The Benevolence of the Billionaires, or Why are So Many Mansions Museums?

My first real job in the heritage sector was in high school, when I was a volunteer (and then paid) docent at the Vanderbilt Museum on Long Island, NY. As you may be able to gather from the name of the museum, this was originally owned by the Vanderbilt family – descendants of Cornelius Vanderbilt, who built a railroad empire in the United States in the 1800’s (Robehmed 2014). The property now known as the Vanderbilt Museum, originally called the Eagle’s Nest, was built by Cornelius’ great grandson, William K. Vanderbilt II. The Eagle’s Nest was the Vanderbilt summer home, and would eventually serve as storage for much of Willie K. Vanderbilt’s collections from his excursions around the world. Vanderbilt eventually decided to open up a museum in order to display his various specimens and artefacts, starting with the Hall of the Fishes in 1922. During the late 1930’s, Vanderbilt also opened a lower museum of natural history called The Habitat, with the central piece involving a taxidermy whale shark. The entire property eventually became a public museum in 1950, eventually adding artefacts from Charles H. Stoll’s Arctic expeditions (in the aptly named Stoll Wing) and a planetarium. Today, it serves its original purpose with an additional focus on the life of the Vanderbilts, with guided tours and events centred around the private lives of Willie K. Vanderbilt and his family.

The main building of the Vanderbilt Museum, circa 2011 – 2012ish.

The conversion of mansions, or other property from the rich and famous, into museums and other cultural centres is much more of a common occurrence than you’d think. Technically, it falls under the definition of “historic houses” – places of living that are ultimately transformed into heritage centres, and a practice that has its roots in Victorian era philanthropy (Young 2007). Although not all historic houses are spacious mansions as seen at the Vanderbilt Museum, many are – which makes sense. After all, who will have the resources available to transform (to various extremes or not) a living space into a heritage space? The rich and the famous, of course.

And there’s specific baggage that also comes with that – a feeling of being beholden to the people who once owned these properties, who are responsible for the creation of these museums and heritage spaces. Looking back, I think about the ways in which I was trained to talk about Willie K. Vanderbilt as though I knew the guy, like he was a good friend. And how, in retrospect, his entire museum collection reflects a coloniser sensibility – for example, much of the Memorial Wing (dedicated to his only son who died in a car accident) consists of trophies from Vanderbilt’s time in Africa, including both artefacts and hunting trophies. His “ethnographic” collections are mostly from Indigenous peoples, and include the display of human remains. And yet, we were encouraged to emphasise the “coolness” of being a wealthy white settler who owned shrunken heads to our visitors. We openly flaunted his wealth through our guided tours, without critically engaging with how the wealth was made. But its this one form of benevolence, in donating his properties and collections to create a public museum, that overshadows all of this.

This benevolence of the wealthy in the form of heritage cultivation and preservation expands beyond providing the funds and the property for use, of course. How many museums have various wings and exhibitions named after donors? The Sackler Family alone has multiple wings across various institutions: the Met Museum, the American Museum of Natural History, the British Museum, the Guggenheim, the Tate Modern, and many more – although not for long, hopefully, now that they are facing criminal charges for their role in the opioid crisis, which you can learn more about via P.A.I.N. (Cascone 2020).

Ultimately, these historic houses and donor wings illustrate the ways in which capitalism entrenches itself into the collection, preservation, and display of cultural heritage. By yielding power via financial contributions and other resources, wealthy donors can influence the ways in which not only these institutions are developed, but also how their own legacies are remembered. Critical engagement of these “gifts” is vital if we want to make these heritage spaces more progressive – especially if we eventually want to get rid of capitalism along the way as well.

References

Cascone, S. (2020) After Purdue Pharma Reached a $225 Million Settlement With US Authorities, the Met Says the Name of Its Sackler Wing Is ‘Under Review’. Artnet News. Retrieved from https://news.artnet.com/art-world/sacklers-name-museum-met-1917814

Gress, S. (2015) Eagle’s Nest: The William K. Vanderbilt II Estate. Arcadia Publishing.

Robehmed, N. (2014) The Vanderbilts: How American Royalty Lost Their Crown Jewels. Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/natalierobehmed/2014/07/14/the-vanderbilts-how-american-royalty-lost-their-crown-jewels

Young, L. (2007) Is There a Museum in the House? Historic Houses as a Species of Museum. Museum Management and Curatorship 22(1). pp. 59-77.

Community-Led, Community-Run: The Blathers’ Approach to Museum Curation

In the Animal Crossing video game series, Blathers is the rather stereotypical curator of the local museums; a straight-laced nerd who punctuates his educational rambling with “wot?” and is dutiful in his collecting…even if he has to occasionally handle a bug or two. But what is less stereotypical is his curatorial approach as the head of a museum that is part natural history, part aquarium, part insect sanctuary, and part art galley. You see, it’s the Player Character’s responsibility (as well as other Player Characters who may visit via online play) to actually fill the museum with donated material!

And, honestly? I think we can learn something about museum curation from this nerdy entomophobe.

Blathers: “The cultural development of Wakame (my island in Animal Crossing) is a worthy endeavour indeed.”

In a way, I guess you can consider the museum in Animal Crossing to be a sort of “community-led museum”, in that ultimately it is you, the non-specialist member of the general public, who is providing material for the museum to exhibit. Of course, its not entirely community-led : Blathers ultimately has final say in what gets displayed (no repeats! no fake artwork!) and, given the game mechanics, nearly every player will end up with the same museum as they’re encouraged to collect all of the bugs, sea creatures, fish, and artwork available in the game. But I think we can see the Animal Crossing museum as a sort of example from which we can really discuss and development the idea of a truly community-led museum.

The idea of community-led museums isn’t new, of course – in fact, if we use a broad definition of the museum as any space that has collected and protected specific objects for viewing of the general public, then community-led museum-like spaces have existed for centuries in the form of shrines and communal areas. The more modern concept of the museum (as well as its associated curation policies) are arguably more “Western” in nature, with much of it developed in a colonial framework that unfortunately influences curatorial decisions to this day (Kreps 2006). Thus, many see the resurgence of the community-led museum as a means of shifting towards a more ethical approach to curation and display.

Of course, this also means that we are discussing a very site-specific form of community-led curation – similar to the way in which the Player Character is developing exhibitions of their town/island’s specific biodiversity in Animal Crossing, I would argue that community-led museums work best when dealing with its own community. In other words, it is important to not repeat the power dynamics of the colonial museum, but with a more communal approach! Previous experiments in the community-led approach has shown that it can help develop better relationships with the concept of a local, shared heritage, and lead to a feeling of collective ownership…and responsibility…of the history and artwork on display (Debono 2014, Mutibwa et. al. 2020).

What I find most interesting about the museum in Animal Crossing is the emphasis on natural history, on what a community-led natural history museum would look like. Of course, a real life application of the techniques used in the video game would be an ethical nightmare (not sure how you feel about encouraging the general public to catch and donate live fish and bugs at their leisure?), but I think the general conceit of the approach is something to consider. Citizen science, for example, has become very popular as a means of public engagement by institutions over the past decade, and there has been some examples of natural history museums spearheading projects to engage the community to participate directly in research (Ballard et. al. 2017).

As we find ourselves in a period of revaluation and reflection due to the influence of the Black Lives Matter movement, there is great potential for utilising a framework such as the community-led museum as a means of accountability and justice within historically colonial and racist institutions. As Olivette Otele recently said in a discussion with Fischer and Jansari (2020), community curation can be a means of shifting and taking power from the museum to the communities, where they can curate in ways that suit their means. This could also develop and improve long term sustainable relationships between the community and the institution, especially if the process of curation is also archived as part of the museum as well – forever preserving that collective labour, perhaps to use as a template moving forward to bigger and more radical things.

At some point, though, we should probably talk about Blather’s complicity (as well as the Player Character’s) in the illicit trade of artwork and antiquities…

References

Ballard, H.L. et al. (2017) Contributions to Conservation Outcomes by Natural History Museum-Led Citizen Science: Examining Evidence and Next Steps. Biological Conservation 208. pp. 87-97.

Debono, S. (2014) Muza: Rethinking National Art Museums and the Values of Community Curation. Malta Review of Educational Research 8(2). pp. 312-320.

Fischer, H. and Jansari, S. (2020) International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition. Podcast. British Museum. Retrieved from https://soundcloud.com/britishmuseum/august-23-podcast-ep-mixdown

Kreps, C. (2006) Non-Western Models of Museums and Curation in Cross-Cultural Perspective. In A Companion to Museum Studies (eds S. Macdonald). Oxford: Blackwell Publishing. pp. 457-472.

Mutibwa, D.H., et al. (2020) Strokes of Serendipity: Community Co-Curation and Engagement with Digital Heritage. Convergence 26(1). pp. 157-177.

Nintendo (2020) Animal Horizon: New Horizons, video game, Nintendo Switch. Kyoto: Nintendo.


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