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In an era of increased globalization and digitization, the site aims to complement the journal by bringing current museum themes, practices, and developments to the forefront of global discussions in the field of Museum Studies.
Museum Worlds: Advances in Research is a multi-disciplinary, refereed, annual journal from Berghahn Journals that will publish work that significantly advances knowledge of global trends, case studies and theory relevant to museum practice and scholarship around the world. For more information, click About the Journal.
by Rod Clare, Elon University
It has been over forty years since the mostly successful conclusion of the Civil Rights movement in the United States. While some may have thought the election of an African-American president in 2008 heralded a “postracial” America, continued violence and oppression has brought about a rebirth of activism, embodied by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. Now that nascent movement is preparing to be part of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). The NMAAHC is located at 1400 Constitution Avenue NW, in Washington DC.
The museum’s overriding goals are to make people aware of African-American history and to foster understanding and reconciliation about race in America and the world. The fact that the BLM movement is so new gives rise to concerns that the museum is collecting material that is too recent, topical, and potentially controversial. Nevertheless, as the director of the NMAAHC, Lonnie Bunch, has made clear, collecting and promoting such material helps “people to realize … that these are not isolated moments. They are part of a long history—a long history of tragedy, but also a long history of resilience and protest.”1
Though seemingly radical, Bunch’s approach is not without precedent when it comes to museums representing African-American lives (and deaths). A recent example of this is Kehinde Wiley’s exhibit, Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic, presented from February to May 2015, at the Brooklyn Museum in New York. Superimposing modern blacks onto classical Western art reliefs, Wiley’s work made one patron comment that “the fact that they have an exhibit like this maybe could revitalize that conversation again about Black Lives Matter.”2
A symposium on “History, Rebellion, and Reconciliation,” held at the Smithsonian in April 2015, discussed in part the fatal shooting of an African-American youth in Ferguson, Missouri, in the previous year. A reoccurring theme at the symposium was that museums could offer neutral “‘safe,’ or even ‘sacred’ spaces, within which visitors could wrestle with difficult and complex topics.”3 Currently, there is no better example of a more controversial and nuanced topic in America than the Black Lives Matter movement.
The BLM movement, born in 2013, was indirectly created out of decades of frustration within the African-American community over the legal system’s continual exoneration of those who had taken black lives. Often, those killed had transgressed supposed spatial boundaries, an issue in the past (for example, when a black youth “strayed” into a white section of a public beach, and responses by whites instigated the Chicago riots of 1919 that took thirty-eight lives), as much as the present. BLM’s direct genesis came as a result of the not-guilty verdict against George Zimmerman, who stalked and killed Trayvon Martin, a seventeen-year-old black youth who Zimmerman thought was in the wrong part of town in Sanford, Florida. Three black women (Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi), all activists in the African-American community, viewed the verdict with shock, anger, and an underlying belief that something had to be done. Due to their drive and to further instances of black lives being taken, with ensuing rebellions in cities like Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland, the movement has quickly taken off. Currently the BLM movement has approximately two dozen chapters throughout the United States as well as chapters in Ghana and Canada.
Implicit in the rise of BLM and its attendant demands and concerns is the long-standing issue of black mobility. That is, where can black people go and when can they go there? This question is not only relevant for African Americans currently but also in their arduous history in America. The idea of black mobility has been a fundamental query since African Americans were brought to America as enslaved people. As such, their movements and associations were always strictly monitored and in many cases, prohibited by laws, slave patrols, and other means. After the end of slavery, this remained the case in the South and indeed in other parts of the country well into the twentieth century through the implementation of Black Codes, Ku Klux Klan terrorism, sharecropping contracts, city zoning laws, segregation, and various other means.
In fact, it can be said that blacks gained any semblance of true mobility in the country only in the early 1970s when the last host of Civil Rights laws became implemented and enforced. Two generations later, it is fitting that some have described the BLM protests as the new Civil Rights movement. In a sense, BLM seeks to answer the question of whether or not some fifty years later black lives are truly valued as equal to all others in the country. From the U.S. government’s COINTELPRO assassination and disruption programs against black activists in the late 1960s and 1970s to the “stop and frisk” police sweeps since the 1990s and incidents such as the arrest of Sandra Bland in 2015, the curtailment of black movement makes the answer decidedly mixed.
The relevancy and emotions concerning the lasting effects of what has been labeled America’s “original sin” makes it a timely yet somewhat uncomfortable issue for a museum to embrace. This then begs the question, “what exactly is the purpose of a museum?” The International Council of Museums (ICOM) defines it as “a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment.”4 Most people would tend to define a museum as a place where old, if not ancient, objects are put on display to be reviewed in a genteel fashion. This might make it seem that only the elite patronize museums but nothing could be further from the truth. According to the American Alliance of Museums, some 850 million visits occur each year in American museums, more than all major organized sports put together.5
What Lonnie Bunch, NMAAHC’s director, wants to do is bring a current and controversial topic to the most respected of American museums, the Smithsonian. As Bunch put it in an interview with National Public Radio,
One of the jobs of a museum is to not only look back, but to look forward. And so once I heard about [the demonstrations] I knew it was very important to make sure that we collected material that might help a curator 20 years from now or 50 years from now look back and tell the story of the changing notions of race in America.6
Some of the items Bunch prioritizes for collection include banners, posters, gas masks, and a 4’ by 7’ panel of wood used to protect stores during the disturbances, which has printed on it “hands up,” along with cell phone videos and photos. A purpose of the NMAAHC, Bunch notes, is to place racial conflict and historical events in context, to make people realize that there are “moments of possibility,” where fundamental change and progress can be made. There will certainly be more material for the NMAAHC to collect based on the BLM’s new (as of August 2015) ten-point policy directive, Campaign Zero, directed at state and federal policing authorities.7 Though many may not link the two, the BLM movement is linked to the Constitution, for both have at their core the idea “to form a more perfect union.” This ideal, encompassing issues of life, liberty, and freedom of movement, is as radical and patriotic as the symbolism of what it means to be free in America.
This exhibit review originally appeared in volume 6, issue 1 of Transfers: Interdisciplinary Journal of Mobility Studies.
- National Public Radio (NPR), “Black Lives Matter: Coming to a Museum Near You?” 1 August 2015, http://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2015/08/01/428085104/black-lives-matter-coming-to-a-museum-near-you. National Public Radio (accessed 12 September 2015).
- “At the Brooklyn Museum, Art Helps Show Why Black Lives Matter,” Aljazeera America, http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/3/2/kehinde-wiley-showat-brooklyn-museum.html (accessed 11 September 2015).
- “Why Museums Should be a Safe Space to Discuss Why #BlackLivesMatter,” Smithsonian.com, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/whymuseums-should-be-safe-space-discuss-why-black-lives-matter-180955114/?-no-ist (accessed 12 September 2015).
- “Museum Defi nition,” International Council of Museums, http://icom.museum/the-vision/museum-defi nition/ (accessed 12 September 2015).
- “Museum Facts,” American Alliance of Museums, http://www.aam-us.org/about-museums/museum-facts (accessed 16 August 2015).NPR, “Black Lives Matter: Coming to a Museum Near You?”
- “Solutions Overview,” Solutions: Campaign Zero, http://www.joincampaignzero.org/solutions/#solutionsoverview (accessed 13 September 2015).
15by Petra Mosmann
Girls at the Tin Sheds: Sydney Feminist Posters 1975–1990
Curated by Katie Yuill, University Art Museum, Sydney: 24 January–24 April 2015
Girls at the Tin Sheds (Duplicated)
Curated by Louise R. Mayhew, Verge Gallery, Sydney: 26 February–21 March, 2015
The Sydney University Art Workshop, known as the “Tin Sheds,” was an experimental art space established in 1969. From a series of dilapidated tin sheds on the edge of the Sydney University campus, artists taught an alternative radical arts program; musicians played at legendary dances; potters worked a kiln; activist/artist collectives screen printed sophisticated posters, bypassed the gallery, and pasted them across Sydney. Women’s Liberation was integral to the Tin Sheds experiment. In 2015, two sister exhibitions at Sydney University acknowledged this influence. Girls at the Tin Sheds: Sydney Feminist Posters 1975–1990 was curated by Katie Yuill at the Sydney University Art Gallery. Girls at the Tin Sheds (Duplicated) was the second iteration, curated by art historian Louise R. Mayhew at Verge Gallery, which is located on the site where the Tin Sheds once stood. The two exhibitions presented a selection of screen prints by women who worked at the Tin Sheds workshop. They were developed to coincide with the 40-year anniversary of International Women’s Year. Both exhibitions were curated by relatively young curators and consciously renegotiate feminist activist/art legacies. Rather than being viewed through a postfeminist lens, these exhibitions invite feminist art/activism in the present.1
Across Australia, several exhibitions have included a significant number of feminist posters from the 1970s and 1980s. Curator Macushla Robinson included several in See You at the Barricades at The Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney in 2015. In Adelaide in 2014, Celia Dottore prominently featured feminist prints in Mother Nature is Lesbian: Political Printmaking in South Australia 1970–1980s at Flinders University Art Museum. Like Girls at the Tin Sheds, each of these exhibitions was curated by relatively young curators without first-hand memory of Women’s Liberation. In each exhibition, the curator expressed hope that past activisms can inform the present.2 Despite significant differences between each exhibition, they shared a common thread; the political and visual possibilities of feminist protest posters are stressed rather than their specific historical context.
As sister exhibitions, the two iterations of Girls at the Tin Sheds are related but different. Girls at the Tin Sheds: Sydney Feminist Posters 1975–1990 carefully represented key women artists working at the Tin Sheds and included a chronological poster hang, with calendar posters acting as date markers. The chronological hang subtly tracks the visual development of feminist poster-making in Sydney. An exhibition catalogue with essays from both curators provides some historical context. Screen printing produces multiple copies of the same image for presentation in different contexts, and the second exhibition Girls at the Tin Sheds (Duplicated) played with this concept, drawing on the duplicates collection held by Sydney University Archives. The exhibition did not include a salon or poster hang; instead, posters were presented individually, focusing attention on each poster as an artwork. Furthermore, instead of presenting the posters chronologically or thematically, the posters were categorized by color. This reduced the possibility of reading posters in terms of the development of feminist poster making.
After the formal speeches concluded at the joint-opening of Girls at the Tin Sheds: Sydney Feminist Posters 1975-1990 and Girls at the Tin Sheds (Duplicated), Anne Bickford hijacked the microphone. Bickford was part of Sydney Women’s Liberation and sang at the Tin Shed’s dances in a band called the “Early Kookas”; she is also an established archaeologist and museologist. Mayhew braced, expecting criticism. During Bickford’s rowdy intervention in the formal proceedings, she drew attention to “The oo oo ah ah oo ah ah Dance” poster, produced by Jan Mackay and Chips Mackinolty, which had not been included in the exhibitions.3 This beautiful five-colour screen-printed poster was created to advertise a dance at the Tin Sheds, but the poster was and is understood as an artwork. Furthermore, for people who were part of the Tin Sheds crowd in the late 1970s it has a specific meaning. The “Oo oo ah ah oo ah ah” in the title refers to a song, “Why Do Fools Fall In Love”, which was originally recorded by Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers and covered by Bickford’s band in the late 1970s. Bickford then sang the “oo oo ah ah oo ah ah” section in the gallery. The band’s name refers to an Australian made stove, the Early Kooka, which featured an Australian bird called the kookaburra. In an Australian context “oo oo ah ah” is reminiscent of a kookaburra’s birdcall. A series of Kookaburras are printed on the poster, across the man’s jacket.
The decontextualization that Bickford reflected on at the opening at Verge Gallery seems somewhat deliberate. In recent years there has been renewed interest in the Women’s Liberation archive, and Girls at the Tin Sheds seeks to redeploy past feminist activism in the present. This remembering in a Sydney gallery context is part of an international shift in western feminist memory. Despite curatorial differences, Mayhew and Yuill speak with the same intent. Mayhew writes: “the posters function as time capsules of vitality, conviction and earnestness. To consume them is motivating and uplifting. They beckon us to dance, panic, kiss and sabotage . . . again. In a similar manner but with a different focus, Yuill hopes that “such exhibitions re-engage with feminism and activism in the digital age”. Each exhibition, like other recent memory practices, renegotiates feminist activist legacies, but rather than framed by “third wave” angst and critique or by a sense of failure, there is a celebration of 1970s and 1980s activism. Recent practices scramble rather than reiterate the waves model. For example, women working at the Tin Sheds during the 1970s and 1980s would have resisted the term “girl”. As Bickford said in the interview, “we were girls,” but the term was used to trivialize adult women and was therefore resisted. “Girl” and “grrrl” are mostly associated with third wave feminisms, but here the term is applied to second wave feminist poster makers. Although the specificity and context of posters dissolves in the exhibition space, the emphasis is on the visual and political possibilities in the present. Rather than reading through a post-feminist lens, these two exhibitions invite contemporary feminist readings and tentatively call for action. Quite suddenly, it has become possible for younger women to celebrate rather than ironically perform liberation.
- Thanks to Anne Bickford and Louise R. Mayhew for their contribution to this review.
- The Melbourne University Archives also held an exhibition titled Protest!: Archives from the University of Melbourne that also included feminist posters, but it was framed differently to the other exhibitions referenced here.
- Jan Mackay, Chips Mackinolty, and Earthworks Poster Collective, “The oo oo ah ah oo ah ah Dance”, screen-print, MAAS: 2007/56/72. MAAS Collection Search. http://www.powerhousemuseum.com/collection/database/?irn=365455#ixzz3quY0QXXL (accessed 9 November 2015).