Turning museums into cultural ghettos

The proposed Latino museum in Washington DC looks set to further partition history along racial lines.

Tiffany Jenkins

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Topics Culture

Following a federal commission report to the US Congress, it now seems probable that a national museum devoted solely to American Latino history and culture will form part of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC.

There has been plenty of support for the museum. Senior political and cultural figures, including Eva Longoria from TV’s Desperate Housewives, have all called for the establishment of an institution dedicated to the story of the ‘Latino experience’ – an experience belonging to over 16 per cent of the total US population. ‘For the Latino community, much of our history does not get told’, interior secretary Ken Salazar explained. The final decision as to whether or not the Latino community’s history does get told now rests with Congress.

Although federal money will not be made available for the Latino museum, there’s no doubt that being part of the prestigious Smithsonian Institution would be a major statement of acceptance into the American museum establishment, not to mention the national story.

However, the museum’s potential establishment does raise questions. With any prospective Latino museum set to sit alongside the National Museum of the American Indian and a scheduled African-American museum, the story of the American people will be segregated into separate buildings, each devoted to a particular ethnic category. Is there not a danger that American history is being fragmented into self-contained ghettos?

This is not a particularly new concern. Over the past 30 years, we have seen a Museum of the American Indian established in New York as well as Washington, an Arab American National Museum built in Michigan, and the Contemporary Jewish Museum instituted in San Francisco. There is also Black History Month and a whole raft of outreach and education practices targeting specific ethnic backgrounds.

A big problem with this ghettoising trend is the increased emphasis on ethnic identity, so constructed, as the key to understanding the past. Take, for example, the artist Diego Rivera. As a Mexican who was later to live in the US, he would be ripe for inclusion in the new Latino museum. But would he have considered himself a ‘Latino’ artist?

Rivera’s work was certainly influenced by Mexican folk art. But it was also deeply informed by his engagement with Spanish, French and Italian art and artists. The core of his exchanges with his contemporaries was not Mexican, it was genres and meaning, musings on cubism, post-impressionism and Renaissance frescos. Indeed it was the Renaissance fresco which influenced his murals portraying the experiences of not only Mexican people but, more crucially, an international working-class.

Indeed, Rivera was often excluded from the American mainstream because of his politics, not his Latino heritage. Hence his mural ‘Man at the Crossroads’, begun in 1933 for the Rockefeller Centre in New York City, was removed because it featured a portrait of Vladimir Lenin – which Rivera refused to erase.

Given these different cultural influences and his political commitments, is it fair to see Rivera as a Latino artist first and foremost? It’s clearly far more complicated than that. There is a major risk here that the contemporary emphasis on ethnic idenity will obscure the social, cultural and political significance of artefacts.

This is not to say race and ethnic categories are unimportant. In America, they very much are. But are museums devoted to particular ethnic groups the best way forward?

At the Smithsonian’s National History Museum of American History, there is a section of a Woolworths lunch counter taken from an outlet in Greensboro, North Carolina. It is historically significant because, in 1960, that Woolworths served as the sit-in site for four black students to demonstrate against racial segregation – an act which was to galvanise the civil-rights movement worldwide.

This lunch counter could be said to belong in the new African-American museum, too. Yet, as a spokeswomen for the Smithsonian warned, removing material relevant for the African-American museum could leave the American History museum as ‘the white museum’. She has a point. Taking away objects from current institutions because they are required to build a particular, ethnically-constructed collection elsewhere could cause problems. In the attempt to include people, these actions could separate and ghettoise.

Even so, there may be a case for specialist institutions that devote their time and energy to one issue. In theory, a specific museum could tell a single ethnic group’s story with rigour. Lonnie Bunch, the future director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, has tried to rebut the ghettoising claim by playing up the museum’s cross-ethnic appeal: ‘The National Museum of African American History and Culture is not being built as a museum by African-Americans for African-Americans… The notion that is so important here is that African-American culture is used as a lens to understand what it means to be an American.’ He also has a point. Race is too important in the US for it not to have dedicated institutions. And campaigns for a museum devoted to the African-American experience, developing in the 1970s when African-Americans were genuinely occluded from the mainstream of American history, have a long and reputable past.

But the primary problem with these new, culturally specific museums is not that they focus on one ethnic category and separate it from others. Rather it is that they have been assigned a particular role in a particular social and political context.

Over the past 30 years, the broad ideological divides that once characterised politics have faded away. Rather than being about competing visions of the kinds of society people want, politics has been reduced to managing the existing system. At the same time, the ideas of arts practitioners and academics such as Raymond Williams, Richard Hoggart and Stuart Hall, which called for greater attention to culture as a factor in political life, both as a source of oppression and of liberation, have become highly influential.

Likewise, the politics of recognition, which demands that cultural and state institutions recognise particular identities, gained considerable ground in Europe and North America in the 1980s and 1990s. According to these theories, recognition of identity is considered as important as – and sometimes more than – wealth distribution.

For instance, the political theorist Nancy Fraser argues that institutions need positively to affirm peoples’ identity by ‘upwardly revaluing disrespected identities and the cultural products of maligned groups’ (1). Mainstream society, it is said, excludes marginalised groups by not telling their stories or presenting negative images. Similarly, American scholar Iris Young argues that ‘groups cannot be socially equal unless their specific experience, culture and social contributions are publicly affirmed and recognised’ (2).

Cultural institutions, it is said, can engage and affirm identity by showing ethnic groups’ work and cultural habits in a good light. Museums and similar organisations are now seen as central to telling people who they are. This isn’t scholarship. It is a therapeutic fantasy designed to make people feel better, and its consequence is the affirmation of the status quo.

One effect of the predominance of cultural politics is that lower standards of scholarship are accepted, with ethnically determined points of view considered acceptable bases for accounts of the past. The worst example of this is the National Museum of the American Indian, which opened in 2004 to great fanfare. Centred around ‘self-told histories of selected native communities’, it features cringe-making, sentimentalised exhibitions that are driven, not by knowledge, but by the identity-affirming imperatives of cultural politics.

The presentation of the Native American would make critics of racial thinking blush. In the politics of recognition, identity is understood differently to how it was when it inspired the civil-rights movement and the fight for equality. Here peoples’ differences are not something to be overcome, they are central to who we are.

Seventeen of the 25 members of the board have to be Indian. Similarly, certain aspects of the building, running and curating of the institution are only open to people in certain tribes, echoing the racial thinking it purports to critique. Most importantly, the stories – for they are stories – cannot be questioned by non-Native Americans.

Many different ethnic groups in America were discriminated against on the basis of their race. But people joined forces across class and race to fight for change, going beyond their birth identity and achieving a remarkable amount – but, sadly, not enough. Trying to paint a better picture in a museum to make people feel better about this failure to overcome inequality is an insult to the memory of many who put their lives on the line so we could live in a better society.

We should close the doors on these identity museums and shape the future outside them for ourselves.

Tiffany Jenkins is a cultural sociologist and author of Contesting Human Remains in Museum Collections: The Crisis of Cultural Authority, published by Routledge. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK)). Visit Tiffany’s website here.

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