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Discussion keys on role of museums in politics

By Sean Flynn

Staff writer

NEWPORT - Museums don't usually get involved in politics but the Tenement Museum in New York, which celebrates immigrants' contributions to the United States, made an exception this week.

The impetus for the decision came when President Donald Trump made the unprecedented move of revoking the visas of all nationals from seven countries without notifying them, even those who are legally studying, working and living in the U.S.

“We are justly proud that immigrants continue to want to bring their dreams to this country - and that refugees have been able to escape homelands ravaged by the carnage of war, consumed by race hatred, and mired in self-destructive ignorance to rebuild their lives here,” said the museum's president, Morris J. Vogel, in a written statement. “At least they were until this past weekend.”

That act was part of a wideranging discussion held by museum experts in the Colony House on Friday afternoon about the changing role of museums today. The event was hosted by the Newport Historical Society and the featured guest on the panel was Frank Vagnone, co-author of “The Anarchist's Guide to Historic House Museums” and CEO of Old Salem Museums and Gardens in North Carolina.

While some other museums joined the Tenement Museum with political statements, Vagnone did not see a trend developing.

“New York City is one of the most liberal cities in the U.S.,” he said. “When the Museum of the Confederacy in Virginia does it, it will be big news. We have to be comfortable talking about our sites within the context of our own cities and states.”

Vagnone said the staff members of museums tend to be “progressive, highly liberal people,” but they answer to boards of directors that typically are not characterized that way.

“Board members are usually risk averse,” he said. “The boards are by their nature more conservative.”

Bob Beatty, chief of engagement for the American Association for State and Local History, was a member of the panel and representing an organization that did take a stand.

In response to Trump's executive order, the organization asked its members, “to share their exhibits and programs on immigration, refugees, religious tolerance, cultural distinctiveness, and related topics that provide the critical historical perspective our nation needs.”

“We are in uncharted waters talking about this issue,” Beatty said. “I think far too many historic houses are homogeneous. People go in, learn about the family that stayed there, and then get out. More museums need to be more like the Tenement Museum.”

Joining the Tenement was James Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust that operates the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. He issued a statement Wednesday with the title, “The Travel Ban Is Just Wrong.”

“If it continues, the travel ban will extract a high human cost in lost freedoms, livelihoods and careers, as well as a high social cost in lost innovation and discovery,” he wrote.

But the panel members agreed that museums taking political stands will remain a minority.

“Our mission doesn't include advocacy,” said Ruth Taylor, executive director of the Newport Historical Society. “We want to present historical information and artifacts that are relevant today, but we don't take political stands.”


Author and featured guest Frank Vagnone gestures on Friday afternoon during a roundtable discussion at the Colony House in Newport.

Sabrina Polin | Staff photographer

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