Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Museum's Continued Service to the Public in the 21st Century

With the recent rally to reduce carbon emissions and reduce global warming, few have been willing to give it to the public straight. The only real solution is for all of us to eat less, buy less, produce less, and, for our purposes as museum professions, preserve, conserve, and restore less to combat carbon emissions run amuck. I am greatly concerned with a nonprofit museum culture that is committed to an unerring need to grow, and this includes, on the high end of that growth, the construction and maintenance of grandiose exhibition buildings, travelling mega-shows, and unbridled merchandizing. Much of this need for growth is a product of human ego, for board members and administrators alike see growth as a reflection of their own industry, their ability to accomplish. I am as guilty of this as the next person. I love museums as much or more than the next guy, but I also see that growth may be contributing to eventually making life as we know it a bit more difficult than it already is.
Growth at the museum is also necessitated by the public’s own need to preserve all that they consider of historical or aesthetic value, and there is a certain amount of self aggrandizement with the act of donating an object that is somehow linked to our own history for long-term preservation and public display. Immortality seemingly comes to the donor or benefactor to a collection much like the published story keeps the name of the author within our conscientiousness long after he or she has put down their pen for the last time. Although rarely verbalized, much of the business of museums is simply rooted in a need for us to preserve something of ourselves beyond our own mortality.
It is the ever-growing number of small nonprofit museums more often than not that become repositories for everyone’s treasured “artifacts,” without fully exploring the consequences of taking on that long-term responsibility. With each press release and the inevitable exposure of my own museum’s mission and function to the reading public, that the challenge of numerous offers of objects large and small for donation is met. Many of these objects are of value, and many more are not. The museum professional has a responsibility at this point in time to simply say “no” to these potential bequests. For with each bequest an obligation for further growth is seemingly necessitated. The donated object will need not only a roof over it but often more costly responses in order to preserve and restore it.
The reason my modest history museum says “yes” to such donations is that we are trying to build up a unique collection with a small budget. Many of the donations are all or nothing scenarios; you either take the valuable and rare items along with the more common and less valuable, or, often, donors don’t want to bother with you. An additional motivation for taking the latter road is that by accepting these donations a publically perceived precedence is set whereby objects of superior condition become available somewhere down the road by others which will eventually replace similar objects in the collection of poorer condition. This ongoing process is mistakenly perceived as unfettered growth by some, but it is more accurately a growth process whereby the museum achieves a collection of objects of superior quality through a process of accessioning and de-accessioning, and for the purposes of full disclosure, we haven’t reached the stage of de-accessioning yet.
A recent example of this at my modest living history farm and museum involves what is commonly known as a “dump rake.” This horse drawn implement was used to rake up cut hay in the field. The farmer would gather cut hay in its curved tines as he advanced by horse power. Eventually these tines would become full and a foot and hand pedal would be depressed to release the hay gathered “dumping” it. The resulting pile would then be pitched into a hay wagon. Our organization started out with a rake from our benefactors, but this International Harvester example had sat through many seasons outdoors; some of its tines and the original wooden tongue that was harnessed between a team of work animals were long gone. Another equally weathered rake was donated, but this had been adapted to tractor usage and the wooden tongue had been replaced with a galvanized steel pipe at some point. Recently, we have been offered many high quality objects from eastern Maine family farms in the process of dissolution; this has come with our increased exposure. An International Harvester dump rake with original paint and stenciling from its original journey by Maine Central Rail, probably to the farm of Thomas and Mildred Flagg in Lincolnville Beach from which it was donated, was accepted into our collection. Such an acquisition necessitates the need, for the first time in the history of our 20 year old institution, to de-accession one of these dump rakes from our collection simply because we have an example of superior quality making the others unnecessary and redundant.
On the other hand, growth at many museums goes unchecked, and the decision to shed objects from a collection remain taboo, and this is arguably linked to a general cultural propensity to consume more than we need. The museum is a stage for the drinking, eating, buying, and producing that goes on in our culture, and additionally both art and history in commodified at museums in the US so that it too is responsible for the excess that plagues our times and threatens our future. Collections are housed, kept warm and dry in storage in some cases for perpetuity. Collections are packaged and shipped at great expense by larger museums, and results in the greater expenditure of materials, both renewable and non-renewable. De-accessioning a lot of what we have may be part of trimming the fat that is required in a world of growing populations and decreasing resources; we have to do our part just like everyone else. Before any serious consideration of a large scale cut back in collecting practices can take place those who make museums possible have to be first convinced that less may be more, and that new technologies may offer an alternative to how we experience what we experience in the museum.
At the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park in Lincoln, Massachusetts steps have been taken in recent years to re-evaluate the collecting practices of earlier times in life of their institution and measure them against the necessity to meet the present public’s taste and needs. In de-accessioning many objects from its seed collection, some critics have voiced concern for a perceived obligation to preserve the memory of the museum’s original benefactor and namesake DeCordova. The debate on whether to save or de-accession in this case is largely one of propriety, for how long can a public institution honor the last wishes of a long ago deceased benefactor especially when doing so may jeopardize the relevancy of the museum itself to its potential 21st century audience? Most museums have that important decision of how to best use the space that they have to fulfill their mission, and this might mean that some of the collection takes precedence over other parts.
I am not sure whether I agree with the idea that a curiosity cabinet belonging to DeCordova himself, containing what some may more irreverently call Victorian-era junk, is irrelevant to 21st century museum goers, or that de-accessioning all this stuff is a prudent course of action. I do agree that some museums need to prioritize what is essential to their missions, and consider de-accessioning some objects that may be better utilized by other institutions and also allow these institutions breathing room for future acquisitions. It is obvious that many things in museum collections lose their appeal to many, but it can be argued that these objects embody the particular collecting habits of a time and place offering a valuable narrative worth preserving and sharing to an audience both now and in the future. If, at least, some objects must be de-accessioned, fully documenting an account of DeCordova’s original collection through new digital media is essential and without this there would be great loss to our social and intellectual history.
Any museum which started out with one man’s aesthetic at its heart will inevitably change as aesthetic taste itself has changed. It is simply unrealistic that museums will continue to collect without ever shedding earlier and less valuable objects for new acquisitions. Nonprofit, and consequently museums with tax-exempt status have, at least, an unofficial obligation to satisfy public taste and needs rather than that of their original benefactors. The survival of these museums depends on not only the attendance of the public but on public funding via grants and allowances made to institutions with a non-profit status.
Although nonprofit institutions seemingly have an obligation to satisfy public interest, it is the duly appointed stewards, board members, directors, and the like, that make the decisions about how the institution can best serve the public. These decisions often affect a change in the status of specific art or artifacts once valued for private reasons rather than public. The stewards of any collection have to first take into account the survival of the institution over the wishes of an original benefactor. Survival of the institution ultimately insures the survival of their memory. In order for the DeCordova to survive it had to become more than a mere repository of one man’s bibelot and kitsch by the late 20th century.
In regard to more recent realizations regarding the understanding that society itself must trim back, change age-old behaviors towards consumption in order that future generations may survive, museums too may have to consider more than merely what specifically fits into its walls to satisfy the public but how a consideration and realization of less may effectively serve similar purposes. Certainly the increased use of new digital media to disseminate the knowledge that up until recently was the exclusive domain of the tangible object in the physical museum will play a major role in transforming how a museum does what it does.
In the case of Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the needs of our own times can similarly affect changes to long established guidelines to the physicality of a particular museum structure. A recently proposed addition to the Gardner Museum that was once a private residence as well as a museum open to the public has been necessitated out of the need to accommodate an ever greater number of visitors. Such a alteration conflicts with Gardner’s own stipulation that her home and museum remain as it was during her lifetime. Unlike the original DeCordova collection, this museum was from its inception a collection of unique quality and size making further additions to it, in the opinion of many to this date, unnecessary. Change, in this case, has been affected by the often welcome and rare occasion for many museums of ever increasing popularity.
Instead of the 2000 annual visitors of Gardner’s own time, there are 175,000 annual visitors and more anticipated for the future. The structure simply can’t handle this many people for another one hundred years, so its stewards have to act accordingly. Public access to the structure is being scaled back. New additions will simply help to relieve the demands on the overtaxed structure, so that those who wish to see its treasures can.
The response to the similar circumstances of increased demand for access to the Albert Barnes’ Collection in Marion, PA perpetuated a similar remedy whereby the benefactor’s original demands could no longer be met. Given that this once private institution chose to stand under the aegis of non-profit and tax exempt status it had to shed its long standing elitist pre-requisites, including a onsite tutorial on how to view art on view before getting access to the galleries. Characterized as both products of “aesthetic fanaticism’ and “egomania” these very specific rules kept much of the public out. The Barnes Foundation’s location in a quiet suburban neighborhood contributed further to its exclusivity.
Public criticism of the museum’s location more than anything else threatened its survival, so in complete defiance of Barnes’ will his collection went on tour. The unmatched Picassos, Modiglianis, Cezannes, Soutines, Matisses, and others came down from the benefactor’s own bizarre displays that included examples of hand forged door hardware and other oddities. Regarding much art criticism as “philistine aestheticism,” Barnes had published his own aesthetic ideas regarding how art should be displayed and used for educational purposes. Unlike DeCordova, Barnes had a collecting frenzy informed by an eye that was in every sense avant garde, collecting Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, and Modernist paintings before all others thought to do so. He purchased few fakes because he met the artists in their studios. No one wants to de-accession his collection but they do want it temporarily out of the suburbs and into the National Gallery and other world class exhibition venues so that ever greater numbers can appreciate it (Higonnet, 1994). Defying Barnes was necessitated by the need to preserve the collection as a collection, as well as make it available to the entirety of the public once and for all. Barnes himself like it or not is even more securely immortalized as a result of this decision, and his museum become a more efficient entity for educating the public.
There is a distinction between unfettered museum growth and the natural progression of a museum whereby donations are sought and received to secure a collection that is both unique and important. De-accessioning may be a necessary stage of that growth whereby a museum ultimately chooses over time, and given the opportunity, the best examples for its collection to preserve long term. It may be just as important to provide greater accessibility to a finite collection as it is to scale back an institution’s unfettered collecting habits in the interest of public good. Providing greater accessibility to a collection maximizes its educational impact on ever greater numbers. It provides more efficient use of a commodity that would otherwise be seen by few yet incur great cost for continued preservation. We not only have to insist on more fuel efficient cars in the wake of the challenges surrounding the availability of energy and resources in the 21st century but also more efficient collecting and display methods at our public museums to insure the survival of these institutions that serve to disseminate both our history and culture.

Higonnet, Anne, “Whither the Barnes?— Controversy Surrounding the Barnes Foundation’s Touring Exhibition of French Paintings,” Art in America, March, 1994 Accessed 10.3.08

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

When Is It Time To Leave?

At what point does the museum professional decide that their career, sanity, and valued time outweigh their commitment to the success of a single institution? The time to leave may be simply when the battle has been long and hard fought, and there appears to be no light at the end of the tunnel for this particular institution. Your life and talents might be better spent some place else.

In the past year I have witnessed, albeit on the outside looking in, some of the skirmishes and full-fledged wars between directors and their boards. At last year’s NEMA conference I attended a “seminar,” that may have been more appropriately named museum melodrama, that seemingly brought one museum professional’s ongoing twenty plus year battle with the powers that be at an historic state building, which includes art and objects dating back to the 17th century, to the level of tragedy ( Names have been avoided so as not to exasperate an already volatile situation). The presenter nearly broke down several times while imparting the details of her battle, as its official caretaker, with her “board” and state officials seemingly apathetic and unresponsive to her pleadings for added funds. She has worn many hats in her capacity as director and has bounced back and forth between full and part-time status over the course of two decades in her devotion to this cause. I have to ask myself whether her seeming martyrdom for this collection is justified?

She, like so many museum professions, will never receive the recognition they deserve. Such sacrifices are a given of the profession, but when the fun, enthusiasm, and reasonable financial compensation are gone its time to leave and find a place where you are once-again reminded of how much you love working in a museum. This professionals own seemingly hopeless plight was further evidenced by the fact that one of her board members had chosen to come to the conference, attend this particular seminar, and sit directly in front of her, as she proceeded to air the institution’s dirty laundry. The “board” member introduced herself as having a “different” purpose in attending this seminar and conference than other attendees in the room, including myself, in that she was here “to hear the complaints” of this director.

I had to ask myself had this particular director done all that she could do, if one of her board had to come all this way to hear her complaints? To be fair, this particular board member seemed empathetic to the museum director’s challenges on some points, and this was indicated when she directed her to elaborate on the issue of a leaking roof, its threat to an important mural in the collection, and that this was merely one of many impending threats this director faced on a regular basis.

Given the obvious tension in the room between these two women, I can’t imagine why anyone would want to deal with this for decades? What had been a seminar entitled “College & University Museums: Professional Affinity Group Museums within Larger Institutions” turned out to be, in this particular case, a venue to cry on the shoulders of fellow museum professions, and future professionals, who experience problems in various degrees at their own institutions. This is par for the course. Signs of the attending audience’s irritation were obvious; several skulked out of the room while others stood their ground and rolled their eyes periodically or sighed aloud so that everyone could hear. There were also some whose sympathy extended to some great suggestions in the Q & A portion of the “presentation.” Someone suggested that it was futile to remind the powers that be that this collection is part of every citizen’s cultural heritage and worthy of greater financial attention.

This insightful audience member reminded us that this director’s superiors were elected officials who were given the responsibility of finding funds for this state collection’s preservation during their term of office and who also appointed board members to oversee its maintenance on a more immediate level. She further clarified that politicians only respond to larger constituencies that jeopardize votes and hence their political survival, so this particular director’s pleadings alone are and would always be futile. She suggested turning the situation against her unsupportive board and, ultimately, a political administration responsible as its caretaker by both surveying a public and making the fact that this collection, which has long served to educate school children on field trips and outreach programs, is in jeopardy of deteriorating through financial neglect. This might incite parents to contact these politicians and voice concern. An exhibition about this collection’s positive influences on succeeding generations of citizens, through testimonies, oral histories, etc., might serve the cause.

If this director has reached a point where she is consumed by her own complaints and the futility of her own actions in accomplishing what she needs to accomplish, then it’s time to pack it in and move on. The institution itself might benefit from someone new at the helm. The resigning director might find a new cause, a new museum, and invigorate her own career. Of course, someone who has been entrenched in one institution in a community for more than twenty years has much of their life invested to simply walk away. Advocating such a response is rooted in the believe that the future of the only life we have and finding greatest happiness we can in it supercedes all and hustifies taking risks, periodic change, and life reassessments. People are living longer and healthier lives than ever, and that has inevitably meant that we can reinvent ourselves, have more than one career, learn more in a lifetime, accomplish more than we ever thought, if we allow ourselves to do so. “You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away, and know when to run.” In this case, after twenty years, for this particular director, it’s time to run.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Museums Can't Satisfy Everyone, or Can They?

Museums can’t satisfy everyone, but they can seek to serve more of the public than they have in the past. Recently, Claudine Brown, Program Director for Arts and Culture at the Nathan Cummings Foundation, remembered a "Town Meeting" that she attended in Detroit where community members argued over a future plan for a museum that would serve to educate the public about American slavery was especially poignant. Some are ignorant to believe that all African Americans feel the same about how that episode in history should be portrayed, displayed, and conveyed to succeeding generations of all Americans. The presumption is that everyone in a community, in which there is a shared heritage, religion, etc., are on the same page about anything could be seriously damaging to a museum’s public relations.

There is a responsibility on the part of the museum to hear more voices and consider the views and interests of ever greater numbers of the public. One respondent at the "town meeting," according to Brown, wished that her children not be exposed to the graphic portrayal of slavery. Another opposed that view arguing that it was necessary that this part of his heritage be remembered by this and future generations. Both of these public respondents had valid arguments. The two clashed, and their respective views were eventually overshadowed by personal insults. The important thing is that they were given a forum to voice their opinions and were heard by museum planners.

This anecdote made me think about new mediums of communicating in and outside the museum, like Internet blogging. Such mediums might serve the task of reconciling such arguments and others in response to new museums, their missions, and their exhibitions. In fact, blogs promise a more effective public forum for both present and future exhibitions. In such a scenario, a mediator, the museum’s voice in a blog created by the museum itself, can more effectively bring opposing views to a common ground. They can use such a tool to sell their ideas as well as meld them with some of the community’s. The condition of writing one’s response and sending it allows for greater consideration and less impassioned reaction. One can write and revise one’s thoughts before sharing them. What has proven so effective in emailing is true for blogging too.

Of course, blogging can be expensive in that it is a time glutton for paid museum staff, but isn’t this important if the museum is committed to knowing the views of the public and if it is interested in "new audiences"? The respondents to such a blog about an upcoming event or one presently underway will be limited, but it is important that the museum has been responsible for such a public forum. It is important that they have been responsible for a dialogue with their visitors or potential visitors. Such dialogues don’t often happen. This venue has allowed visitors to communicate among themselves about art and history that they feel impassioned enough about to respond to.

Blogs can be used in the actual museum’s exhibition labeling, as I have seen done recently. Such a venue allows the possibility of the museum reconsidering their choices and gaining further insight into the views and interests of their community. We must be reminded that these considerations are the antithesis of the museum in the past when an elite considered their own interests and values and used the museum to impose these on the public en masse. The blog is one more communication tool in a new era which promises a shared forum for those with long-held influence in assuring their imprint on what museums do and can do with those previously alienated and anticipatory of a shared stake in the future message of museums.


Brown, Claudine, Program Director, Arts and Culture, Nathan Cummings Foundation, Guest Lecture, Tufts University, Medford, MA, 22 Oct. 2007.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Is Disney-ification a Good or Bad Thing For Museums?

I remember watching Ken Burn’s The War on PBS last year. What I found most fascinating were the interviews with not only soldiers from the time but the civilians. It was the story of the home front that was the unique contribution of this documentary. The fact that much of what these civilians understood about the war at the time so radically differed from what soldiers in the field were experiencing reveals something profound about the nature of truth even in a time when photography and other modern means of documentation could seemingly serve as indisputable evidence of what was going on. These individuals' later realization of their own ignorance about the involvement of other US civilians, their capture, and imprisonment by the Japanese in places like the Philippines, was especially poignant.

These wartime realities were both underplayed in the contemporaneous press or simply unreported as these wartime civilians were to learn, and this not only exemplifies once again that the first casualty of war is always the truth but something even more revealing about American cultural identity itself. The fact that the truth was kept from the US civilian population during the Second World War is pertinent to a discussion of Disneyification, and how this phenomena is symptomatic of a long standing cultural complacency with both half-truths and inaccuracies regarding our nation’s past and present.

Many may argue that not knowing the truth has had its advantages over being in the know during the critical period of a war, but much of what happens in our own time, the history of yesterday, is also kept from the public or sanitized by those responsible for telling us “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth…”. The movie industry has been just as guilty for providing us with an alternative and often more palatable truth than the real. There is no denying the fact that the film medium sadly serves as a significant source for Americans’ understanding of themselves as well as the worlds’ understanding of Americans. I believe that recognizing this fact initiates a responsibility on the part of the industry to be held more accountable for the historical accuracy of their product, or should we simply anticipate greater accountability on the part of the public for finding out the truth?

The film industry’s portrayal of history has been from its beginning selective. Consider for one how many Black cowboys we have seen on the big screen or on TV, when scholars tell us that a third or more were. There is a long standing public complacency with not only movies “Based on a True Story” but many “living” history museums as well; the public simply accepts what is told to them. All of this is better defined as the Disneyification of our history. Disneyification of US history has also been embodied in museum blockbusters. These have the packaging of pop culture and a substance consisting of little scholarship in some cases. They have been the subject of repeated debate among supporters and opponents.

Having pointed out that a product of these blockbusters is sometimes a flawed and exaggerated historical record out of regard for greater marketability, I, nevertheless, see the blockbuster itself as serving a useful role. They draw in ever greater numbers of the public into the museum that might otherwise never come. They are an addition to everything else that the museum does to preserve and educate, and as long as scholarship is maintained by the institution for its many other exhibits and offerings their existence is justified. There is also no reason that the more accepted historical truth couldn't be just as marketable if exhibit planners and developers put their heads together.

Public opinion can be the only means by which the movie industry can be held accountable for what dramatized history it chooses to present. The same goes for the living history museum and other similar institutions. To be fair there has been an increased attention to historical accuracy in recent years by both industry and institutions that peddle the past. My problem with the film industry is that there is often no effort to reveal fact or urge the public to research the real and un-dramatized truth because a film is the product of artistic license. Meanwhile the impressionable are misinformed about history, and this can have avoidable corrupting effects on segments of society.

It seems that it has more often been easier to accept the status quo rather than demand that we all be enlightened about the unsavory side or less interesting side of history that both movie makers and living history museums sometimes make ever more palatable. This sanitization of history in places like Colonial Williamsburg has been and continues to be deliberate and in its extreme potentially destructive, for it avoids rather than addresses for the purpose of educating issues like “slavery, disease, and class oppression.” If historical integrity can’t be maintained graphically in the setting of a living history museum, then it is seemingly that institution’s obligation to clarify this daily for the visiting public in big bold print or by some other means.

According to Richard Handler and Eric Gable’s The New History in an Old Museum (1997), Ada Louise Huxtable, the famous architecture critic, said in response to Colonial Williamsburg’s opening that it was “preparing the way for the new world order of Disney Enterprises,” a condition that would “systematically” foster “the replacement of reality with fantasy.” Huxtable believed that such ventures would teach Americans “to prefer---and believe in---a sanitized and selective version of the past.” I think that’s true, for that institution and many others like it continue to thrive. It thrives because they succeeded at finding the right packaging and the right amount of verve to sell history as a commodity just like bread with the “Wonder” label added.

Many have gone further in their condemnation of Colonial Williamsburg characterizing it as metaphorically too clean and a sell out to the obligation of historical integrity for the dollar, or more recently, some eighteen dollars per person or more. Huxtable herself liked the word “sanitized, ” for in addition to the colonial costumes, carriages, and houses that have been so splendidly reproduced or restored on an original colonial site, there were many other realities for the religiously oppressed, the slave, and the indentured (44). Where are the slaves, who numbered more than the whites, and the poor whites in rags, the Catholics hiding and practicing their religion in dark corners, the shanties, the all pervasive smell of sewage and animal manure, the slave auctions, and those bound in chains and dragged through the streets like livestock? These are some of the exclusions from the streets of this colonial capitol.

Colonial Williamsburg staged a re-creation of a slave auction some ten years ago, but the public simply couldn’t handle it. There was much protest, and this reenactment was removed from the schedule. On any given day 200 plus year old reproductions of Colonial Williamsburg’s daily paper are printed and made available to visitors. Prominent in the classified section are advertisements for slave auctions and missing slaves, yet seeing that in the flesh was too much for audiences. The decision to abridge history at places like Colonial Williamsburg perhaps is justified for Americans may simply like their mix of entertainment and history with ice rather than straight up.

Do we want to be reminded of all the inhumanities to our fellow man that underscore the building of this nation by portraying history as it was in the living history museum? Or do we spend the day walking across its pristine village green surrounded by pristine period homes to the sound of horse hooves, ringing anvils, and re-enactors in well- laundered costumes? The visiting public, that has become even more inclusive in recent years, hasn’t demanded much more “history” than they have been getting for the last 60 years at Colonial Williamsburg, so what makes us think that our history of history telling will change at institutions like this? With greater public cognizance of the many embarrassment of our nation’s history , it might be that much of the public simply prefers Disneyification?

Friday, December 5, 2008

On Displaying Human Remains In the Museum

Museums sometimes cross the boundaries of tastefulness when opting to display human remains over some more acceptable substitute, like a molded plaster body or a fiberglass mannequin.

This is not surprising. Such decisions are motivated by the financial rewards that such exhibits promise. A display of human remains produces the requisite amount of thrills, shock, and any number of other expletives that crowds have long come to expect from the museum. Many are offended, but there are just as many or more who expect such sensations from museums. P.T. Barnum, one-time proprietor of the American Museum in antebellum New York, was among pioneers of what would become the modern museum and he tested the limits of propriety on every occassion he could.

Realizing the public’s taste for nature’s superlatives: the tallest, the smallest, and bizaare, he sought to put all under one big roof and, later, under a even bigger tent. These attractions seem every bit as inappropriate as displaying the mummified dead in a natural history or fine art museum , if we consider that Barnum's "attractions" were both exploited and humiliated by their "display," even though they were compensated financially. These people were defined as freaks and likened to, among other things, animals and otherworldly creatures all day and daily, for, as Barnum would coin, "a sucker is born every minute." That condition alone tested the limits of morality. There were Figian mermaids floating in alcohol, the likes of the living and breathing Chang and Eng, the original Siamese twins, and an odd mummy or two. Barnum's "displays," although arguably in a museum of a different sort than the scholarly institutions of today, fed an insatiable public appetite for something out of the ordinary, the sensation, the shocker. The public's insatiable appetite for the shocking remains to this day, although technology has allowed for the greater dissemination of each new example and the number of those who can exploit it.

Some older museums have more recently been getting on the bandwagonclearly realizing the potential of their own collections to shock and draw in greater numbers of the public. Consider Philadelphia’s own College of Physicians Mutter Museum. Who would have thought that such a museum would have interested anyone outside the medical community, and for the longest time no one did. Now its an extremely popular destination for whole new audiences. Here one can see the human body in every imaginable position and from every imaginable viewpoint, including inside out (and there is a plaster mold of Barnum's one-time attraction Chang and Eng here too).

The major draw to its doors are human bodies preserved through a process known as plasticization. Although these bodies were indeed real, I often had to remind myself, for they often defied my experience and imagination. What makes these displays of human bodies acceptable and other displays of human remains unacceptable or tasteless, like that of the 500 year old Incan teenagers or the long displayed remains of Pharoahs that have raised objections in recent years? Weren’t these bodies once intended for education of physicians alone? Weren’t these bodies donated by their onetime living owners for the purposes of medical enlightenment? Maybe many never had the choice of what would become of their remain, and they were simply taken from the morgue? Regardless of how these bodies came to be in this museum, they have taken on a role beyond their original intention.

These plasticized bodies don’t serve merely as tools for instruction anymore, but as cheap thrills for many who seek an afternoon of entertainment without ever considering that some might consider this somehow degrading to humanity itself. This makes this museum as guilty as any other museum of not only tastelessness but of maligning humanity itself. But even realizing that, and rebuking ourselves for it, we might still line up and see what there is to see; I, for one,
Financial rewards far outweigh consideration of the far fewer number of people that will voice their objections to such practices.

Consider the objections of Rudy Guiliani, then mayor of New York, to the Brooklyn Museum’s exhibition of Chris Ofili’s depiction of The Holy Virgin Mary in the Damien Hirst's sensational exhibition Young British Artists From the Saatchi Collection / Sensation some ten years ago? I can understand a comparable lack of sensitivity to the sanctity of one religious group’s belief when a museum chooses to exhibit a work that seemingly maligns it with a depiction that includes both elephant dung and pornographic cut-outs. I don’t think that Catholics should be any less accepting of such a decision on the part of a museum to objectify a heritage that might include 500 year old Incan teenagers sacrificed and placed on an Andean mountain or ancient Egyptians whose intent was to be sealed in their tombs for all eternity.

No matter how you slice it you come out with museums defiling something that is sacrosanct to a whole group of people. If we stand by the opinion that any one of these scenarios is a defilement on the part of a museum then we can't really excuse any display of the dead regardless of how long they ahve been dead or from what culture they originate. Mummies seem to be an exception for many because their place in the museum orginates with the concept of the modern museum itself. Their age and seemingly lacking connection with a living group ( The modern Egyptian minority known as Coptics certainly claim a greater connection than those who distinguish themselves as Arab Egyptians).

It shouldn't be overlooked that there is a long tradition of defiling the bodies of ancient Egyptians, not only have they been unwrapped and put on display now for centuries ( and this happens to this day—Ramses II had to be treated for mold in recent years, so he was unwrapped temporarily to treat the problem at the Egyptian Museum ). Mummies were also once pulverized and sold for medicinal purposes to Europeans in the nineteenth century. They have been carted around the world and most obviously detached from their intended eternal resting place. That seems pretty tasteless and base, if you think about it.

Europeans were in large introduced to the mummy through the ministrations of Napoleon in military campaigns that also succeeded at both documenting and plundering Egypt for its antiquities long before most other nations thought to do so. The foundation of the Louvre’s own collections is thew product of Napoleon’s own love for history and his propensity for bringing back whatever he could in his attempts at world conquest. But the Napoleonic French weren't the first to desecrate the graves of dead Egyptians, which was and is a largely a byproduct of accessing the priceless treasures that accompanied them in their eternal rest. These remains had been desecrated a thousand years earlier by the Byzantines first and then the Arabs, and while there surely those who saw the opportunity to make a quick buck by doing so the greater number saw it as a religious obligation.

Should we accept the practice of displaying the remains of ancient Egyptians because there is a tradition of doing so within our own culture of some two hundred years? Should the age or cultural origins of human remains determine whether they should be exhibited in a museum, or should all human remains be treated equally and not exhibited?