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In 1997, Heather Mac Donald, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of The Diversity Delusion: How Race and Gender Pandering Corrupt the University and Undermine Our Culture, published a blistering critique of the impact of identity politics on the museum world. Her essay, in the New Criterion, the conservative monthly review of artistic and cultural criticism founded by Hilton Kramer. opened with a searing attack that is at once ferocious and amusingly sarcastic:

“Recent visitors to the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum were greeted with some unpleasant news: the museum was contaminated. Not by asbestos or toxic chemicals, mind you, but by far more noxious substances: racism, sexism, and anthrocentrism.”

She called out the overwrought warning labels strewn throughout the collection. As one example, the text next to an exhibit of American hartebeests read, “Female animals are being portrayed in ways that make them appear deviant or substandard to male animals.” Another label warned viewers about the possible triggering effects of an exhibit that showed a male lion standing next to his reclining mate.

Like Jason in Friday the 13th Part V, she’s back. Her most recent object of disdain is the venerable Metropolitan Museum of Art, which she unmasks as “as an Anti-white, Anti-Western Civilization Propaganda Institution” (in the cringeworthy words of the supply-side economist Paul Craig Roberts).

Mac Donald’s recent articles offer a number of over-the-top examples of text and labels that are both formulaic and hyperbolic (even if cherry-picked). An antislavery bust of a woman bound with a rope by the French sculptor Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (who is described by the Met as a “liberal romantic”) is interpreted as an example of a white artist’s “dominion over Black people’s bodies.” A Met curator also describes the bust as “an eroticized object for visual consumption.”

Whatever you think of Mac Donald’s politics, her commentaries do provide a few disturbing examples of museum agitprop—with text and labels deployed in the service of a predictable ideological narrative. The commentary that accompanied the Met’s exhibition of its Dutch masterpieces includes this line: “Colonialism, slavery and war—major themes in seventeenth-century Dutch history—are scarcely visible here.” Certainly true, but, as written, insufficient.

Or, to take another example: “Still life paintings pictured the bounty provided by newly established Dutch trade routes and the Republic’s economic success, while omitting the human cost of colonial warfare and slavery.” Also correct, but whether you regard this statement as extraneous or relevant hinges on your understanding of the museum’s educational mission.

Encyclopedic museums, like the Met, occupy a very uneasy place in contemporary society. These are public institutions that rely overwhelmingly on the largess of wealthy philanthropists (at least some of whom use donations to launder their reputations) and profit-making corporations. Yet as perhaps society’s highest-profile cultural institutions, they’re extraordinarily vulnerable to criticism as Eurocentric, classist and patriarchal relics of tainted wealth and colonial plunder.

Not only do their collections inequitably represent humanity’s artistic heritage, but their underpaid staff, too, isn’t especially diverse. Art museums face self-criticism from curators as well as protests from artists and activists of all kinds and a huge challenge in diversifying their audience. Meanwhile, public expectations about the kind of diverse, immersive, interactive, participatory and technology-enhanced exhibits museums should offer escalate, while their educational and community outreach responsibilities mount.

Major museums, even more than public and private universities, must navigate a fraught, contentious environment without the broad base of support that comes from alumni.

A recent book by Daniel H. Weiss, who served as president and chief operating office of the Met, underscores museums’ functions—as “a steward of culture and a place of discovery, discourse, inspiration and pleasure”—and the many challenges these institutions face, “from their financial health to their collecting practices to the audiences they engage to ensuring freedom of expression on the part of artists and curators.” To that list we might add museum accountability for their sources of funding, admissions fees, hours of operation, repatriation of objects obtained illegally or under duress and deaccessioning older artworks and artifacts.

Despite its brevity, this volume comments on many of the museum world’s recent controversies, including the calls to remove (or destroy) Dana Schutz’s “Open Casket,” a white artist’s depiction of Emmett Till’s mutilated corpse; strip the Sackler name from galleries in protest of the family’s role in the opioid crisis; and return the Benin Bronzes and other stolen African artifacts.

In each instance, Weiss tries to chart a moral middle ground between those, like art critic Hannah Baker who advocate wholesale change in collection policies, museum leadership and funding and those who defend museums as they were: focused squarely on the art of the classical world and this country’s European inheritance as opposed to works that were previously classified anthropological or ethnographic. He quotes without comment, the Washington Post art critic Sebastian Smee, who calls the abolish-the-museum movement political posturing and an example of the “moral vanity of righteous gestures.”

Acknowledging that museums like his were “built within a European colonialist paradigm” that “sought to collect, possess and control the cultural property of other societies,” he tries to spell out a vision that he insists is more reasonable, responsible and realistic. He calls on museums to be more inclusive in the art that they display, more cognizant about the sources of donations and more attentive to questions about the rightful ownership of objects in their permanent collections, with an eye toward repatriating objects that are clearly the product of fraud, theft, looting and colonial plunder on a case-by-case basis.

In response to former Queens Museum president Laura Raicovich’s argument that the museum should function as a center for progressive activism, he insists that museums should remain focused on their “artistic mission to ensure cultural preservation, scholarship, education and public engagement in the realm of ideas.”

I think it’s fair to say that Weiss epitomizes the values and outlook of top leadership at the major encyclopedic museums in his defense of the Enlightenment vision of a universalistic repository of human artistic and cultural achievement and his sense that their institutions are far more fragile and vulnerable than their critics imagine. Drawing on Kwame Anthony Appiah’s philosophy of cosmopolitanism, he maintains that “the museum should be a place that celebrates artistic achievement, while also embracing that cultures are both diverse and interconnected.” The call to radically decolonize collections, he believes, “undercuts the museum’s pluralistic objectives” and its educational mission. Instead, the museum should become “more inclusive and more expansive in its collections and programs” (preferably through collaborations with institutions in the Global South).

Unlike those activists who believe that museums should take a partisan role in political arena, he considers the museum “a place primarily for art, a sanctuary where anyone can find peace and inspiration, learning and community and at least some distance from the care of the day.”

Why Museums Matter, Weiss’s valedictory, is brief, just 224 pages long. This has led some readers to regard the book as too abbreviated, too abstract and too liberal (both in John Stuart Mill’s sense as open-minded, free thinking and tolerant and in the more pejorative sense of circumspect or, dare I say, wishy-washy) to be of practical use. I totally disagree. The book advances three principles that universities should bear in mind as they, too, navigate choppy waters.

  1. Respect shared governance. One of Weiss’s core themes is the primacy of process in decision-making. All relevant stakeholders must feel enfranchised and have a voice in a transparent process. Shared governance not only builds trust, opens lines of communication and creates buy-in and a sense of ownership, it harnesses energy, harvests ideas and diffuses responsibility. No one needs to get thrown under the proverbial bus when things go wrong.
  2. Reaffirm your institution’s democratic ideals. Institutional missions will certainly evolve, but the guiding principles shouldn’t. Whether we’re speaking of a museum or a university, these include a commitment to freedom of expression, democratic values and universal engagement. Language matters. Speak of your institution as a public forum, a community’s cultural hub and a place where individuals can grow, learn and define their identity and you won’t go astray.
  3. Engage all sectors of the community. Like it or not, a museum, like a university, must be responsive to a broad public. For a museum that not only means audience development, but offering a range of programming to meet as many interests as possible, including children’s programming as well as lectures and a film series, gallery talks, concerts and social events along with specialized exhibits and scholarly conferences.

Although Weiss had never run a museum, his background as an art historian specializing in the European Middle Ages and as president of a small liberal arts college, Haverford, proved to be valuable preparation for his job. Singular and distinctive in some respects—especially in their responsibility to preserve, restore and display fragile, treasured objects—museums resemble college campuses in other ways, including their diversity of stakeholders, their cultural visibility and financial challenges and the omni-presence of activists, protestors, provocateurs, independently-minded employees and the easily offended. In addition, both museums and universities are in the midst of a crisis related to their core institutional purpose, programmatic mission, finances and social responsibilities.

But just as teaching and administering a college provided Weiss with training that proved invaluable in running the Met, so, too, presiding over a major museum taught him lessons that higher education ought to embrace.

  1. Colleges and universities don’t inhabit an ivory tower. Even the most elite and exclusive institutions fail to connect to the public at their peril. I, for one, believe that our campuses and faculty can and should do much more to serve as community hubs and cultural centers. Invite the local community to campus. Offer more community-serving events. Involve more students in community service, including service in neighboring schools.
  2. Engage the controversies. However draining, universities, like museums, must address the controversies that swirl around them. Many of the debates facing museums resemble the storms over equity, diversity and inclusion that colleges confront. Museums are under intense pressure to decolonize their collections, tackle cultural appropriation, atone for the past and diversify their staff, exhibitions and audience. Evasion is not an option.
  3. Commit to relevance and accessibility and reach beyond the campus. Many museum stalwarts were appalled by the Met’s decision to devote a wing to the Anna Wintour Costume Center. But the fashion institute’s annual gala not only generates incredible publicity and donations, it reaches audiences that otherwise feel no connection to the museum.

Outreach needn’t involve pandering and enjoyment isn’t inherently at odds Intellectual engagement.

The main lesson I take away from Weiss’s book is that campuses can and must do much more to meet the public where it is. That might mean more personal development and self-help opportunities designed not to generate revenue but to create community connections, promote community dialogue and facilitate individual growth. Be much more aggressive in supporting what might be called the “para-cultural”—sponsor public-facing film series, concerts, reading and discussion groups and wellness activities—and work hand-in-hand with local historical societies, local theater troupes and community arts organizations.

Let me offer an indication of what campuses might do. A recent study of MOOCs made a surprising discovery: Most those who pursue MicroMasters and Specializations pursue advanced learning for its own sake. It turns out that the well-educated people who enroll in these programs like to engage in, well, more educational opportunities. They find these programs fun and intellectually stimulating. These experiences expand their minds and expose them to new ideas and new kinds of thinking.

Sure, these programs may be stepping-stones. Certainly, the credentials acquired can advance careers and open doors. But it turns out that most of those learners just wanted to learn, get insights into new ways of thinking, or to try out a new field, such as public health or public affairs, in a really rigorous way.

It’s a shame that the MicroMasters and Specializations offered by Coursera and edX haven’t eaten away at bottom feeding master’s programs that are primarily designed to make money. That would likely take employers recognizing their worth and require a concerted marketing effort to tell prospective students that a traditional masters might not be the best way to go. After all, MicroMasters and Specializations are much less expensive and less time consuming than a standard on-campus master’s program.

It may be a pipe dream, but the wealthier institutions should also offer more high quality MicroMasters and Specialization programs at breakeven cost. That is one way that these campuses could live up to that original idea of MOOCs … to promote learning and build communities of learners as an act of public service.

Speaking of which: What ever became of the $800 million that Harvard and MIT made by selling edX to 2U? Inquiring minds would like to know.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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