Tag Archives: Museums

Don’t hate, repatriate.

I find repatriation to be an extremely interesting topic. For anybody unfamiliar with the term (as it pertains to museums) it is essentially the returning of an artifact of particular cultural/historical significance to its originating country (typically from one institution to another). Most of the world’s best museums, even my own, are filled with artifacts from around the globe, not just from local resources.

In October 1972 the 17th UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, Cultural Organization) Convention happened and in a similar vein, November 1990, NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) was enacted.

In extremely short summary:

UNESCO Convention – Defined what is cultural property and created guidelines/restrictions for it’s import, export, sale, and transfer.

NAGPRA – Describes the rights of native tribes and descendents with respect to the treatment, repatriation, and disposition of native human remains and cultural items.

The result, some museums began returning things on their own, others began demanding artifacts from their country be returned to them, even when some were lawfully obtained.

Let me start by saying, I get it. You want your stuff back, and why wouldn’t you? Chances are it was stolen or wrongfully obtained in the first place.

In the 1800s to early 1900s there was a lot of artifact mining in every country; America wasn’t the only one doing it. The archeological dig was prominent with amazing piles of artifacts and works of art being discovered all over every day. There was this rat race to get all the stuff, to be the biggest, the best, most diversified, with all the finest pieces of the history puzzle. The British Museum ended up with the Elgin marbles, the Penn with the Troy gold, Troy with what was (at the time) thought to be Alexandre’s sarcophagus from Lebanon.

Photo of a piece of the Troy Gold from the Penn collections. http://www.penn.museum/collections/object/160936

Photo of a piece of the Troy Gold from the Penn collections. http://www.penn.museum/collections/object/160936

So, in 1966 the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology purchases for $10,000 some gold jewelry/adornments thought to be from Troy. They tell Troy before they do it, but because the provenance of the artifacts wasn’t proven they weren’t interested in them (before UNESCO). After conserving them and further research, the Penn almost assuredly proves them to be from the Troy region, circa 2400 B.C. This is AFTER the UNESCO Convention takes place mind you. Surprisingly (not!) Troy decides they want their goods back. One big difference in this case, as opposed to most others, is that the items were not obtained illegally. They had actually even been offered to Troy. So, now we have a big legal/contract issue. In this case, naturally, the Getty refused to return them, but, for the sake of international relations, has put them on indefinite loan with Troy. Troy is, in fact, demanding the return of its antiquities from all over. However, when asked if they planned to return the not Alexandre’s sarcophagus back to Lebanon, it didn’t seem promising. As far as they are concerned, they obtained it when Lebanon was still part of the Ottoman Empire and so it will remain theirs. Interesting.

The Elgin Marbles are another, some might say, infamous example of a country wanting their stuff back when they just aren’t going to get it. The Elgin Marbles is the term given to a collection of stone features collected from Athens between 1801 and 1805 by Lord Elgin. These well-known pieces were purchased by the British Parliament in 1816 and are still on exhibit at the British Museum today. Honestly, if Elgin hadn’t rescued these pieces when he did, they likely would have been destroyed by Turkish soldiers using them for target practice, as well as a variety of other vandalism. I could talk about the marbles all day, not to mention how beautiful they are. Although older, a good article here.

Elgin Marbles, Head of a Horse of Selene from the British Museum Collections. http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_image.aspx?image=an18006.jpg&retpage=18108

Elgin Marbles, Head of a Horse of Selene from the British Museum Collections. http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_image.aspx?image=an18006.jpg&retpage=18108

I repeat, I understand, you want your stuff back but there is also something to be said for diversity in museums. Part of the allure, I think, of the British Museum was that while I was working there not only did I get to visit the UK, I also went to Greece, Egypt, other parts of Africa, back to America, China, and more. What if everybody demanded their artifacts back? Then, in my life, chances are I would never have gotten to see the Elgin marbles, the Rosetta stone, mummies, pieces from Pompeii, etc.

This will never happen, I realize, because aside from the ‘greatest’ items there is simply far too much stuff to go around. Believe me, I know. Who knew the citizens of Boone County would keep 29 typewriters and a plethora of merchandising yard sticks. Yardsticks for EVERYBODYYYY!

(I’m not criticizing; I actually LOVE the yardstick collection, just not the typewriters.)

I digress. Repatriation is important. We shouldn’t be digging up early native graves and keeping the stuff we find for our own morbid little displays.

Museums are morbid for the sake of learning.

It should ultimately A) stay in the ground undisturbed (okay, maybe after careful survey, study, and photographing without flash!) or B) be returned to the existing members of their culture and the decision left to them.

There will be a happy balance of repatriation of artifacts to keeping diversified collections (or between some countries maybe there won’t be).

How does this relate to you? I’ll tell you.

It’s kind of like when a great-relative decides to sell your grandmother’s blue popcorn bowl off on their garage sale. You find out her neighbor snatched it up for $3. That bowl was a part of your heritage. It tells a story, it’s paramount in the timeline of who you are. You want it back so you knock on the neighbor’s door prepared with your sob story about how close you were to your late grandmother and that the bowl holds precious memories from your fleeting childhood. They don’t buy it. Turns out they’ve been eating popcorn from it every single night with their greasy little fingers and they like it. So, you try another tactic. You paid $3 for the bowl, I’ll give you $50 (a price you are happy to pay to reinstate the object responsible for some of your happiest, most well-fed memories). This time it’s with sheer malice, they shake their head no and say, “I don’t think so. I’m sorry but I bought it and it’s mine.” – $100 – Nope.

You panic. Your past is in that bowl and now it’s going to be two miles away in a completely different neighborhood. The neighborhood where it was once used by smiling little cherub faces. How do you return that bowl to its homeland? Your hands, your heart, your stomach.

It could happen to you.

Don’t hate. Repatriate.

For more about the ongoing Troy Gold loan read here.

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How I Landed a Museum Job

I see so many, hundreds at least, of comments on listservs, message boards, e-mails, etc., from young museum professionals asking questions about whether it’s feasible to work in museums right now or not. Should I go to school for museum professions? Will I ever get a paid job? Does my internship count as qualifiable experience? My answer? Yes.

To all my fellow emerging museum professionals out there, this is my story.

After working in so many museums and getting my bachelors degree in Public Relations, I felt I had learned more of what not to do than what to do. I wanted to be able to do right by my profession and not just make it up as I go. I wanted in depth, correct education about how to design exhibits and handle artifacts, etc.

I graduated with my Masters of Museum Professions in May 2012.  At the age of 25, I had 11 years of experience in museums under my belt. From small town historical societies to The British Museum in London, my time included 2 degrees, 5 internships, 3 jobs, and 7 museums around the world. I had done a little bit of everything in a lot of different places.

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I began applying for jobs in late March all over the world; from Saudi Arabia to New York to London and Maine, many positions of which I was sure I  stood no chance at even landing an interview. I was turned down a couple of times, rejected a few offers that didn’t feel right, and just plain didn’t hear back about most of my meticulously labored over applications. When the Executive Director of the Boone County Historical Society, which operates four 100+ year old museums, position came up I applied right away. I knew I wanted to get out of the Jersey/NYC area for awhile and Iowa was close to my family.

The big question, however, was will they give a 25 year old that kind of responsibility AND power? I had a phone interview,  was flown in for an in-person interview (an affair which lasted 8 hours), and within days I was offered the job. Perhaps the Board of Directors and I see it differently, but there are a few things distinct things which I think landed me this position at my age.

1. I was sure of myself. I may be young, but I have a lot of experience and knew I had a lot to offer this museum having come from museums in both a better and, more importantly, a worse state.

2. I asked them questions. During my in-person interview I called the Board out. I asked each of them to share why it is they sit on the Board of Directors of the Boone County Historical Society. I received some interesting answers, answers that have helped inform me about working with some of my Board.RedTape

3. I told them that they would have to be ready to accept what it was they were asking me to do. Change. Change the museum, change the operation, change the exhibits, change the community perception, change the branding, and on and on. It was something the Board knew was necessary but before taking the job I needed to make sure I wasn’t going to try and accomplish something they were going to slap a bunch of red tape all over.

I’m not recommending you try this at home. Museum job interviews are not a formula. EVERY. SINGLE. MUSEUM is so incredibly different, no two interviews should be handled the same. If I would have posed that question to another board (let’s say the MET) I may or may not have been laughed off the face of the planet, who knows. I’m not saying my own Board is any lower caliber than the MET’s because they aren’t. They are both a group of people passionate about their respective institutions, whose mission they are entrusted with serving. The MET is just a different type of board with different expectations and history.

I have been in this position for just over a year and I have learned more about museums, people, working with communities, and collaboration than I ever thought was humanly possible. More on my actual experience as a museum director at a later date. Join me next post for my Five Tips (and a bonus) to Landing that First Museum Job.

Oh yeah, and lastly, any emerging, or current, or past, museum professionals that have a question or just want to chat museums, contact me directly. It’s my favorite thing to talk about. I’m a good ear, a strong opinion, and a smiling face.


University of Northern Iowa – A Declining Institution

I never thought I would have to be disappointed in my alma mater.  Typically people brag about where they came from, from where they received their education. Not me, not anymore.

Effective June 30, 2012 The University of Northern Iowa will be closing the doors to its 120 year old museum.  This is truly a disappointment you can read about at this site.   The university is administering budget cuts to the museum, printing services, and athletics.  Athletics looks to receive a slash of $500,000 and the $200,000 cut to the museums will close their doors permanently. Hmmm… with those amounts you can certainly see where the school lay its priorities in the first place.

Students enjoying the UNI Museums, image borrowed from UNI Museums website

Thousands upon thousands of people use the museum for educational purposes each year.  Not only that, students who research and intern at the museum have lost this opportunity.  The school is taking this wonderful resource away from its students, its classes and its community. The museum is an accredited institution and recognized for its value and excellence by the American Association of Museums.  This small museum has pulled in exhibitions of amazing magnitude from places like The Smithsonian Institution and The Field Museum. But folks, don’t be sad… you can still go watch us loose a game every once in a while.

I interned with the museum for two years while at UNI, as with many other students, and it has been an invaluable resource in my career.  That museum led me to where I am today; receiving my Master of Arts in Museum Professions.  Maybe some people don’t get it.  See below the mission statements of these three entities.

Excerpt from The University of Northern Iowa’s mission statement:

It is imperative that the quality of the university’s instruction be maintained and enhanced though increasingly strong emphasis on:

(1) General or liberal education as the most essential ingredient for the undergraduate student,

(2) the central importance and complementary relationship of teaching and research,

(3) enrichment of instruction through extensive clinical, laboratory and field experiences, and independent study, and

(4) development of the life of the university community itself as an effective educational force.

Excerpt from the University of Northern Iowa Museums’ mission statement:

The University of Northern Iowa Museums & Collections contribute to the education, research, and public service missions of the University through educational programming, exhibition, collection, and preservation.

For the campus and general public, the Museums foster lifelong learning and the exchange of ideas, as well as a respect for our natural resources and the human heritage of the world.

Lastly, an excerpt from The University of Northern Iowa Athletics mission statement:

We will offer compelling experience for the student-athlete and for our campus community and will provide a diverse environment steeped in integrity, values and vitality. We are committed to equitable opportunities for all students, student-athletes and athletic department staff including women and minorities. Our programming offerings, our recruitment of both students and staff, and our career enhancement opportunities for staff will reflect this commitment to equity and diversity. Further, we are totally committed to the NCAA principles of sportsmanship and ethical conduct and nothing short of complete and total adherence to the principles and guidelines subscribed to by the NCAA in these critical areas will be tolerated or accepted.

Teaching is our core, positive growth and development of student-athletes is our goal and the highest level of performance both in the classroom, in social settings, and on the field of play is our target outcome.

Whose mission statements most closely align?  Sports are even MENTIONED in the mission of the university. Where should cuts really be being made? You mean to tell me that UNI will FUND 15 university sports team, but it won’t fund a 120 year old educational institution that benefits both its students and community?  The athletics’ mission states teaching is their core, but what do you learn from throwing a ball in a hoop? What do other students learn from watching you do that?  Leave it to an EDUCATIONAL ENTITY to cut funding to another educational entity in order to save one based on ENTERTAINMENT.  Don’t assume I was a museum geek in school and that’s why I’m bitter about athletics. That’s not the case, I played sports in college and I loved every minute of it. BUT, it DID NOT contribute to my future.  I couldn’t help but laugh at this quote in an article I read about the athletic department’s cuts:

“This time, much of the pain is going to be internal. We might have to hold off on new uniforms and equipment. We might have to eliminate some positions, though not coaching in year one.” as stated by athletic director Troy Dannen.

FOR SHAME! How DARE the University reduce your budget to $3.5 million so you can’t get new uniforms every year. How DARE you not have the latest in basketballer trend.

But, there is one thing Dannen was right about, the pain for UNI is going to be internal.  That pain will be felt by every student, every faculty, staff and community member who rely on the museum as an educational tool.

The University Museum, image borrowed from UNI Museums website

I am truly disappointed in UNI and how it has decided upon its priorities. Athletics as a priority over education has always been in issue in America, I just never thought that poor decision would be made by someplace I was once so proud as to call my home.