April 2017

Interview with State Museum Champion Tim Chester

Tim Chester’s resignation Monday as Interim Director of the Louisiana State Museum system set off something of a firestorm in Louisiana. According to Chester’s resignation letter, Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser engaged in “political interference in daily museum operations” that threatened the viability of the institution.

Tim Chester’s resignation Monday as Interim Director of the Louisiana State Museum system set off something of a firestorm in Louisiana. According to Chester’s resignation letter, Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser engaged in “political interference in daily museum operations” that threatened the viability of the institution. Among the allegations contained in Chester’s missive was Nungesser’s outrageous suggestion that “the collections might be sold on e-Bay for profit.” Nungesser has apparently considered selling the museum collections for nearly a year, so while he may dispute some of Chester’s claims with petty insults, it’s clear that the most serious allegations of his letter fit a longstanding and deliberate pattern of behavior. It’s also worth noting that this is the same Nungesser who publicly unveiled a fraudulent, exclusive oil deal with the Republic of Iraq, which far exceeds his authority as lieutenant governor. Our state’s very heritage and birthright, not to mention its good name, don’t appear to be sacred to its politicians.

cabildo
Photo of the Louisiana State Museum, Courtesy of Nola.com.

Our feature essay this week by Gabbi Angeloni explores the historical roots of another political assault on systems of knowledge in President Trump’s repeated lies and misrepresentations of unfavorable press coverage. As Angeloni argues, “what we read, and how we read it, matters. It shapes our worldviews, and, studies suggest, it even affects our actions.” The only way to combat this program of misinformation, according to Angeloni, is to “shift our ways of reading—particularly reading critically—from the start.” Transforming ourselves into a nation of thinkers may seem like an overwhelming task, but thanks to scholars and public advocates like Angeloni and Chester, we now have the opportunity to rally around institutions tasked with disseminating knowledge as a form of public service.

Tim Chester graciously spoke with me at length Thursday afternoon about his reasons for resigning, his career as a museum professional, and his vision for the museums of the future. I’ve paraphrased parts our conversation below.

Museums Are for Us

During my conversation with Chester, he confessed that he thought resigning in this manner may have been the only way to save the museum. Longtime donors began withdrawing their support, Chester said, and lenders started withdrawing their materials. While this creates a difficult environment for museum staff, especially after years of budget cuts, it’s especially unfortunate for the community. Museums aren’t merely a collection of artifacts, Chester told me, but the expression of a community’s vision of itself and its interaction with its heritage.

“The stories that museums tell don’t have to be limited to objects and elites, and updating them might help us better understand our world.”

The question museum directors and communities face is “how we share museums with as many people as possible.” Part of that means getting community involvement in the planning stages of exhibits and events but also includes acquiring staff and volunteers who represent a diverse cross-section of each museum’s community.

madame john house
Photo of the Madame John House, Courtesy of Louisiana State Museum.

The Madame John House provides a good example of rethinking exhibits with the community in mind. Chester told me that the house has long been presented from elite white and 18th century colonial perspectives (see for yourself) but has a variety of other stories to tell. Chester suggested that the house might be approached from the perspective of the slaves who worked there or the Sicilian immigrants who occupied it generations later during its time as a tenement. The stories that museums tell don’t have to be limited to objects and elites, and updating them might help us better understand our world.

As a historian of Louisiana, I can’t help but agree with Chester. Telling stories that are more complicated and personal might finally allow us to abandon the fiction that the past was a “simpler time” and that attempting to return there would somehow make us “great again.”

Public Institutions Require People

People care about museums and local establishments “at times of institutional crisis.” While this is important, for Chester, it also creates problems for museums and other public resources that depend on regular public engagement for their survival. Louisiana boasts a truly unique history and culture, but if people don’t visit local museums tasked with preserving the artifacts and manuscripts that document that history, they won’t be able to survive.

But it’s more than that. People need to understand their local governments and the resources they dispense. Let’s use Chester’s resignation as an example.

Chester identifies the root cause of his resignation as the complex relationship that binds the Louisiana State Museum to its government. When the state museum was founded by the legislature in 1906, it became enmeshed in the state’s often corrupt and cash-strapped political system. Many other states, in Chester’s telling, insulate the museum system and staff from elections and political appointments while still using state money to support its operation. Following legislative changes in the museum organization initiated 10 years ago by then-Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, however, the Louisiana State Museum was placed under the direct control of the lieutenant governor. Since then, it’s faced repeated budget cuts, crises, and resignations. While this is in part due to larger issues in Louisiana politics, part of the responsibility for this instability lies on Louisianans themselves for allowing politicians like Nungesser to dictate the workings and operation of a professional institution.

You can’t operate a museum while its head suggests selling its collections on e-Bay. Chester calls this “inherent vice,” museum-talk for an artifact that staffers can’t preserve. In his telling, the organization of the museum itself ensures that it will be unable to survive attacks by “the enemy from within.” The museum, as it exists, cannot survive. And as long as we allow our state officials to disregard the needs of its citizens, we’ll be unable to save our history and culture for future generations.

“The museum is a place for all of us, but only if we’re there.”

Chester’s advice for us in this regard is simple: Make calls. Visit the museum. Volunteer. Make suggestions to its curators.

As he frames it, the museum is a place for all of us, but only if we’re there.

The Summer Job That Stuck

When I asked Chester what made him want to pursue a career in museums, he told me frankly that in 1975, “I needed a summer job.” He recalled thinking that museums were stuffy places for old fogies who told you to be quiet and not to touch anything. When he began working at the museum, however, he was mesmerized by the team of people responsible for creating its exhibits, preserving its artifacts, and managing its archives. These encounters with authentic artifacts and the professionals who worked with them transformed him into a lifelong museum advocate.

For Chester, museums offer patrons opportunities to experience these artifacts, learn about their communities, understand the complexity of their shared past, and study at their own pace. The ideal museum, as Chester sees it, provides the perfect space for Angeloni’s nation of thinkers, a place where locals can congregate and make sense of their world.

Could any of us ask for a better summer job than that?

horne-bio-pictureWilliam Horne is a PhD candidate at The George Washington University researching the relationship of race to labor, freedom, and capitalism in post-Civil War Louisiana. His dissertation, “Carceral State: Baton Rouge and its Plantation Environs Across Emancipation,” examines the ways in which white supremacy and capitalism each depended on restricting black freedom in the aftermath of slavery. He can be contacted here and followed on Twitter at @wihorne.

1 comment on “Interview with State Museum Champion Tim Chester

  1. tom barber

    An extremely timely story. The Lincoln library and museum just underwent an organizational reshuffle–http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/breaking/ct-lincoln-museum-20170401-story.html

    Liked by 1 person

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