In the last six months it seems like I have been coming across a lot of stories about how museums tours are presenting alternative contexts for collections. Back in May I was writing about Museum Hack which is providing tours through a somewhat pop culture lens.
Since then I have come across a number of stories about efforts in Philadelphia Museums to provide tours from a number of different perspectives, including those who have lived and played around the ruins of ancient civilizations.
Last week I saw a story in the NY Times about a pilot program University of Cambridge has launched that to provide an LGBTQ+ perspective on their collections. The university recruited Dan Vo who had already established himself as a figure in alternative museum tours to help them develop their series.
His Polar Museum tour highlighted artfully carved whale teeth known as scrimshaw — a way of occupying male whalers so that they didn’t have sex with each other, Mr. Vo said — and items from indigenous communities that showed how fluid gender roles were in some Arctic populations.
Tours like these are important for the future of museums, Mr. Vo said in an interview later. “It makes them relevant,” he said, “and people want to see themselves reflected in collections.”
The article quotes Alistair Brown, policy officer at the Museums Association who says museums
“are looking at radical ways of reappraising their collections,” he said in a telephone interview. “They’re either inviting critical and diverse voices into the museum, or at least welcoming their presence if uninvited.”
Some of the tours aren’t as welcome as others. The NY Times also highlighted Uncomfortable Art tours given by Alice Procter which highlight the imperialism and colonialism underlying museum acquisitions. She has received death threats because promotional images on her website label Queen Elizabeth I as a slaver and Queen Victoria as a thief. The British Museum created a tour series of their own in response to Procter’s which highlights the specific provenance of objects in their collection.
Examples like these (including the ones I cited in earlier posts) can provide a real sense of the potential inherent in museum collections and the type of things people are curious to know. It also highlights the type of details arts organizations should know about their offerings whether it is museum objects or works being performed.
It has only just started to occur to me that this is a result of the development of Professional-Amateurs predicted 15 years ago and has become something that can both challenge and threaten arts organizations and greatly enhance the work they do.
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