Museum Studies Blog

Posted on May 16th, 2023 in Book Reviews, Student Work by Laura Holzman | Tags: ,

Culture Strike: Art and Museums in an Age of Protest by Laura Raicovich. New York: Verso Books, 2021.


Culture StrikeLaura Raicovich’s book Culture Strike: Art and Museums in an Age of Protest challenges the museum’s perceived duty. At their core, museums and museum adjacent organizations serve the public, and many believe that, in order to serve as much of the public as possible, museums must remain as neutral as possible. Culture Strike is a bold case for the claim that neutrality in the museum space simply cannot—and should not—exist. Raicovich declares that the most effective way to make museums a welcoming space to a diverse public is to invite the public to engage with them and, when needed, reinvent them. This premise—that there are no neutral museums spaces and that insisting upon their attempted designation as such obscures and dismisses the museum’s operation—is not new. Culture Strike addresses a history of museum protest of all natures, celebrating activist groups including Decolonize This Place, whose actions against Columbus Day prompted removal of the New York Museum of Natural History’s statue of Theodore Roosevelt for its racist imagery, though the museum itself was thought to be a neutral institution. According to Raicovich, “[n]eutrality is a veil that conceals the ways in which power is wielded and maintained, making its workings invisible; it is ‘just the way things are’” (141). She continues on to bring attention to the colonialist and looting origins of museum collections and the politically biased subtext of museum funding now supporting these collections and how they are presented alongside their relation to the public. In this, Raicovich examines protest against the acceptance by several major international museums of Sackler Family funds—sourced from the manufacture and distribution of highly addictive opiates—calls for repatriation of artifacts and removal of monuments, the controversy surrounding Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till, and others. Culture Strike recognizes how disruptions to the everyday museum function create openings to evaluate and reassess how and for whom museums exist.

Culture Strike is born of and into an era which Raicovich defines as one of protest. In 2015, Raicovich assumed the role of president and executive director of the Queens Museum, the largest museum in a borough of New York City and home to roughly thirty percent of the state’s immigrant population. Soon after, Donald Trump was elected United States President and by 2017, Trump had announced intent to phase out the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policies (DACA), upon which five percent of the Queens Museum’s staff were reliant. Trump also became in his first year in office the first United States President to threaten elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts Budget. Caught in polarizing political crosshairs, Raicovich recommended that the Queens Museum join other arts institutions in declaring itself a sanctuary space. She was met with the argument that as a public institution the museum should avoid any action that could be perceived as ‘taking sides’. The commitment to ostensible neutrality overrode the commitment to its community and to its staff. Raicovich was met by further opposition from the board following a decision not to rent museum space for a speech by then vice President Mike Pence, leading her to leave her position in early 2018.

At its core, Raicovich’s book is a demand that museums do not forget their purpose as public serving institutions, recommending that museums be reimagined as a place for exchange with rather than broadcasting to the public. Culture Strike calls for greater nuance in accountability, collaboration, and reconsideration to create opportunities for decision making that is intentionally inclusive. The relatively modern surge to create a space that is less white, male, abled, cisgender, and heterosexual is a necessary step to creating the space that museums should be. Sometimes these steps include removal or even destruction of works that cause active harm to communities. According to Raicovich, doing so is not an act of cancellation or censorship, but the way that people decide how a museum functions in its community and ensures that museums will continue to be a part of communities for all futures.


Ava Osowick is a first year MA student in the IUPUI Museum Studies Program.