Written and compiled by Museum Education Roundtable Board of Directors
The Museum Education Roundtable stands alongside those protesting violence against Black people in Minneapolis and around the country. Museum educators are bridges to and producers of cultural knowledge. We care for our communities intellectually but also emotionally, socially, and physically. As such, we have a responsibility to address structural injustice, oppression, racism, and abuses of power. Museums are not neutral, and neither are those who work in these privileged institutions.
We are angered by and mourn the killing of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and countless others. We stand with those condemning the violence against and ongoing oppression of Black people in the United States. Our thoughts, words, and actions are with anyone organizing to dismantle systems of oppression.
These are only the most recent instances emerging from centuries of violent, structural racism in the United States. To end this cycle of injustice, we all must come together to recognize the insidious nature of white supremacy and the ways it has infiltrated every aspect of our lives, including and especially our cultural institutions.
We encourage our members and readers to take action and have compiled the following resources for folks seeking an entry point. As a Board, and within a museum field, that is predominately white, we must center our Black, Indigenous, and racialized colleagues, partners, and visitors. We have privilege inherent to aspects of our identities and power in our position within the cultural landscape.
Support BIPOC organizations in a sustainable way, not just during crises; send funds to thought leaders and changemakers that you learn from using platforms like Venmo or Paypal; become a Patreon member of podcasts that challenge your bias;
Confront your own bias and unearth the ways that white supremacy has benefited you; then start dismantling it.
Resources for white people confronting anti-black racism:
White Fragility by Robin J. DeAngelo, and other selected titles from this booklist for white readers from Atlanta’s Charis Books
We offer MER’s platform to amplify the voices of museum colleagues of color, and uplift liberatory work in our field. If you have thoughts, blog posts, or resources to share with the museum education field, we welcome you to do so in this space. We can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We acknowledge that much of the framework for organizing how museums can and should respond to injustice has been the labor of people of color, in particular Black women. We thank Adrianne Russell and Aleia Brown (#MuseumsRespondToFerguson); La Tanya Autry (#MuseumsAreNotNeutral); and Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw and Andrea J. Ritchie (#SayHerName); Patrisse Khan-Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi (#BlackLivesMatter); and Porchia Moore and nikhil trivedi (Visitors of Color).
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About Museum Education Roundtable
Formed in 1969, the Museum Education Roundtable fosters professionalism among museum educators by encouraging leadership, scholarship and research in museum- based learning. MER provides leadership in professional development for a broad and diverse audience of museum practitioners and educators. Through its publications, programs, and active communications network, MER:
Supports professionalism among peers and others committed to excellence in museum-based learning. Encourages leadership, scholarship, and research in museum-based learning, and advocates for the inclusion and application of museum-based learning in general education and life-long learning.
MER publishes the Journal of Museum Education, the only American journal that is devoted to the theory and practice of museum education. Written by museum and education professionals, JME articles explore innovations in the field of museum education, teaching strategies for use in museums and other informal learning environments, visitor research, and evaluation.
MER hosts an annual program each year in Washington, DC, and a members reception at the AAM annual conference. In addition, MER partners with regional groups to present programs that offer networking opportunities and discussions around issues of the JME.
In September 2017, 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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
The first time I experienced a Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center (APAC) Culture Lab, a pop-up museum experience, it was as a visitor repeating the word “finally.” Crosslines: A Culture Lab on Intersectionality took over the Smithsonian’s Arts & Industries Building during Memorial Day weekend in 2016, and was APAC’s first Culture Lab. It was a truly immersive experience with emotional weight—over 40 artists from all over the country created original works of art and interactive spaces where visitors of all ages and backgrounds entered to learn about, challenge, and be challenged by the Lab’s theme of intersectionality. The atmosphere was festive with a constant murmur of excitement as deep conversation filled the air of an historic building erected as the first United States National Museum. Since Crosslines, APAC has co-created Culture Labs in New York City (CTRL+ALT: A Culture Lab on Imagined Futures) and most recently in Honolulu (‘Ae Kai: A Culture Lab on Convergence). Culture Labs are built with communities, a co-created and collaborative experiment that has since impacted the way we think about and approach the idea of what a museum should be.
I am grateful to be a part of APAC as their Education Specialist. Since joining the team earlier this year, I find the one question I get asked by my fellow museum educators is, “What does museum education look like at a Culture Lab?” My answers can be found in APAC’s Culture Lab Manifesto, which was published this July in an all-Asian American issue of Poetry Magazine (see full text below, along with links to Culture Lab’s Manifesto page).
As a museum educator, I think back to my impressions of Crosslines, and how surprising it was to walk into a museum space feeling like I belong, like my voice would be heard and that I would experience genuine empathy. How often can you walk up to an artist at a museum and jump right into conversations about intersectionality, what our futures may hold, and how our stories may converge into paths of better understanding? What I love most about being a museum educator is what is learned and shared from visitors of all ages and backgrounds. Creative dreaming and building with communities is something we don’t often allow ourselves the time and space to do in our professional realm. This manifesto was created out of a team effort steeped in reflection and proactive energies—it was time to share our vision and belief in how museums could be re-built with communities.
As an education program builds at APAC and future Culture Labs, I welcome conversation, idea sharing, and creative dreaming. I hope you will take a look at our manifesto and reach out if you would like to discuss re-building museum spaces with communities.
Culture Lab Manifesto
BY SMITHSONIAN ASIAN PACIFIC AMERICAN CENTER
We at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center believe the soul of a museum lies not in its brick-and-mortar walls but in what happens inside those walls — the experiential friction between guests and hosts, history and future. We believe that curation can be a form of community organizing; that art can be collaborative, participatory, and socially responsible; that those who have historically been pushed to the margins hold the stories that will center our future.
With these beliefs, we introduce the Culture Lab into the fold of museum practice. Culture Labs are fleeting, site-specific happenings that recognize art and culture as vehicles that can bring artists, scholars, curators, and the public together in creative and ambitious ways.
The images in this slideshow are from the first two Culture Labs: CrossLines: A Culture Lab on Intersectionality (May 2016, Washington, DC) and CTRL+ALT: A Culture Lab on Imagined Futures (November 2016, New York City). What you see are alternatives to traditional museum exhibitions — or perhaps their next evolution. What follows is a declaration of principles for you to consider as you envision the museum experiences of today and tomorrow.
We at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center believe that museums engaging communities should be built upon:
A CULTURE OF MEMORY. Every place embodies genealogies we must honor. Amplifying hidden histories builds empathy. Intervening in public space enriches our collective memory.
A CULTURE OF REPRESENTATION. Prioritize local artists, participants, and organizers. Nothing about communities without those communities.
A CULTURE OF AMBITION & EVOLUTION. Scale up. Open yourself to growth through conversation. Push both your ideas and practices.
A CULTURE OF IMAGINATION. Place value on daydreaming. Not everything is a logistic. Find the amazing in the margins.
A CULTURE OF PRESENCE. Live-time interaction — nothing replaces human contact. Make all spaces maker spaces.
A CULTURE OF EQUITY. Pay artists. Pay artists fairly. Dismantle hierarchies. Everyone shares in the work.
A CULTURE OF COMMUNITY. Create lasting collectives. Come to museums to be challenged, to change, to fall in love.
A CULTURE OF INTERSECTIONALITY. Step outside the silos that constrain our narratives. Allow yourself to think, feel, and remember in the same complex ways that we live.
A CULTURE OF RELEVANCE. Choose to engage in what matters right now.
A CULTURE OF BELONGING. Forge brave space. Extend welcome and safety to all peoples and communities. Make room for the marginalized, especially by questioning what marginalizes them.
A CULTURE OF BEAUTY. Who gets to decide what counts as beautiful? Question aesthetic classifications and priorities.
A CULTURE OF INSPIRATION. Open the process. Dream together. Make together.
A CULTURE OF FUN. Play is innovation. Play is care. Play is life.
A CULTURE OF ACTION. Stay woke. We have a social contract with one another to protect the vulnerable and ensure human rights for everyone.
—Adriel Luis, Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis, Nafisa Isa, Kālewa Correa, Jeanny Kim, Hana Maruyama, Clara Kim, Nathan Kawanishi, Emmanuel Mones, Desun Oka, Carlo Tuason, Lisa Sasaki, Andrea Kim Neighbors, Deloris Perry, and Emily Alvey.
A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of being invited to give the keynote address to begin Day 2 of the MuseumNext conference in New York City. My talk expanded on some of my thinking around the vital importance of empathy, change, and social action in museums, and focused on 5 actions we can take as museum professionals. I’m pasting the video, SlideShare, and extended notes from my talk below. I hope this sparks more conversations within and among museums about the role our institutions play in our communities and in relation to issues of social justice, equity, and inclusion. Please feel free to email me at email@example.com with any questions, and add Comments or questions below for a more public exchange around these ideas. I welcome all perspectives, ideas, and voices in this dialogue about museums. And special thanks to Jim Richardson and the team at MuseumNext for putting together a powerful conference in New York!
NOTE: These views are my own and don’t necessarily represent the Portland Art Museum’s positions, strategies, or opinions.
Keynote Address: “Urgency of Empathy and Social Action in Museums”
November 15, 2016, Tribeca Center for Performing Arts, New York, NY
[I began this address by playing an excerpt from Janelle Monae’s “Hell You Talmbout,” which I encourage you to listen to by playing the video below. And crank up the volume or pop on some headphones.]
This visceral performance was recorded by Janelle Monae and the Wondaland Arts Society collective. It is a striking protest piece that responds to instances of police violence against minorities in this country, and honors the lives of those lost in a way that boldly confronts indifference.
Janelle Monae said, “Silence is our enemy, and sound is our weapon.” In an interview about her recording “Hell You Talmbout,” she said something that really struck me and made me want to bring this in to begin our day here at MuseumNext: “It’s important that we see each other as human beings. We need to take care of each other.” Her piece stands as a form of art that can connect us all as humans through empathy as well as action.
I want to spend some time talking this morning about the urgency of empathy, social impact, and social action in museums today, focusing on 5 actions—that’s right, I said actions … not ideas, concepts, or principles. 5 actions that we can all get involved in to help museums reach their full potential as meaningful, relevant, human-centered institutions in our communities.
But before I begin, I would like to recognize and honor the indigenous peoples on whose ancestral lands this theatre now stands here in Manhattan, on which our museums stand, and on which we live and work every day.
ACTION 1: Be More Local
It’s so important for museums to be a ‘local’ place intertwined and inseparable from the local realities and issues. We are located in our communities, but we’re also a part of those communities. This idea of community is important to address – we use that word a lot and don’t often think about it. What is community, and what is audience? What do we mean by these words? For me, so much of this idea of “community” is grounded in geography. How do we define our place, our town, our city, our neighborhood; and how do we learn about the people in this place, what connects us, and what brings us together into a community
So what can we do to help museums be more local?
First, I think there is a false binary and divide we have created between ‘museum’ and ‘community’ that is troubling. It’s so ingrained in the way so many of us talk about our work, myself included. We might be feeding this gap, this divide, by simply not addressing it. What if “the museum” included the people in our local community (including our staff and volunteers)? What if, instead of just museums seeing themselves as part of their communities, our communities actually saw themselves as part of our museums? We fight so hard for outreach, but sometimes we just need inreach—a way for us to open our ears and our hearts and let others get involved in new and different ways.
This may sound radical, but I believe it’s also a fact: our community knows more than we do. There is so much expertise and knowledge outside of our institutions that we tend to reject and ignore, but it’s greater than what we hold on to within our institutions. We have got to start breaking down those walls, listen more, and rethink the way we value some knowledge and stories over others. Identify and value the assets of our community — their stories, experiences, creative energies, and knowledges.
One powerful example of this local work is The Laundromat Project. The Laundromat Project brings socially engaged arts programming to laundromats and other everyday community spaces in order to reach as many of our neighbors as possible. The LP’s artists and staff work to amplify the creativity that already exists within communities by using arts and culture to build community networks, and enhance the sense of ownership in the places where we live, work, and grow. Their Kelly Street Initiative was launched in 2015 in the South Bronx, in partnership with Workforce Housing Group, Kelly Street Garden, and Banana Kelly Community Improvement Association, transforming a 2 bedroom-apartment into a thriving creative community hub. I’m looking forward to heading there with a group of conference participants for MuseumNext’s first ever Museum Social Action Project.
ACTION 2: Recognize and Support the Movement for Black Lives
I believe there is a need for us museums to publicly recognize and engage the brave and transformative work of the Movement for Black Lives. The Movement has forged a new national conversation about the legacy of racism, state violence, and state neglect of communities of color in the United States—a conversation grounded in those communities’ own experiences. As stated in their Vision for Black Lives policy statement, the Movement’s vision is to:
“move towards a world in which the full humanity and dignity of all people is recognized.”
I know this is something museums can stand behind unapologetically. We need to engage with and learn from the Movement, help support and expand this community of social justice activists without dictating or distorting the work underway. Supporting this work is not putting museums and its employees in a bubble, but rather it powerfully unifies us in support of basic human rights that have been wrongly politicized since the first colonists stepped ashore some 500 years ago.
Some examples of brave, courageous museums that are putting themselves out there to support this work are:
Science Museum of Minnesota: Back in July 2016, they posted a sign at entrance to RACE: Are We So Different? exhibition after tragic killing of Philando Castille in July, joining their community in mourning. Unfortunately that sign was eventually removed, but I want to acknowledge that courage of those people who sat in a room to make the decision to put that sign up so we can have this conversations about whether museums can do this or not.
New Museum in New York: Black Women Artists for Black Lives Matter, which began back in July 2016 when a group of more than 100 black women artists began meeting at New Museum. The group took over the Museum for an event in September that included performances, workshops, videos, and a procession. Reflecting on that September event, artist Ariel Jackson recalls: “some of us wanted a space to laugh and celebrate our blackness in the face of trauma. Others wanted a space to scream, cry, and holler. We ultimately agreed that we wanted to express our humanity — both joy and grief”
Smithsonian National Museum for African American History and Culture: Among many other ways that this new Smithsonian Museum is collecting, exhibiting, and recognizing the Movement for Black Lives in historic ways, I wanted to draw attention to their acquisition of the Mirror Casket Project into their collection. The Mirror Casket is a sculpture, performance, and call to action for justice in the aftermath of the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO. Created by a team of seven community artists and organizers, the mirrored casket responds to a Ferguson resident’s call for “a work of art that evokes more empathy into this circumstance,” with an aim to evoke reflection. This work will be included in future exhibitions at the NMAAHC.
Portland Art Museum: At the Portland Art Museum, we have recently been partnering with members of Don’t Shoot Portland, one of the main Black Lives Matter groups working for change across the Portland community. On August 9, 2016, the anniversary of Michael Brown’s killing, we were the site for a gathering and community social justice art project organized by Don’t Shoot Portland that involved music and dance performances, speakers, and free admission to the Museum and exhibitions. This was planned, in part, as a result of conversations with our community in conjunction with the opening of two exhibitions which focused on issues of racial violence, police brutality, and social justice activism. Many of us at the Portland Art Museum wanted to be listening to our community and engaged with our community, so we reached out and had these powerful things happening at the museum. It was a space of creation, a space of community and coming together.
I can’t mention these events without mentioning Teressa Raiford, who is one of the most powerful activists in Portland and probably in many of our communities, who’s putting a lot of this together and who has for the past six days been on the streets in Portland with peaceful protestors standing up for basic human rights. Teressa continues to be an inspiring, driving force behind the ways that the Portland Art Museum is beginning to listen to its community and engage in a new dialogue around race and social justice.
Following up the event in the Portland Art Museum on August 9th, we had a panel discussion entitled “Race in America After Ferguson” where Reverend Tracy Blackman from Florissant, Missouri (one of the pastors that’s been involved in the Ferguson Commission with President Obama and also the Federal Government’s faith-based initiatives work) came and spoke with artist Arvie Smith, Teressa Raiford, and Mykia Hernandez, a young activist in Portland. With two or three days’ notice we had an incredible crowd from the community come, including docents and staff from the museum who came out to this conversation. It was really important, internally and externally, for the museum to be having these conversations and be seen as a space for these conversations.
“now is the time to stand by and amplify movements rooted in love, compassion, and dignity for all people.”
ACTION 3: Flip the Script
What does it look like to “flip the script” in museums, to work toward de-centering the traditional power structures of our institution? How can we actually shift away from the old, traditional narratives that got us where we are today, right now, right here? How can our work as museum professionals shift power?
Letting go of these traditional historic notions of museum authority and power relationships is essential but it’s also very challenging, and I’m going to break the rules of conferences and do something that you’re not supposed to do. I’m going to read a text panel from a museum exhibition, and this is not a text panel that is a typical voice of authority, it is not what I call the ‘voice of god’ text panel for a museum. This text panel was the intro panel to our new Center for Contemporary Native Art during our second exhibition in that space, written by indigenous artists Demian DinéYazhi’ and Kali Spitzer and unedited or unimpeded by curatorial voice or museum voice. I think it says something powerful. So, when visitors waked into the gallery during Demian and Kali’s exhibition, they were immediately confronted by this wall text panel:
“By entering this space you have an ethical responsibility to acknowledge that all Indigenous thought, creativity, fantasy, activism, & existence is grounded in continual acts of Survivance. You have agreed to forfeit your misconceptions of Indigenous identity & respect the sacredness of Indigenous traditional practices. You are not stepping into the past or staring into a picture plane void of Indigenous inhabitants. You are not glorifying Western historical inaccuracies or romanticizing the cowboys & Indians narrative. By entering this space you agree to never again place your hand over your mouth in a mock “war cry” or teach your children to be ignorant of the Indigenous peoples whose land you have claimed as your own. From this moment onward you promise to learn the history of the Indigenous ancestral lands that were stolen/continue to be stolen through colonization & genocide. By entering this space you have agreed to become a lifelong agent against humanitarian & environmental injustice.”
It is such a powerful statement. So, flipping the script can mean changing who gets to write these narratives. The Center for Contemporary Native Art at the Portland Art Museum is one of these spaces where we have experimented with decentering traditional museum authority.
The Center for Contemporary Native Art is a space that we have developed dedicated to displaying the work by contemporary indigenous artists at the museum. It’s supported by an IMLS grant currently and it really gets the museum to step out of the way and let Native people tell their stories. Through exhibitions in this Center, we’ve been really privileging native voice, native language, indigenous knowledge, and indigenous perspectives. It has been one of the most powerful things I’ve been able to work on in my work in museums and I have to give a shout out to Deana Dartt who was recently our curator of Native American Art at the Portland Art Museum and whose powerful vision made this possible.
Another example of ‘flipping the script’ is the long-running initiative at the Portland Art Museum called Object Stories, and these images are just some of the examples of the people whose voices have been brought to the center of our museum during this project: from people living with Alzheimer’s and their caregivers, to recent refugees to Portland, and we currently have on view in that gallery a project that highlights the voices of deaf artists and highlights their work in the gallery.
“Until marginalized communities are the storytellers of their experiences, history will be rendered partially complete, but wholly-privilege the knowledges and perspectives of the colonizers.”
These marginalised voices and stories, often rendered completely invisible, need to be brought to the center.
One final example – this is just something I thought was amazing project that I just read about this past week or so – at the Detroit Institute of Art, they’re working on an exhibit for summer 2017 to highlight and reflect on the 50-year anniversary of the summer of 1967 rebellion. It’s a year-long collaborative project to uncover home movies and perspectives from people living in Detroit in 1967, and the project aims to reflect on one of the most painful times in the history of Detroit and spur thoughts on how that region can continue moving forward. What an incredible way of bringing community voices and stories into such a significant museum project, and privileging those stories and knowledge in the museum.
ACTION 4: Have a Personal Vision for Change
Have a personal vision for change, and work to create a personal vision. I think this is something that’s important.
I hope you’ve had your coffee, because I’m going to have you do something for me before we wrap up here. Put your notebooks and devices down just for a second, take a deep breath, and clear your mind. Now I want you to try and think about: what matters most to you right now? Try to boil it down to a word or a phrase. Now, I want you to shout that out. [audience loudly shouts out words at the same time]
Thank you, and not only is that energy that we need to make change happen in museums, but it also illustrates this need for our own personal vision and purpose to help guide this work. What do you care about? What is your high dream? What is the change you’d like to see? Have a personal vision. Write it down. It doesn’t have to be some sort of perfectly crafted, wordsmithed mission statement. Think about what matters to you, write it down, add it to your desktop background, tape it to your wall, share it on social media, wear it on a tee-shirt. Connect with your core values on a daily basis. Stand behind these values. Share them. Don’t be ashamed of them. After all, if we don’t know where we’re going, how in the hell are we ever going to get there?
I’m most recently inspired by De Andrea Nichols, an activist, educator and artist in St Louis. She said in a commencement speech she gave earlier this year at Washington University in St. Louis: “Do what makes you come alive!” Nichols’s “Sticky Note to Self” project is also worth checking out through Tumblr and Instagram.. It is so inspiring to see her inspiration, to see the things that she’s thinking about, done so creatively. She just writes these sticky notes to herself, which is something I’ve been doing more and more. When you’ve got a moment of inspiration, write it down, stick it somewhere, keep it, reflect back on it on a daily basis so we can keep pushing ahead on this work.
Bring your passion with you to work. I think this is important that we stop the unnecessary separation between our work and ourselves and this type of passion. We need to create environments and museums where we, as museum workers, can be our whole selves, can bring our passion. One of the things that I’ve been motivated by in my own practice has been this inspiring quote from James Baldwin, which I added to my email signature as a daily, public reminder:
“not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
ACTION 5: Build Communities of Action and Change
I firmly believe museums are people-centred institutions (something I have written about in more detail). Museums are us. If we don’t bring in other people too, our work cannot grow. We need to identify change agents within our institutions. Invite people to meet with you over coffee. Think about the barriers to your work, and consider how those barriers are they people-based. What people are involved with those barriers? OK, now go have coffee with those people and listen. Listen to what those people are talking about in terms of why those barriers might exist. It is also important to positively recognise when others take steps in the right direction towards this work. We need to build supportive, positive, connected communities of change within and among our organizations.
And I think it’s time that, no matter where you are in your organizations (new employee or seasoned veteran); it’s time for us to stop thinking of ourselves as followers and thinking of ourselves as leaders within our institutions. You can grow a community of change in your organisation and it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been there. Remember, museum are made of us people, and our museums are only as empathetic, connected, and engaged as the people who work for them.
An important aspect of building these communities of action is also recognising the new collective platforms and movements that exist now online. If you are on social media, #MuseumWorkersSpeak and #MuseumsRespondToFerguson are hashtags that are bringing people together to talk about these issues. Also #MuseWomen, #a11y, and the blogs Incluseum, Brown Girls’ Museum blog, Visitors of Color Tumblr site, Queering the Museum Project, Museum of Impact, Museum Hue. And so many more projects that are bringing people together to create these communities of change and communities of action across the field of museums, arts, and culture.
The last slide I want to show is the team of education staff at the Portland Art Museum. We took this photo here last Wednesday morning, which I regretted scheduling that photo the morning after the election here, but we immediately gravitated to this empowering work “Power Up” by artist Corita Kent, who’s been feeding a lot of our souls in Portland with this exhibition on view of her work. I include this photo only to give recognition, honor, and support to this amazing group of educators and to the power that they bring to all of this work at the Portland Art Museum, to our vision for doing good, meaningful, more local work and in building communities of change across our institution. It is not ‘me’; it is a ‘we’ situation, and there is so much power in the people on this team and so many who are not even this photograph.
As we bring on more people to rise to this challenge with us, we can convert ‘aspiring to change’ into ‘real change’. The time has come to move beyond symbolically standing up for social justice. This may often mean breaking the rules but it never involves silence. We need to permanently put to rest the idea that a museum should be a neutral place and that its employees should be dispassionate.
Let me wrap up with something a bit more personal. One week ago this morning, I was proud to go turn in my ballot alongside my wife, inspired by her power, energy, and resilience. Just hours later, that night, I found myself in tears, holding my confused 7-year-old son in my arms as I put him to bed. I know I am not alone when I say I felt numb and almost paralyzed.
I want to close by connecting with the words of writer Toni Morrison, who many of us read during recent days and weeks. 12 years ago, she recounted her own election-induced feelings of depression, paralysis, being unable to write, when an artist friend interrupted her and said, “No, no, no. This is precisely the time when artists go to work. That’s our job!”
So I channel the power of Ms. Morrison at this difficult moment, because This is precisely the time when museums go to work. That’s our job!