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In this episode of Crash Course Art History, we’ll learn why museums are so much more than just collections of interesting and pretty objects. Their legacy includes everything from violence to theft, to, oddly enough, mermaid hands.

Introduction: What Counts as a Museum? 00:00
Ancient Versions of Museums 0:59
Cabinets of Curiosities 3:48
Colonialism & Museums 5:10
Critiques of Museums 8:06
The Future of Museums 10:16
Review & Credits 10:58

Image Descriptions:


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CC Kids:
Sure, here's the text with a line  break between every sentence: Can a bird curate a museum?

Let me explain. Male bowerbirds work their tail  feathers off to attract mates.

These birds sing, they dance  — and most impressively,   they build what ornithologists call  “display courts,” where they show   off the objects they collect: shells,  bones, the keys you lost last year. And these displays aren’t random:  the objects are arranged in   patterns to draw the female  bird’s eye to the coolest stuff. So… is the bowerbird’s display court a museum?

Making him their collection’s  caretaker, or “curator”? What actually is a museum anyway? And who gets to decide what counts?

Hi! I'm Sarah Urist Green and  this is Crash Course Art History. There are a lot of different types of  museums, from natural history museums   to toy museums–there’s even an Instant Ramen  Museum and a Museum of Broken Relationships.

But in this episode, we’re  mostly talking about art museums. And art museums took a long, winding road to get  to the version we know today, with lots of columns   and marble, cavernous rooms full of objects, mood  lighting, and the echo of squeaking sneakers. Actually, the earliest known spaces devoted  to art were caverns — like the Chauvet and   Lascaux Caves in France and  the Altamira Cave in Spain.

In places like these, prehistoric people  used ochre and charcoal to depict horses,   deer, bison, and even lions and rhinos,  which weren’t extinct in Europe yet. Still, we wouldn’t call these prehistoric caves   museums just because there  are pictures on the walls. Generally speaking, a modern-day  museum has professional, trained staff,   an open and publicly accessible space,  and objects of historical and cultural   importance that are not only preserved, but  arranged with the intention of educating.

In museums, artworks are sorted into groups,  or categorized, so that they can be stored   and studied, and eventually displayed  in ways intended to convey meaning. Curators often do this according to time  period or culture or geographical location,   to hopefully tell a coherent story  about a certain part of history. They also sometimes arrange  works thematically–across   time and culture–to tell new stories.

We get the word “museum” from the ancient Greek  word “mouseion,” meaning a shrine to the Muses,   the Ancient Greek goddesses  of art, music, and poetry. And while we wouldn’t consider these  shrines “museums” by today’s standards,   some places in Ancient Greece  definitely had the feel of them. Like, If you had visited the Acropolis  of Athens in the second century BCE,   you’d have passed through a  reception hall called the Propylaia,   where you would’ve seen impressive  paintings of Athens’s history.

Your surroundings would have told  you that you were standing in an   important place with important  objects. Remind you of anything? The ancient Romans did this,   too.

But the Roman ruling class also  amassed huge personal collections of   art that they kept in their homes as status  symbols–again, awfully reminiscent of today. And actually, the earliest known spaces  dedicated to collecting art weren’t in Europe. We can think of the ancient Egyptian  pyramids at Giza as a kind of giant,   private art collection, built to honor the dead.

Still, we wouldn’t call the pyramids  museums either, they were spectacular,   but they weren’t exactly accessible to the public. Now, flash forward to Europe in the  mid-sixteenth century, when private   collecting took on a whole new flavor — that of  the “wunderkammer,” or Cabinet of Curiosities. These proto-museums were full of strange and  wondrous items: “dragon eggs” and “mermaid   hands” right alongside legitimate art  and artifacts from around the world.

Wealthy nobles and merchants, as well  as some scientists, put these bizarro   collections together to show off their  travels, but also to advance knowledge. And they organized items in ways we often see in   today’s museums — like by  geography, or chronology. These were also meant to be entertaining.

Nothing  says “fun” like an embalmed hanging crocodile. Cabinets of curiosities were, again, not meant for   the public. They were meant to bring the  outside world to the nobility.

You know,   so they didn’t have to actually go outside  themselves and sully their fancy shoes. It wasn’t until the eighteenth  century that the first publicly   accessible museums began to open their doors. But it wasn’t an entirely selfless move — it was a   way for wealthy art patrons to show  off their collections more widely.

Importantly, these collections often included  works stolen from other countries as part of   colonialism…which you can learn more  about in Crash Course World History,   European History, U. S. History,  Black American history.

All of this stealing has  left a pretty messy legacy. Museums in Europe and the United States  are chock full of art and artifacts that   were taken by force from their  country or culture of origin. For example, in the nineteenth century,   the British Empire occupied much of the Nigerian  coast, and in 1897 forcibly captured Benin City.

The British military destroyed much of the  city, including its palace — where hundreds   of plaques and other important objects depicting  the history of the Kingdom of Benin were stored. Later that year, about 300 objects from Benin  City were displayed at the British Museum,   and many have been part of  its collection ever since. The government of Nigeria has for decades been  calling for the return of these stolen works,   but it took more than 100 years  to even begin to gain traction.

As recently as 2022, Germany and the  Smithsonian in the U. S. agreed to return   Benin artifacts from their collections,  in a process we call repatriation. To further complicate the issue, museums sometimes   display those stolen artworks in  insensitive and misleading ways.

Regardless of any good intentions  of museum staff, some art might be   presented as primitive, or displayed wildly  out of context, playing into stereotypes. Like, Native Americans are often “remembered”  in American museums, as if they no longer exist. James Luna, a Luiseño Indian artist,  brought attention to this practice   when he placed his own body in a museum  case, with labels identifying his scars   as well as personal belongings, like his  college diploma and even divorce papers.

This powerful work attests  to the continued existence   and relevance of Indigenous artists  and communities, and it also launched   Luna into my personal canon of art  history. Ready the canon cannon. In response to powerful critiques like  Luna’s, museums have been called to   decolonize, or to acknowledge and free  themselves of their colonial influences.

This involves not only repatriation  of stolen artifacts, but putting   collections in different contexts to  more accurately represent the past. Take this portrait of Sir Thomas Picton, the  former colonial British governor of Trinidad. In 2020, the National Museum in Wales removed it, citing his  brutality toward enslaved   workers and free people of color on the island.

Two years later, the museum opened an  exhibition called “Reframing Picton,”   which highlighted this history, and included the   work of contemporary Trinidadian artists  to help develop a more complete picture. One of these works, an installation by  the artist collective Laku Neg, included   a composition of music woven together  with the words of Luisa Calderón,   one of Picton’s victims of  torture. Pretty powerful stuff.

The work of rethinking our museums also involves  diversifying those who work within them, serve   on their boards, and make the decisions  about what is collected and displayed. As we’ve seen, the very idea of a museum was  concocted by wealthy members of the ruling class. So a lot of perspectives have  been left out for a long time,   and that legacy isn’t going  to be unraveled overnight.

A 2018 survey found that, across 300  U. S. art museums, only 16 percent of   curator roles were held by people of color,  and only 12 percent of leadership roles. The survey was repeated in 2022 and  found moderate increases in people   of color across the board, in all museum roles.

And it also found the number of Black  staff in museum leadership had doubled,   and quadrupled in curatorial positions. Is this an improvement? Yes.

Is  it enough to correct the past or   reflect the U. S.’s actual demographics? Heck no.

The work is far from done, but it’s critical  to the continued relevance of museums. The way that art is presented – and  who does the presenting – matters,   from funders to curators, board members  to tour guides – and everyone in between. And it’s not just outsiders  calling for these changes.

Sometimes artists themselves question  the museum with their artwork,   and we call this Institutional Critique. One master of this craft is the feminist  art collective the Guerilla Girls,   who in 1989 visited the Metropolitan Museum of  Art in New York City and compared the number   of works by women artists in the gallery to  the number of nude female bodies on display. They found that less than 5 percent of the artists   in the modern art gallery were women  – compared to 85 percent of the nudes.

In response to this unbalanced representation,   they launched an ad campaign that  called attention to their findings. And you might be amused to know that not  only is one of those original posters now   a part of the Met’s collection, but  today the Guerilla Girls are actively   invited to museums around the world  to shine a light on new injustices. Despite the complicated history behind  museums, they continue to do important work.

Museums are wonderful places to see and  appreciate a huge range of art and objects! They protect, catalog, and restore our cultural  heritage—and make it available to the public. And the more they can confront and  respond to their complicated legacies, the more nuance they’re able to offer  to our understanding of global history.

As we’ve seen, there are many movements within  the museum landscape focused on righting the   wrongs of the past, increasing  accessibility, and providing a   community-focused and globally-conscious arena  for understanding our past, present, and future. So, in a big way, the idea of  the museum continues to evolve. It carries with it some seriously  heavy history, including violence,   theft, and sometimes questionable taxidermy.

But it also can do an amazing job  of grappling with that history, displaying artworks sensitively and respectfully, returning ones that have been stolen, and presenting more complex views of the world. They’re a powerful way of  understanding ourselves and each other. In the end, maybe bowerbird’s nests  and museums aren’t all that different.

They both collect the shiny bits and bobs  around them and display them in artful, and   sometimes mysterious, ways. Though I don’t think  bowerbirds make you exit through the giftshop. Next time, we’ll talk about how artists  came to be seen as quasi-celebrities,   and we’ll start to unravel the myth of  the great artist.

I’ll see you there! Thanks for watching this episode of Crash Course  Art History which was filmed at the Indianapolis   Museum of Art at Newfields and was made with  the help of all these nice people. If you want   to help keep Crash Course free for everyone,  forever, you can join our community on Patreon.