Seeing Yourself in A Museum

Emma Evans, Queens University.

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Climbing the fifty-odd steps of a nineteenth century fire escape in thirty-degree heat would rarely be described as a pleasurable experience. Unless, of course, you are the granddaughter of an Irish immigrant about to enter a tenement flat once occupied by Irish immigrants themselves.

The importance of representation was never so clear to me as on that hot July day at The Tenement Museum. As I stood in the cramped corridor of what had once been an Irish immigrant’s apartment, I came to understand my own family’s history in a profound sense. I understood the fear that my grandmother must have felt upon entering a foreign country. I understood the importance of clinging to her Celtic roots as a source of identity. Most importantly, I understood how my family story fit into the Western collective consciousness. Seeing my history reflected in the artifacts of that museum was an immensely validating experience. The recognition of that history was cause for celebration, and provided me with a measure of confidence. Unfortunately, not all museum-goers can say the same.

Earlier this year, a PLoS One study revealed that at eighteen major museums across the United States, 85% of exhibitors are white, and a further 87% identify as male. This study came as a shock. After all, it’s been over thirty years since the Guerilla Girls famously asked whether women have to be naked to get into the Met. Isn’t it time that our museums reflected our reality – all of our realities?

The team behind the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) seems to think so. Last Monday, MoMA reopened following three years of renovations. Its new gallery spaces prioritize artists of diverse identities, better reflecting the unique and varied experiences of their visitors. Says chief curator Ann Temkin: “We feel that many, many regions that once seemed peripheral don’t seem that way anymore, they seem central. Figures who once seemed secondary now seem primary.”

The expansion of representation within museums like MoMA is undoubtedly a step in the right direction, albeit a late one. There is doubt, however, as to whether or not that shift will actually be felt. A recent Vice article concluded that a mere 6% of American museum-goers are Black. Perhaps this sorry statistic will change as museums expand their scope. But the problems don’t end there. When the Art Gallery of Ontario reopened its doors in 2008, architect Frank Gehry dubbed the increase in admission from $15 to $18 dollars a “highway robbery.” The ROM, unlike many similar museums across Canada, charges $15 for kids to ogle at shiny gemstones and unearth dusty dino bones in a glorified sandbox. I would be the last one to suggest that such experiences are not worth the price of admission, but I – and many other Canadians – recognize that the costs can be prohibitively expensive. It may not matter whose art is on the walls, or whose artifact is sealed behind a glass box, if no one can appreciate it.

Ultimately, museums can and should do more to make their galleries reflective of the world around us. But, a meaningful commitment to diversity must extend beyond the art itself to making those galleries, archives, and even 19th-century tenements welcoming and accessible to all.

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Sources

Kambhampaty, A. P. (2019, October 8). The MoMA Will Soon Reopen Following Extensive Renovations. Here’s What to Expect From the Revamped Museum. Retrieved from Time: https://time.com/5688507/moma-reopening/

Kingston, A. (2010, February 3). Are admission prices too expensive? Retrieved from Maclean’s: https://www.macleans.ca/culture/are-admission-prices-too-expensive/

Sargent, A. (2018, May 21). To Fight Racism Within Museums, They Need to Stop Acting Like They’re Neutral. Retrieved from Vice: https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/pavpkn/to-fight-racism-within-museums-they-need-to-stop-acting-like-theyre-neutral

Solly, M. (2019, March 21). Survey Finds White Men Dominate Collections of Major Art Museums Read more: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/survey-finds-majority-artists-represented-major-museums-are-white-men-180971771/#8cjc2MX7brX68Tjw.99 Give the gift of Smithsonian magazin. Retrieved from Smithsonian: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/survey-finds-majority-artists-represented-major-museums-are-white-men-180971771/

Topaz CM, Klingenberg B, Turek D, Heggeseth B, Harris PE, Blackwood JC, et al. (2019) Diversity of artists in major U.S. museums. PLoS ONE 14(3): e0212852. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0212852