A tiny show guiding you through the rocky landscape of museums. Museum Archipelago believes that no museum is an island and that museums are not neutral.
Taking a broad definition of museums, host Ian Elsner brings you to different museum spaces around the world, dives deep into institutional problems, and introduces you to the people working to fix them. Each episode is never longer than 15 minutes, so let’s get started.
November 16th, 2020 | 9 mins 13 secs
bulgaria, museum of humor
Vitosha Mountain, the southern border of Sofia, Bulgaria, is home to about 15 brown bears and one bear museum. According to Dr. Nikola Doykin, fauna expert at the Vitosha Nature Park Directorate, the bear population is stable—that is if humans stay away and protect their habitat. To Doykin and his team, teaching children about the bears is the best way forward, and the Vitosha Bear Museum does just that.
Founded in 2002 by repurposing an abandoned mountain shelter for the Vitosha mountain rangers, the Vitosha Bear Museum provides “useful tips on how to meet a bear.” It’s also sparse: the entire gallery is a single room, and the gallery lighting is powered by a car battery.
In this episode recorded at the museum, Dr. Nikola Doykin describes why the location is so useful for eco education, how groups of schoolchildren react to exhibits, and what the museum plans to do when it installs solar panels.
September 21st, 2020 | 13 mins 25 secs
History professor Dr. James Eaton taught his students with the mantra: “African American History is the History of America.” As chair of the history department at FAMU, a historically Black University in Tallahassee, Florida, he was used to teaching students how to use interlibrary loan systems and how to access rare book collections for their research. But in the early 1970s, as his students' research questions got more in depth and dove deeper into Black history, he realized that there simply weren't enough documents. So he started collecting himself, driving a bus around South Georgia, South Alabama, and North Florida to gather artifacts.
That collection grew to become the Meek-Eaton Southeastern Regional Black Archives Research Center and Museum on FAMU’s campus. Today, museum director Dr. Nashid Madyun presides over one of the largest repositories of African American history and culture in the Southeast.
In this episode, Madyun describes how the structure of the gallery flights the compression of Black history, how the archive handles dehumanizing records and artifacts, and how a smaller museum can tell a major story.
85. The John G. Riley House is All That Remains of Smokey Hollow. Althemese Barnes Turned It Into a Museum on Tallahassee’s Black History
August 31st, 2020 | 14 mins 54 secs
During the period of Jim Crow and the Black Codes, a self-sustaining Black enclave called Smokey Hollow developed near downtown Tallahassee, Florida. As the first Black principal of Lincoln High School, John G. Riley was a critical part of the neighborhood. In 1890, he built a two-story house for his family—only about three blocks from where he was born enslaved.
In the 1960s, the city of Tallahassee seized and destroyed the neighborhood as part of an urban renewal project through eminent domain. Riley's house was all that remained, thanks to activists who fought its demolition. Althemese Barnes was determined to not let the history fade: as founding director of John G. Riley Research Center and Museum, she transformed the building into a place where people can learn about Smokey Hollow.
In this episode, Barnes talks about creating a museum to connect with young visitors, the process of becoming familiar with Florida's museum organizations which are often resistant to interpreting Black history, and the long process of building a commemoration to Smokey Hollow in Tallahassee’s urban landscape.
August 10th, 2020 | 14 mins 25 secs
monument avenue, statues
Near the empty pedestals of Confederate figures that used to tower over Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia, a new type of historical marker now stands. The markers have most of the trappings of a state-erected historical plaque—but these are rogue markers erected by a group of anonymous historians called History is Illuminating.
July 6th, 2020 | 14 mins 59 secs
Chris Newell remembers the almost giddy level of excitement he felt when he visited the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor, Maine as a kid. Every summer, the family drove for more than two hours for his father to perform songs about their Passamaquoddy language at the Native Market and the Native American Festival hosted by the museum.
But even as a young person, Newell could clearly see the difference between the the Native Market and the Festival, which were run by members of the Wabanaki Nations, and the Museum itself, which was not.
Today, Chris Newell, a Passamaquoddy citizen, is the first member of the Wabanaki Nations to lead the Abbe Museum. When he took on the role, the museum changed his title to Executive Director and Senior Partner to Wabanaki Nations, one of many steps toward decolonizing the museum and shifting power. In this episode, Newell describes how to spot a colonial museum, how museums’ default colonial mindset—including when it comes to maps and language—harms everyone, and his plan for his tenure.
June 15th, 2020 | 11 mins 1 sec
In the wake of the racist murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Black Lives Matter protesters in Bristol tore down a statue of Edward Colston, a prominent 17th Century slave trader. Protesters rolled the statue through the street and pushed it into Bristol Harbor — the same harbor where Colston’s Royal African Company ships that forcibly carried 80,000 people from Africa to the Americas used to dock.
In this episode, we examine the relationship of statues and museums. Why do so many call for statues of people like Colston to end up in a museum instead of at the bottom of a harbor? Looking at examples from Dr. Lyra Montero’s Washington's Next! project in the United States, American Hall of Honor museums for college football teams, and statues of Lenin and Stalin in Eastern Europe, we discuss the town-square-to-museum pipeline for statues.
June 1st, 2020 | 12 mins 30 secs
Old Sturbridge Village is a living history museum in Massachusetts depicting life in rural New England during the early 19th century. But the early 19th century isn’t specific enough for the site’s historical interpreters—to immerse visitors in the world they’re recreating, knowing exactly what year it “is” matters.
Tom Kelleher, Historian and Curator of Mechanical Arts at Old Sturbridge Village was tasked with choosing that “default” date. He chose 1838 in part because the social and political change of that time period would resonate with today’s visitors. But there’s another aspect of the year that will resonate with visitors today once the museum reopens after closing due to Covid-19: how people in New England responded to the Cholera Pandemic of the 1830s.
In this episode, Kelleher describes the difference between first and third person interpretation, and how visitors might react to seeing 19th century costumed interpreters with modern facemasks.
May 4th, 2020 | 15 mins 25 secs
The British Museum’s South Asia Collection is full of Indian objects. Dr. Sushma Jansari, Tabor Foundation Curator of South Asia at the British Museum, does not want visitors to overlook the violence of how these objects were brought to the UK to be held in a museum.
So for the 2017 renovation of the South Asia Collection, Jansari, who is the first curator of Indian descent of this collection, made sure to create unexpected moments in the gallery. She highlighted artifacts bequeathed to the museum by South Asian collectors and presented photographs of a modern Jain Temple in Leicester, where she’s from.
In this episode, Jansari talks about giving visitors the tools to think about the colonial interest in items in the collection, why she started her excellent podcast, The Wonder House, and how not to let the decolonization movement’s momentum evaporate.
April 20th, 2020 | 13 mins 44 secs
The modern museum invites you to touch. Or it would, if it wasn’t closed due to the Covid-19 outbreak. The screens inside the Fossil Hall at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC say “touch to begin” to an empty room. The normally cacophonous hands-on exhibits at the Exploratorium in San Francisco sit eerily silent.
Museum exhibit developer Paul Orselli says he’ll be reluctant to use hands-on exhibits once museums open up again. But he hopes that future hands-on exhibits are more meaningful because museums will work harder to justify them.
In this episode, Orselli predicts what hands-on exhibits could become, the possibility that the crisis will encourage museums to adhere to universal design principles instead of defaulting to touchscreens, and how Covid-19 might finally put an end to hands-on mini grocery store exhibits in children's museums.
March 30th, 2020 | 13 mins 5 secs
Museums across the globe are now closed because of Covid-19. Some of those shuttered galleries presented the science behind outbreaks like the one we’re living through.
As Raven Forrest Fruscalzo, Content Developer at the Field Museum in Chicago and host of the Tiny Vampires Podcast points out, the fact that museums are closed is an important statement: they trust the scientific information.
In this episode, Forrest Fruscalzo discusses the people that make up public health, how museums can be a trusted source of public health information, and examples of museum galleries that incorporate public health.
March 16th, 2020 | 14 mins 37 secs
The statue of George Washington in New York City's Union Square commemorates him on a particular day—November 25th, 1783—the date when the defeated British Army left Manhattan after the American Revolutionary War. The statue celebrates the idea that Washington brought freedom to the country, but professor of history at Rutgers University-Newark Dr. Lyra D. Monteiro researched how many people of African descent that Washington was enslaving on that same date: 271.
Representing these people formed the heart of Washington's Next!, a participatory commemorative experience focused around that statue. In this episode, Monteiro describes how a tweet from President Trump was the inspiration for the name, how passersby reacted to the project, and the subtle ways that public monuments have power.
March 2nd, 2020 | 12 mins 39 secs
Sometimes, a historical event is all about the branding. And the brand of Plymouth Rock in Plymouth, Massachusetts as the spot where the Mayflower Pilgrims first disembarked 400 years ago this year is pretty strong.
The branding is strong enough to override the fact that the Mayflower actually first landed on the other side of Cape Cod, in what is now Provincetown. The Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum commemorates that site. And even within a museum that’s trying to correct an inaccuracy, it has its own to grapple with: the museum used to portray the meetings between the members of the Wampanoag Nation and the Mayflower pilgrims with dehumanizing murals.
In this episode, Courtney Hurst, board president of the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum, describes how the museum is working to correct these inaccuracies by working closely with the Wampanoag Nation. And as the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower arrival approaches, the museum is in the middle of yet another rebrand. Just as the word pilgrim was reframed by Mayflower passenger William Bradford as a way to tie his journey to stories in the Christian Bible, the museum is reframing the word pilgrim to include recent Provincetown history.