Changing the Things We Cannot Accept – Museum Edition

Written by Mike Murawski

Last month, I was honored to be a part of the Smith Leadership Symposium in San Diego, an annual program of the Balboa Park Cultural Partnership.  Not only was this my second year being involved in this program, but I was also fortunate to be among a powerful group of presenters that included Shamell Bell (community organizer and choreographer), Milenko Matanovic (artist and community builder), and Monica Montgomery (founding director of the Museum of Impact).  Throughout our conversations leading up to the symposium and that day, we shared ideas about the value of community dialogue and the role of community care in our personal and professional work.

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Photo courtesy of Balboa Park Learning Institute.

My talk entitled “Changing the Things I Cannot Accept” was inspired, in part, by the writings of scholar and activist Angela Davis.  Davis’s powerful work had been on my mind after being encouraged by a colleague to read the recently published collection of her writings and interviews entitled Freedom is a Constant Struggle.  I am so grateful that this and other works by Davis made it to my ‘must read’ list, as she brings forward the urgency of feminism, intersectionality, and global solidarity to the struggles against injustice and oppression in our country.

In a speech to a gathering of Ferguson protesters in St. Louis in 2015, she stated: “Any critical engagement with racism requires us to understand the tyranny of the universal. For most of our history the very category ‘human’ has not embraced Black people and people of color. Its abstractness has been colored white and gendered male.”  It is within this tyranny of the universal, the neutral, the apolitical, the fair and balanced, and the objective that my frustrations lie when it comes to the role of museums in our society and in our communities.  Which brings me right back to the often-quoted words of Angela Davis:

“I’m no longer accepting the things I cannot change…. I’m changing the things I cannot accept.”

These words have resonated with me for quite some time.  Not because this has become an internet meme since the election, but instead because I hear these words repeated by activists that I greatly admire and respect in my own community and beyond.  And on that day of the Smith Symposium in San Diego, two of the other keynote presenters also included this exact quote from Davis in their slides.

So what are the things we can no longer accept when it comes to museum practice?

Well, for me, it is certainly not enough to lay out a laundry list of ‘things I cannot accept’ and continue to make the assumption that these are also ‘things that I cannot change.’  I think I was stuck in that long, deep rut earlier in my museum career.  I still hear many museum professionals talk about “the way things are” in museums and our inability to change things from where we are located in our organization (and in these power structures, more importantly). Many of the entrenched behaviors, policies, and practices in museums are based in a whole set of false stories we tell ourselves — self-sabotaging and oppressive narratives that hold us back, maintain the status quo, and create a fearful and hesitant attitude towards change.

I came across this specific idea of recognizing our false stories in a self-help book by Jen Sincero called You Are A Badass (ok, so not everything I read is as intellectual and hard-hitting as Angela Davis).  In it, Sincero writes:

“Because we’re so set in our ways and committed to our stories about who we are and what our reality looks like, we only scratch the surface of all that’s available to us every single moment.”

I’ve used Sincero’s framework in a few workshops I’ve led with museum professionals this year, working to identify the potential false stories that create barriers to change in our professional work, and then creating new powerful stories of change to replace them.  In a couple instances, we made our new powerful stories of change public by writing them outside museums using sidewalk chalk (I’ll never forget how it looked to have these messages written all across the main entrance plaza to the Museum of Art & History in Santa Cruz — thanks Nina!). We have too often upheld a systemic ‘big bad no’ that has dramatically limited the potential of museums to be agents of positive social change.

Rather than simply re-hashing the same concerns and complaints over and over again, it is far more vital and urgent to take action and change these things we cannot accept.  It is on us to replace these false stories with new powerful stories that envision a bold future for museums.  Below is my raw attempt at creating a new set of stories that I am working to tell myself — a set of stories that can lead to action and change in the work that we do as museum professionals as well as citizens, civic leaders, and members of our communities.

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Photo courtesy of Balboa Park Learning Institute.

This modest manifesto – first shared with the community of museum changemakers that came together for the Smith Symposium in September — brings the forces driving change in my own work out in a public, transparent, and vulnerable place.  No doubt this list is incomplete, imperfect, abbreviated, and oversimplified, yet I invite readers to add on to this list, flesh it out, and help us all move forward to change the things we can no longer accept:

1.  I cannot accept that museums are neutral. Museums have the potential to be relevant, socially-engaged spaces in our communities.  Yet, too often, they strive to remain “above” the political and social issues that affect our lives — embracing a myth of neutrality.  Well, MUSEUMS ARE NOT NEUTRAL, plain and simple.  In a 2015 article entitled “The End of Neutrality: A Modest Manifesto,” scholar Robert Janes writes, “neutrality is not a foundational principle of museum practice, but rather a result of the museum’s privileged position in society.” He continues, “complacency, the absence of continuous learning, and the weight of tradition are persistent factors in the inability or unwillingness to rethink the meaning of neutrality and its implications for the role and responsibilities of museums in contemporary society.”  It’s time to erase the tyranny of neutrality and move past this entrenched, limiting idea of museums.

2.  I cannot accept that museums are entirely object-centered and their primary purpose is to serve and preserve their collections. Museums are human-centered institutions, in the broadest and most inclusive sense.  This means more than just being visitor-centered or audience-centered.  It’s a mindset that recognizes the human potential and impact of our work, externally as well as internally. It’s a mindset that has the power to inform our decisions as museum professionals (around exhibitions, programs, partnerships, budgets, security, collections management, etc.) in a way that places a spirit of human connection at the core of our thinking, rather than just the objects.

3.  I cannot accept that museums function as separate from their communities. We often use language that externalizes those outside of our walls, setting up a false ‘us’ versus ‘them’ dichotomy. Museums can, instead, think of themselves as part of their communities. All museum staff, volunteers, members, donors, trustees, and partners are members of the community, and we only need to strive to be more inclusive and reflective of the broader local community.

4.  I cannot accept the thought that involving community members and their knowledge in a museum’s core practices will lower the quality of content and decrease overall trust in a museum’s authority. I’ve heard this too many times. Instead, let’s repeat and amplify the words that changemaker Josh Boykin projected on the wall behind him during his entire lightning talk this summer at MuseumCamp: “Let Your Community In.” Our communities know more than we do, and we need to recognize and embrace the knowledge, creativity, and lived experiences of these communities.  It’s no longer enough for museums to strive to be an essential part of their communities; we need to be working to ensure that our communities become an essential part of our museums. Quoting the transformative words of the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center’s Culture Lab Manifesto, “those who have historically been pushed to the margins hold the stories that will center our future.”

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Photo from Dalila Huerta, Instagram dlhuerta1848

5.  I cannot accept that museums do not consistently and persistently recognize the indigenous peoples on whose ancestral lands our institutions now stand. It’s time – now, today — to regularly and consistently honor the indigenous peoples of our place as well as the genealogies and hidden histories embodied in these spaces. It’s time to work toward decolonizing our institutions, and partnering with indigenous communities (artists, leaders, educators, activists) as we rethink the roles and responsibilities of museums.

6.  I cannot accept that issues such as immigration, refugees, police violence, transgender rights, water, and climate change are too political for museums. Museums are inextricably linked to these complex issues that are relevant to us today, and they permeate everything we do (whether we choose to acknowledge it or not).  I believe we can boldly come together around a respect for each other and the environment, rather than continue to allow these issues to divide us.

7.  I cannot accept that museums still use ‘keeping their donor base happy’ as an excuse to not be socially relevant and forward thinking. This fear of losing donors and patrons is far too pervasive. No way. I’m not buying it. If museums have a clear, bold, community-based vision for inclusion and social change, donors will support this work.  We need to have more trust in those individuals and foundations that support our institutions, and begin working with new funding sources specifically seeking organizations dedicated to inclusion, social change, and building stronger communities.  Some supporters may leave, but new ones will join in.  Like the old proverb says, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”  Get that tree planted today!  — And I wanted add to this a powerful, brutally-honest sentence from Brene Brown’s latest book Braving the Wilderness: “When the culture of any organization mandates that it is more important to protect the reputation of a system and those in power than it is to protect the basic human dignity of the individuals who serve that system or who are served by that system, you can be certain that the shame is systemic, the money is driving ethics, and the accountability is all but dead.”

8.  I cannot accept that many museums are hesitant or afraid to proclaim that Black Lives Matter and black life matters, or work with activists in the Movement for Black Lives and other intersectional movements standing up for human rights. Museums need to unapologetically recognize and engage the brave, transformative work of the Movement for Black Lives and their vision to “move towards a world in which the full humanity and dignity of all people is recognized” (Vision for Black Lives), as well as other important movements fighting for these same basic principles of human rights. We should look toward the leadership and vision of the Ford Foundation, a global organization leading efforts to support social justice and human welfare. In their statement “Why black lives matter to philanthropy,” they bravely proclaimed, “now is the time to stand by and amplify movements rooted in love, compassion, and dignity for all people.”

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Community Social Justice Art Project in memory of the death of Michael Brown, organized by Don’t Shoot Portland, August 2016 at the Portland Art Museum

9.  I cannot accept that, for museums, being socially responsible is just a liberal trend. Museums have the potential to serve as agents of social change, bringing people together, contributing to local communities, and changing people’s lives. It is time for our institutions to respond to the challenges of our times by making a bigger difference. This is not a trend that involves museums starting a few new programs or pulling together an exhibition that is socially-engaged – this is a movement to re-envision the purpose of museums as collaborative, participatory, and socially responsible spaces in a way that will affect all of the work that museums do.

10.  I cannot accept that we, as museum professionals and as citizens, do not fully recognize and celebrate the work we do to be inclusive, relevant, and responsive to the issues affecting the lives of our communities, our neighborhoods, our audiences, and our staff & volunteers. We must fiercely and consistently recognize the work we’re already doing to make positive change in our society and for our planet, and build communities of changemakers within and across institutions.  This is some of the most meaningful, relevant work happening in museums right now, so let’s work to make these stories the central stories of our museums. People across our institutions—not just educators but directors, curators, marketing staff, board members, donors, etc.—need to be publicly and visibly proud of the programs, exhibitions, projects, and strategic & structural changes that actively embrace equity, unheard stories, dialogue about provocative questions, and the diverse and rich lived experiences of those living in our communities.  More comprehensive support for this work can lead to an expanded focus on social impact and community partnership in a museum’s strategic goals and mission, in its exhibition and program planning process, in its staffing and hiring decisions, and in its overall allocation of resources.

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In his introduction to Freedom Is a Constant Struggle, journalist and activist Frank Barat brings light to an unexpected key aspect of activism and change: trying.  “Trying to change the world…,” he writes, “That is victory in itself.”

“Everyone and everything tells you that ‘outside’ you will not succeed, that it is too late, that we live in an epoch where a revolution cannot happen anymore. Radical changes are a thing of the past. You can be an outsider, but not outside the system, and you can have political beliefs, even radical ones, but they need to stay within the bounds of the permissible, inside that bubble that has been drawn for you by the elites.”

Time to break outside that bubble, and be an active part of creating a new, radical future for museums.

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Header Photo: “Time Piece – 2” by lewishdreamer, Flickr photo, CC BY-NC 2.0 license, some rights reserved.  Photo taken during Liberate Tate’s protest performance called “Time Piece” at the Tate Modern in June 2015.  Read more about this action here.

 

6 thoughts on “Changing the Things We Cannot Accept – Museum Edition”

  1. “It is within this tyranny of the universal, the neutral, the apolitical, the fair and balanced, and the objective that my frustrations lie when it comes to the role of museums in our society and in our communities.”

    The irony of the March for Science was not lost on me… People marching for an idea of science, a pop-culture icon called “science”, while at the same time attacking the things that make for scientific discipline in every other aspect of their lives and careers.

    Granted, this is a blog on art museums specifically, but being universal, neutral, apolitical, fair, balanced, and objective are goals to aspire to – once considered virtues in themselves – and the route to fixing any inadequacies in their execution is not to abolish them, but to strengthen and extend them.

    In the art museum context, this contempt for objectivity, fairness, etc. fatally undermines your list of things you cannot accept. You want the museum to be both political and to engage the community, but these are contradictory goals. “We often use language that externalizes those outside of our walls, setting up a false ‘us’ versus ‘them’ dichotomy.” Externalization of opposition and Us vs. Them dichotomies IS politics, especially in the current climate of the United States. Who does your idea of “community” include for the purposes of this manifesto? Who does it not? Can we look forward to an exhibit of, say, conservative Christian art reflecting on questions of sexuality? Memes of the alt-right? I’m guessing by the tone of this piece that the answer on that is no, even though those people are a part of your community.

    If you want to engage the community, you have to be fair, balanced, objective, and neutral. Otherwise you’re not really engaging the community: you’re trying to use the museum as a weapon against it.

  2. Generally I have no issues with museums, except when they snub acquiring my work. Oh…and was disappointed that a recent museum pulled some art under threats from animal fanatics.

    Once you inject all that garbage into a museum it will be fucked. Sounds to me like you need to open up your own goddamn museum. Then you can write a whole book of do’s and don’ts.

    Same with these so-called ‘ethical’ street photogs that have a long laundry list of don’ts they run through their brain before pressing the button. By the time they mentally masturbate the shot…it is long gone. Same with your long laundry list, the art would be ruined.

  3. This post is right on not only for its clarity of purpose but also for its conviction. It makes me think that my community of practice is the subset of museum people working on changing the field to ensuring its future. I am proud to be with you on this fight!

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