Museums of the Future

Nov 9, 2018

This is a diorama from the Jawaharlal Nehru Museum, India. It depicts an ethnic group, the Sherdukpen, about 4200 strong, who live largely in West Kameng, at the 5-6 thousand foot level. Attempts are made to indicate context and activities of daily life. Museums of the future may involve people in depicted cultures much more in their own representation.
Credit By AshLin - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19050926

Museums have traditionally been repositories of knowledge, places where objects and facts would be found and preserved.  On closer examination, museums can also be seen as trophy cases for conquerors, a place where colonizers exhibit their spoils.  HPR’s Noe Tanigawa reports, a symposium in Honolulu is looking at issues and ideas for museums in the 21st century.

"Tattooed Hawaiian Chief" lithograph after Jacques Arago. Depictions of people, places, and events are colored by their makers, a fact often forgotten by even today's voracious devourers of content.
Credit honolulu museum of art

Seeding Authority, a Symposium on Decolonizing the Museum, begins today at ‘Iolani Palace and continues Saturday, November 10, at the UH Mānoa Art Department.  All are welcome.  

Seeding Authority: A Symposium on Decolonizing the Museum, November 9-10, 2018

Decolonizing Collections: A Hands-On Workshop

Friday, November 9th, 12:00-4:30 p.m.

Workshop Leaders: Ben Garcia and Kelly Hyberger, San Diego Museum of Man

Venue: Kana‘ina Building, ‘Iolani Palace

Seeding Authority: An All-Day Symposium

Saturday, November 10th, 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

Venue: Art Department Auditorium, UH-Mānoa

Keynote Speaker:  Dr. Amy Lonetree, University of California, Santa Cruz

Other Presenters:

• Ben Garcia & Kelly Hyberger, San Diego Museum of Man

• Kippen de Alba Chu, ‘Iolani Palace

• Teresa Valencia & Ihilani Gutierrez, ‘Iolani Palace

• Matt Mattice & Keahe Davis, King Kamehameha V Judiciary History Center

• Leah Caldeira & Kamalu Du Preez, Bishop Museum

• Mike Nāho‘opi’i, Kaho’olawe Island Reserve Commission

• Halealoha Ayau, Repatriation Advocate

• Kamana‘opono Crabbe, Ka Pouhana, Office of Hawaiian Affairs

The events are free, but space is limited.

Kippen de Alba Chu, Executive Director of 'Iolani Palace and currently Chair of the Board of Directors of the American Alliance of Museums.
Credit Noe Tanigawa

“Because museums have shaped how we see ourselves, if museums come from a biased standpoint, they’ve actually biased the way we see ourselves and the world.”

Kippen de Alba Chu is Executive Director of ‘Iolani Palace and currently Chair of Board of Directors of the American Alliance of Museums.  He has led ‘Iolani Palace for the past twelve years.

de Alba Chu:  Most museums are written from the standpoint of the victor, or who won, or the colonizer.

And that affects our experience.  How profound a realization is this for museums?  What do they have to change?

de Alba Chu:  Everything! Seriously, it is a profound shift.  So there is backlash, museums are saying no way, we’re not going to do this.  Change.  We like how we display things.  You’re not going to change that part of us.

“Museums generally that hold indigenous belongings had been working with an assumption that indigenous communities were going to die out, and that their belongings, their lifeways and their languages needed to be preserved for future generations.”  So says Ben Garcia, Deputy Director of the San Diego Museum of Man. 

Garcia:  Museum professionals who thought this way did not count on the resilience and strength of many of these communities.  So our museum is recognizing that today a new standard is required around holding items that came to this museum over the past 100 years.

The Museum of Man sits on the homeland of the Kumeyaay nation, twelve tribes that live in the San Diego area.   Garcia says the Nation has been asking for the return of remains and artifacts for twenty years.  Five years ago, the museum began consultations to address their concerns.

Garcia:  It’s very easy, once you begin listening, to extend that logic, to say we’re listening to our homeland, so we need to listen to all the communities whose belongings we hold.  We see this as the right ethical move for this moment and for the future.  And we want to be sure the future generations of museum professionals are stewarding a collection that has documented consent.

How will this affect a museum’s collections, its holdings?

Garcia:  Something like this moves away from the idea of amassing and holding and to one that is more about relationship and it requires you to maintain a respectful and mutual relationship if you want to be able to tell the stories of the communities whose belongings you’re going to present.

Garcia:  It’s pretty basic, but of course it goes against that earlier value of going out and collecting or holding or amassing as many of the best things as you possibly can.

Why go through all this? Ethics do mean something.  And de Alba Chu says, at ‘Iolani Palace, when they opened up and embraced even the activist community more, it changed the whole atmosphere.

de Alba Chu:  Even here at ‘Iolani palace when I first came on twelve years ago, there was this sense that we were embattled, that Hawaiian sovereignty groups were here to attack us.  We had this self defense mechanism.

de Alba Chu:  So much so that when school groups or cultural practitioners came, they couldn’t even chant inside the Palace.  They couldn’t offer an oli to the Queen in the imprisonment room because we were afraid they were going to stage a sit in, not leave, etc.  There was this whole fear of Hawaiian culture at ‘Iolani  Palace which I found fascinating. 

de Alba Chu:  To resolve it, we had to completely change the ways we saw the groups, as well as how they offered their knowledge, providing ho‘okupu, gifts, we had to change completely.  So we embraced them and it’s actually helped to build more support in the community for ‘Iolani Palace, to protect it so no one group can take it over.

And what are the new frontiers for museums?

Imagine creating the context for this exhibit in a museum of the future.
Credit creative commons

de Alba Chu:  The new frontiers are going to be in technology—augmented reality.  If movies are doing CGI, you’re creating these landscapes out of computer generated images.  Museums, that’s the next step.  Museums can immerse you in an environment without actually taking you there, and then tell you a story.  Then you can come out and see an actual artifact from that environment, for example. 

That will be so convincing, we’ll want to be sure we got the story right by then.

de Alba Chu:  We would hope.