Mia’s new podcast, The Object, began this spring with a fairly simple premise. Tell the curious, incredible, sometimes heartbreaking stories behind the people and objects that have made the museum what it is today.
Only it’s not so simple. In telling the stories of objects, artists, and collectors, the museum emerges at the center of some of the most fascinating and powerful movements in American culture—issues that are still playing out today. A story about American period rooms is really about immigration and assimilation. A story about an Indian statue is really about colonialism and culture clash. A story about silverware is really about fear and faith.
Museums, with their white walls and minimal labeling, have an air of objectivity, but there is nothing neutral about them. The entire exercise is to display some things and not others; to create a narrative, with some agenda in mind. Indeed museums have always shaped—and been shaped by—larger cultural trends. There’s no good reason to pretend otherwise, and plenty of good reasons to explore this influence openly.
In March 2016, Holland Carter wrote in the New York Times that for museums to remain relevant it’s imperative they reclaim their role as truth-tellers, as explainers of history—including their own. That imperative is even more urgent now, as institutions like Mia are scrutinized by a new generation demanding transparency, engagement, and, as Mia’s former director Kaywin Feldman put it, “audacious institutional change.”
Diversifying the collection can do that. Community engagement can do that. And so can podcasts. Because storytelling is perhaps the most effective tool we have for enabling people to turn ideas into understanding, to integrate truths into their own experience. And because they’re fun.
Among the risks of this moment is that museums, in embracing change, come across as self-congratulatory—virtue-signaling. Worse, perhaps, they can be deadly earnest, and fail to engage anyone in the full human experience. There is also the risk, of course, of being too glib. The promise of The Object, like all podcasts, is that it can adjust over time. Not since the days when Mia educators held regular radio talks has the museum had the opportunity to tell stories in real time to anyone, anywhere, again and again. There should be no shortage of stories to tell.