5 March 2021


  Musings Abroad | Jingshu Helen Yao

February is Black History Month. As a member outside of this community, I looked into different approaches to learn about black histories and cultures. Food is often a window to look into the relationship within or between communities.
Soul Food |iStock

In a paper where researcher Camille Bégin discussed the changes in writing about black food culture, Bégin pointed out that early culinary descriptions were used to reinforce stereotypical views and racialize African American communities. The image of black mammy cooking, a racial caricature of African American women, became a comfort for many during the great depression. This image is not an accurate representation of African American women and in some ways represents a negative stereotype. Regardless, with industrialization and social change, African American food has become a major part of cuisine in the southern United States.

Suya | flickr

Though soul food is the most well-known representation of African American cuisine, black food culture goes far beyond that. The Museum of Food and Drinks (MOFAD) in New York City focused on the culinary history of African Americans when putting together the exhibition “African/American: Making the Nation's Table”. One of the exhibition’s highlights was the “Legacy Quilt”, a quilt that stands 14 feet tall, spans 30 feet wide, and contains 406 blocks, each devoted to an individual who contributed to African American cuisine. The Ebony Test Kitchen, which was located at the headquarters for Johnson Publishing Company, was used as the test kitchen for Ebony Magazine’s food column. MOFAD acquired the kitchen set and recreated it as a tribute to the innovation of Ebony Magazine, which was known for challenging stereotypes and contributing to the evolution of African American cuisine. In addition to these objects, “African/American: Making the Nation's Table” featured a unique taste testing experience. Shoebox lunch was the food migrants stored for their trip during the Great Migration, which was an evolutionary period in African American history. Their food symbolizes the establishment of African American communities across the United States and the African American identity.

MOFAD "African/American: Making the Nation's Table” | Colorline

The global pandemic might have prevented us from traveling to exhibits and dining outside of our homes. However, there are other ways that we can learn about and appreciate black food culture. Dine Diaspora, an agency who introduces and expands the influence of African food culture around the world, has great resources on their website. 31 Days of Black Women in Food is an annual award by Dine Diaspora that celebrates the achievements of black women in the food and beverage industry. During the past 4 years, the organization has told different stories of hundreds of individuals through food. The nomination for 2021 award is currently in progress. Black stories and culture continue to endure through new culinary adventures. 

4 March 2021


Museum Mysteries | Jefimija Vujcic

Over this past Reading Week, I finally picked up one of my highly anticipated books, an historical fantasy titled The Invisible Life of Addie La Rue (2020) by V.E. Schwab. Looking for a break from coursework, I was amused to find a museum catalogue entry on the second page of the book! The notion of the museum – connected to themes of material memory, the act of collecting, and what it means to be (un)able to leave a mark – was recurring and so intriguing that it led to me writing this article.

A lot of us in the MMSt program are probably aware of some fiction prominently featuring museums, or can recall Night at the Museum (2006) as at least one example. The film’s premise is that the museum comes to life at night, prompting security guard Larry to quip, “Isn’t everything in this museum supposed to be, you know, dead?” Watched with a critical eye, the movie brings up questions around the purpose museums are meant to fulfill and how that purpose is viewed by the public. Also sticking out to me from childhood are The Lightning Thief (2005) and The Red Pyramid (2010). Both by Rick Riordan, the opening scene and the inciting incident respectively take part in museums. Museums set the necessary stage for these books, wherein tales from mythology are in fact true, bridging the past and the present.


For me, a few more recent reads drive home the metaphor of museums as doors or portals in fiction. In the urban fantasy Neverwhere (1996), there exists London Above (the world we know) and London Below (one just beneath it). These two worlds intersect and blur throughout the story, with one such memorable scene taking place in the British Museum. Moreover, one of the least likeable characters of the novel has big ambitions in the museum field. To this end, she constantly drags the main character Richard along museum-hopping. This leads Richard to regretfully conclude that, “the great art treasures of the world all blur into each other after a while.” With the foregrounding of a fantastical element, the mundane is brought into even greater focus. This is also the case for Metropolitan Stories by Christine Coulson. Read by the Museum Studies book club back in the summer, this magical realism collection sheds light on the eccentric staff who keep the Metropolitan Museum of Art running, often in very unexpected ways… Again, here is the idea that museums house objects that can bridge divergent times, worlds, and realities.

In addition to a number of other fantastical and adventure stories, many museum-related literary fiction titles have stuck out to me over the years. The Goldfinch (2013) begins at the Met and the main character’s connection to one particular painting from the Dutch Golden Age forms the core of the novel. From Dubravka Ugrešić’s experimental work Museum of Unconditional Surrender (1997) to Heather Rose's performance art-inspired Museum of Modern Love (2016), museum-related fiction takes advantage of the cultural baggage surrounding museums, both real and imagined.

The exterior of the Museum of Innocence, Istanbul, Turkey. Source.

The transformation of a fictional museum to one existing in real life is the journey of Nobel-prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence (2008). Set in Istanbul in the 1970s, the story focuses on the everyday objects collected by one man after a devastating heartbreak. Off the page, Pamuk had begun collecting items in the 1990s. The building which came to house them was given the title of European Museum of the Year in 2014. Far from just a marketing gimmick, this “museum, based on a novel, based on a museum” now exists and serves to start thought-provoking conversations about the city’s history.

Beyond providing a few more books to add to your reading lists (even more can be found here and here), I hope that this look at non-academic literature can spark useful critical consideration of how museums are (mis)interpreted and where all our preconceptions come from. In Emily St. John Mandel’s pandemic-focused novel Station Eleven (2012) and All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (2014), museums are projected to have lasting significance even in futures following apocalypse and devastating war. In our present, perhaps this literary reflection would assist us in creatively imagining a better future for museums. As one museum professional writes in a blog focusing on decolonization and Afrofuturism, “By reframing a museum as a portal, there is the potential for us to see ourselves as time travelling inventors capable of creating a different world.”

3 March 2021


In order to mitigate the risk that climate change poses to museums, should museums in coastal areas begin a managed retreat?

One of the proposed solutions for dealing with climate change, specifically the threat of rising sea levels is managed retreat. This involves a coordinated movement of people, and if possible, buildings away from threatened areas. Unfortunately, if we continue to ignore the warning signs of climate change and do not change our behaviour, this may become our only choice.

Climate change is a global issue facing many museums. In the United States, over a third of museums in the US are within 100km of the coast, and a quarter of these museums are located in high-risk areas. This means that they will almost certainly have to deal with potentially permanent flooding and increased severe weather that posses a massive threat of damaging or destroying museum collections.

Museums within 100km of the Gulf Coast and associated risk level of sea-level rise. (Source)

There are various pros and cons that museums will need to consider if they decide that a managed retreat is necessary.

  • Lowers the risk of environmental damage.
  • It may be the only available option to save the museum.
  • The cost of a total collection move, and a new building.
  • High risk of potentially damaging the collection during the move.
  • Abandonment of community connections.

Flood Damage at the 9/11 Memorial Museums in New York City after Hurricane Sandy in 2012. (Source)

Along with the pros and cons of a managed retreat, there are also significant obstacles that will make the process extremely difficult.
  • Coastal areas currently offer massive benefits to museums, they have high tourism, and the coast is the location of major economic centres.
  • Currently there is no political agreement on the best course of action for undertaking a managed retreat. (Or responding to climate change in general.)
  • There is still uncertainly of the level of risk.
  • We are attached to our homes.
  • Finally, and must crucially, museums abandoning communities which they have been situated in for years sends a bad message to those that they are leaving behind. This will clearly make evident the economic inequity of the organization compared to those who do not have the opportunity to retreat despite the risk.
It is difficult to argue for or against a managed retreat. On the collections management and preservation side of the argument, a managed retreat may be the only way to ensure the preservation of museum collections in the future. If this is considered the main purpose of a museum then a managed retreat is what is best for the museum. But, if the purpose of a museum is a place to bring together diverse voices, participatory experiences, and as a centre for community togetherness, then a managed retreat is abandoning the people who we should be serving.

I really hope that this is a theoretical situation and that collectively we will find other ways to address climate change before it gets to the point of having to abandon entire cities. But, if one day in the future it gets to the tipping point where managed retreat is necessary, I do not envy whoever has to make the ultimate decision.

2 March 2021


Technology Tuesday | Jaime Meier

I was thrilled to get the chance to visit the ancient city of Troy while I was on a tour through Turkey in 2019. The city was made infamous through the stories of Homer – detailing the decade of battle and the adventure home to Greece. The city re-appeared in my undergrad as an example of horrific archaeology practices that have likely destroyed the possibility of finding objects of significant historical value. Through lessons from the past and new technology, these issues have largely been avoided, as reflected in the case of the Terracotta Army in Xi’an, China.  

The City of Troy | Photo courtesy of Jaime Meier

In 1873, Heinrich Schliemann, an amateur archaeologist from Germany, dedicated his post-retirement life to finding the city of Troy due to the impact of the Iliad on his childhood. Without a permit from Turkish authorities and against the advice of other archaeologists, Schliemann began his assult on the site. One of his major projects was digging a giant trench that went down through nine different layers of the city of Troy – uncovering evidence of cities being built on top of each other and also causing untold damage to original buildings. It is incredible that Schliemann was able to find the site and due to his haste and desire for infamy, our understandings of the ancient city may be permanently affected. 

The different layers, indicating a new city, is marked by numbered plaques | Photo courtesy of Jaime Meier

The terracotta army was discovered in 1974 by farmers and the excavation, led by Zhao Kangmin began shortly after. The initial excavation in Pit 1 lasted 10 years, resulting in the discovery of over 1000 terracotta figures. The project was paused in 1986 and would remain untouched until 2009, as the archaeology teams recognized the need for more advanced technology to uncover the remaining objects and patiently waited for the equipment to become available. The excavation of pit 2 went similarly, with efforts being paused in the late-1990s due to concerns around object damage, with projects restarting in 2015 with new technology and strategies. While the discovery of new objects is always exciting, it is imperative to prioritize preservation of the objects and community needs over the personal gains achieved through quickly gathering objects for sale.

The terracotta army | Source

While the ideas and technology surrounding archaeology had changed considerably during the excavations of Troy and the Terracotta Army, an interesting difference is also the locality of the people making decisions regarding the sites. In the case of Troy, Schliemann was a German businessman and amateur archaeology. While the Terracotta Army had the great fortunate of being initially discovered by farmers, who alerted local archaeologists, including Zhao, who went to the site. The difference between these men is not inherently their experience, but rather the respect shown to the sites. As someone not from the area and a budding interest, Schliemann had no issue in exploiting the site based on personal interest and gain, whereas Zhao was able to recognize the importance of the site to not only his history, but the history of others. Unearthing new discoveries is exciting and it is also crucial for all archaeologists to follow the example of Zhao in centering community needs and long-term preservation.