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What Stories? Whose Perspective?

How can museums pre­serve and create ideas and iden­tity in a dig­ital and global age? An inter­na­tion­ally known panel of museum pro­fes­sionals, philoso­phers and artists recently dis­cussed this chal­lenging topic in the Amilcar Cabral Center at North­eastern University.

“While we’re all stake­holders in this ques­tion in so far as museums do rep­re­sent what we are and what should matter to us, it is very rare to have an oppor­tu­nity to be behind the scenes in the con­ver­sa­tions that deter­mine those direc­tions,” said Carla Kaplan, founding director of Northeastern’s Human­i­ties Center.

The panel dis­cus­sion — “Museums and the World: Whose Story Is It?” — was held April 14 and cospon­sored by The Human­i­ties Center and the Uni­ver­sity of Southern California’s Inter­na­tional Museum Insti­tute. It also fol­lows the recent opening of the Art of the Amer­icas wing at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.

Elliot Bost­wick Davis, the Art of the America’s John Moors Cabot Chair, called it an ambi­tious col­lec­tion that not only includes many Anglo-​​American objects pro­duced in Boston, but also rep­re­sents North, Cen­tral and South Amer­ican works from a wide range of artists — including Native Amer­i­cans, Latin Amer­i­cans, Spanish colo­nial artists and women.

“We hope this will help flesh out the many sto­ries of the Amer­icas,” she said.

How museums tell these sto­ries was a cen­tral theme of the dis­cus­sion. Selma Holo, pro­fessor of art his­tory at the Uni­ver­sity of Southern Cal­i­fornia, said many chal­lenges lie ahead, such as how the sto­ries told by Holo­caust museums will retain their vitality for people who were not directly affected.

New York City-​​based artist Fred Wilson, a MacArthur Foun­da­tion “Genius Grant” recip­ient and Whitney Museum Trustee, sug­gested museums estab­lish more des­ig­nated areas for focused con­ver­sa­tions about par­tic­ular topics, or even jux­ta­pose objects from dif­ferent col­lec­tions to high­light the dif­fer­ences between cultures.

Richard Koshalek, director of the Smithsonian’s Hir­sh­horn Museum and Sculp­ture Garden in Wash­ington, D.C., said the museum plans to trans­form its lobby into an inter­ac­tive “class­room of the future,” while a nearby giant pavilion hosts dis­cus­sions of edu­ca­tional, cul­tural and global importance.

“If we are going to be truly global insti­tu­tions and have a global con­ver­sa­tion, then we’ve got to bring the world together,” he said.

Speaking to the role of tech­nology, Davis noted that the MFA’s col­lec­tions can be viewed online and dis­cussed through real-​​time blogs. Louisa McCall, codi­rector of the Cam­bridge, Mass.-based non­profit Artists in Con­text, won­dered about devel­oping vir­tual col­lec­tions that extend the meaning and con­text of a phys­ical object.

Koshalek said while tech­nology offers great poten­tial, museum gal­leries’ “sacred space” must be preserved.

– by Greg St. Martin

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