"Preserving the Past"
Daniel J. Sherman, September 2005
To the Editor:
Although I agree with James Sheehan that historians should support museums' preservationist mission, I found parts of his argument in "Preserving the Past" (Perspectives, April 2005) somewhat troubling. In asserting, for example, that historians and museum professionals "tend to remain in their own separate institutional spheres," he seems—like the review essay by Randolph Starn he cites—to be describing an earlier, more contentious stage in the relationship between scholars who work on museums and scholars who work in them, quite unlike the many fruitful exchanges between academics and museum professionals I've witnessed and participated in over the past decade.
More seriously, the rhetoric of one of Professor Sheehan's paragraphs suggests a link between critique of museums and a wanton disregard for their preservationist role. Moving from the observation that critics of museums underestimate the effort involved in preserving the past to the arguable but not self-evident proposition that valid critique must offer "alternatives," Sheehan then asks how critics would respond to the Taliban's destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas. The scholarly critique of museums, however, has never focused on their fundamental missions but rather on the ways they have carried them out. I can illustrate this point with some rhetorical questions of my own. Does accepting the museum's mission of preservation mean that the historian should remain silent about the sometimes dubious tactics museums have employed to acquire objects, notably from indigenous peoples? Does a general endorsement of museums' educational mission entail ignoring their past links to pervasive, often exclusionary assumptions about race, class, and gender?
The literature Sheehan cites is full not only of "self-critical questions about the institution's place in contemporary culture and society" (emphasis added), but of observations about the complexity of museums' historical development, including, often, the contradictions between professed ideals and practices that fall short of them. Isn't that what historians do? Professor Sheehan surely did not mean to associate scholars whose views and methods may differ from his own with cultural terrorists, but it would be unfortunate if his overly narrow understanding of professional solidarity had the effect of discouraging the many younger scholars working on museums and exhibitions from exercising the full range of their historical and critical imaginations. Only in so doing can historians contribute to the rich ongoing dialogue with those self-critical museum professionals trying to confront their institutional legacies—legacies of appropriation and exclusion as well as of preservation.
—Daniel J. Sherman, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
James Sheehan writes in response: I am grateful for Professor Sherman's thoughtful reflections on my column; it is always refreshing to know that someone out there is reading these items. I think he may be overinterpreting my remarks. The point I tried to make was that there are no good alternatives to museums, not that museums are above criticism. I hope none of the fine scholars working in museum studies thought that I was comparing them to the Taliban.