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What museum objects and Sesame Street have in common

On 6 November, Big Bird, a beloved character on Sesame Street received the COVID-19 vaccine, as announced on the Muppet’s Twitter account. This may seem like a strange way to start a discussion of museum politics, especially the discussion of museum and object neutrality, but the response to a recognisable public figure sharing their vaccination status is a good model for explaining how the idea of museum neutrality persists to the present day.

Acknowledging the power of museums to be socially purposeful organisations is important to show how much good museums can do

Big Bird, and Sesame Street as a whole, is not neutral and has always presented an agenda, just like museums, whether the public, politicians and news outlets are comfortable acknowledging it.

Government propaganda

While many, including President Biden and CDC Director Dr Rochelle Walensky, thanked the six-year-old Muppet for protecting himself and others, some were not as supportive. Ted Cruz criticised the tweet “as government propaganda,” and Fox News’s Lisa Boothe accused Big Bird of “brainwashing children”.

Lavern Spicer, who is currently running for a seat in Congress for the state of Florida wrote that the well-known and well-loved figures of Big Bird and Elmo were being used “to push the drug” and a government, pro-vaccine agenda. The problem with criticizing this specific case of Muppet vaccination, as many news outlets identified, is that Big Bird has already acknowledged getting vaccinated on Sesame Street before, and contrary to public belief, Sesame Street has been pushing an agenda for years: one focused on promoting empathy, friendship and acceptance.

Activist agenda

Sesame Street has never been neutral, just as museums themselves have never been neutral. In the case of Big Bird, the issue of this show’s neutrality and pushing an agenda only became relevant when the Sesame Street creators were pushing an activist agenda, namely one focused on vaccinating children against the COVID-19 virus. As Rebecca Carlsson has already explored with a piece on this platform, museums should not strive for neutrality.

They should instead embrace the stickiness of their historical legacy and its impact on those currently employed in the field and the narratives that they help to create. Museums themselves, Carlsson argues, have the potential to be a mechanism for asserting public good, to welcome all people of diverse backgrounds and to “use these views to create discourse, awareness, education and exchange,” just like Big Bird and Sesame Street.

In 2017, LaTanya Autry of the Mississippi Museum of Art, and Mike Murawski of the Portland Art Museum began creating t-shirts that read: “Museums are not Neutral,” sparking a campaign that acknowledged that museums are not above political and social issues, even though they are just often coming into view by the wider public.

As Carlsson said: “In most cases, neutrality requires more effort than asserting a clear view and, in the view of some, neutrality is an impossibility altogether – at odds with the human nature behind each and every exhibit created.” I argue that this extends to objects themselves – the objects that museums collect, conserve and curate are not neutral, have never been neutral, and to neglect this fact, neglects the important role that material culture has on who we are as people.

Power of museums

For a long time, museums found it easier to leave their activism up to the artists they commissioned or whose work was hung on their walls, but in recent years, as Sharon Heal explains, activism by the museum itself is possible and needed. While there are some limitations with museums serving as sites of activism, specifically the amount of radical change that can take place, acknowledging the power of museums to be socially purposeful organisations is important to show how much good museums can do.

This activism necessitates collaboration with communities, communities that can inform about objects and contribute these objects themselves. This is itself work that affirms the non-neutrality of objects and can partner increasing calls in the museum community to decolonise its spaces.

While it is important to acknowledge the way in which museums collect objects or the way that they curate objects as non-neutral, this argument is specifically focused on the object itself. The way in which an object is imagined, created, sold, prayed with, buried, burned, and modified are all non-neutral actions that occur prior to its life in the museum and must not be ignored as part of interpretive, curatorial and collections management work.

These are actions not taken by museum professionals but rather that acknowledge the object as previously produced, owned and traded by others. Think, for example, of chapel veils worn by Catholic women in the United States. Through extensive ethnographic research with women about how and why they veil and what it means to them, researchers have uncovered that the veil is a vital part of religious practice and communicates a great deal about gender, sexuality, and religion.

Possession and care of living objects

Along the same lines as chapel veils, religious and sacred objects, in particular, are a key player in this discussion. What about objects that themselves are said to possess or hold life within them? Many museums, such as the Smithsonian Institution, Brooklyn Museum and the Denver Museum of Natural History, have already encountered issues related to their possession and care of living objects, specific War Gods – known to their Zuni creators Ahayu:da – taken without the permission of the Zuni.

The non-neutrality of these objects is manifested to such an extent as these are no longer objects but rather beings and belief systems that live within the materials used to create them. Outside of the unethical circumstances under which these objects were collected, the object itself – the creation process, the way in which it was cared for and used in practice – are not neutral and never have been.

Museums that collect material religion, or other evidence of material culture, play an important role in this discussion as well. The possibility of an object’s identity, however, may not be easy visible, especially when the object contains evidence surrounding the documentation and the histories of different, sometimes comparative, or conflicting minority racial, ethnic, and gender identities and communities. Some objects, such as Frida Kahlo’s 1932 painting Henry Ford Hospital The Flying Bed, tell a unique story about loss, grief and sexuality. While not using the term “bisexual,” Kahlo herself had relationships with both men and women. While museums are eager to highlight her role as a prominent Mexican and female artist, few have addressed this aspect of her identity.

Erasure as opposed to neutrality

Remaining silent about this identity, namely one that is connected to the creator and to the object itself, is not neutrality, but instead erasure, especially given its impact on a museum viewership for whom representation can promote empathy, understanding and awareness among non-queer and non-Latinx visitors.

Research shows that excluding LGBTQ+ stories in museum spaces has a significant negative impact on bisexual, lesbian and gay museum visitors. My article will serve as a call-to-action for museum professionals to address queer religious history and explore how best to engage in community collaboration. As Margaret Middleton remarks, “queerness always matters, but at an American museum that has identified millennials of colour as a key target audience, not interpreting a Chicana artist’s bisexuality,” specifically Frida Kahlo, “stands out as a missed opportunity”. Queer narratives, Middleton continues, are relevant to non-queer people too, just as museums are spaces for learning, discovery and developing empathy.

Many museums, including the Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site in Philadelphia, were originally hesitant to fight back against their previous neutral stance, fearful that museum visitors, most of which were white and middle class, would be offended and stop visiting. Sean Kelley, senior vice president and director of interpretation, found however that “it was becoming clear that this space wasn’t safe for Americans who have experienced mass incarceration up close, within their communities”. The historic site found that leisure travellers, unlike previously thought, really wanted to engage with difficult topics. Addressing this non-neutrality meant about mass incarcerated reflected in visitors acknowledging how much they learned at the site, especially from an installation by Troy Richards and objects on loan from members who have been recently incarcerated.

Autism spectrum representation

In closing this discussion, or rather opening it for future additions, think again about Sesame Street. In 2017, Sesame Street welcomed Julia, one of the first characters on television to openly identify as on the autism spectrum. As Amy Chesler from Scary Mommy explained, “not only did Julia present children a way to understand how friends with atypical social behaviours may interact, it also allowed children on the spectrum representation on one of the world’s most famous and longest-running shows”.

Introducing a character with autism, namely a female character with autism given that girls often mask autistic behaviours and go undiagnosed, serves to revolutionise children’s television by increasing representation and putting pressure on other entertainment platforms to acknowledge and increase representation of neurodiverse experiences on their own platforms. This is a wonderful example of the impact that museums can have, both in expanding representation of gender, sexual, and racial minorities, as well as different religious and industrial traditions, by discrediting the idea that its collections are neutral and putting pressure on other cultural heritage institutions to do the same. This explicit representation can also couple with increased resources, such as how Sesame Workshop increased online materials featuring Julia, including colouring and activity sheets and content in English, Mandarin and Cantonese informed by inclusive and accessible practice.

What if the museum took up this practice? Just like Sesame Street, museums are institutions developed for educational purposes. Made to be welcoming but also informative and engaging, these institutions have a great responsibility for helping us tell our cultural history and understanding where we are today and how we got here. Some choices made by museums, namely press releases on the Black Lives Matter Movement, deciding to suspend all unpaid internships, and requiring masks and showing proof of vaccination to enter, may seem like pushing a particular agenda, but if we look to the institution itself and particularly the object, whether it be a chapel veil or Big Bird, we can see that it was already doing that all along.

About the author – Emma Cieslik

Emma (she/her) is an emerging museum professional who has worked as an intern and contractor in curatorial, collections management and education roles in a number of museums in Washington DC and across the US. She is currently pursuing an MA in Museum Studies at George Washington University.

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