There have been times over the past 30+ years of my museum career when I've recalled the words of my dear departed Italian immigrant grandfather when he first learned about my career choice, "Why do you want to work at a museum? Museums are for rich people!"
Of course, from a historical perspective, he was absolutely right as museums have always been a place to display colonial spoils, robber baron largesse, or serve as monuments to wealthy patrons. But a part of me has always believed that museums could be held to higher standards than other organizations.
Recently my grandfather's words came forcefully to mind with current news reports. Following multiple lawsuits related to the opioid crisis, there has been much hand-wringing and pearl-clutching from some large museums declaring they will now refuse money from various members of the Sackler family (who added to their already sizeable fortunes through companies vigorously promoting said opioids.)
Why is it that museums so often take these "principled" stands after they've already collected the loot? I mean, I don't see any museums offering to give previously collected Sackler money back (if that was even possible ...)
It would be much more impressive if museums took these showy public stands before some of their donors or board members used their museum ties to "culture wash" their cash. However, given diminishing public funding for museums and other cultural institutions (President Trump proposed again to eliminate PBS, NEH, NEA, and IMLS in his latest budget!) museums must dance a fine line when it comes to keeping those donations coming -- which creates some interesting optics -- like climate change deniers on the boards of science museums, and art museum donors whose companies make the tear gas canisters and smoke grenades used against migrants at the southern border.
Museums talk a great game when it comes to high intellectual and ethical standards, but when pushed, most cultural organizations seem to hold their noses and take the cash. Can't we do better than this?
Somewhere in the great beyond, my grandfather is laughing.
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