Month: July 2019

Museums and the Future

In a recent opinion piece in the NY Times, Museums Need to Step Into the Future, Darren Walker calls for museums to embrace a new and more diverse society, to relinquish their role as “guardians of a fading social and demographic order.” Instead, he believes, “museums have the responsibility to hold a mirror up to society.” He offers a few key reasons for his position. Museums in their current form

  • exclude large swaths of society;
  • exploit rank-and-file employees and grossly underpay them while enriching the administrative ranks;
  • threaten the “underpinnings of democracy.”

The solution he offers is “diversity.”

Darren Walker calls for more diversity in museums.

The problems are real but not unique to museums, and his solution has considerable value but likewise is not unique to museums. I worry that diversity, however earnest, has become a fetish that distracts from the issues that can bring about transformation Walker hopes to see.1 Yes, Walker is absolutely right, museums from the boards down need to be more diverse in every possible way, but we need to recognize that this diversity in itself will not bring about transformation. It might help attract new visitors, but will fall well short of inclusivity until we change society in a way that makes museums a welcoming past-time for larger swaths of society. Until we make it possible for larger swaths of society to feel comfortable and welcome in a museum. Until we make it possible for larger swaths of society to have the spare time and be able to afford the entrance fees. Until we move museums out of the exclusive neighborhoods and their august buildings that exclude either actively or passively large swaths of society. Until, that is, we change what museums are.

Perhaps a more fruitful way forward is to imagine a new type of institution that serves the varied and broad populations Walker wants museums to serve. A new institution that doesn’t assume first and foremost that cultures are best served through the preservation and presentation of art and artifacts. Museums, after all, have never been about inclusion or diversity. They have always been about the wealthy projecting their authority and cultural values, usually to other wealthy and powerful people. And a robust current of colonialism flows through the museum. The very act of collecting and preserving is an exercise of privilege.

Maybe we shouldn’t expend too many resources on changing museums and, instead, work toward a new type of institution that doesn’t depend on exclusion and colonialism, the K. Wayne Yang has urged us to think about a “third University.”2 Maybe.


  1. It seems elite institutions are struggling with a remarkably similar set of problems and have glommed onto “diversity” as the solution. Unfortunately, diversity itself risks being the problem because the “guardians of the fading social and demographic order” get to determine what and how much qualifies as diversity, and determines what is seen as successful diversity. In other words, it’s too easy (and comfortable) for diversity to become a tool that supports the established social order and, paradoxically, limits the very transformations diversity was meant to bring about.  ↩

  2. Yang analyzes universities and other schooling systems to uncover the ways that despite their hopes and claims universities continue to support colonialist projects.  ↩

Astrolabes & Navigation (redux, again)

A friend recently visited Philadelphia’s Please Touch Museum and came across the reference to the astrolabe in Muslim culture. Thinking of me, she snapped a photo and sent it to me:

“The Science of Navigation” panel inaccurately claims that astrolabes were used in navigation.

While I am delighted to see astrolabes in a children’s museum, I am disheartened to see a museum misrepresenting them. The myth that astrolabes were used as navigational instruments is persistent and pernicious.[1]

The Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia is not directly responsible for this panel or its content. The panel is part of a traveling exhibition created by the Children’s Museum of Manhattan: “America to Zanzibar: Muslim Culture Near and Far.” After leaving the Please Touch Museum, the panel and its myth will travel with the complete exhibit to the Sabeel Center, Des Plaines (IL).

The Children’s Museum of Manhattan is responsible for disseminating this particular falsehood.

I am surprised that a museum drawing on “an international network of advisors from academia, research, civil society, government and the arts” ended up trafficking in such falsehoods. Perhaps the person assigned to work on this panel did some “research” and found (likely online) numerous references that repeat this falsehood. For example, the otherwise reputable looking ThoughtCo, with the tagline “Lifelong Learning,” has a recently updated post: “The Astrolabe: Using the Stars for Navigation and Timekeeping.”[2] This post, its title, and much of its content are inaccurate and wrong. Apparently amongst the long list of advisors to the exhibition nobody raised any concerns about astrolabes as navigational instruments.[3] I wonder if anybody thought to contact an expert, not some generic academic but a historian of astronomy or a historian of scientific instruments. If so, how did that expert not catch the error?

Alas. Truth and accuracy (historical or otherwise) require more work and constant diligence.

To be perfectly clear:

Astrolabes were not developed as navigational instruments and were never used as navigational instruments.[4]


  1. Yes, mariner’s astrolabes were used in navigation, but that’s a different, purely observational instrument designed to determine the altitude of celestial objects while on a moving ship (whether or not you want to call it a type of astrolabe is up to you—I tend not to think of them as astrolabes).  ↩

  2. Online references to astrolabes as navigational instruments are about as common as online references to Columbus proving the earth is round.  ↩

  3. Many of these organizations should have known better (and have experts who surely do know better):
    30 Mosques in 30 Days, Aga Khan Museum, Al Amana Centre, Albanian Institute New York, Arab American Association of New York, Auburn Theological Seminary, BoomGen Studios, Columbia University, Fordham University, The Halal Guys, Honest Chops, Indian Ocean World Centre, The Interfaith Center of New York, International Museum of Women, Jewish Community Relations Council, Jewish Community Center Manhattan, Malcolm Shabazz Harlem Market, Manhattan College, Marble Collegiate Church, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Middle Collegiate Church, MIIM Designs, Muslim Community Network, New York City Government, NYC Office of the Mayor, New York Public Library – Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Pakistan Mission to the United Nations, Shaoor Foundation for Education and Awareness, Sikh Coalition, Tarek Atrissi Design, Temple University, Unity Productions Foundation, University of Pennsylvania  ↩

  4. See note 1.  ↩