HL90 DB: Museums in America

Get your shopping list ready! We asked our lecturers to tell us about their fall HL90s. Reed Gochberg takes us on a tour of her class, “Museums in America.”

Tell us about your class!

“Museums in America” will explore the history and development of museums in the United States. One of my main goals for this course is to think together about how the history of museums continues to inform ongoing debates today. How do museums decide what to collect, preserve, and display? What do we mean when we talk about “decolonizing museums”? What are some of the strategies museums use to engage and expand their audience? Our class will explore how these questions have resonated in American culture. We’ll examine museum installations and digital exhibits, as well as discussions in guidebooks, fiction, and film, and we will also have the chance to discuss these issues with curators from Harvard’s museums.

What does your class help us understand about the present?

There has been so much debate about the role of museums in American culture over the past six months, and it feels like an extremely pivotal moment to be considering these questions. In March, many museums had to close their doors to the public due to COVID-19; while some have started to reopen in the past few weeks, it has been—and likely will continue to be—a slow process. This has had huge financial impacts on many institutions, and it’s also meant that many museums have shifted their programming to develop virtual tours, online gallery talks, and other kinds of programs that people can access from their homes. At the same time, this summer has seen increased debate about museums and social justice. Following national protests about police violence and racial injustice, many museums issued statements that promised more inclusive programming. However, they’ve also sparked further debate about the state of the field and what future changes will be necessary.

My goal for our class is to better understand the longer histories of contemporary debates about the role and purpose of museums. I’m especially excited to have the opportunity for us to engage with these questions about inclusion, accessibility, and belonging. It’s a moment of challenge and self-reflection for many museums, and my hope is that we can think together about the future of these institutions as well as their past.

What’s something you’re excited to share with students?

William J. Wilson’s “Afric-American Picture Gallery” (1859) was serialized in the Anglo-African Magazine in 1859, and it describes a fictional museum dedicated to black history. Wilson had previously written on the need for more representations of black history, art, and literature, and this story imagines an alternative museum that will fill that gap. The author starts by describing individual paintings and objects, but as the story goes on, it gets stranger and stranger: in one later chapter, the narrator hops into one of the paintings; and visitors also start to show up to the gallery who have supposedly read the previous chapters that were published in earlier issues of the magazine.

I love how this story invites us to consider how black writers were reimagining museums in the mid-nineteenth century and challenging readers to reflect on what was being collected and valued at that time. We’ll also be reading it alongside Lonnie Bunch III’s descriptions of the process of building the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and I’m looking forward to discussing its contemporary implications for thinking about museums and collections today.

Are you planning any creative assignments?

I’m especially excited about a collaborative research and digital exhibit project that we’ll be working on as a class. We’re going to explore the history of collecting at Harvard by researching objects from across Harvard’s museum collections and bringing them together in a digital exhibit. We’ll consider how objects came to the university, who collected them, and how they were originally classified and displayed. Museum collections are often divided by fields such as art, anthropology, and natural history, but the people who collected them frequently had very wide-ranging interests, and the ways that objects were interpreted have shifted over time. We’ll be working on this project throughout the second half of the semester and collaborate as a class to decide how to organize the exhibit, draft labels and other text, and draw connections between the objects.

Museums always seem so serious—don’t touch anything and don’t talk too loudly! Do you have any favorite examples of the museum in the popular imagination?

As a kid, I read and reread E. L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, and I have always loved Claudia and Jamie’s adventures living in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and their quest to find out the history of a mysterious sculpture. Maybe our own exhibit research will turn up similar discoveries? At the very least, we will have lots of opportunities to talk about other great moments of museums in pop culture this semester.

To learn more, you can check out the syllabus on Canvas, drop by an info session during shopping week on Monday, August 17 from 12-2:45, or email Reed with any questions.

Published by Hist & Lit

Committee on Degrees in History & Literature at Harvard University

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