Written by Anonymous
I have been in the museum field for a number of years and worked at multiple institutions. When I first started, I had the privilege to work under a great leader. They taught me so much about supporting and cultivating a team. Perhaps because they were such a good leader, they also shielded me from the issues that I have come to find are prevalent in the field. When I was making barely enough to survive, they advocated for me without me even having to ask. They ensured that I was decently paid, and though it still wasn’t ideal, I knew they had done everything in their power to push for my compensation.
In the years since we went our separate ways, I quickly came to learn that not every leader is like that and that museums are particularly hostile places for employees of color. At first, it was small and perhaps predictable things I noticed like White employees referring to the one Black woman on the team as “aggressive” though I found her to be an assertive change maker. Then, I watched the dwindling number of people of color on our team starting with the unnecessary firing of one of the most senior positions. In the beginning, as each scenario unfolded, I saw these things as singular incidents.
As my institution has increased the staff diversity among entry level positions, I realized that these incidents weren’t isolated, rather they were a result of the systems in place. Bringing in diverse staff in entry level positions is relatively easy, providing opportunities for growth and promotion is much more difficult and can be held up by the normalization of Whiteness and the othering of ideas and people that do not fit into the concept of White professionalism or are not in line with the power structure and values held by institutions that are created, funded, and sustained by wealthy, White donors. Yet still, during this time I assumed the issues that I and others in my institutions faced were confined to these particular institutions or even the geographical location. I thought, if only I could take a job at a better museum, a more forward thinking museum, a museum with goals rooted in diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion, that I would be able to thrive.
Then in June, ChangeTheMuseum appeared. If you are unfamiliar with it, ChangeTheMuseum is an Instagram account where museum workers can anonymously submit issues and situations that have arisen in their museums related to race and equity. Most of the submissions have been from Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) employees in museums. The posts range in severity but each of the posts highlights the real pain and trauma that BIPOC employees face in these White institutions. And the gravity of the combined posts should make anyone who works in museums stop and consider their own actions and the actions of those around them.
ChangeTheMuseum has simultaneously torn down my hopefulness about museums as institutions, and helped me feel less alone in my struggles. It is depressing to realize that many museums that we hold up and look to as important institutions are failing just as much as smaller museums when it comes to acknowledging past and current wrongs and truly committing to the work of addressing institutional racism and supporting BIPOC staff and communities. But it is powerful to know that I am not alone, that there is a critical mass of BIPOC museum workers who have endured in isolation and silence but are now speaking up and demanding something better.
I don’t know if the museum world can be changed. I do know that museums cannot rely on BIPOC staff to make the change happen. Change must come from the board, from the leadership team, and from the overwhelming numbers of White staff in museums. I don’t know if museums can change as quickly as we need them to. We may continue to see an exodus of BIPOC from the museum field, but at least now everyone will have a clearer picture of why.