Visitors at the British Museum (photo by Mark Ramsay, via Flickr)

In April 2017, a teenaged girl, Safaa Boular, visited the British Museum. As she opened her bag for the security check at the door, as she walked through its galleries, she was thinking about the man she thought to be her husband: an Islamic State recruiter she had married in an online ceremony. Before he died, killed in a drone strike, he had encouraged her to carry out an attack, with guns and a grenade, on the museum.

Boular recruited her mother and older sister, who bought knives. Shortly afterwards, they were all arrested, and this week, Boular was convicted of preparing for a terrorist attack. If she had succeeded, she would have joined the ranks of prior extremists who have targeted museums and cultural sites, including a 2016 Islamic State attack on tourists visiting a Tunisian museum that left 22 dead, the 2015 Islamic State attack in Paris that killed 89 at the Bataclan concert hall, and the 1997 killings of 58 tourists at the Deir el-Bahri archeological site in Egypt.

When we hear about attacks like these, the temptation is to want to step up museum security precautions. Let’s frisk all the visitors and put all the art behind bullet-proof glass! But such solutions interfere with the function of a museum: allowing members of the public to immerse themselves in beauty in a contemplative setting. The function of museum security — of the ritual of entrance bag-checks and the guards’ conspicuous, standardized uniforms — is to remind visitors that they need to do their part to maintain this art-loving atmosphere without oppressive, visible security. Visitors must behave, self-police, and follow the museum’s rules.

The gallery containing the Parthenon Marbles at the British Museum (photo by Mack Male, via Flickr)

One pernicious effect of this soft power-style security is that museum guards often focus their attention on visitors who look like they don’t know what rules to follow. I know this not from firsthand experience — I’m a bespectacled white woman with funky brooches who fits right in — but at secondhand, through my students. I teach art history (with a focus on art crime) at a college with a majority minority student population. When I take a group of young people of color on a museum field trip, I feel like I’m in a Looney Tunes cartoon: my students’ eyes pop, their minds and worlds start widening, and across the room I can hear the guards’ hearts start thumping. My students have never misbehaved during a museum trip, but every time we have earned a personal escort who whisper-shouts “no touching!” as soon as a black hand goes up to point towards an interesting detail of a painting.

Museums are “white spaces,” unwelcoming to people who are often perceived to not know the unstated behavioral expectations that underlie the museum experience. People like my young students of color. Or people like Safaa Boular, who wore a hijab when she visited the British Museum to plan her attack.

The attack Boular imagined bears an uneasy relationship to another fantasy, a scene of a raid on a fictitious “Museum of Great Britain,” a stand-in for the British Museum, in this year’s blockbuster Black Panther. In that scene, a white curator speaks condescendingly to a black visitor and then gags on poisoned coffee as he reminds her that the African objects they are standing in front of were stolen by Western collectors. The visitor and his associates then shoot a few guards and liberate an artifact from his ancestral homeland. He’s a bad guy — he wants the artifact so he can use its power to make war — but it’s hard not to root for him as he speeds away.

Black Panther (2018) (courtesy Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)” width=”720″ height=”302″ srcset=”×302.jpg 720w,×454.jpg 1080w,×151.jpg 360w, 1400w” sizes=”(max-width: 720px) 100vw, 720px”>

The “Museum of Great Britain” scene from Black Panther (2018) (courtesy Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)

It was similarly hard for Mexico to prosecute a man named José Luis Castañeda del Valle who, in 1982, walked out of Paris’s Bibliothèque Nationale with a pre-Columbian Nahuatl codex known as the Aubin Tonalamatl under his coat. Castañeda took the codex back to Mexico, was arrested, and declared that he had stolen it in order to rescue Mexican cultural heritage from Europe. Mexico quickly freed him, claiming that the codex had been illegally exported from its homeland in the 19th century. It has been held by the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia ever since.

Castañeda, the villain in Black Panther, my students — they all have good reasons to ask how museums acquired objects from their cultures and why they are so reluctant to give any of these objects back. To ask why people of color so often appear in museums’ artworks as conquered subjects or generic types, and so rarely as individuals in control of their own lives. To ask why museum labels continue to perpetrate stereotypes.

Terrorism and violent attacks on museums are not the right solution to these issues, but museums should openly consider why they are often targets of anger and violence by groups that are marginalized in society. Museums have spent centuries setting themselves up as symbols of oppressive, colonialist relations with minority groups, particularly since they were often the storehouses of looted and questionably bought items from distant corners of various Western empires. Their intellectual leadership (curators, directors, and educators) remain overwhelmingly white and, in comparison to the rest of society, quite homogenous. It is no surprise that there are growing movements to protest the racism and Eurocentrism ingrained in many museums, and to repatriate objects stolen under colonialism.

Meanwhile, museum visitors who have felt shamed or unwelcome have done the hard and painful work of explaining their experiences in the hopes that museums will change. Some museums have indeed listened and started telling untold stories to new audiences hungry for them. As Sumaya Kassim has pointed out, decolonizing museums “means acceding privilege, and that is almost always painful.” Despite this pain, it’s time for our museums to think hard about what their brass-buttoned guards are really defending them against.

Fred Wilson, “Guarded View” (1991) (photo by Benjamin Sutton/Hyperallergic)

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Erin L. Thompson

Erin L. Thompson, a professor of art crime at John Jay College, is the author of the forthcoming book Smashing Statues: The Rise and Fall of American Monuments.

16 replies on “Museums Should Consider Why They’ve Become Targets of Attack and Protest”

  1. “…who whisper-shouts “no touching!” as soon as a black hand goes up to point towards an interesting detail of a painting.”

    You should visit museums more, especially with white people who put their hands up to point to an interesting detail of a painting. Every time my spouse or friend starts to do this I brace myself for the guard’s bark. Black kids aren’t terribly unique in getting eagle-eyed in museums, FYI.

    “Museums are ‘white spaces’”

    Your link didn’t point to an article about museums being white spaces. Maybe that should be fixed.

    Didn’t bother reading the rest. We all know the white liberal woke ’splain — especially if we’re white liberals ourselves.

    1. Additionally, this article fails to make note of the fact that guards are often the only diverse body of staff in a museum. Demonizing guards is stripping the people who police the museum of their humanity (how ironic given the use of Fred Wilson’s piece as an illustration). Guards more and more are being utilized as museum educators and outreach officers as much as they are there to protect the work. Outreach and education are the only antidotes that I can think of to make sure everyone is comfortable and aware of the behavioral expectations of a museum. And to be frank, those expectations are solid.

      A museum is lucky to get a group of diverse students in its doors, and that problem just spills into the funding of education in this country.

      There’s a lot of ignorance in this piece. It’s very easy to place the onus on the intellectual leadership of a museum, but it overlooks the financial and business structures of a museum that almost always tie the hands of the minds that organize it. Nobody would argue with the fact that it’d be great to have more diversity in a museum’s make up, but the blame simply doesn’t fall much further than the business structures that govern a museum.

      1. Museum guards are diverse and are just employees that act out the mission of the museum. They don’t decide their conditions and requirements, institutions do. And no, you’re wrong. Guards are being used more and more as low-paid contract labor. We’ve researched and written about this. Good try though.

      1. Museums are not neutral, agreed. I am not saying that they are. I am saying that using thwarted terrorist attack as the basis on an argument about problems with representation is hyperbole and does nothing to change the system. The young woman accused did not care about being represented in the museum nor did she care about the repatriation of artworks acquired through colonisation. The title is clickbait at its worst.

        1. People use “clickbait” when they don’t like something, and it’s often just a lazy way to disparage something. The title accurately reflects the content. Also, we’ve been writing about this topic for years. This is just the latest in a bigger conversation.

          1. No, people use clickbait to describe clickbait. You somehow mistake my disdain for this writing for an argument in favor of museums staying the way they are. I believe museums need great systemic change. Arguments as poorly constructed as this do nothing to persuade. Evidence not reactionary conjecture give museums no room to refute.

            I realise you will not concede that any negative comments on this artivle are valid. You are your own institution.

          2. How am I anonymous? Because my comment history, like yours, is hidden?

            You delete anything you don’t like or want others to read. Says a lot. Says it all.

            Say your views on a neutral platform where you can’t control the dialogue and responses and then surely you’d get off your bogus high horse.

          3. I am Anne Emerson Hall, for what it’s worth, and I think the fact that you deleted my comment proves that the truth hurts. You are indeed an institution, as Ms. Jaffray said, and your actions mirror those of institutions you so freely criticize.

            I stand by my comments. I hope you can take this occasion to reflect rather than react.

  2. I am not sure what this article is trying to say: the young woman who is a follower of IS is justified in her planning of a terrorist attack because it is a museum? The murderous actions of a scifi villain are equivalent to how people feel when they see stolen objects? And, connecting terrorist acts with people of colour under-represented in museums? What? Seriously, what? This is how it reads.

    This article is part of the problem. The whole piece is full of holes, poorly researched and offensive on many levels. Hyperallergic editors: did you even read this?

    Interesting that the author is a white art historian (as am I) who feels the need to speak for her students of colour instead of letting them speak for themselves, reinforcing the narrative that they need someone with ‘authority’ to define their experience. Examples of negative museum experiences here are generalised; perhaps including the actual words of your students would have made this horrendous article more readable.

  3. “Museums are ‘white spaces,’ unwelcoming to people who are often perceived to not know the unstated behavioral expectations that underlie the museum experience. People like my young students of color. Or people like Safaa Boular, who wore a hijab when she visited the British Museum to PLAN HER ATTACK.”

    I’m sorry… are museums supposed to be welcoming to visitors who are planning terrorist actions? Your conflating this young woman with the vast majority of peaceful Muslim people who visit museums wearing hijabs is offensive. There are some important and very true statements in this piece, but Safaa Boular’s story has absolutely nothing to do with them. If she is upset about the destruction of cultural heritage, maybe she should direct her anger at the Islamic State.

    I’m sure Hrag will have some snarky comeback for me, but this is just sloppy.

    1. I have no snark for a comment that is so unhinged. If “museums supposed to be welcoming to visitors who are planning terrorist actions?” is your take away, then good luck.

  4. Dear Erin Thompson,

    I have to say I disagree with your above assertion: “Museums have spent centuries setting themselves up as symbols of oppressive, colonialist relations with minority groups, particularly
    since they were often the storehouses of looted and questionably bought items from distant corners of various Western empires.”

    There are several issues I have with this blanket dismissal of museums. The first is that they have NOT for the most part set themselves up as symbols of oppressive, colonialist relations. This is simply not a fair or wise reading of museum history. At best, it’s only part of what museums have symbolically represented. Many museum researchers, among them, Carol Duncan, Eileen Hooper Greenhill, Tony Bennett, and Pierre Bourdieu, have systematically studied CERTAIN kinds of museums (quite often the universal survey museum) and found that they transmit the values of bourgeois culture, the power of the carceral state (pace Bennett), the demands of the civilized nation state and the notion that the visitor is an untutored pupil in need of instruction.

    National collections have, for the most part, been one of the main institutions that is constitutive of a notion of the state as an arbiter of the social order. This order may be rooted in oppressive or colonialist histories (though not always), but is also rooted in the state taking up the power previously held by the aristocracy and the church. Museums are representative of the one of the first moments in history where access to aesthetic objects owned by the wealthy or procured by wealth is given on the basis, not of genealogy or of faith, but by birth in a certain place, by the status of citizenship.

    Museums have also set themselves up as guardians of this (relatively) newly developed patrimony that is supposed to belong to every citizen.They are NOT just storehouses of looted items, but spaces for safekeeping treasured artifacts that give us a sense of how culture works. The Museum of African American History and Culture has a collection that mostly consists of donated items.

    You can’t make this kind of sweeping indictment and hope to be taken seriously by people who have actually spend some time studiously looking at museums. I have, and realize that the museum does several things that are crucial to the public commonwealth. One thing they can do is bring together private experience and public scrutiny. You need to understand this.

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