Museums and Change: from Timeliness to Timefulness

In June 2020, the American Museum of Natural History in New York City requested that the equestrian statue of President Theodore Roosevelt, which also "communicates a racial hierarchy that the museum and members of the public have long found disturbing" be removed from the steps of the museum. 

It's been a long four months* since I last reflected on the role of museums in 2020, this most anxious of years. These months have been marked by heat and pressure, sudden eruptions of anger, and slow revelations of fault lines in every sector of society. And the cultural sector in which museums and public history institutions are deeply rooted has fared poorly.

Statements from museums and related professional organizations in solidarity with the protest movements in support of #BlackLivesMatter and calling for an end to race-based social injustices have ranged in intensity and specificity. There have been large-scale pandemic-related layoffs and controversial re-openings. There have been efforts toward mutual aid  and vocal exits from museum professionals hired to promote inclusion. Responses from people within and outside the field have likewise varied from cautious optimism, to deep disappointment, to demands for the resignation of the CEOs and board members of some of the largest and oldest institutions. Some call for change through new frameworks for relationships within and across communities. Others call for radical reorganization and the ceding of power. There are some who are convinced that museums are irredeemable. There is a "Death to Museums" movement (although, despite the provocative name, it is pushing to help museums emerge anew from the nadir of their existence), and calls for abolition.

Calls for abolition are based on the premise that museums are inherently colonialist and white supremacist enterprises, that they do harm by the nature of their origins and their structures. Yet, unlike monuments, erected by the people of the past for a particular symbolic purpose, museums are living entities, and they can change. And they have. Museums are staffed by people who can, and ought to, listen to the analyses of their critics. No person who enters a museum, works at a museum, or whose story is told at a museum, should be de-humanized, disempowered, used, or tokenized. And museums are staffed by people who have something to contribute to the conversation, who can, and should, articulate the value that such living institutions can provide to an anxious world.

VHS cover for "Don't Eat the Pictures,"

More than a decade into my career, I have internalized what I believe to be the dearest values of public history and museum practice. I love museums across their iterations: the forums, yes, but even the temples. They are places for encounter, for resonance, and for occasional repugnance. In the immortal words of Sesame Street's Big Bird, in the 1983 PBS special, Don't Eat the Pictures "Where does today meet yesterday? In a  museum!" Yet I still struggled to think critically, and to set myself aside, when confronted by the idea that this thing that I love should be abolished else risk doing social harm rather than social good.  


In late July, I took a "stay-cation." I refrained from reading emails or articles, stayed off of Twitter and went on Facebook only to post daily photographs of something "really big" and something "really small." I set a goal for myself to meditate on "timefulness," an idea crystallized in the work of geologist Marcia Bjornerud. Change usually happens slowly, but change happens. And change does not have an automatic valence. It can be positive, negative, a mixture of both. That valence is in the eye of the beholder. Rocks don't care. 

The author near the summit of Kennesaw Mountain, with Stone Mountain in the far distance
Close-up view of crazy-quilt at the High Museum of Art
Zoomed out view of crazy quilt at the High Museum of Art

During the week of my stay-cation, I hiked with my husband on former Civil War battlefields where Confederate and Union troops clashed, and bystanders were displaced from their homes. We visited two newly re-opened museums. The High Museum of Art was quiet, masked and muffled. Like many contemporary art museums, I believe that the High has embraced the idea that "museums are not neutral." They are powerful places where people go to experience culture that has been endowed with a certain gravitas. I enjoyed my encounters with objects socially constructed into art. But I was tired of thinking about people, and their contexts, and their intentions. 

My visit to Tellus Science Museum a few days later offered the rejuvenation I needed to re-kindle my ability to engage with the vast matrix of human overlays on the natural world. Here was change on display in glittering exuberance. Marble, schist, gneiss, quartzite. Metamorphosed from sediments buried deep beneath ancient seas. Or equally likely from sudden intrusions of igneous rock-- granite, basalt. diorite. Of course Tellus exists because of human activity-- mining, endowment, informal education. The minerals within were there because humans value them for their beauty, rareness, and ability to offer clues about the vastness of the past. But the rocks within the earth would be there regardless of human activity, and they will remain long after we are gone. 

Amethyst quartz crystal at the Tellus Science Museum


The second week in August I caught up with a "Tuesday Talk" sponsored by the Southeastern Museums Conference that I had been unable to face in real-time. I was dealing with one of my darker moods, feeling demoralized and defeated. The topic was change, and the invited speaker was Andrea Jones of Peak Experience Lab, a consultancy that specializes in helping museums change from within. She began her talk by allowing participants to acknowledge their weariness, whatever the cause. She then pointed to the recent calls for museum abolition and asked participants to consider what they would keep if museums as we know them were to die.

Many participants talked about community. Others centered the role of objects and the perception of authenticity. I would add to this the experience of encounter and the opportunity for juxtapositions difficult to find elsewhere in life. Where does today meet yesterday? But where, also, can today meet today? Where can my today meet your today? In a space made sacred through mutual intention. And making sure that intention is mutual takes work. It cannot be assumed. Mutuality must be constructed with care.  

One of the main sets of markers showing the location of Union and Confederate troops at Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park, now a beautiful space for quiet contemplation.

Everything that humans create depends on other humans-- on their desires, their labor, their creativity, their willingness to allocate resources, and their power over each other. Institutions should not exist for their own sake. But where there is value, it should not be wasted-- sacrificed on a fire so hot that all is vaporized. Instead, we should subject our institutions to steady heat and pressure so that they are metamorphosed. The original sediments remain, but they emerge realigned. Previously separated layers are folded together. And they are solid— until they weather away. Because eventually they will. But even in timefulness, it's all right to be present in our own bounded moment. After all, we are only human. All of our accumulated lifespans amount to less than two seconds from midnight on the ever-expanding clock of earth's existence.

* This post itself took almost a month to write and revise. I'd like to acknowledge, gratefully, the contributions of public historians Sarah Litvin, and Laurie Stein, and also a deep read of the wonderful NCPH 2020 address by outgoing president Marla Miller. As always, my husband, Matt DeAngelis, is an invaluable sounding board.