Logan Douglas, South Africa, Museum Studies
Growing up in the deep south, I have been surrounded by debates about confederate heritage, race, and the removal of confederate monuments. These debates, I believe, overlap with similar conversations happening in South Africa surrounding monuments and the representation of racist knowledge in museums. While I believe that recognizing the problematic nature of our history is important, glorifying that history creates roadblocks which prevents society from moving forward. Many conflate remembering that history with celebrating a “whitewashed” vision of the past; the persistence of racist and colonial monuments exemplifies this conflation. I want to interrogate these connections in order to shape museums that tell more truthful stories.
Sociology and anthropology are important to my work, since they provide tools for interrogating the assumptions about culture, race, class and gender that have shaped and bedeviled the curatorial field. Beyond the ways in which collections are curated, such assumptions have also influenced the demographics of museum patrons and the diversity of staff members. As Agnes Scott College is the second most diverse college in the United States (one of the qualities which drew me to the institution), questions of inequalities and representation are at the forefront of most academic, political and social conversations here. Consequently, I have decided to study how inequality and diversity play out in American museums for my senior thesis in anthropology and sociology. I am focusing on how socio-economic inequality impacts museum accessibility. This is closely tied to how racial inequality impacts accessibility.
My thesis has been influenced by my studies of museums–specifically in a seminar I took in spring of my junior year called “African Art and the Museum”– and my trip to South Africa, during which my family learned about the history of apartheid as it applied to religious and social institutions. In the seminar we analyzed museums as colonial creations, and how they have been deployed as weapons of “soft power” by colonizers. In the past, western museums have supported western standards, thus reinforcing inequalities by affirming western ideals, art and cultures and undermining those of non-western peoples. I saw this clearly in what I learned of the history of South Africa during my trip, where museums during the era of apartheid treated the native peoples and their culture as “the other,” primal and exotic. I want to be part of the discourse which has been encouraging museum professionals to change this. I am captivated by a number of questions. How do museums participate in cultural colonization when studying non-western cultures? How do museums address this colonization and the resulting inequalities created? How are visitors and the cultures they come from impacted by these inequalities?
Following my Fulbright year, I will carry the answers to these and related questions into my graduate work. I would like to pursue graduate work at Oxford University’s School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography toward a vocation in museum curation. Oxford combines anthropology and museum studies in a way that will help me refine my study of colonialism, the museum, and non-western art and cultures. I believe this connection between anthropology and museum studies is essential for any good museum curator and administrator, as art is not only a result of the artist but also a result of the culture from which the artist hails. Curators, like artists are observers, commentators, and products of their culture. Through my time in South Africa and Oxford, I hope to gain the wisdom of cross-cultural perspectives as I explore the effects of the colonial history of museums. As I do so, I will confront my own history in order to shape changes that ameliorate past abuses and reframe future curatorial projects.