In 2011, Tom Campbell, who had by then served two years as director and CEO of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, invited me to undertake a fascinating consulting assignment: to assess how the largest museum in the United States engaged with the world. After a year of talking with curators and executives throughout the museum and surveying the Met’s far-flung international programs and relationships, we launched a leadership institute for international museum directors.
The Global Museum Leaders Colloquium was one of the transformative projects that Campbell, an Oxford-educated tapestry expert who had spent 14 years in the Met’s Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts, initiated at the museum during his eight-year tenure as director. Now director at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, where since 2018 he has overseen the de Young and Legion of Honor museums, Campbell continues to think broadly about the field’s systemic challenges. Few of these are as profound as the reckoning with colonial legacies and racial injustice, which was roiling the museum sector as we spoke in June 2020.
Photography by Gary Sexton. Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.
ANDRÁS SZÁNTÓ: Politics are intersecting with museums with an intensity we have not seen in our lifetimes. How are you responding?
THOMAS P. CAMPBELL: Against the background of the pandemic health crisis, the murder of George Floyd created a lightning rod for an explosion of pent-up emotion and discussion around the question of systemic racism in our society. This brings to a head a long-running discussion that has been going on in museums with greater and less intensity over the past decade. There are several overlapping issues, but the fundamental one is public trust. Surveys indicate that museums are respected and trusted. But the challenge for museums is that the audiences we are addressing have been changing over the past 20 years, and a significant part of our visitation has begun to question the values that we represent.
The background is that during the second half of the 20th century, Western art museums and art history became increasingly professionalized and specialized in certain overarching disciplines. The people in positions of power in museums—predominantly white—became ever-greater experts in their fields of chosen studies: classical art, American art, European art, Asian art, and so on. And they essentially trained their audiences to enjoy exhibitions and programs that went in depth into these areas. Of course, these fields were built on foundations that go back to European colonial, and then American settler and colonial origins. So they represented a very partial story.
Those are the museums you and I grew up with. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, European and American museums began to rethink the nature of their audiences and how to engage with them most effectively. Collectively, we have been quite successful in reaching out to wider audiences and making our museums more accessible. But as we have opened our doors to larger and more diverse audiences, those audiences are rightly bringing different expectations. They don’t want to just see the same cycle of exhibitions about, you know, European Old Masters, American colonial painters, and American modern masters. In the past ten years, we have seen an increasingly strong debate—in some cases, a renewal of historic debates—about whom museums are for and what their programming should be.
AS: This is not happening in a vacuum. Across the society, there is a crisis of legitimacy for institutions—museums among them. Going forward, how can museums earn and rebuild the public’s trust?
TC: We have got to become more aware of the habits and bad practices that we inherited, often without even realizing it. We have to step back and look with fresh eyes at what we are doing and the narratives we are telling. We have done that in the museum industry on a number of occasions. Most recently, the field did it with the question of antiquities.
European museums are only just beginning to reckon with the legacy of objects that were taken during a colonial era and what should happen to those. There has been a faster response to the more recent expropriation of antiquities, especially by American museums after World War II, when a huge volume of antiquities was illegally excavated and exported to American collections.
During the 1960s and 1970s, there was a “don’t ask, don’t tell” mentality among many collectors and museums. But as a result of increasing outrage and agitation by the archaeological field and the media, in the early 2000s, finally and belatedly, the American museum industry took dramatic steps to begin to repair the damage that had been done and to rebuild public confidence. The AAMD (Association of Art Museum Directors) introduced strict new guidelines, which then went through further refinements. Essentially, collecting practices changed. It is difficult now for an American museum to buy a looted antiquity without drawing criticism from its peer industry and from the press. That is one example of museums coming together to rebuild the public trust.
AS: Do you see a chance of a similar process unfolding in regard to colonialist legacies and the practice of a more racially equitable and inclusive museology?
TC: That is what we all hope for. Two categories of discussion come to mind. The first is the legacy of colonial appropriation and looting, and what European museums are going to do with the artifacts that were taken during colonial times—and which, in many cases, are the cornerstones of the business models of these institutions. The second issue is the narrative that museums across Europe and America tell, triumphalist narratives—because history is written by the victors—about the powers that be: the people who commissioned art and music and literature in Europe, and the white settlers in America.
We have to step back and look with fresh eyes at what we are doing and the narratives we are telling.
All too often, museums tell their stories, uncritically. They don’t tell the stories of the Indigenous peoples that the colonial empires were looting, raping, and pillaging. In America, they don’t tell the stories of African Americans, slaves, and the holocaust of Native Americans. We are clearly at a moment of reckoning with that. And the museum industry, which intentionally or otherwise has been complicit in this societal narrative, is experiencing an awakening to these multiple blind spots. We have got to figure out how to be part of this correction.
AS: You could argue that with antiquities the job was easier. It was about objects, the status of which could be corrected. Here we’re talking about stories that were never told, histories never recognized. It is a harder reset. Would you agree?
TC: Absolutely, not least because it means unpicking the very structure and architecture of some of our greatest museums. Museums built in the late 19th and through the 20th century put their classical Mediterranean antiquities and their European collections and their colonial American collections on a pedestal in their most prestigious galleries.
Other arts—from Africa, Oceania, Asia, etc.—were relegated to outer galleries. African and Oceanic art was presented as “primitive” art. Those distinctions were physically built into buildings in those ways. To unpick that narrative will involve huge cost, and it will be a long process. But cost and complexity mustn’t be an excuse. We have an urgent responsibility to engage in this rethinking of the presentation of collections. This is a process that we initiated with the African, Oceanic, and Mesoamerican galleries at the Met, back around 2015, work that will come to fruition more than a decade later.
AS: The project of the museum is a Western one. The model has been exported worldwide, but it has not yet really begun to absorb the mentalities of other countries and cultures. How much of this might come about through collaboration between institutions?
TC: Collaboration and dialogue are key to moving forward. Museums in Europe and in America have been somewhat hesitant about generating that dialogue, for fear of setting off a trip wire about repatriation claims. The French president Emmanuel Macron pulled the lid off this issue with the report he commissioned in 2018, I think bravely and rightly forcing that discussion. The more dialogue there is, the more we will begin to understand the origin of objects, their meaning, and what they represent.
European institutions have to move toward a position where they do begin to give back a sizable number of objects, including some of their great treasures. Many of these institutions were set up with the best intentions, as centers of enlightenment and learning. But as we have acquired a fuller understanding of the exploitative and colonialist actions they were founded through, that legacy has become an obstacle to their role as educational centers and places of objectivity. It casts a shadow that will only be removed when Western institutions reach generous, equitable solutions with the countries from which their collections originated. Part of that reconciliation will inevitably involve repatriation of objects.
AS: Closer to home, you witnessed the toppling of statues near your museum in San Francisco. And one of the reckonings is that the museum itself is an emblem of the status quo, for better or for worse.
TC: The public reaction to civic statuary across America in the past two to three years is a fraught and important development for US society. Many of these works are civic statues; they don’t belong to museums. They highlight the complacent white-supremacist ideas that people in positions of power have taken for granted. Many statues of Confederate leaders were put up during the Jim Crow era by people seeking to continue the subjugation of African Americans. The decades passed, and these sculptures became invisible to many—but not, of course, to those for whom they were an ongoing reminder of white indifference. The new activism, with these sculptures being pulled down, is symptomatic of the frustration of Black and Native American communities. While I do not condone the destruction of sculptures, I fully support what this movement represents.
So, what to do with these sculptures? Do you leave them in their damaged state, as lessons about an unjust power structure? Do you take them off their pedestals—literally and metaphorically—and put them in a park as teaching objects, to draw attention to the hate and propaganda they embodied? As an historian, that would be my inclination. One way or another, it has to be clearly understood that these are not figures we are putting on a pedestal anymore.
AS: You arrived in San Francisco after 20 years at the Met, including eight years as its director. You came up through a classic curatorial track: degrees from Oxford and the Courtauld, years of working on exhibitions and studying textiles, until you became the head of an institution. How does this trajectory shape your outlook?
TC: I got into the museum world, in the mid-1990s, because I was a scholar in my field, European tapestries and textiles, and at the time, I saw the museum, the Met, as a place that would allow me to pursue my research. I was an evangelist for my subject. I hadn’t really thought deeply about the larger educational mission of a museum. But once there, now part of one of the greatest faculties of art historians in the world, I quickly became more interested in that broader educational mission.
One way or another, it has to be clearly understood that these are not figures we are putting on a pedestal anymore.
During my time as a curator (1995–2008), I was strongly influenced by the movement in Britain, where the Labour government was pushing institutions to rethink their audiences. By the time I was being interviewed for the directorship, the perception was that the Met was a highly elitist place. As director, I had one overarching priority—to continue and sustain scholarship—but the other was to make the museum more accessible. Between 2009 and 2017, we increased attendance from 4.5 million to close to 7 million. Online, we were reaching tens of millions of people around the world. It was a thrilling sense of progress. In the year and a half that I have been director in San Francisco, I have also been taking steps to support and expand initiatives to reach wider audiences and to break down overly narrow narratives.
AS: Is it working?
TC: Very much so. Prior to the pandemic, we introduced a free Saturday program for residents of the Bay Area that resulted in a doubling of our attendance on Saturdays, with much greater diversity. And we are attracting a much larger percentage of low-income households.
AS: What are you learning from them?
TC: That there is unquestionably a wider, larger audience that we have only just begun to connect with. Much work needs to be done. For example, we need the Legion of Honor—which presents antiquities and European art with a strong emphasis on connoisseurship—to foreground socioeconomic narratives about the underlying power structures. At the de Young—which has an important collection of American art, from Native and Mesoamerican, through colonial and westward expansion, to modern and contemporary art—the narrative also needs to be rethought. We need less hagiography and more critical analysis of what these objects tell us—or fail to tell us—about what was going on.
AS: It’s hard to bring new voices into the museum.
TC: The museum industry is full of smart, well-intentioned people who tend to skew liberal. We have made certain inroads. Museums are taking the diversity of their boards more seriously. They have advanced in collecting, exhibition programming, and educational outreach. The biggest obstacle I see is bringing more diversity into the professional ranks. There are disproportionately few BIPOC—Black, Indigenous, and people of color—members of the curatorial and conservation fields, especially in the more historic disciplines. This is not an easy problem to fix. It begins with the educational system; there are not enough students of color graduating into these fields and choosing museums as a career. Until we have more people of diverse social and cultural backgrounds in our curatorial ranks, challenging our received narratives, we stand in danger of propagating only a slightly more politically correct version of the misleading histories we have been telling all along.
AS: So what specific reflexes, structures, policies, and attitudes do museums need to leave behind to retain the public trust?
TC: We have to get off of our own pedestals. We are experts in our fields, but we need to engage wider audiences and listen. I will give you an example. Three weeks ago—it’s so fresh, still—we were all shocked by the video of the murder of George Floyd under that policeman’s knee. Anyone who saw that was revolted, nauseated. A few days afterward we had a staff meeting, where colleagues expressed their frustrations.
A small number of people of color spoke then, of the need for change. My initial instinct was to say, “But look at what we have been doing. We have been buying works by Black artists. We just had the Soul of a Nation exhibition. We are doing free Saturdays. Look at the diversity we are bringing in.” All of which is true. But the subsequent weeks have been a period of profound discovery, of the blind spots that so many of us have carried with us for too long. We are in a moment where we must deliver seismic change. This is a moment when we have to step back and say, “Please, what do you think we should be doing?” and then engage in genuine dialogue.
AS: There are those who remind: the museum is also a place of refuge, a safe place where you can get away from the stresses and conflicts of the moment. How do you balance these different mandates?
TC: I recognize that for many people museums are places of refuge and respite, of recharging. But we are not entertainment. Our fundamental premise is that we are places of education. We don’t have to beat people over the head with a political agenda, but we shouldn’t be afraid of telling it as it is. As historians, our job is to be objective and analytical. In a properly functioning liberal democracy, where we have got effective political structures and an effective press and judiciary, museums perhaps could afford to be more middle-of-the-road. But the challenge we face now is that we have a totally dysfunctional political system and a president who has polarized the country, and who is ripping apart many of the democratic institutions that we all took for granted, and for which he seems to have no respect.
So, in a way, now it is much more apparent that museums are political, whether we like it or not. We have our heads in the sand if we don’t recognize that. There are all those posters out there, “Silence Equals Racism”; “Silence Equals Complicity.” That is true. I am not going to stop visitors who want to see our Impressionist paintings and Hudson River paintings and admire the beauty in the landscapes. But our signage and our labeling have got to be more objective in explaining that, for example, a beautiful landscape of Yosemite was actually made at a time when that land was being appropriated from the tribes who had lived there for generations. I think we should say that. And we should be programming exhibitions by contemporary artists who engage with these struggles and issues.
AS: So, keeping all this in mind, how would you define the term “museum”?
TC: For me, it is pretty simple. It is a place where people are presented with objects from the past and the present that allow them to understand their own heritage and that of other people, to better understand the issues of the day, and to empower their creative engagement in their own futures.
AS: The topic that brought us together, a decade ago, was a part of this larger story: international engagement. We certainly do have a global museum system now. How should this system be managed?
TC: After the Berlin Wall came down, it seemed that a new international dialogue was opening up. Now that has been set back by various factors: right-wing politics in America and in a number of European countries; the retrograde policies of Putin in Russia; China’s isolationist direction. Cultural exchange continues to be a critical part of breaking down those barriers, those misunderstandings. We must push on with that work and find international bodies through which we can work effectively. The Bizot Group, a relatively small group of about 65 international museum directors, is a somewhat toothless organization—self-elected and self-interested. I think ICOM (the International Council of Museums) could play a more muscular role, although it is currently confounded by infighting and a bit of an identity crisis.
We don’t have to beat people over the head with a political agenda, but we shouldn’t be afraid of telling it as it is.
Hopefully, it will emerge from that quickly. One of the challenges for art museums is that ICOM does not engage many of the European and US international art-museum directors. I hope that may change in the future. Fundamentally, art museums will be stronger if they can engage honestly as part of a global network. The old hierarchies in which museums in London, Berlin, Paris, New York, held all the greatest treasures have to be surpassed if we truly want to fulfill our mission. Give the Parthenon Marbles back to Athens. Return a significant body of Benin Bronzes. If we are to be respected as enlightened and forward-thinking educational institutions, then we have to shed the mindset of colonialism and exploitation.
AS: What advice would you give to the next generation of aspiring museum directors, should they seek to create real change through leadership of art museums?
TC: I guess it’s two things. First, you have to care about objects, truly have an interest in them. It is quite extraordinary that the entire knowledge of the world within the next ten years will be available at the flick of a button. But to have a meaningful career in the art world, you still have to fundamentally enjoy objects. You have to get past the digital data overload and build relationships with the objects themselves. You have got to embrace the romance of the physicality of the objects, as well as the ideas they embody. That is where your roots, your foundations, have got to be. Then, in your head, you have to be ready to think critically and embrace change.
We have inherited a lot of historical narratives, and the biggest responsibility of our generation is to confront those narratives and see them with fresh eyes. We have to recognize the degree to which we have inherited colonialism, white supremacy, the victor’s narratives. We have to see beyond those in order to learn from the past and become better people in the future.
Excerpted from The Future of the Museum: 28 Dialogues. Used with the permission of the publisher, Hatje Cantz. Copyright © 2021 by András Szántó.