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Interviews, Three Faiths

Meet the Scholar: Melissa Forstrom


Melissa ForstromMelissa ForstromMuseums. They are great. From Museum of Mathematics to Museum of Glass, there's so much to see and to learn about these topics in our shared history. Whenever I visit a new town or country, I am always eager to check out their local or national museums; they offer a glimpse of their cultural histories, identities and accomplishments.

However, some exhibitions can also showcase contested and controversial materials. Take for example the National September 11th Memorial and Museum (slated to open next year) in New York City: an exhibition of the 911 hijackers. They are part of the historical narrative but not the focus of the museum according to 9/11 Memorial President Joe Daniels. But beyond this type of controversy, there's also text based debates, and that's where Melissa Forstrom is interested in dissecting.

Melissa Forstrom, a doctoral student in visual culture at University of Westminster, England and a current Wertheim Scholar at NYPL will be giving a free presentation on her research titled, "Orientalism vs. Inclusive Practice in Exhibition: Islam and the Muslim Peoples in Western Museums, 2011-Present" on Thursday July 25th from 1:15 at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building in South Court Auditorium.

I had a chance to ask a few questions about her current research at NYPL.

What made you get interested in this subject matter?

The interest and impetus to study the exhibition text panels and labels through the investigation of the exhibitions that represent Islam and Muslim peoples is because of my long academic interest in misrepresentation, underrepresentation, and/or inequalities of representation of minority groups in cultural forms in Western societies. While attending Northeastern University as an undergraduate, I wrote my dissertation, titled; "The Representation of Women in Three Arthurian Cinematic Retellings: Excalibur, First Knight, and the Mists of Avalon" which explores the progressive representations of women in three Arthurian cinematic retellings in three consecutive decades, departing from the polarized and marginalized women of the 1980s in Excalibur retelling to the multidimensional female protagonists in the early 2000s in the Mists of Avalon.

While a Master of the Arts (MA) student at the University of Westminster, I took a great interest in the work of the late Professor Helen Coxall and visiting Professor and former Head of Education at the British Museum, John Reeve. Their respective academic work on the exhibition texts and inclusivity within the museum excited and stimulated me. Unlike my previous undergraduate academic work about representation in film, the exhibition and exhibition texts could be held ethically accountable for the messages they communicate to the audience. Consequently, my MA dissertation titled: Three Museum Exhibitions that Commemorate the Bicentennial of the Abolition of the British Transatlantic Slave Trade focused on introduction texts and exhibitions created specifically for this commemoration and based on a British governmental initiative.

Upon completion of my MA and subsequent return to New York City, I became very interested in the Orientalist and Islamophobic representations of Muslim peoples in general and specifically in New York City because I befriended a few Muslim-Americans in my new multicultural/multiethnic home, Astoria, New York City. These friends informed and enlightened me to the personal negative impacts of the societal prejudice of Islamophobia suffered in New York City. This interest led me to complete a Professional Certificate in Arabic at New York University and volunteer as a curator for Alwan for the Arts, a non-profit Arts organization that promotes Middle Eastern art in New York City. Once I began the initial research for my PhD proposal, I became increasingly more interested in this subject area because of the gap in research about the societal meanings/importance of exhibition text panels and labels in general, and also because of the gap in research about the increase of exhibitions that represent Islam and Muslim peoples in Western societies.

British Museum, London., Digital ID 1198692, New York Public LibraryBritish Museum, London

Why do you think it is important for people to look closely at the text panels in exhibitions?

I think it is important for people to look closely and think critically about text panels in exhibition because most visitors don't question their content and are unaware that a particular point of view may be present in the panels. Most museum visitors take the information written on the label as an unquestionable truth, when in many cases, it is, in fact interpretative and highly subjective information. I believe this lack of critical analysis is due to many factors, but primarily because of the elevated place of the museum in many Western societies.

What has been your favorite museum visit so far?

It is really hard to choose one! The Louvre's new Islamic Arts wing is amazing in that, the space was created for the art. Also, the MET's new galleries for the Art of the Arabs Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia and Later South Asia are very impressive.

I also really liked the Phoenix Museum of Art because of its open layout (which of course may only be possible in the West of the USA or a similar place that has a lot of space). Another museum that I loved is MMK in Frankfurt—the architecture really made a lasting impression on me. Recently, I was impressed with the Walters Art Museum is that it holds true to its dedication to being free and belonging to the Baltimore public. The same is true to the Baltimore Museum of Art.

The Louvre, Paris., Digital ID 1647533, New York Public LibraryThe Louvre, Paris

What has been the most fascinating part in researching your topic at NYPL?

The most fascinating part of my research at the NYPL is the availability of titles to the researcher. There is truly no other place like it in the USA. Also, when I have a problem finding a title, I am always impressed with helpful, kind attitude of the NYPL workers. They will go 100% out of their way to help you, which is very rare nowadays and especially in NYC.

Also, the Wertheim study room and Jay Barksdale are a godsend. It is an honor to have been accepted into this study room.

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York., Digital ID 836757, New York Public LibraryMetropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Do you have a second project idea after this?

Yes, my project after my PhD dissertation will hopefully be about the use of glass in the purpose-built contemporary art museum.

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