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Museums in New York are becoming agents for social change

Here’s how museums are addressing social change in their galleries.

Anna Rahmanan
Written by
Anna Rahmanan

The slate of exhibitions that have taken over institutes across New York recently makes one thing clear: museums are becoming agents for social change. From the Museum of the City of New York to the American Museum of Natural History, these halls of knowledge are advancing tough conversations by offering their own takes and questioning their own programming. 

But is the job of museums to shed light on the social changes that shape the world outside of their own spaces or to help portent these shifts? Are cultural institutions required to mirror said developments—morphing in form and function as society itself does? 

The past few years have been particularly interesting when trying to answer those questions. Of course, societal changes have always been a part of life as we know it—but the arrival of social media has intensified scrutiny on socio-political movements, adding a layer of complexity to the discussion. 

Take the George Floyd protests, for example, which began in Minneapolis in May 2020 but rapidly spread around the country. Two-and-a-half years later, with a bit of hindsight, do we expect our museums to simply tell us about the riots, or do we request that they focus on the various issues that throughout the years have allowed for the protests to even happen?

According to the Museum of the City of New York, context is key.

Museum of the City of New York
Photograph: Shutterstock

There is an awareness in the wider world that museums need to pay attention to, especially after the George Floyd protests and post-COVID-19," Whitney Donhauser, the museum director at the Museum of the City of New York, tells us. “Because of the very nature of museums, we spend a lot of time and research working on projects. I know there is often a demand for quick responsiveness and it's a hard thing to do because of the nature of our work but it's been exciting to see this period where museums are more nimble and break the slow process."

The Museum of the City of New York acted quickly, mounting an exhibit called “Uprising” about a year after the killing of Floyd. The show explored the history of the Black Lives movement through the lens of the most recent marches—clearly banking on the public’s interest in the topic while also trying to advance the conversation.

“It’s not just about the killing we just witnessed,” the show seemed to note. “But about the things that led to the killing in the first place—and we should pay attention to it all.”

Not tied to a specific news event, but certainly not less important, was the American Museum of Natural History's honoring of the Pacific Northwest through the overhaul of its oldest gallery. The Northwest Coast Hall opened to the public in May with input from Northwest Coast cultures. 

According to Scientific American, Kaa-xoo-auxch/Garfield George (head of the Raven Beaver House of Angoon/Dei Shu Hit “End of the Trail House" Tlingit) said in 2017 that the placards on exhibit at the old hall containing information for the public could do a better job at explaining the artifacts and their significance.  

It started with us listening. The strong voices of the Northwest Coast cultures are vibrantly amplified through the new installation of objects, presented in the round and with contextual relationships to one another,” said Kulapat Yantrasast of WHY Architects, who worked on the construction of the new destination, said in an official statement back then. As an architect, the opportunity to really spend time absorbing and conversing with the multiple cultures represented in our project has greatly informed how we were able to bring out a fresh design, one that provides clarity and sense of place while respecting and responding to the deep context and diverse stories that the meaningful art objects present.”

American Museum of Natural History
Photograph: D. Finnin /© AMNHAmerican Museum of Natural History

It took a bit longer than projects directly relating to the Black Lives Matter movement, but the American Museum of Natural History is clearly doing its part by not only representing a minority that has been demanding the attention it deserves for years but by indirectly telling New Yorkers that this is a culture worth exploring and a conversation about the way they’ve been treated is worth having. 

The opening of the new hall has added resonance given a piece of art that garnered attention when it first went it went up on the first floor of the American Museum of Natural History a few years ago. According to The New York Times, the diorama in question depicted an imagined 17th-century meeting between Dutch settlers and the Lenape, an Indigenous tribe inhabiting New Amsterdam, now New York City.” Although intended to show adiplomatic negotiation between the two groups,” the work was criticized for depicting cultural hierarchy—and not any sort of cultural exchange. 

Strikingly, instead of covering the diorama or taking it down, the museum actually decided to acknowledge the problem and talk about it in public by posting 10 labels around the glass pointing out the various issues that the art poses. Some institutions have taken it a step further, arguing that to properly explore social movements, exhibitions aren’t enough and structural changes are absolutely necessary. 

There are always these kinds of movements where people come out and challenge the status quo, take to the streets, speak up, says MCNY’s Donhauser. Without those moments, places become complacent. Change is inherently challenging for all New Yorkers but it is necessary. The idea of being inclusive in a museum is not just about the exhibitions on the wall but the staff, the board, the programs, the consultants. I think one of the great things about this time is that there has been a really solid discussion that opened people's eyes about what an inclusive environment actually means.”

Unfortunately, though, some of those more structural changes are harder to come by. Take legislation (A.472C /S.121B), which Governor Kathy Hochul signed into law back in August requiring that all local museums identify which artworks on display were stolen from Jews (or were a forced sale) by the Nazis during World War II. The law was made official nearly 80 years after the Holocaust happened.

Given that the Nazis looted nearly 600,000 paintings from Jews, an action that, according to the city itself, “[enriched] the Third Reich and eliminated all vestiges of Jewish identity and culture,” it’s pretty shocking that it took this long for legislation of the sort to be signed into law.

Before Hochul’s signing, back in 2000, the Metropolitan Museum of Art kicked off the Provenance Research Project, the purpose of which, according to an official press releaseis to determine whether any works of art in the museum’s collection could have been unlawfully appropriated in the Nazi era and not subsequently restituted to their rightful owners.”

Despite the fact that this specific effort is two decades older than the new legislation and that close to 10 works within the institution’s canon have been restituted or reached settlements to date, some New Yorkers are still complaining about the Met’s attitude towards it all, arguing that the museum’s stance should be even clearer when dealing with illegally obtained art. Alas, some changes come slower than others.

One thing is for sure: at least in New York, museums are putting their money where their mouths are—not just preaching about change but actually bringing it about.

The fact that museums have become spaces ripe for conversations about social movements should come as no surprise, given their target audience. But, as is perennially the case, there’s always more to be done. Here’s to hoping cultural facilities of all kinds are ready to explore, dissect and comment on the challenges that lay ahead.

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