The Museum: A Short History of Crisis and Resilience

New York Univ. May 2022. 232p. ISBN 9781479809332. $24.95. FINE ARTS
The 35,000 museums in the United States have functions and purposes as diverse as the population, with histories going back to the 18th century. Redman’s (history, Univ. of Massachusetts Amherst; Bone Rooms: From Scientific Racism to Human Prehistory in Museums) collection of distinct essays about different American institutions’ responses to varied crises begins with a devastating 1865 fire at the original Smithsonian. From there he launches a discussion of the impacts of natural disasters, civil unrest, and economic crashes upon cultural repositories nationwide. After a slow start the book springs to life in an account of the 1970 Art Strike in New York, a largely failed but influential effort to goad museums into denouncing the Vietnam War. (The Metropolitan’s clumsy response gets deserved attention.) He causally links this to subsequent repatriation of Indigenous remains starting in the 1980s, and the maelstrom of controversy surrounding displaying the Enola Gay at the Air and Space Museum. Redman brings the story up to the minute in a final chapter contemplating the impacts of the antiracism movement and the global pandemic.
VERDICT Though Redman’s book covers a recondite topic, it contains many touchpoints of cultural history and is a timely, engaging read. A more comprehensive title is John Simmons’s 2016 volume Museums: A History.
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