“How do you feel your international museum work has changed you personally and professionally?” This question, posed by Clara Hatcher, co-founder of Bay Area Emerging Museum Professionals, was a perfect follow-up to three provocative presentations that took place at USF on February 7, 2013. The program was titled Beyond Borders: International Museum Initiatives and was co-sponsored by USF and Cultural Connections. Attended by professionals from organizations as diverse as the Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose and West Office Exhibition Design, the goal of the gathering was to explore how American museum practices are influencing and connecting with museum initiatives around the world.
Marjorie Schwarzer began by reminding us that museums have always been, by their very nature, international and expansive in scope: miniature worlds unto themselves. After World War I and then again after World War II, American museum professionals became increasingly involved in cross-cultural exchanges through projects like the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Historic Monuments in War Areas and USIA.
The expansion of international flight routes in the 1970s and 80s and the Internet in the 2000s and 2010s havr brought the world even closer together. Today, we are seeing an unprecedented interest in museums and heritage sites around the world, especially in the BRICS countries, the Middle East and Latin America. Museum professionals are especially interested in three signature American museum practices: creating dynamic exhibitions that attract audiences; encouraging free speech and artistic expression; and training professionals. All of these practices have a wider implication than just building better museums. They embody Harvard University professor Joseph Nye’s notion of soft diplomatic power and cultural diplomacy: museums as vehicles for advancing the values of the free market economy and of democracy.
The first speaker, John Zarobell, described his recent research on new contemporary art museums in Shanghai and Delhi. Professor Zarobell highlighted these museums’ roles in advancing social change in their communities, noting the gleaming Kiran Nadar Museum of Art that opened in Delhi in 2010. This private museum purposely staged its current exhibition 7 Contemporaries to coincide with the India Art Fair, a destination for globe-trotting collectors and curators. All of the featured artists from India and the subcontinent are women, a remarkable statement at a time when gender equity and women’s safety is at the forefront of media coverage about the subcontinent. Professor Zarobell’s full report on the India Art Fair can be read here. Professor Zarobell will be teaching the course “Special Topics: Art and Global Economy” this fall.
Paula Birnbaum expanded on the power of freedom of expression and how museums can be agents of change, highlighting some of her recent work in Israel. Through its exhibition Matronita: Jewish Feminist Art, the Museum of Art, Ein Harod provides an important platform for religious women, who are using art to express their ambivalence and, at times, anguish at their place within their communities. In Jerusalem, the Museum on the Seam displays contemporary art work that deals with human rights and different aspects of Israel’s socio-political reality. Dr. Birnbaum’s essay “Israeli Women Artists and Institutional Critique: Modern Feminism Meets Jewish Law” will appear in a forthcoming anthology on contemporary Israel edited by Frederick Greenspahn (New York University Press).
Elisabeth Cornu, former objects conservator at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, rounded out the panel by sharing what she has learned from her experiences training museum workers in numerous museums in the Caribbean, South America and Africa. Being multi-lingual helps, but as importantly, anyone interested in studying and ultimately assisting museum initiatives abroad needs to be open-minded, sensitive and flexible. How has working internationally changed her both personally and professionally? “Different cultures value their objects and collections differently,” she shared. “I worked once with collections in Ghana and the people who I was staying with invested their objects with a kind of power that challenged my training as a scientist and conservator. That really opened my eyes. But most of all, I’ve made so many new friends. I now have friends around the world and lots of couches to sleep on whenever I travel.”