ignored. By claiming impartiality or neutrality museums can avoid approaching difficult and controversial topics. But if the history of the object being displayed is controversial then it should be the museum’s job to present an accurate history of the object. Museums are spaces where challenging topics can be discussed in an informative and accurate way.

Museum neutrality raises the issue of what objects are being displayed. Displays themselves are inherently biased because the objects have to be chosen by curatorial staff. Some objects make the cut and others do not. The objects that are being displayed have voices all their own but some voices are being heard over others. Based on what objects are being displayed a different version of history is being told.

The significance of each object also changes depending on who is viewing the display. Objects from specific cultural or religious locations will represent something different to a member of that group verses to another museum patron. An object that is deeply meaningful to one group maybe considered unimportant to others. If the object is not considered important it will not be displayed and that story is lost. The differing views on objects also changes whose story is being told. Objects are not just things; they are the link to people of the past. These people had unique stories and lives. In order to do objects justice, we must tell the whole, albeit sometimes difficult story. Museums can no longer ignore objects with controversial or challenging histories. History is constantly being rewritten based on new information and research. Museums need to reconsider the history of their collections and include objects that challenge visitors to think about the past and its relationship to the present and the future.

Ellie chose Mark Busse’s “Museums and the Things in Them Should Be Alive” as her third article. Full citation: Busse, M. (2008). Museums and the Things in Them Should Be Alive. International Journal of Cultural Property, 15(2), 189-200. doi:10.1017/S0940739108080132

 “Accurate, Balanced, and Questioning” 

-Intern Ash Turner

This week, the interns were tasked with reflecting on the value of neutrality in museums. After reading Gretchen Jennings sum up her thoughts on what the word “neutrality” really means for museums, I feel that the biggest problem the idea “neutrality” has is that the word itself is out of date and vague.

Besides the fact that full neutrality is not completely attainable, neutrality even means something different for each museum and exhibit. As Gretchen Jennings stated, “…neutrality on some topics is offensive in itself.” This quote stuck with me, especially because we’re interning at a Jewish museum. If the Jewish Museum of Maryland took a “neutral” stance on the Holocaust in their exhibits and didn’t show any empathy for Holocaust survivors, or even if they showed both sides, the nazis and their victims, as equal, then it would probably be offensive. But if a museum of natural history took a neutral approach to an exhibition about insects, it probably wouldn’t be that offensive. Different subjects and collections require different approaches to the content. A blanket term like “neutral” doesn’t really work for the wide variety of museums that exist.

Seemingly neutral exhibits aren’t always neutral. This Smithsonian exhibit is funded by pest control brand Orkin, who states on their page: “The O. Orkin Insect Zoo teaches that insects play a vital role in the environment, and they only become pests when they damage human health or property.” Image via.

I’ve also heard the JMM talk about “upstanders” when speaking about those who intervened to help during the Holocaust, as opposed to those who watched “neutrally” and were “bystanders.” If museums are neutral, then they are not being an upstanding source of authority for those wishing to learn from them. If they are bystanding and letting the current and future issues that challenge our society pass by, then they are not helping others to learn from past mistakes and apply knowledge to create positive change. If museums stand up and shift their focus to “effectiveness and inclusion,” like the Eastern State Penitentiary (and their article which sparked this whole conversation about museum neutrality), then museums can help create positive change.

A pertinent quote. From past JMM exhibit, “Remembering Auschwitz: History, Holocaust, Humanity.” Image via.

I think the main goal of a museum should be not to just to present neutral information, but to create an experience and make viewers question, not just look on neutrally. And for that, museums can’t be completely neutral in their choices and actions. Experience design has been a new focus in the museum community for a reason.

Maybe the standards of museums should be expanded to be “accurate, balanced, and questioning” instead of neutral. Or “effective and inclusive” like the Eastern State Penitentiary. If museums aren’t questioning their own content, they won’t progress. If museums focus on conclusions, on facts and history that has neatly tied up ends, then audiences don’t walk away with anything deep from the experience. What is there to think about, to take away when everything has been said?

Ash chose “Beyond Neutrality”by Sean Kelley as their third article.


Posted in jewish museum of maryland