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.
93. Bulgaria’s Narrow Gauge Railway Winds Through History. Ivan Pulevski Helped Turn One of Its Station Stops Into a Museum.
June 7th, 2021 | 11 mins 10 secs
In 1916, concerned that the remote Rhodope mountains would be hard to defend against foreign invaders, a young Bulgarian Kingdom decided to build a narrow gauge railway to connect villages and towns to the rest of the country. The Bulgarian King himself, Tsar Boris III, drove the first locomotive to the town of Belitsa to celebrate its opening. But the Septemvri - Dobrinishte Narrow Gauge Railway would far outlast the King and the Kingdom, the communist era that followed, and the rocky post-communst period.
Today, the railway is still a fixture of life in the region as a vital link to remote villages with no road access. But decades of neglect have left many stations crumbling. Train enthusiast Ivan Pulevski, a member of the organization “For The Narrow Gauge Railway,” helped found the House-Museum of the Narrow Gauge Railway in one of these abandoned stations. A sign on the building says the museum was built “for people, by people.”
In this episode, Pulevski describes the decision to build the museum using only volunteers, how to interpret multiple eras of Bulgarian history through the lens of a railway, and why they have had no plans to seek official museum accreditation in Bulgaria.
May 3rd, 2021 | 12 mins 22 secs
The Pleven Panorama transports visitors through time, but not space. The huge, hand-painted panorama features the decisive battles of the Russian-Turkish War of 1877–78, fought at this exact spot, which led to Bulgaria’s Liberation. The landscape of Pleven, Bulgaria depicted is exactly what you see outside the building, making it seem like you’re witnessing the battle on an observation point.
Bogomil Stoev is a historian at the Pleven Panorama, which opened in 1977. The opening was timed to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Ottoman Empire’s surrender following the battles and the siege of Pleven. The building itself is etched with the story of the siege and the battles, and because the landscape is filled with the remains of the combattants, this was the only structure allowed to be built on the spot.
In this episode, Stoev describes how the creators of the Pleven Panorama learned from previous panoramas, how the museum contextualizes the history of Bulgaria’s Liberation, and how this museum has become a symbol of the city of Pleven.
April 19th, 2021 | 12 mins 35 secs
Museums can be a shorthand for truth, or for history, or for what a culture values. Disney theme parks all around the world use fake museums as a tool to immerse visitors in the themed environment. This detailed world-building can make the imaginary universe more real—or provide a setup to subvert a narrative.
But these fake museums aren’t the only ways the Disney theme parks present history to visitors. Public experience advocate Shaelyn Amaio describes how the parks “traffic in the past.” By removing references to the present or a future with consequences, parks like Disneyland free the visitor from responsibility for what happened in history. Since the opening of Disneyland in 1955, there have been several iterations of Disney theme parks, each reflecting the way we think about knowledge and history in the times they were built.
In this episode, Amaio describes examples of fake museums in Disney theme parks, details how corporate-sponsored edutainment can reflect the public's anxiety, and explains why EPCOT has the most museum-like spaces at Disney theme parks.
90. Civil Rights Progress Isn't Linear. The Grove Museum Interprets Tallahassee's Struggle in an Unexpected Setting.
March 15th, 2021 | 14 mins 53 secs
The Grove Museum inside the historic Call/Collins House is one of Tallahassee’s newest museums, and it’s changing how the city interprets its own history. Instead of focusing on the mansion house’s famous owners, including Florida Governor LeRoy Collins, Executive Director John Grandage oriented the museum around civil rights. Cleverly tracing how Collins’s thinking on race relations evolved, the museum uses the house and the land it sits on to tell the story of the forced removal of indigenous people from the area, the enslaved craftspeople who built the house, and the Tallahassee Bus Boycott.
Grandage says the museum’s interpretive plan and focus on civil rights wouldn't have been possible without the work of Black Tallahassee institutions like John G. Riley House Museum created by Althemese Barnes or the Southeastern Regional Black Archives built from FAMU Professor James Eaton’s collection.
In this episode recorded at the museum, Grandage describes how historic preservation has always been about what the dominant culture finds worth persevering, the museum’s genealogical role, and the white backlash to Collins’s moderate positions on civil rights.
February 22nd, 2021 | 14 mins 47 secs
Dr. Tehmina Goskar, director of the Curatorial Research Centre, co-founded MuseumHour with Sophie Ballinger in October 2014. The weekly peer-to-peer chat on Twitter “holds space for debate” for museum people all around the world.
This month, Goskar officially steps back from her role at MuseumHour. This episode serves as both an “exit interview” for Goskar’s MusuemHour work and a chance to highlight other projects that she has founded based on her curatorial philosophy.
In this episode, Goskar discusses founding the Curatorial Research Centre, democratizing culture through her Citizen Curators program (in association with the Cornwall Museums Partnership), and how over six years of MuseumHour conversations have shaped her work.
88. Jérôme Blachon Collects and Transmits Precious Memories at the Museum of Resistance and Deportation in Haute-Garonne, France
January 25th, 2021 | 7 mins 25 secs
During World War II, a Nazi collbatoring regime governed the south of France, and the city of Toulouse was a Resistance hub. The Vichy Government promoted anti-Semitism and collaborated with the Nazis, most specifically by deporting Jews to concentration and extermination camps. Fragmented Resistance fighters organized to form escape networks and build logistics chains to sabotage and disrupt the regime.
In 1977, former Resistance members created a community museum in Toulouse about their experience. Today, that museum is called the Museum of Resistance and Deportation in Haute-Garonne, France, and is run by the regional government. Museum director Jérôme Blachon is reimagining how the museum tells the story of the French Resistance as the people who experienced firsthand pass away.
In this episode, Blachon describes the challenge of presenting the fragmented nature of the resistance to a modern audience, the 2020 renovation of the museum, and his focus on transmitting precious memories.
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 fights 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.