Samuel J. Redman is the author of the new book The Museum: A Short History of Crisis and Resilience. His other books include Prophets and Ghosts. He is associate professor in the Department of History at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
Q: What inspired you to write The Museum?
A: In January 2020, I had a meeting with an editor from NYU Press, Clara Platter. At the time, we spoke about a possible book about the present state of museums. It was an enjoyable meeting, but truthfully, I walked away from the conversation not knowing what the book might look like or if I should be the one to write it.
Just a few weeks later, however, coronavirus seemed to sweep around the world and extended lockdowns went into place. After the initial shock, I couldn't help but think about how museums had dealt with crisis moments in the past.
Once I started looking back on crisis moments in the past century or more, and how museums had faced these challenges, I realized there was an important book on the subject waiting to be written.
Q: You begin the book with a description of a fire at the Smithsonian Institution in 1865. Why did you choose to start here?
A: At first glance, the Smithsonian fire in 1865 appears utterly devastating. The fire burns down much of the main building, destroys collections, and frightens many who see long-range preservation as a major goal.
In the next 20 or 30 years, however, something remarkable happens. The Smithsonian emerges from the fire to become even stronger than before. Congress infuses the Institution with additional funds. The building is rebuilt and improved. The museum hires additional professional staff. They work to clarify their goals for building collections.
What was surprising to me was how Smithsonian leaders used the disaster to successfully appeal for more support, clarify their mission, and address certain problems. The plan seemed to work as the museum expanded and started to break attendance records with visitors pouring in from across the country.
Q: The scholar Raymond Silverman said of the book, “Redman deploys an innovative and provocative approach to considering the history of museums in the US during the twentieth century, framed in terms of how they responded to crises originating both within and outside the institution.” What do you think of that description, and how did you choose the crises on which you focused?
A: I'm honored by this comment as I have worked to bring out new perspectives on museum history for some time. Museums are almost always fascinating and complex, filled with stories speaking to histories of science, culture, and education as well as power, colonialism, race and racism.
As a historian interested in North American history and how the U.S. has evolved over time, museums become an important location to better understand these themes in our history.
What surprised me was that for how curious about museum history scholars have been for the last 30-40 years, very little has been written on crisis moments specifically. The literature on this is growing somewhat; several great new books are out about cultural institutions and World War II and on the subject of repatriation, for example.
But much less has been written on the 1918 influenza, Great Depression, the 1970 art strike, or how museums are wrestling with the multiple crises that they are facing now.
By looking more closely at these episodes, and reading what has been written about them against the grain, we can better understand what people's priorities have been and where the future of museums might be heading.
Q: What do you see looking ahead when it comes to the future of museums and their role in American society?
A: Historians are notoriously hesitant to predict the future, but in writing this book a few things became clear.
For one thing, future crises are impossible to predict exactly, which is what both makes them a crisis and impossible to fully prepare for. On the other hand, we repeatedly see museums facing some types of crises - for example, fires, floods, pandemics, and economic downturns.
These crises are often cojoined, for example, the 1918 influenza takes place as World War I is underway and just before the dramatic rise of ugly white supremacist violence and labor unrest taking place throughout 1919. The Art Strike in 1970 takes place as part of the growing tide of anti-Vietnam war protests.
Museums today face questions about the pandemic, but also major questions connected to the legacy of colonialism, racism, and economic inequality.
To me, a lesson that might be drawn from the book is that museums tend to fare better when they are honest about the challenges they face and confront them head-on, in a collaborative manner, and one that foregrounds the needs of the community, not just the needs of the institution.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Having just completed two new books, Prophets and Ghosts: The Story of Salvage Anthropology (Harvard, 2021) and The Museum: A Short History of Crisis and Resilience (NYU, 2022), my goal is to spend time with my family this summer.
I have also recently assumed the role of director of the UMass Amherst Public History program, an active and exciting nexus of scholars thinking about how to bring history to wider and more diverse audiences.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I hope anyone interested in U.S. history or museums will find this book to be valuable.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb