What is the job of a culturally-specific museum?

This post is by Janine Okmin, Associate Director of Education at The Contemporary Jewish Museum, where she develops resources for schools and teachers, and trains museum tour guides. Formerly the Associate Manager of Learning Through Art at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Janine has led teacher workshops nationwide and in Taiwan.

She has also developed programs for teens at the Center for Arts Education in New York and for college students as the Director of Jewish Cultural and Artistic Expression at Brooklyn College Hillel. Janine holds a BA in Drama from Northwestern University and an MA from Teachers College, Columbia University.

The views expressed here are Janine’s and not necessarily the opinions of The Contemporary Jewish Museum.

Culturally-specific museums are museums that collect or exhibit objects related to a particular ethnic or cultural group, focusing on art or historic objects, but often also highlighting the histories, accomplishments, or struggles of the featured culture. For the purposes of this article, I will use the terms “culturally-specific” and “identity-based” interchangeably. The museum I work at, The Contemporary Jewish Museum, is an culturally-specific museum, as are El Museo del Barrio, National Museum of the American Indian, and the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, to name a few.

Many, though not all, identity-based museums in the United States were founded during the rise of identity politics in the 1960s and 70s, when the public became increasingly aware of mainstream museums’ exclusion of stories and objects related to cultural and ethnic groups. For people within these cultural groups, these institutions became a source of pride. For those outside these cultural groups, identity museums became educational resources, places where visitors could learn histories of diverse people.

Today, ideas about identity are much more complicated. Given these complications, what is the relationship of the identity-based museum to its “home” culture? What happens when a culturally-specific museum defies the expectations of its “host” community or the community at large? What are the expectations of visitors when they choose to visit a culturally-specific museum and do our museums deliver?

I recently came across an article by Simona Bodo, an Italian researcher focusing on museums and intercultural dialogue. Although the article (featured in the book Museums, Equality and Social Justice), “Museums as Intercultural Spaces,” examines culture as exhibited and explored in European-based non-culturally-specific museums, her introductory paragraphs rang true for my work in an identity-focused space. Bodo discussed the problematic use of words like “heritage,” citing two paradigms for understanding this word (which I interpret broadly to also mean “culture” or “identity”): essentialist and dialogical.

An essentialist approach sees heritage as static, something that an expert (or a museum) can transmit to another person. The dialogical approach sees culture as something that can be transmitted, but also something changeable, that can be “renegotiated. . . and made available for all to share in a  common space.” This tension between fixed cultural information to be transmitted and “passed down” versus a messier renegotiation of culture captures the essential debate in contemporary identity-based museums, both internally and between a museum and its visitors.

In the Jewish museum world, this tension might look like an “essentialist” exhibition about the rituals, ritual objects, and traditions associated with Passover (the holiday celebrating the exodus of ancient Hebrews from Egypt) versus a “dialogical” exhibition exploring ways themes of slavery and freedom in the Passover celebration have been used as inspiration for social activism related to issues ranging from farm workers’ rights to women’s rights. A beautiful example  of a “dialogical” work from First Nations culture is Nicholas Galanin’s video project Tsu Heidei Shugaxtutaan Part 1 (see video below) and Part 2, which makes visible (and audible) the passing down of native music and dance traditions, as they intersect contemporary youth culture.

Identity museums are negotiating this tension in a variety of different ways.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture

The National Museum of African American History and Culture (which, full disclosure, I have not yet had the opportunity to visit) provides an interesting and recent example.  Museum Director Lonnie Bunch recounted the struggles to determine the focus of the museum in an article in Smithsonian Magazine:

One of the biggest challenges we faced was wrestling with the widely differing assumptions of what the museum should be. There were those who felt that it was impossible, in a federally supported museum, to explore candidly some of the painful aspects of history, such as slavery and discrimination. Others felt strongly that the new museum had the responsibility to shape the mind-set of future generations, and should do so without discussing moments that might depict African-Americans simply as victims—in essence, create a museum that emphasized famous firsts and positive images. Conversely, some believed that this institution should be a holocaust museum that depicted “what they did to us.” 

Now that it has opened, the museum is expected to respond to the difficult racial tensions in current day America. As early as 2015, its curators began collecting objects and images related to the Black Lives Matter movement, some of which are displayed in the context of the post-1968 struggle for civil rights. Yet the museum also made a more political statement with this collage of Black Lives Matter imagery on its building’s exterior.

How else might the museum respond to the ever-changing nature of African-American identity through its collections and exhibitions? Given what I have read about attendance, the museum has vast and enthusiastic visitors. I will be watching eagerly to see how the museum is able to both draw from history and navigate the messy waters of the present.

The Japanese American National Museum

The Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles (JANM), which opened in 1992, conducted a 2009 study that examined the mission of the JANM in light of changing qualities of American ethnic groups. In particular, Japanese Americans – the community it represents – were becoming increasingly identified as multi-ethnic/multi-racial, and were less likely to identify with a particular ethnic or cultural “category.” How would the museum adapt to these changing demographics, engaging new audiences while sustaining its current constituents? Does an increasingly hybridized audience broaden potential visitors or mean there is less of a need for identity-focused institutions?

The JANM research found that the increasingly multicultural population was most engaged by exhibitions focusing on art or popular culture, and only history as it “brings the story to the present,” relating to the viewer and to the present time and place. To respond to these findings, programming has specifically targeted mixed-race visitors, and has expanded to include more popular culture. On TripAdvisor, however, most comments mention the importance of the historical exhibitions as a tool for connecting to one’s own heritage or for learning about an important period in history.  Simona Bodo’s tension is apparent–as the museum renegotiates what it means to be a Japanese American, focusing increasingly on expressions of contemporary culture, visitors report “learning more” when presented with the concrete historical information transmitted by the more traditional historical exhibitions.

The Contemporary Jewish Museum

The Contemporary Jewish Museum (CJM) in San Francisco, where I work, often grapples with the disparity between visitor expectations, which are typically “essentialist”, and what the museum presents, which leans toward the “dialogical”. Founded in 1984, our mission states that we “make the diversity of the Jewish experience relevant for twenty-first century audiences.” A non-collecting museum, The CJM does not have a permanent collection of ritual or historic objects, but rather a series of changing exhibitions exploring various aspects of the connections between contemporary life and Jewish art, history, culture, and ideas. This mission has landed on the side of the dialogical approach, focusing on exhibitions and programs that wrestle with changing contemporary identities. In fact, our founders state that they wanted to build a museum to which their Jewish grandchildren would want to bring a non-Jewish friend–a place that does not focus solely on a dark past or ancient traditions, but that looks to the present and the future.

Yet despite this focus, being a Jewish museum, teachers often call us to ask if we have an exhibition about the Holocaust. (We sometimes, but not always, do.) We also occasionally get responses from concerned parents that their children might be preached to at our museum, or apprehension that a Jewish museum is only for Jewish people.

Last year, The CJM conducted some evaluative work in the area of visitor perceptions and expectations of a Jewish museum, most recently with family visitors. Non-visitors associated the museum with history and religion, while visitors described it as art-focused and full of surprises. First-time Jewish visitors were surprised that there wasn’t more historic or religious context, yet non-Jewish visitors (who were unsure if the museum was “for them”) were pleasantly surprised that the Jewish content exhibitions and activities weren’t heavy handed, and they felt welcome.  One visitor recounted that he was “seeking a deeper cultural connection that would move him and his children,” wanting to use a museum experience to share his Jewish roots more deeply with his family.

A recent exhibition, for example, highlighted the work of contemporary artists from many cultures exploring memories they inherited from past generations. Although grounded in a Jewish concept of l’dor va dor (“from generation to generation”) and touching on some specifically Jewish memories, the exhibition was a cross-cultural look at memory, examining how the past impacts the future generations of many ethnic and religious groups, from Vietnamese to African American to Armenian. Our visitors, like the JANM’s are increasingly those who claim hybrid identities. (Surveys show that around 50% of our visitors self-identify as Jewish, but even of those who do not identify as Jewish, 15% report they have a Jewish family member or are part of a Jewish household.)

Students encounter Hank Willis Thomas’s Amelia Falling, 2014 in The CJM’s From Generation to Generation: Inherited Memory and Contemporary On view November 25, 2016–April 2, 2017 at The Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco. Photo by Gary Sexton.

Comments from our school groups were overwhelmingly positive. One teacher shared that on the way home “one of my African American students said that he never realized how much his people and the Jewish people have in common.” While this might read as a bit trite, I was moved to think an encounter in our space helped students make connections between their own heritage and that of another–starting dialogue about and renegotiation of the fixed categories of identity. Yet other visitors shared that they encountered “contemporary art that wasn’t really Jewish,” looking for a more traditional or didactic approach to Jewish culture. In our comment book, another visitor noted, “I fail to comprehend the Jewish aspect of the place. . . This place needs context explaining its purpous [sic].

As an educator at The CJM, I am constantly trying to strike this balance. How can we meet the pre-conceived ideas and expectations of our visitors by providing concrete information about history, culture, and tradition, while also serving as meaningful space in which Jewish identity can be explored, examined, and renegotiated, in order to help visitors from all backgrounds enter into a dialogue with their own identities? What are our obligations to provide the concrete information that visitors expect? What happens if we cease to offer it? In light of the state of our country and the current relationship between identity and politics, the question of the “job” of a culturally-specific musuem feels even more important. Are our institutions the transmitters of something concrete (and worthy) to our visitors, or do we perhaps have a more critical role of convening a contemporary renegotiation of culture and identity–connecting, interpreting, and forging new identities for the future? Are both possible?

This mini research project has left me with more questions than answers, which every museum educator knows is where the learning happens.

Please weigh in here to share your experiences. How does your museum navigate these complicated issues? What do your visitors expect and how do you deliver?


3 thoughts on “What is the job of a culturally-specific museum?

  1. The essential vs dialogical framing is useful. I work at the National Museum of Mexican Art and we try to straddle between both of those a lot. We are a community centered museum and even though we are clear in what that means for us broadly, community members are diverse in their understanding of Mexican culture, their own journey in Mexican cultural identity, and also their political leanings. All of these things are wrapped up in one package, which makes for such a rich kind of teaching experience, but difficult to hold ourselves accountable to because of the multiplicity of needs. There is also the general public who may not have any cultural connections to the place or the objects, but sees us as an educational institution. If anything, what’s most grounding is that we have such a clear social justice point of view.

  2. Paula, Thanks for your comments. I found that framing useful for my work as well. Yes, the multiple needs make things a challenge. Curious to hear more about how being a community-centered museum manifests itself at your institution. How and to what extent are community perspectives integrated into your exhibitions and programming? Do staff/community perspectives ever come into conflict? And, the social justice focus feels so important to us culturally-specific museum folks, especially today. Has this always been a focus for your institution?

  3. Museums are to be mission-driven, according to the ICOM definition. I think the CJM sounds unique in that it’s mission is explicitly contemporary. Given this, you MUST will pursue a ‘dialogical’ tack, though you will still need to “meet visitors where they are” as they say.

    But the majority of indentity-based museums are not so explicitly contemporary. Most have an open-ended period of study. Many, like where I work, are specifically tied to a period of study in the past. In such a case, the culture we depict never changes. What does change is our (staff) presentations of it, and visitors’ expectations and reactions to it. So while we might be pigeon-holed as “esentialist” because we have a permanent collection and research that do not change, the experience of the visitor from year to year is likely quite different.

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