And speaking of museums . . .

As the New York Times reports, the national Association of Art Museum Directors just issued guidelines on dealing with artifacts in their care that belong to, or at least belonged to, Indian tribes.  This, coupled with a pair of efforts to attach antiquities at the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute in payment of an Iranian government debt, highlights the dual role of museums: collectors of things and representatives of values. 

Presumably our values include "Thou shalt not steal" but museums are inevitably full of stolen objects.  Presumably our values also include the idea that people who can speak for themselves shouldn’t be spoken for by others; that’s the essence of democracy.  But museums exist to help us see ourselves in ways we wouldn’t without their assistance–and that means having them present, and represent, people in ways they may not have chosen.  The tension between these ideals first struck me on a visit to Alaska, where the Anchorage Museum of History and Art represented Native people from an orthodox anthropological perspective while the then-new Alaska Native Heritage Center rejected that perspective and substituted a less scholarly approach in its effort to be true to the roots of Alaskan culture.  It recurred several years ago when the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of the American Indian ran afoul of some Native representatives who claimed ownership of the subject, or at least were unprepared to cede ownership to the curatorial priesthood.

There’s no lesson here about nonprofit management, except to illustrate the importance to our culture of organizations run, ultimately, by volunteer Boards of Directors–which is to say, representatives of the community.  The routine tension in nonprofits between professional staff and amateur Board is exacerbated where, as here, professional norms are being challenged by amateurs, whether on the Board or off it.

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