On January 20, as hundreds of thousands of people flocked to Washington, DC, to attend President Donald Trump’s inauguration, many artistic institutions across the country shut their doors for the day in an act of protest against the new commander in chief.
Yet most major American museums did not join the artists’ strike. Instead, many opted for a subtler form of dissent, waiving their entrance fees or developing programs to specifically address the political moment, like the Whitney’s Speak Out event featuring artists and writers or the Brooklyn Museum’s seven-hour reading of Langston Hughes’s “Let America Be America Again.”
Since Trump took office, museums have continued to engage in what some have dubbed the “resistance,” with varying degrees of publicity and antagonism. When the White House statement on Holocaust Remembrance Day failed to explicitly mention Jews, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum issued a statement that included this quiet rebuke:
Millions of other innocent civilians were persecuted and murdered by the Nazis, but the elimination of Jews was central to Nazi policy. As Elie Wiesel said, “Not all victims were Jews, but all Jews were victims.”
“Many museums now have at least a component of them that are activist — by that, I mean wanting to participate in a healthy civic culture and conversation,” said Edward Linenthal, a professor in the history department at the University of Indiana Bloomington with a particular interest in studying controversial museum exhibitions.
He noted that the restraint with which museums have recently engaged in outright political criticism is important, pointing out that it is precisely because museums exist as “demilitarized zones” that they become places where people from all across the spectrum can engage with difficult themes or topics. Museums must push back against assumptions and share important truths, he suggests, but in a way that is accessible to all people.
Linenthal has authored numerous books, including Preserving Memory: The Struggle to Create America’s Holocaust Museum. He’s also worked on the curation of public memorials throughout the US, including the National Park Service’s 50th anniversary ceremonies at Pearl Harbor and the 9/11 United Flight 93 memorial in Pennsylvania, and has advised on the memorialization of those killed in the 2011 terrorist attack in Utøya, Norway. In a phone interview with Vox, he detailed his thoughts on the role of museums in the current political moment.
The following transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
How do you think museums engage in politics and activism?
I think museums, many of them, for some time now, have taken a more activist position in the culture. These are not just places, temples, to display beautiful or interesting or strange things that people just come in to look at, more than the old definition of the museum as a cabinet of curiosities. Now museums — and certainly the Holocaust Museum is a prime example of this, not by any means the only one or necessarily the first — but these are places to engage really important issues. Museums become forums.
So [when] you go to a natural history museum, I imagine it would be strange not to encounter some text or temporary exhibition or something having to do with species extinction or with climate change. If one goes to a history museum, it would be hard to imagine not engaging in some way with an appropriate element of the civic culture of the place where that museum is. Whether it’s how immigrants are treated in a particular place or how city X has been the site of these kinds of issues in the civil rights movement, or in the development of American architecture, or who knows what.
But I think many museums now have at least a component of them that are activist — by that, I mean wanting to participate in a healthy civic culture and conversation. And given the unbelievable celebration of ignorance that we see in the contemporary political climate, thank god that museums are doing that.
So I think museum exhibitions both show us sensitive parts of identity issues, and also suggest the fault lines in particular cultures.
How can museums best engage in controversial topics?
There are ways of bringing people into the complexity of these historical questions without creating stick figures, without creating caricature, without stereotypical takes on good guys and bad guys.
I think the most powerful exhibitions are not ones that present the hidden, omniscient voice of the curator as, “This is the way it is, and this is the way to think about this,” but to bring people deeper into the kinds of questions that arise. So if I was a curator, I would be most happy if people walk out of an exhibition I had created going: “Wow, this is not as simple of a question as I thought. I think I really need to go to the bookstore here and jot down some titles and buy some titles, because I need to explore this much more carefully.”
The linking of memorial and museum, the linking of commemorative voice and historical voice, is absolutely one of the most complex, problematic things that’s going on now. I’m not saying that in a positive or negative way — the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum; the Oklahoma City National Memorial, which includes a visitors center that has a brilliant exhibition about the day (that’s gone under huge [recent] changes, by the way); the September 11 Memorial and Museum. If you link these, you’re bringing two different environments together: the intimate, respectful environment of commemoration, and the distant, analytical voice of historians. And they don’t always blend together all that well.
What are some of the ways that museums as institutions are able to contribute to the national conversation in ways that other places like media outlets or even artists themselves cannot?
Well, I think we’re in a period that is increasingly characterized by really ugly, toxic language. We all know that language has consequences, and the degradation of conversation I think is a real challenge to any kind of thoughtful civic culture. And I don’t have any illusions that this is going to get better anytime soon. I don’t even know how it would go about getting better at this point.
But I do think museums often are kind of demilitarized zones in the culture. People still behave civilly most of the time in these places, and maybe are willing to reflect and engage thoughtfully in ways that they’re not when they’re thinking about politics or candidates or the other side that really pisses them off. So I think museums have a real role to play in that way, that they are for the most part demilitarized zones where people can come. And even if they’re not talking to one another, they’re part of a public culture that is engaging in what the museum has to offer.
And there are other ways museums can play roles in this. Museums are resource centers; museums have outreach programs. There are people that know way more about this than I do, but traveling exhibitions and digital exhibitions now that allow people to touch exhibitions from anywhere in the world. Museums that have speaker series and public programming of all kinds, podcast programs.
So all you’d have to do is take one museum, like US Holocaust Memorial Museum, look at their programming, and think, “Okay, this is a way that a museum becomes a really important part of the public culture.” Temporary exhibitions, as an idea. I think National Park Service sites, which have had visitors centers/museums for generations, are incredibly important sites. Lots of people learn their history by going to National Park Service sites, and in my mind that’s a good thing.
So I think in that way, museums can be really, really important. I think we’ve seen incredibly important changes at, for example, historic house museums, plantations where in the past the focus was on who comes in the front door. The focus was on the furniture and the drapes and the this and the that, and what a wonderful life it was for people who lived in this place. And now there’s also a focus on, “Who were the people who worked here, the slaves, and where did they enter?” Let’s come into the house that way, and think from their perspective and from where they lived on the site.
Look at a place like Monticello that’s undergone incredible exciting change, excavation of slave quarters, understanding the slave culture at the site. Incredibly interesting questions about the relationships of Founding Fathers and slavery that to my mind deepen our understanding of American history and the original sin of slavery, and how it played into the culture. And it makes visible and human people who for too long had been left out of the story.
Museums can do these things in such exciting ways. Who counts? Whose stories count, whose lives count? And what’s the challenge of telling those stories at a particular site? I think museums have an incredibly important role to play in resisting the continued degradation of civic culture in America.
How might museums be limited in their ability to speak out and engage in controversial discussions?
Well, to use a simplistic, but I don’t think unhelpful, template, if a museum moves from forum to tribunal — where it seeks to answer too easily contemporary political questions rather than bring people into more thoughtful reflection about particular events — that becomes a problem. Now, there absolutely have to be times when museums support, undergird, illustrate important truths about particular issues. You’re not going to have a museum that says, “Okay, we’re going to be open to all the different voices, so here’s a Holocaust museum and half of it will be dedicated to Holocaust denial and half to the Holocaust.” Or, “Here’s a natural history museum, and here’s our ‘flat Earth’ exhibition over here.” Obviously you’re not going to do that.
But for museums to take a stand and say, “These are important issues that we can take a stand on. Here’s why, and here’s how we can do it.” It just needs to be done with care, and it needs to be done around issues that are more than just the flavor of the moment.
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that no major American museum joined the artists’ strike. It has been updated to reflect that the Queens Museum in New York City did close on the day of Trump’s inauguration.