In 2016, a new Smithsonian museum opened on the National Mall in Washington, DC. Perched on a prominent corner of Constitution Avenue, with a view of the White House, everything about the Museum of African American History and Culture announced its position in the fabric of the city and in the pantheon of the federal museums that dot Washington.
But nothing said more about the museum’s significance than the line — the pair of grandmothers who had ridden busses together from afar just to be there, the young couples clutching hands, the whole families willing to wait hours in the late-summer heat — stretching down the thoroughfare to the Washington Monument and beyond. The museum was a reflection of them; what hung in the galleries was their history, and the things that they alone knew and understood. They longed to see it recognized, finally, and they longed to share it. The museum’s opening-day buzz never seemed to wear off; the crowds never let up, that day or any day afterward. In 2019 alone, more than 2 million visitors came through the glass doors.
Visiting a museum is an experience unlike any other. To those who frequent them, and even to those who only occasionally stop in for a Yayoi Kusama show or a “Bodies” science exhibition, museums are a cultural amenity and a destination, a place to learn and to see one’s self and to be wowed. In many cities, tourism depends on them (and vice versa).
In March, as the global coronavirus pandemic swiftly shuttered institutions, these truths became all the more glaring. The African American History Museum sat dormant for half the year, as did the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Broad museum, the Museum of Modern Art, the Please Touch Museum, and countless others. Thousands of staffers were laid off. According to a survey of museum directors released this week from the American Alliance of Museums, nearly a third of the nation’s museums remain closed, and among those that have opened (armed with sanitizer and prepared for incessant cleanings), it’s all for just a third of their former visitorship.
In the midst of the crisis, and perhaps because of it, museums are being taken to task over their commitments to diversity in hiring and collecting, as well as their reticence to show difficult work at a time of wider racial reckoning. The frustrations run so deep, some are calling for the end of the institution itself.
In this issue of The Highlight, we look at museums at this crossroads, a point at which financial and social failures loom in every direction. How are the leaders of some of the nation’s top museums meeting the challenges? What do they fear?
We also look at the diversity battles brewing in the museum world; how children’s museums are surviving the pandemic (or not); go deep on the meditative, and worrisome, experience of museum-going in a pandemic; and ask why museums are struggling to attract broader visitorship and lagging behind other, newer ways of reaching audiences.
Plight at the Museum
Facing twin American crises, four museum leaders share their vision and hopes for the future.
By Victoria L. Valentine, Constance Grady, and Jen Trolio
If museums want to diversify, they’ll have to change. A lot.
2020’s racial reckoning has rocketed through elite cultural institutions. Undoing old patterns means untangling nearly everything.
By Constance Grady
The joy and uneasiness of an empty museum
With tourists nowhere to be found, this is the eerie new reality of New York’s cultural institutions.
By Alissa Wilkinson
Who are museums for?
When the marble corridors feel like fences.
By Lavanya Ramanathan
The Please Touch Museum and children’s museums everywhere wonder: What now?
Once tactile and crowded, interactive spaces for families must re-imagine what “hands-on” will look like now.
By Lindsey Norward