Block Museum & National Museum of Mexican Art - Relevancy in Museums

I’ve had the chance to check out two art exhibits that have made me reflect on the idea of museums reacting to current events. There has been a steady debate for years about these institutions being relevant, about the role neutrality should play when curating exhibits and developing programs, or if neutrality is even possible. I think the idea of remaining neutral is itself taking a stance. While the subject of certain museums lend themselves to certain issues, I do think it is possible and even advisable for cultural heritage institutions to respond to what’s happening in the world more directly.

While on Northwestern’s campus, I visited the Block Museum of Art, and I spent the majority of my time in the exhibition If You Remember, I’ll Remember. From the website for the show, it is an: “invitation to reflect on the past while contemplating the present through works of art exploring themes of love, mourning, war, relocation, internment, resistance, and civil rights in 19th and 20th century North America… by engaging with historic documents, photographs, sound recordings, oral histories and objects of material culture drawn from institutional and informal archives, these artists highlight individuals’ stories or make connections to the their own histories… some make explicit links to events across time periods, while in others these associations are implicit.” The anniversaries of Executive Order 9066 and the Supreme Court’s decision in the Loving vs. Virginia case are both reflected in artwork in this show, as are other human rights issues, many of which we are still struggling with today. I appreciated the fact that the artwork featured so much primary source material, and was moved by the stories the artists helped to tell.

I also visited the National Museum of Mexican Art for the opening of Memoria Presente: An Artistic Journey. This exhibition is a celebration of the museum’s 30th anniversary, and it features artists working in a variety of media addressing a wide range of topics and issues. From the website for the show: “Since opening its doors in 1987, the Museum has showcased 220 exhibitions that exemplify a broad spectrum of artistic expressions from both sides of the Mexico-U.S. border.. the contemporary artists now creating artwork across our Midwest city continue to accurately reflect the vibrancy and diversity found within the Chicago-Mexican community… their poetic and political expressions carry on an extensive history of contemplative work and civic dialog in North America… the Museum’s philosophy of a Mexican culture “sin fronteras” (without borders) promotes art as a bridge between communities, while art education expands minds and breaks down barriers, even as it preserves cultural heritage.” The artwork on display tackled trans identity and acceptance in the community, violence in both Mexico and the United States, and mass incarceration.

In both shows, curators provided a platform for what many would deem to be inherently political work. In fact, the work was broadly about basic human rights, and the ongoing struggles that many communities face. Direct connections were made to current topics, so these shows weren’t just reflections of the past. I appreciated this about the shows, and I found the artwork to be engaging and refreshing. I hope that more museums work to incorporate issues we’re currently facing, it helps to provide connections and integrate these institutions.

Both exhibits are up through the summer, and I’d highly recommend a trip to see both.


From If You Remember, I’ll Remember


From Memoria Presente: An Artistic Journey