The Museum: A Short History of Crisis and Resilience was a book born out of the pandemic. Originally conceived in early 2020 as a look at the current state of museums and where they were headed in the future, the project took on a new meaning – and a new trajectory – as the coronavirus swept across the globe. “Like a lot of people, I started to think back to the 1918 flu epidemic,” author Samuel Redman said to the Guardian. “I was surprised to learn that not many people had written about how that pandemic had impacted museums. As Covid continued to spread, I just couldn’t stop thinking about how museums had dealt with crisis moments in the past and how that would inform the current crisis and problems they’d face in the future.”
What emerged from that moment is a slender, taut work of scholarship that explores how museums have responded to crises both external and internal, beginning with the massive 1865 fire at the Smithsonian. In addition to the Smithsonian fire and the Spanish flu, Redman also looks at cataclysms like the Great Depression, the second world war, the coronavirus and the national protests following the death of George Floyd, as well as more existential crises like the culture wars of the 1980s and 90s and museums’ own legacies as agents of colonialism and exploitation.
Across the sweep of these various pivot points, The Museum distills the core values and unique contributions that have allowed this institution to stay vital – and relatively consistent – throughout decades of transformation. For Redman, emergencies are the perfect moment to name these elusive qualities, as they are times when museums are forced to confront basic questions about their priorities, their core constituencies and their essential tasks.
“During crises, museums ask questions about power and who gets to determine what stories are told or foregrounded, who gets to determine how those things are exhibited, framed, and talked about,” he said.
“One of the reasons I became so interested in crisis is because these periods make acute questions about what museums should be. They suddenly go from being abstract questions to being very concrete and real.”
When it comes to these pivot points, not all are of the same usefulness. Redman judges that the Smithsonian fire and the Great Depression instigated fundamental changes in how museums operate, whereas the 1918 pandemic and the 1970s art strike – a New York–based artists’ movement against racism, sexism and the Vietnam war – failed to inspire much lasting change or self-reflection. Overall, Redman judges that museums have done relatively well in meeting crisis moments, proving to be very resilient institutions that have stood the test of time while other fixtures of 19th-century life have long been forgotten.
One of the fascinating insights of The Museum is that as museums have become more long-lived institutions in American cultural life, their crises have become more existential and inward-focused. In earlier eras, the crises that predominated among museums tended to be the likes of fires that destroyed buildings and priceless artifacts, or wars and economic upheaval that shuttered society and sapped its resources. But as society transformed, with museums proliferating and developing an institutionalized status as purveyors of truth, they began to confront different kinds of crises altogether, injecting large doses of politics and culture wars into their operations.
Redman exemplifies these new sorts of existential emergencies with the attempted Smithsonian exhibition of the Enola Gay, the infamous plane that dropped an atomic weapon on Hiroshima. Planned for 1995, the 50th anniversary of the bombing, the exhibition was originally conceived to contextualize the Enola Gay with a frank admission of the horror and tragedy that it brought, including photographs of victims of the atomic bomb that were enlarged and displayed to seem as though they were staring into the faces of museum-goers. However, the debate around what the Los Angeles Times called the “most controversial exhibit ever staged” became so acrimonious that the exhibit only emerged in radically truncated form, a meek display of the fuselage of the Enola Gay, and nothing more.
Looking back on this disappointing episode, Redman concludes that museums that “leaned into” such culture war controversies, using them to “more deeply consider their role in society” and “seek ways to thoughtfully take on difficult subjects”, tended to emerge from the 80s and 90s more powerful and resilient.
Whereas the early chapters of The Museum read as more scholarly and informational, as Redman moves up through the arts strike of the 70s, the culture wars that closed out last century, and the new challenges of the past two decades, the book takes on a tone that pleasingly blends scholarship with Redman’s personal voice. Although he largely writes with a historian’s distanced, impartial prose, Redman does become more assertive as he moves closer to the moments of the present day, seemingly more comfortable airing his own opinion of him. Discussing protests following the death of George Floyd, as well as the riot at the Capitol following the incendiary speech given by Donald Trump, his frustration with him is apparent, and he challenges museums to reckon with their own pasts and seize their destiny as truth- purveyors for the communities around them.
In order to do this, museums must jump into national debates while they are going on, and on that score Redman expects much improvement. “There’s a lot of room for critique,” he told me, “and I hope that museums continue to foreground questions about race and racism in their collections. I hope this doesn’t turn out to be a single episode but rather is a longer and more continued practice of dealing with questions of racism. There has been resistance to making these statements permanent. I hope there’s a larger re-examination of museums’ priorities.” Redman added that, in addition to considering questions of systemic racism, “it’s important for museums to foreground LGBT history in the face of bills like the ‘don’t say gay’ bill in Florida.”
Perhaps more than anything, The Museum demonstrates that crises come in multiple, often unexpected forms, and that past is not necessarily indicative of future. Knowing that, what pivot points does Redman think lie in wait for museums? “It could be anything,” he said. “The Spanish flu was so forgotten in museum memory, because there was so much else going on at that time. So that meant that, when Covid emerged, we weren’t really thinking about, what if there’s another major pandemic? We can see some crises around the corner, but we can’t fully anticipate what challenges lie waiting for us. Future crises really could be anything, and that, I hope, is one of the points that this book makes clear.”