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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.”

MUSEUMS A5

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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Taylor moderated the discussion among the five panelists, posed questions and transmitted written questions from the audience that were handed to her.

Morgan Grefe, executive director of the Rhode Island Historical Society and one of the panelists, said there is an element of politics in many decisions, although not overtly political.

“The act of choosing and displaying objects has an innate bias,” she said. “It's not as simple as saying, 'That lamp cannot lie to me.'” This was a two-hour discussion that covered a wide range of topics covering museum affairs, but flashpoints of controversy in current affairs came up regularly. Trigger words within the context of historical presentation included “facts,” “alternative facts,” “memories,” “experiences” and “interpretations” - and how they can change with the times.

Kevin Levin, a historian, teacher and author, was also a member of the panel.

“The real battles are not going to take place in the museums,” he said. “They are going to take place in the high schools and earlier. This is a former high school teacher talking.”

He told how a 2011 Virginia textbook falsely claimed that “thousands of black Confederate soldiers” fought with Confederate Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson's during the famous Civil War campaign through the Shenandoah Valley in 1862.

It turned out the author of the textbook had used as a reference a “respectable looking website sponsored by a white supremacist organization,” he said.

Taylor Stoermer, a professor of history at Roger Williams University and visiting curator of public history for the Newport Historical Society, argued as a panel member that historic preservation is “not backward looking.”

“It's a radical act,” he said. “It is an effort to inform and shape the future. It's one of the ways we do it.”

There were many museum officials and historians in the audience of 65 people, including Elizabeth Francis, executive director of the state Council for the Humanities.

She spoke against the idea there is a set amount of philanthropic donations out there available to meet the competing needs of museums and nonprofit organizations. Those amounts are always in flux, she said.

It is also not always true that museums and organizations should avoid taking political stands because it could alienate donors, as well as potential visitors and clients, she said.

“The ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) has seen its donations increase by a multiple of six times their average annual contribution since the election of Donald Trump,” she said.

Flynn@NewportRI.com

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