The Museum as Resource

Susan K. Donley

From Building Museum & School Partnerships, Beverly Sheppard, Editor. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Federation of Museums and Historical Organizations, 1993. Distributed by American Association of Museums.

Museums for a New Century (AAM, 1984) cites society's evolving sense of its own pluralism as a major force of change in how museums will define their mission in the years ahead. The diversity of cultural and ethnic heritages in this country has been recognized as a distinctive element in the American character. Americans can build upon this diversity as a strength, or they can be weakened by its fragmentation. Education is key to how multiculturalism can be accepted into the national consciousness as a positive force.

The museum-school partnership presents a unique opportunity to examine cultural diversity. Museum collections and exhibitions reflect a variety of ethnic heritages and suggest new ways to integrate multicultural topics into many school disciplines. The following chapter looks closely at the leadership museums and schools can bring to this critical topic.

The "melting pot" -- that vision in which "foreigners" eagerly flock to American shores and willingly assimilate into one superior "American" culture -- is dead. It probably only truly existed in the wishful thinking of early twentieth-century reformers trying to make sense of the greatest wave of human migration in history. The melting pot analogy assumed that for a society to function peacefully and effectively, cultural differences must be eliminated. In fact, however, social scientists have pointed out that the melting pot was never an apt description of the United States. Many groups have not assimilated, either by their own choice or because of prejudice against them.

Census projections show that the United States is becoming more, rather than less, culturally diverse. The term "mosaic" is now used to describe this state of affairs and to symbolize the ideal of unity in diversity, in contrast to the "melting pot" ideal of cultural assimilation. In the American "mosaic" (the terms "tapestry" and "salad bowl" are also used), the nation's culture derives its beauty and strength from many distinct cultures maintaining their own identities as they come together with a common purpose.

Educational institutions -- schools, museums, and libraries alike -- have struggled with the best way to restructure curriculum and programs to reflect society and prepare students to live in a "multicultural" world. While they may not know exactly what does work, after years of trying, they do know something about what does not. Museums and schools can learn from each other as they work on a solution.

What doesn't work

Schools have tended to isolate ethnic studies in pockets of the curriculum. Social studies cover a handful of ethnic heroes in text side-bars or during special "emphasis" months. Singling out ethnic-groups-of-the-month necessarily runs out of months before it runs out of groups, alienating those who have not been included! World cultures, a staple in the secondary school curriculum, has used a similar approach for decades without accomplishing the goals of multicultural education.

Mentioning famous ethnic heroes in textbook side-bars without a multicultural approach to the rest of the course material gives the impression that some people are ethnic and others are not. Another form ethnic studies takes, particularly at the elementary level, is the study of foods, crafts and holiday traditions from other lands.

These common approaches share several weaknesses. First, they focus on the unusual or extraordinary - the famous person or the quaint custom. Yet ethnicity is commonplace. It pervades every level of our culture from our families and communities to our nation and world. Our cultural ties help to determine everything from our language, our food, and our relationships to our emotional and political reactions. Even people who feel they have no ethnic heritage belong to an Anglo-American heritage modified by earlier native and immigrant groups (Donley, 1988).

What may work

While there may be no magic formula for what works in multicultural education, there are a few promising strategies.

Recognize the hierarchy of cultural attitudes.

Educational research has shown that people follow a definite process in developing their attitudes toward cultural diversity. Most people stop their cultural development somewhere along the way, often with disturbing results. The failure of the previous multicultural education methods can be partly explained by identifying which levels of the hierarchy they address and which they ignore. The hierarchy of developing cultural attitudes is:

  1. Awareness;
  2. Understanding/knowledge;
  3. Tolerance/acceptance;
  4. Appreciation.

Helping students advance at least to tolerance/acceptance of people from other cultures should be our minimum goal as educators. Yet most multicultural curricula -- including museum exhibits and publications -- focus on relaying information about other cultures, an approach that brings students only to the second level, that of understanding and knowledge. one of the failings of our educational system has been to assume that knowledge of other cultures alone will automatically change attitudes. In fact, understanding/knowledge can be one of the most dangerous places to stop along this hierarchy. For example, Nazi propagandists used "facts" about ethnic and political groups to reinforce stereotypes and elicit tacit public support for their systematic persecution.

To advance along the hierarchy to tolerance, acceptance, and finally, appreciation, students must be challenged beyond the acquiring of simple knowledge to the changing of previous attitudes. To effect such changes, we must prepare students with the critical thinking skills necessary to form judgments. They need to reach their own conclusions about other cultures rather than simply trusting what others -- even well-meaning educators -- tell them.

Teach methods as well as content.

Rather than spoon-feeding easy answers, schools and museums can help foster higher-level thinking skills by encouraging students to ask thoughtful questions. Simply learning facts stalls students at the understanding/knowledge level of the hierarchy. They must learn to reach their own conclusions, withholding judgment until all evidence is gathered and then critically analyzing each resource. This critical thinking process teaches students the most effective prejudice-reducing skill applicable to our diverse society. Museums can provide sources for analysis and can model sound, intellectual practices.

Build self-esteem.

The most important preparation students can receive for living in a multicultural society has little to do with learning about cultures! anything that educational institutions can do to improve the self-esteem of individuals will help them -- and our society as a whole -- move up the hierarchy. Students need to accept and appreciate themselves and their own culture before they can risk accepting or appreciating someone from another culture. A secure person has little need to put down another person to make himself feel superior. Self-esteem is necessary for students to risk coming to their own conclusions.

Examine the role of culture in family, community, nation, world.

Multicultural education is more successful if it begins with the self and the family. Studying the culture of their own family builds students' self-esteem and gives them a basis for cross-cultural comparisons. With a basic knowledge of their own culture, they can move out in ever-growing circles to collect and analyze information about the diverse cultures interacting in their communities, in the nation and on the global level.

Integrate multiculturalism into all discipline areas.

Approaches that seamlessly integrate a multicultural perspective into educational programs all year long and in every discipline have been more successful in effecting real change than those that have segregated ethnic studies into curriculum ghettos. A powerful message is sent to students when cultural diversity is acknowledged and valued in language arts, math, science, technology, and the arts, as well as in social studies and history.

What does this mean for museums?

The potential for museums to take the lead in interpreting our culturally diverse heritage is great. After all, objects offer a natural way to cut across language and time barriers to help people understand cultures different from their own. First, however, museums must find ways to overcome several challenges built into their infrastructure.

Like schools, museums have fallen into the disciplinary ghetto trap. Traditionally, art and history museums deal with the art and artifacts of European cultural groups, but natural history museums present the art and artifacts of non-European groups -- the implication is insulting. At least the anthropologists designing modern natural history cultural exhibits recognize the importance of context in interpreting material from other cultures. When art museums have exhibited non-Western art, they have been criticized for exhibiting objects out of context. This practice unfairly subjects artifacts to the same art-for-art's-sake aesthetic as Western fine arts, a practice which leads to no understanding of the cultures of origin (Karp, Lavine, 1991).

Ellen Dissanayake points out in her essay, "Art for Life's Sake," that much of the world's creative work is not art for art's sake, so the classical rules of criticism and art history cannot be applied: "To claim that one can appreciate works from alien cultures is an imperialistic act of appropriation -- molding them to one's own standards while blatantly dismissing or ignoring the standards of their makers and users." (Dissanayake, 1991, p. 18)

Strategies for change

Ivan Karp and Stephen Lavine suggest in the introduction of Exhibiting Cultures that to be effective agents of multicultural education, museums must abandon the image of museum as temple and adopt the notion of a museum as forum (Karp, Lavine, 1991). Art museums in particular must modify their belief in a canon of great "fine art," a belief that holds true only for art in the European tradition. Ellen Dissanayake offers an alternative definition of art that lays common ground for looking at art from other cultures: "Art, as making the things one cares about special, shaping and elaborating the ordinary to make it more than ordinary, is fundamental to everyone" (Dissanayake, 1991, p. 25)

Museums can provide a great service to school educators by pioneering new ways of looking at these works that cross our rigid art, history and natural history disciplinary lines. "Taking a Closer Look," a set of worksheets found at the end of this chapter, provides a systematic method of inquiry especially useful for looking at art from non-Western traditions.

To be forums rather than temples, museums must go beyond merely exhibiting and providing information about objects. Below are a few strategies for provoking critical thinking about cultural diversity within the museum setting.

To interpret cultural diversity, start with similarities.

In trying to cultivate tolerance, acceptance, and finally appreciation of cultural diversity, museums and schools should keep in mind a basic, but paradoxical, multicultural concept: All people share the same basic needs and values, but differ in how they meet those needs and express those values.

For example, the Smithsonian Generations exhibit showed how two cultures passed on the value of independence to their children in very different ways. Contemporary families in the United States allow their infants to sleep in their own rooms and cry in their cribs once they have been fed, changed and paid some attention. Bolivian Indians might find this practice barbaric - their infants sleep with their mothers and are tied to their backs throughout daily farm and household chores until they are able to keep up on foot. Then they accompany their parents everywhere to learn the skills they will need as adults. At about thirteen years of age, these children have learned everything they will need to know to survive as adults in their culture -- they are independent despite being in almost constant contact with their parents.

Museums can help visitors get beyond classifying unfamiliar customs or objects as quaint or odd by interpreting the basic needs and values that motivate these customs. A teacher taking a multicultural workshop brought in a newspaper photo of a Thai woman with a gold collar permanently wrapped around her neck, elongating it. I asked the class why they thought the woman wore the neck piece. They answered, "She thinks it's attractive." "Well, what do we do to look attractive?" Before long, they were laughing that they poked holes in their ears, rolled heated rods in their hair, stood all day in shoes with heels elevated in a way that cramped their toes into a point, scraped their faces with sharp blades every morning and tied narrow fabric bands tightly around their necks. Reading "Body Rituals of the Nacirema" or David Macauley's illustrated book Motel of the Mysteries is a hilarious way of discovering how our material culture might be interpreted if another culture jumped to as many conclusions about us as we tend to when we try to analyze other cultures carelessly.

The Indianapolis Children's Museum organized their successful Passport to the World exhibit around the basic characteristics common to all people. Within the common themes, "All people create, celebrate, imagine, work and communicate," this major ethnographic reinterpretation explored the wonderfully diverse ways people fulfill their needs and express their values through these activities.

Make cross-cultural connections and comparisons.

Cross-cultural comparison is one very effective multicultural education strategy that lends itself well to museums. It capitalizes on the similarities/differences theme, inviting visitors to make connections to their own experiences while examining the diverse responses of human beings to their environments. Further, by teaching methods of looking at cultures, not just gathering information about them, museums can provide viewers with classification systems to use whenever they encounter a new culture.

Cross-cultural comparisons can be developed around many kinds of themes: comparisons of objects -toys, figures, clothing, tools; comparisons of the functions of artifacts -- their use in celebrations, rites of passage, storytelling, daily chores; comparisons of the formal elements of art -- use of pattern, color, shape, composition. The possibilities are nearly endless.

When preparing cross-cultural comparisons, avoid oversimplifying. For example, Hopi kachina masks are sacred religious objects that would be accurately compared with priests' vestments. They should not be compared with Halloween masks or dramatic masks.

Provide as much context as possible.

By definition, museums deprive objects of their contexts by bringing them to a central repository for interpretation to the public. We do not apologize for our missions, but we do need to be conscious of how our actions prohibit a truthful interpretation of objects from other cultures. For example, in the 1940s and 1950s the contemporary art world was "discovering" African art and exhibiting it in American art galleries as beautiful examples of abstraction. Such exhibits teach us more about our own aesthetic than about the cultures that produced the objects. An Ashanti fertility figure might be evaluated and appreciated by Western artists for its elegant simplification of form, but in the context of its own culture, the doll would be evaluated by whether the girl who tucked it into the back of her skirt produced a large family when she grew up.

History and natural history museums have long made use of dioramas, reenactments or period settings to provide context. Such media as photography, audio and video tapes supplement these traditional exhibit forms and interactive media show promise as context-builders in the near future.

However, people -- the makers and users of culturally significant objects -- are the most important element of context. Exhibits, publications, and other museum programs can showcase makers and users of artifacts in person, on tape or in print, and interviews can be an integral part of exhibits. "Ask the Artist," a worksheet included in the appendix, outlines a simple interview viewers can conduct at a demonstration to elicit valuable contextual information.

Balance ecological (contextual) and systematic (cross-cultural) exhibits.

Cross-cultural comparisons obviously cannot be ecological and contextual. Neither can dioramas and period settings provide a systematic view of similar objects across cultures. Museums can strive to balance both styles of interpretation and stay clear about the advantages and disadvantages of each approach.

Involve people from the cultures in exhibit and program design.

To shun the "imperialism" Dissanayake disdains, museums are being urged to invite the viewpoints of the people whose culture they are trying to interpret. A recurring theme in Exhibiting Cultures is to "give populations a chance to exert control over the way they are presented in museums." (Karp, Lavine, 1991, p. 6) Their active involvement in the curatorial process will help insure the multiple perspectives implied by a forum, rather than a temple.

Be on the alert for stereotyping.

Museums, like schools, must resist the urge to stereotype by lumping cultures into giant categories: Africans, Native Americans, Asians. These are more accurately referred to as geo-political groups. The whole idea of multiculturalism is that no culture is monolithic. Interpret the diversity of your own community. Encourage visitors to make cross-cultural comparisons within other large geo-political groups, not just between them.

Inadvertent stereotyping also occurs when information about a past cultural group is presented without updating it. Native Americans are routinely depicted in Pennsylvania museums as if they are an extinct people. On the contrary, some Native Americans still live in the state, and others whose ancestors lived here have established homes elsewhere in the nation. None of them still make a living hunting with hand-hewn stone weapons.

Help visitors see cultural diversity all around them.

Finally, remember what cultural diversity is all about and resist the urge to refer to "American" culture or "our own" culture. Our communities, our state and our nation are themselves multicultural places. We would be hard pressed to define exactly what "American culture" really is -- that is, what values, lifestyles and traditions every American shares. That is both the beauty and the challenge of living in a multicultural world!


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Berk, Ellyn. A Framework for Multicultural Arts Education. New York: National Arts Education Research Center, New York University, School of Education, Health, Nursing and Arts Professions.

Dissanayake, Ellen. "Art for Life's Sake." What is Art For? Keynote Addresses, 1991 NAEA Convention, Reston VA; National Art Education Association, 1991.

Donley, Susan K. A Sampler of Ethnic Crafts. Pittsburgh: Pennsylvania Ethnic Heritage Studies Center, University of Pittsburgh, 1990.

Donley Susan K. Toward a Better Balance (Volumes I and II). Pittsburgh: Pennsylvania Ethnic Heritage Studies Center, University of Pittsburgh, 1988.

Karp, Ivan and Lavine, Stephen K., ed. Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991.

Macaulay, David. Motel of the Mysteries. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1979.

Miner Horace. "Body Ritual of the Nacirema." The American Anthropologist, vol. 58 (1956), pp. 503-507.

Suina, Joseph H. "Museum Multicultural Education for Young Learners." Journal of Museum Education. Volume 15, Number 1, Winter 1990.

Young, Bernard, ed. Art Culture and Ethnicity. Reston, VA: National Art Education Association, 1990.




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