Examining the Role of the Identity Museum

Edward Rothstein
Students participate in a workshop with Edward Rothstein on Thursday.
New York Times Critic Edward Rothstein offers a unique perspective on museums' evolution in lecture.
November 14, 2012

Within the framework of today’s “politically correct” society, the notion of the traditional museum as we’ve come to know it – a cold, looming temple of glass-cased collections from an antiquated, imperial past – has given way to a proliferation of museums designed to celebrate the shared experiences of a particular ethnic, racial, or religious group.

But as New York Times Critic at Large Edward Rothstein argued in an eye-opening presentation at the School of Media and Public Affairs’ Jack Morton Auditorium Tuesday night, these “identity museums,” whether they focus on Asian Americans, Jewish Americans or other groups, are creating a distorted cultural narrative that is far from black and white marble.

Dr. Rothstein’s lecture--co-sponsored by the Judaic Studies and Museum Studies programs and made possible by the Dr. Munr Kazmir Fund of the Program in Judaic Studies with the support of the Office of the Provost, the Dean's Office and the School of Media and Public Affairs--was especially timely as the most important African American museum is set to open on Washington, D.C.’s National Mall in 2015.

In his introduction of Dr. Rothstein, School of Media and Public Affairs Director Frank Sesno quoted from Professor Jenna Weissman Joselit’s blog.

“Whatever their ambitions or contents, museums loom large these days, beckoning us with all manner of innovative, interactive exhibitions, imaginative public programming, seductive gift shops and enticing restaurants,” Dr. Joselit, the Charles E. Smith Professor of Judaic Studies , professor of history and director the Judaic Studies program and its new M.A. in Jewish Cultural Arts, wrote. “At a time when many of us are more apt to keep company with our digital appurtenances than with one another, the contemporary museum is the latter-day equivalent of the public square or commons. It brings us together — and out of the house.”

It is that universal quality, according to Dr. Rothstein, that is at risk of being skewed by identity politics as this new genre of museum has evolved in recent decades. While identity museums have righted many wrongs in striving to paint an inclusive, multicultural portrait of the hyphenate-American experience, their tendency to overlook sometimes great differences within these sweeping labels to fit the archetypal narrative of overcoming oppression detracts from their effectiveness.

“[These groups are] defining identity not by intrinsic cohesion, but by the opposition [they] faced,” Dr. Rothstein said. The National Museum of the American Indian here in Washington, for example, seems to lump together vastly diverse tribes’ history and culture to communicate an overarching theme of “shared difficulties in confronting non-tribal modernity,” he said. “Exploration of anything more refined would be [considered] offensive.”

In an auditorium crowded with museum and Judaic studies students and members of both the D.C. community and the museum community, including representatives of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Smithsonian, Dr. Rothstein raised nuanced issues and thought-provoking questions of museums’ optimal role in society and how we as a culture might go about reconciling the “air of wonder” the great Enlightenment museums provide with the visitor-centric experience touted by modern identity museums, though both genres have their shortcomings.

And he should know: As critic at large for the New York Times, Dr. Rothstein’s regular museum coverage has taken him everywhere from Manhattan’s Metropolitan Museum of the Arts to Fort Mitchell, Ky.’s museum of ventriloquism. He is co-author of "Visions of Utopia" and the author of "Emblems of Mind: The Inner Life of Music and Mathematics.'' He has been chief music critic of the New York Times and music critic for The New Republic. A graduate of Yale University, Dr. Rothstein holds a doctorate from the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago and a master's in English literature from Columbia University, and did graduate work in mathematics at Brandeis University.

Dr. Rothstein’s lecture Tuesday night was the culmination of a “mini-residency” on campus, which included a series of workshops for students and faculty in Columbian College and SMPA about the fate of cultural journalism and the role of the contemporary museum.

For Dr.Joselit, hosting speakers like Dr. Rothstein plays an important part in the university’s commitment to multidisciplinary exchange and the arts.

"Presenting our students and faculty with the opportunity to interact and engage with Edward Rothstein, one of the preeminent cultural critics of our time, adds so very much to campus life,” Dr. Joselit said. “Whether we've been a longtime member of the arts community or are just beginning to contemplate the possibility of a career in the arts, Mr. Rothstein's mini-residency enriches us all."

GW Research Blog