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Reframing ‘Culturally Specific Museums’: The Emergence of Rights-Based Museums in the United States

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posted on 2019-07-15, 09:27 authored by Katherine L. Bunning
The phenomenon of ‘culturally specific museums’ that have developed since the 1960s across the United States has been significantly under-investigated. Yet the ‘black museum movement’ and the push to ‘indigenise’ museums can be understood as producing some of the most significant developments in museology over the last fifty years. At a time when museums are increasingly called upon to address race, this study explores and historicises the emergence of ‘culturally specific museums’ at the Smithsonian Institution; unique sites that embody racial justice amidst a ‘universalist’ and ‘national’ museum context. While ‘culturally specific museums’ have been greeted as sites of reconciliation, they have attracted vociferous public debate, and even disdain, for their perceived 'politicisation', ‘racialisation’ and 'Balkanisation' of the past. Drawing on Fraser’s characterisation of ‘counterpublics’, I approach two ‘culturally specific’ museum projects at the Smithsonian Institution – the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) and the ‘National African American Museum Project’ (NAAMP) – as new sites for the negotiation of racial histories and racial justice, that have each served as a focus point for wider ideological questions over the continued significance of race in America. Through a grounded study of archival material, interviews, displays, and the political discourse encircling these museum developments, I demonstrate how so-called ‘culturally specific museums’ can be more productively reframed as ‘rights-based museums’. Rather than being understood simply as ‘correctives’ to mainstream museum practice, or ‘responses’ to the call for greater representation, such museums constitute a dynamic site for the ongoing struggle for rights and racial justice. Understood as ‘rights-based’, their approaches can be better distinguished from other museums at the Smithsonian and beyond. As such, this study concludes by calling into question the possibilities of addressing race outside of a rights-based museum frame.



Gibson, Lisanne; Lewis, George

Date of award


Author affiliation

School of Museum Studies

Awarding institution

University of Leicester

Qualification level

  • Doctoral

Qualification name

  • PhD



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