Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 21, 2018
Jane Chin Davidson and Sandra Esslinger, eds. Global and World Art in the Practice of the University Museum London: Routledge, 2017. 196 pp.; 20 color ills. Cloth $149.95 (9781138656826)

In the edited volume Global and World Art in the Practice of the University Museum, scholars Jane Chin Davidson and Sandra Esslinger share several essays that trace the role of university museums in developing new ways of thinking about art within a larger, global context. This framework acknowledges the complexity of contemporary geopolitical and social interfaces and how these affect the production and reception of works of art. Occasioned by the fiftieth anniversary of the Fowler Museum UCLA, the book focuses on the museum’s relationship with the University of California Los Angeles as a means for grounding the essays and guiding readers through the book’s content.

The editors and essayists assume that most readers will be familiar with a system of object classification that distinguishes between ethnographic artifact collections mostly taken from colonized lands and works of art made in Europe and English-speaking North America. Referencing a long-standing practice of collecting objects from colonized lands for anthropological collections rather than museums of art, the introduction lays the groundwork for a series of essays that points our attention toward museums of art that are disrupting this flawed distinction.

The essays have been curated to spark conversations within a larger dialogue ushered in by globalization. In this case, the authors are focused on research university museums that are providing leadership in rethinking the role these institutions play. These essays would be a valuable addition to library collections and are most useful to museum professionals and scholars of museum studies; some essays are well suited for students in museum studies, curatorial studies, anthropology, and ethnic studies. Most essays will be more abstractly useful to those among the majority of practitioners who work with fewer resources or support to redress the museum industry’s participation in colonialization. The work of reorganizing collections and exhibition programs to embrace and include a larger and more globalist array of interpretive, curatorial, and learning frameworks is just the tip of the iceberg for the difficulties many museums will face. Yet even that limited focus presents significant challenges to institutions embedded within universities underprepared or unwilling to tackle the “epistemological and political partisanship,” to use Donald Preziosi’s words (40), that guides museums and their host institutions.

This global moment has conditioned a series of concerns and opportunities in which all museums have some stake. The need to repatriate works of art, the abundance of incorrect interpretive texts still hanging in galleries, and the continuing absence of people of color on museum staffs are but a few of these. To the end that these essays introduce us to the foundational circumstances of the Fowler’s success in addressing these critical issues, the content of this volume is valuable. A secondary outcome of the book is that the essays further develop a category of museums that are distinguishing themselves as driven by scholarly innovation and a sense of equity. The museum subjects of the essays are largely an emergent kind of museum within an academy still clinging to models obsessed with organizing works of art by style, period, Western models of time, and modernist emphases on progress, innovation, and individual genius.

In his essay, Preziosi proposes that it is possible to agree that the museum “has been challenged and problematized not only by recent developments in art, technology, and science, but also by the spread of museums to societies and cultures . . . where local and indigenous ideas about the nature and functions of objects or artifacts are often very different than those assumed as natural or universal within the dominant history of the Western traditions” (41). His essay and others offer limited comparative analyses with other museums here and there, but with only a few exceptions, the essays favor calling out what needs doing over descriptions of how it is done. In between this text and Lord and Lord’s Manual of Museum Exhibitions, there are few books that explore the specific practicalities of revising museum practice to reflect globalist concerns.

Davidson names institutions like the Manchester Museum as having “adopted the contemporary-art approach in which interventions and collaborations with contemporary global artists can create a repatriating context” around museum objects (67). It may not be obvious to the reader that far too few museums are engaging this work. Ultimately, a question left unexplored is whether a repatriating context is needed or, rather, if actual repatriation is best. Related to this is the question of how, among the array of work they do, museums have been complicit in imperialism and colonialist efforts. How do museums redress deleterious work they’ve advanced, especially if they are not willing to acknowledge the harm they have helped cause? Engaging this question, especially here, is one means for better understanding how to move forward.

Gemma Rodriques and Lothar von Falkenhausen describe the specific conditions at UCLA that helped cultivate a local propensity for engaging transformative museum work. Rodrigues writes that in the 1950s and 1960s, “postwar shifts in intellectual priorities and approaches were especially felt at UCLA” (79), and led to a number of hires and scholarly innovation against the background of which “the Fowler emerged as a museum with a very different mandate: to celebrate the wholeness of all human beings through their artistic heritage and to take an interdisciplinary approach to exploring art and aesthetics” (81).

Claire Farago’s essay begins by acknowledging the ways UCLA helped shape her own research and continues with a highly readable and inspiring argument for expanding the work of museums and programs devoted to telling a fuller global art history. In a stirring sequence of paragraphs, Farago advocates for working with cultural materials in a way that “does not rely on modern categories such as nation-states, continents, period styles, and other monolithic and often anachronistic entities” (116).

Catherine M. Cole’s essay succeeds in continuing to explore and poke at the set of possibilities available to institutions of higher education asking how the university’s strengths, including its archives and collections, can be a foundation for innovation (132). Selma Holo engages with Cole’s entry to advocate for a reinvention of the museum studies and art history PhD curriculum inspired by the principle strengths of liberal arts programs and the larger university model.

Both Esslinger’s closing essay and the opening essay by Fowler director Marla C. Berns propose specific methods for developing a global museum. Esslinger promotes the Fowler’s three tactics for exhibition display as particularly valuable to readers who seek to translate the Fowler’s success. In the exhibition Fowler at Fifty, which is described at useful length by Berns, Esslinger recognizes that the museum found success through “(1) the utilization of the current cultural stakeholders to give voice for their culturally valuable historical objects; (2) the representation of the complexity and heterogeneity of identity made visible within the museum space; and (3) the use of contemporary objects juxtaposed with historical objects that provide a multiplicity of cultural perspectives” (169). While the language of utilizing stakeholders (rather than partnering with them) is a bit unfortunate, both Esslinger and Berns’s essays offer the strongest ideas for nurturing a more equitable and inclusive global museum.

Conspicuously missing from this publication are the expressed perspectives of the “current cultural stakeholders,” who certainly have many valuable ideas to contribute to a book considering the university museum. These scholars exist; anthropologist and curator Nancy Marie Mithlo has long advocated for incorporating not only Native American bodies in museums but also Native thought, and curator Cecilia Fajardo-Hill has spoken and written on the mechanics of curatorial work that includes Latina artists.

Readers would likely find added benefit in hearing not just that museums like the Fowler are being named as global museums, but more on how they are dealing with difficult museum issues from a global perspective. On this topic, Berns’s essay shines brightest. The book would be improved, for example, if at least one essay leveraged global perspectives to address hot-button issues like preserving objects that were originally intended to decay and return to the earth or that countless museums and host institutions benefit economically from presenting the cultural objects of peoples who continue to live in poverty. Yes, the essayists here are arguing for including contemporary stakeholders, but is that not unlike inviting displaced people to come for an overnight visit to the house taken from them? One might argue that returning objects to their original owners is not possible because the original owners cannot be found or that that there are not enough scholars from these communities to hire for museum work. Surely the reasons for this have something to do with decades and centuries of cultural genocide, institutionalized racism, and an almost unyielding insistence on Western ways of learning and knowing. A book on the global museum is not complete without delving more deeply into the underlying issues.

The Fowler and other museums are doing important work, but it is not always enough. Even museums making progress with the left hand are still acting with the right. The French government is praised for moving collections held at the Louvre and elsewhere to the Quai Branly museum, also in Paris, whereas these objects might have been moved to the lands from which they were originally taken. If only the Yombe people had Abu Dhabi’s billions to build a museum and pay for the privilege of borrowing works from the Louvre that originally belonged to them.

Paul Baker Prindle
Director, University Galleries, University of Nevada, Reno