Week 4: No winners here

This week’s readings reflect what we as a class have discussed since Week 1: how museums have shown and appropriated non-Western cultures, although the Introduction written by Karp and Lavine go into discussing how this is changing. Museums are reacting to the growing sensitivity and political correctness of its constituents (and potential ones), and are beginning to take steps to ensure that the most amount of people are happy.

Karp and Lavine pose three solutions to the problem Western museums have with displaying non-Western cultural artifacts/pieces: increase transparency, give populations more agency when it comes to their presentation in museums, and hire people who are specialists in non-Western culture. Of course, it’s best to always have an expert on staff to handle projects in the best way possible, but that is costly, especially if the exhibition is only temporary.

This is still a learning process for museums around the country (and world). The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York held a “China: Through the Looking Glass” exhibition until September 2015, and it shows how Western cultures, who historically have held more power over other countries, happily take aspects of other countries’ cultures and use/interpret it for their own means, although it can sometimes turn out quite funny (as pictured below). At least the Met was recognizing that the exhibit they were putting on was a Western interpretation of China, although it still makes me cringe today.

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(original image here)

At the same time, there is no way for museums to make everyone happy. As Karp and Lavine so succinctly put it, “the larger point, however, is that no matter how the exhibition was organized, it would have been disputed”. People will find a reason to complain about everything, so all the museums can do is make sure that they are not grossly misinterpreting or representing the non-Western cultures they’ve put on exhibit, while also trying to understand (and let the audience understand) its special place in history.


5 thoughts on “Week 4: No winners here”

  1. I think in this case the museum wins. By curating how they like, they increase profit by attracting the richer public. Catering to the wealthy middle class might distort culture infinitely but it does make money.

  2. You’re right. Exhibitions will always be disputed. However, I don’t think these disputes are bad as long as museums – like you said – are making the effort to be as transparent and understanding as possible. They may in fact be good. They open up the floor for discussion that has the potential to enhance people’s understanding of non-western culture. It is only through discussion that stereotypes and prejudices can be shot down and mutual understanding be achieved.

    1. That’s an excellent point – museums do open the doors to discussions about cultural appropriation, and wider social issues. Because the only alternative to the effort to be transparent is to simply stop displaying the items. Which would, in a sense, waste those artifacts.

  3. I have to agree with your point that regardless how much thought and effort a museum puts into a cultural exhibit, people will always have something to complain about. There was a tweet on MLK Jr. Day where a celebrity addressed that he was thankful for him and also for reaching 10 million followers on Instagram, and on that thread there were many people who vocalized how nowadays anything can be perceived as culturally inappropriate.

  4. As long as humans exist, they will find something to be offended by. However, political incorrectness can be avoided by exercising caution. For example, on the show Homeland, no one who worked on the show spoke Arabic. One episode was supposed to take place in Syria, so they hired a local street artist to do some graffiti on the set. He actually wrote “Homeland is rascist” in Arabic, but of course none of the show’s managers realized and the episode aired on Showtime!


    This kind of thing could be avoided if show runners, museum curators, etc just source cultural experts rather than resorting to their own, stereotyped view.

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