Q&A Session with Kylie Message

We are pleased to present our Q&A session with Kylie Message about her recent book Museums and Racism. Kylie is an interdisciplinary scholar whose research investigates the role that museums play as sites of cultural and political exchange. Her new book series, 'Museums In Focus', challenges authors and readers to radically rethink the relationships between cultural and intellectual dissent and crisis and debates about museums, politics and the broader public sphere. 

Visit Kylie's Featured Authors page to learn more.

Congratulations on the publication of your book Museums and Racism. What do you want your audience to take away from the book?

Racism and hate speech are urgent social issues. The normalisation of multiculturalism that occurred through the 1970s and 1980s, problematic as that may have in some respects been, has been subject to a backlash in many countries, including in Australia and the US (where my work predominantly focuses), as well as the UK and Europe. Research into racism and the management of hate over the same period made significant interventions into the way the culture wars were understood through the 1990s/2000s, and had a significant impact on the legacy of these events and their relationship to current socio-political and cultural events today.

I wrote Museums and Racism to examine claims about whether museums contribute to understandings about the motivations for and management of hate and the experience of structural racism. Can museums adopt an activist approach in regard to social justice causes? Positioned at the intersection between government policy and the public sphere, museums are politically charged sites that engage with contemporary issues in ways that often are not fully recognized. They do not just collect or reflect past cultures, but engage with and actively influence contemporary cultures of inter-personal experience and communication. This book focuses on one such museum. In contrast to some other national institutions that were direct players in the culture wars, the Immigration Museum, which opened in this same period, largely flew under the radar. I argue, however, that rather than being a politically neutral space, it offers a uniquely valuable case study of the ways museums can intervene in contemporary developments in social and cultural policy fields around multiculturalism and debates about racism and hate speech, and that in so doing, it offers a range of possibilities for understanding how museums grapple with social issues.

What inspired you to write this book?

Museums are incredibly important agents in socio-political life. Associated with colonial power and identified as instruments of governmentality in the nineteenth century, museums today are increasingly recognised as having utility for communities and agendas that were historically excluded from narratives about identity, nation, and belonging. I wanted to focus this book primarily on a single case study to examine what this historical shift looks like within museums today, to ask how contemporary museums negotiate between and across the aggregated institutional history to which they contribute and the contemporary realities of communities they engage with and seek to represent. Museums and Racism builds on my book, Museums and Social Activism (2014), in which I employed a primarily public history approach to investigate the ways the National Museum of American History engaged with social protest and reform movements in the 1960s and 1970s. Instead of focusing the analytical lens exclusively on the people, communities, actions, or events represented by museums in external spaces (exhibitions, programs, etc.), these books also explore the agency and cultures that exist within museums as sites of government authority (political power). I’m particularly interested, for example, in the often invisible ‘behind the scenes’ processes of negotiation and decision-making that occurs within institutions which, in some instances, generates a kind of curatorial activism (and in some cases certainly does not!). I’m also interested in asking if (and how) museum work intersects with and perhaps influences the work of public policy-makers as well as general public opinions on topical and controversial issues. In the final instance, I aim to show that museums, museum work, and even the practice of writing about museums contribute acutely to the culture of political and social change. These issues are eminently critical for all aspects of public culture as well as contemporary understandings about processes of identity construction in Australia and globally, so I hope my story is also engaging enough that it attracts a readership from the broader public sphere.

Why is your book relevant to Museum Studies?

This book is part of a non-fiction trilogy focused on museum studies and public culture. I’m not sure it’s been done before…! My first book in the trilogy, The Disobedient Museum: Writing at the Edge (2017) gives an overview of social and disciplinary action in the field of cultural politics pertaining to museums, and it builds a theoretical rationale for the approaches taken in the two case study-focused books that follow. Museums and Racism is the second book. It investigates the approach taken by the Immigration Museum in dealing with a contentious contemporary social issue – racism – from within a structural perspective and political context, using a public history/institutional ethnography approach. The third book, Curatorial Activism, Archiving Occupy (forthcoming), will present a contrasting example that focuses on the ‘anti-governmental’ case study of a working group active within the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement. It primarily employs activist archiving/public history and social movement theory/ethnography to examine challenges around the contemporary collecting of social reform movements. Each book offers a different methodology and approach for engaging critically with museums, politics, social reform movements, diverse stakeholder groups, and controversy, and each target a different audience and case so that they can be read individually as well as part of a series.

A central aim for the trilogy is to encourage scholars to probe the question ‘What can writing about museums actually do?’ My own approach to writing, and my motivation for thinking about this question, are inspired by a statement made many years ago by cultural studies scholar, Stuart Hall, that ‘The gap between theory and practice is only overcome in developing a practice in its own right’ (Hall 1990: 18). I tackle the task of writing about museums as such ‘a practice in its own right’ that links, in my case, theory and practice about museums, cultural production, and political imperatives. Beyond my belief that this idea of theory as practice (and the correlating idea of practice as theory) provides a valuable way to think about how museum studies can have an impact on the world (and articulate how this works), it offers a wonderful platform to which others can contribute their experience and opinions. Indeed, exploring this idea further was a key motivation for establishing the Museums in Focus book series that I developed for Routledge last year.

You are the series editor of Museums in Focus, what research issues do you hope to address within the series?

The Museums in Focus series aims to provide a platform for work by scholars, writers, museum professionals, and others that address an urgent disciplinary, methodological, or social problem involving museums, heritage, collections, or related subject. As short books (between 30,000 and 50,000 words in length) that aim to present ways of grappling with big challenges or modelling disciplinary or methodological disruption, the writing and commitment to a crisp and clear line of arguing is one of the defining features of the series.

I am particularly interested in including books in the series that model ways of extending or challenging museums and museum studies to become ever more agile, responsive, and accountable to the field’s frequently stated claims of social justice and engagement and that demonstrate willingness to think critically about how ‘the museum’ and affiliate cultural products, activities and phenomena (collections, heritage, arts-based activism etc.) have been constructed and represented within academic and institutional structures. Books that extend current debates over a particular museum, object, collection, cultural activity, event, product or phenomenon, ethical conundrum, hacker process, curatorial activism, protest or campaign culture, cultural conflict, or political context, theory or history are, as such, a good fit for the series. Also well suited are titles that ask how these themes and others – including identity and collective rights and actions over issues including race, class, disability, gender, and sexuality; challenges to citizenship laws and norms and normative approaches to understanding power, ideology and nationalism – engage with anthropology museums, human rights museums, labour history or union museums,presidential library museums, political history collections, activist art events or interventions, protest art movement and activist interventions (historical or contemporary), ecomuseums, local and community based museums, science-based collections, formations or festivals of radical history and archiving, etc. I hope the series can provide a platform to encourage dialogue and debate across disciplinary fields and within and across museum theory and practice, and co-authored submissions are welcomed.

What are the key elements you would like your audience to take away from the series?

Committed to the articulation of big, even risky, ideas in small format publications, the Museums in Focus series asks authors and readers to experiment with, innovate, and challenge museums and the intellectual frameworks through which we view these. It offers a platform for approaches that radically rethink the relationships between cultural and intellectual dissent and crisis and debates about museums, politics and the broader public sphere.

The Museums in Focus series is motivated by the intellectual hypothesis that museums are not innately ‘useful’, safe’ or even ‘public’ places, and that recalibrating our thinking about them might benefit from adopting a more radical and oppositional form of logic and approach. Examining this problem requires a level of comfort with (or at least tolerance of) the idea of crisis, dissent, protest and radical thinking, and authors might benefit from considering how cultural and intellectual crisis, regeneration and anxiety have been dealt with in other disciplines and contexts. The book series seeks to attract people working on a range of issues such as social justice, inclusion, human rights, from a range of disciplinary approaches including anthropology, history, sociology, art history, and interdisciplinary fields like museum and heritage studies, cultural studies, and urban studies.

What criteria is required for a book to be considered for the series?

Books considered for the series will typically investigate how a current or contentious issue has played out in public cultural space, usually in the museum sector or museum studies field. They will typically engage critically and analytically with the issue through reference either to a case study or overview approach, and it is vital that proposals articulate the value of their analysis of or intervention into a particular issue or topic: Why can you not live without writing this? Why does it need to be said/published now? What contribution to public discourse and or museum studies will it make? As this suggests, provocation and critical analysis are welcomed, however books will also represent a commitment to rigorous theoretical and empirical research and methodological design, and opinion pieces will not be accepted. As long as the submission meets the intellectual quality requirements (proposals are usually sent for assessment to five referees) we also encourage different formats, which might include a worked up transcription of a round-table debate; an extended interview; a shorter manifesto style piece or visual narrative accompanied by an exegesis.

Specific proposal requirements at available on the website (or email me), but key criteria for submissions include: (i) A clear, informative and persuasive description of the book that should be written to be of interest to academic users, students, museum professionals, and museum bookshop browsers; (ii) An explanation for why the proposed book suits and extends the specific aims of the Museums in Focus series. How and why will the book will be unique and offer a clear contribution to critical thinking about museums and cultural production? What is the contribution or intervention it aims to make into disciplinary approaches or practices? Why do you believe this is important?; and (iii) An explanation for why your proposed topic and approach is suited to a short book format rather than a journal article or longer publication. I’m more than happy to discuss potential proposals ahead of submission, so please do get in touch.

Please send any queries to referenceauthor@tandf.co.uk

Other titles by Kylie

  • The Disobedient Museum

    Writing at the Edge, 1st Edition

    By Kylie Message

    The Disobedient Museum: Writing at the Edge aims to motivate disciplinary thinking to reimagine writing about museums as an activity where resistant forms of thinking, seeing, feeling, and acting can be produced, and to theorize this process as a form of protest against disciplinary…

    Hardback – 2017-10-03
    Museums in Focus

  • Museums and Social Activism

    Engaged Protest, 1st Edition

    By Kylie Message

    Museums and Social Activism is the first study to bring together historical accounts of the African American and later American Indian civil rights-related social and reform movements that took place on the Smithsonian Mall through the 1960s and 1970s in Washington DC with the significant but…

    Paperback – 2013-10-14
    Museum Meanings

Museums in Focus Series

Museums In Focus is motivated by the intellectual hypothesis that museums are not innately ‘useful’, safe’ or even ‘public’ places, and that recalibrating our thinking about them might benefit from adopting a more radical and oppositional form of logic and approach. Examining this problem requires a level of comfort with (or at least tolerance of) the idea of crisis, dissent, protest and radical thinking, and authors might benefit from considering how cultural and intellectual crisis, regeneration and anxiety have been dealt with in other disciplines and contexts. 

Interested in writing for the series? Please send your queries to referenceauthor@tandf.co.uk.

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