Required Reading

Overview of Lectures, Seminars, Readings, Site Visits

Karen Bassi and Gretchen Henderson, “Introduction: What is a Museum?”

The foundational lecture and readings will introduce the themes and debates that will guide the Institute, focusing on recent developments in Museum Studies and interdisciplinary Humanities. The Directors will outline overall aims, key terms, questions, and logistics and will contextualize the Institute within the locality of Washington, DC. This lecture will be framed by the “Address on Occasion of Laying the Corner Stone of The Smithsonian Institution” (1847) in which James Smithson – an Englishman who had never visited the United States – describes why he bequeathed his fortune to America for the purpose of founding an interdisciplinary public museum. Just as Smithson distinguished museums from universities, we will trace parallel and diverging developments between these two institutions. The opening lecture will be followed by an invitation for all Summer Scholars to introduce themselves and to summarize their teaching and research interests as they relate to the Institute’s topic. Foundational Readings include:

Optional background readings about Museum Studies and the history of museums include:

Week 1: Museum Methods: Collection and Community

Site Visits / Case Studies & Practica: National Museum of African American History and Culture; Lunder Conservation Center at the Smithsonian American Art Museum

Steven Lubar: “Restraining the Collecting Impulse”

Museum collecting seems similar to personal collecting: both attempt to make sense of the world by saving and arranging artifacts. But in fact, they are quite different. Personal collecting provides a way for individuals to remember their past and represent their personal and aesthetic understandings of the world. Museum collecting has to do much more. Curators acquire art and artifacts not for what they mean to them as individuals, but because they fit into a larger cultural meaning and to fill institutional and societal needs. Museum collections must be useful. Over the past few decades, museums have struggled to find ways to rationalize collecting and collections, to make collections serve the museum mission. It hasn’t been easy, and collections planning remains a challenge for museums. This lecture and seminar consider the recent history of collecting to suggest ways in which museums’ research, teaching, and community goals can and should shape curatorial work.


Elaine Heumann Gurian: “Public Spaces for Strangers: Implications for Heritage Institutions”

While museums were never monolithic, the traditional purpose of museums was to acquire, preserve, research, and display their collections as evidence of human activity or nature. The institutions focused on a topic (art history, natural science, etc.) around which their objects would cohere, and the staff assumed their authoritative roles as teachers of facts about the objects they owned. An overarching change for 20th-century museums was the recognition that visitors want to be active – not passive – parts of the experience. Contemporary thought now pushes these definitions further to include measurements for social and intangible benefit, acknowledgement of audience expertise and even co-creation, and the technological availability of information on a continual basis. All of these innovations work to destroy the museums’ authoritative stranglehold and raise the question of what a museum collection is or should be. This lecture and seminar focus on the responsibility of museums within the pantheon of public institutions to include the rights of citizens to access their patrimony and to recognize the value of non-credentialed knowledge – all in the service of making museums and their collections meaningful and accessible to a variety of “publics.”


Local Museum Specialists in Week 1 include:

  • Spencer Crew, Guest Curator of the National Museum of African American History and Culture and Robinson Professor at George Mason University.
  • Amber Kerr, Interim Chief of Conservation at the Lunder Conservation Center, Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery.

Week 2: Museum Cultures: History and Memory

Site Visits / Case Studies & Practica: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum; National Museum of the American Indian; Smithsonian Cultural Rescue I

Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, “Curating Between Hope and Despair: Museums and the Work of National and International Memory”

Critical museums engage with debates fundamental to contemporary life, empower the viewer, expose conflicts, and redress social inequalities. Using the United States Holocaust Museum as a case study, alongside the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, my lecture and seminar will focus on the ways in which their core exhibitions respond to each of these issues. POLIN Museum (located on the site of the former Warsaw Ghetto) offers a unique example of the modern museum as a site of political and social debate. While Poland was the epicenter of the genocide, POLIN Museum is not a Holocaust museum; there, the Holocaust is one of seven chapters in a history that is not fully defined by antisemitism. Within this expanded historical prospect, the museum invites us to think about how Europe is positioned in Jewish museums in post-Communist Europe and in the United States including, but not limited to, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. The challenge for all of these museums is how to curate between hope and despair, or between critical and optimistic museology. The lecture and seminar will be guided by the struggles over a national identity to which these museums respond, extending to other regions where cultural populations and heritage are currently in crisis.


Amanda Cobb-Greetham, “Indigenizing Museums and the Move Toward Decolonization”

The relationship between Native American and Indigenous communities and mainstream museums has changed significantly in recent decades as a result of Native involvement in new museum theory and practice. These changes include the sharing of curatorial ideas, engagement in collaborative partnerships, and efforts to integrate Indigenous knowledges and perspectives. My lecture and seminar considers: (1) the ways in which mainstream museums have historically served as colonizing forces through the representation of Native peoples and the use of western curatorial methodologies, and (2) the ways in which such museums can serve as sites of decolonization and cultural sovereignty by honoring Indigenous knowledge in an effort to promote healing and understanding. Specifically, we will examine the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) as a site that privileges Indigenous perspectives and curatorial methods, serves as an educational forum for Native communities and the general public, and challenges stereotypical displays of Native peoples. To guide our study, we will take the NMAI as a case study—considering its historical context, mission and goals, and distinctive challenges. We will analyze how the NMAI’s exhibitions and curatorial methods have evolved since its opening in 2004. As a Smithsonian museum, we will pay particular attention to how the NMAI both challenges and contributes to the formation of a national identity and imagined community.


Local Museum Specialists in Week 2 include:

  • Corine Wegener, director of the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative, President and Founder of the US Committee of the Blue Shield.

Week 3: Museums as Open Works: Diversity and Access

Site Visits / Case Studies & Practica: Smithsonian Freer|Sackler Museums of Asian Art; National Museum of African American History and Culture; Georgetown University’s Special Collections and Gelardin New Media Center

Kurt Fendt, “Museums as Participatory Institutions: Rethinking visitor engagement and museum education in light of digital technologies”

Museums are currently undergoing significant changes as they try to rethink traditional archival, curatorial, and presentation practices in light of emerging forms of visitor engagement, often spearheaded by digital media. Mobile apps attempt to bring additional information and curatorial perspectives to museum objects; maker-spaces seek to engage visitors in a creative museum experience; increased presence on social media enhances visibility, and expanded websites provide online access to unprecedented archival riches. Museums are not only embracing and adapting new media technologies, they are also developing new ways to more closely merge existing and emerging practices. Attracting new audiences and expanding the museum experience beyond the physical institution are primary motivations to experiment and leverage new technologies. This lecture and seminar will investigate emerging practices at a variety of museums, with a special focus on visitor engagement and education. Participants will analyze a range of museum projects and experiments and evaluate them in light of their own institutional needs. The seminar will give participants hands-on experience with applying digital formats of engagement and learning to selected museum and archival collections.


Amelia Wong, “The ‘Open’ Museum: Digital Media, Access, and Engagement in the Early 21st Century”

This lecture and seminar will explore the question of how digital media can help museums serve the public by discussing two major trends in current rhetoric about museums: open access and digital storytelling. Each of these trends suggests how the museum’s approach to digital media has shifted over the past twenty years in relation to key concerns about what museum “access” and “engagement” mean in modern democracies. Our discussions will contextualize these efforts in relation to how we understand digital media today and to how they extend old tensions about the value of digital media as panacea or curse. The truth, of course, lies mostly in the middle. Special attention will be paid to efforts at the recently opened National Museum of African American History and Culture.


Local Museum Specialist and Visiting Artist in Week 3 include:

  • Lee Glazer, founding director of the Lunder Institute for American Art at Colby College (and former Associate Curator of American Art, Freer|Sackler Museums of Asian Art), in conversation with Visiting Artist Darren Waterston

Week 4: Participant Colloquia and Concluding Seminar

Karen Bassi and Gretchen Henderson

For the final seminar of the Institute, and to help orient the colloquia presentations of the Summer Scholars, the Directors will provide a comprehensive summary of the Institute’s themes, debates, and conclusions. Reviewing key terms and questions, we will focus on museums as sites for cross-disciplinary teaching and research and, more pointedly, as institutions that compel us to debate and evaluate the role of the humanities in the public sphere. The final seminar will also provide the opportunity to return to some of the foundational readings of the Institute, supplemented by the following:

  • Janes, Robert R. “Museums and Irrelevance” and “Searching for Resilience.” In Museums in a Troubled World: Renewal, Irrelevance or Collapse. New York: Routledge, 2009. 13-25 and 121-146.
  • Anderson, Gail, ed. Reinventing the Museum: The Evolving Conversation on the Paradigm Shift. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press, 2012. Selections.
  • Anne Boddington, Jos Boys and Catherine Speight, “Conclusion: Opportunities for the Future.” In Museums and Higher Education Working Together: Challenges and Opportunities, edited by Anne Boddington, Jos Boys and Catherine Speight. London and New York: Routledge, 2016 [2013]. 169-188.