Reposted from Museums Are Not Neutral website. Visit to learn more. Expose the myth of museum neutrality and demand equity-based transformation across institutions
Written by Mike Murawski
As protesters have gathered in the streets of more than 2,000 cities, towns, and communities across the United States to stand against police brutality, white supremacy, systemic racism, and the violent oppression of Black communities, museums across the country have decided to post images of artworks by Black artists (without statements and without the permission of many of these artists), share their own vague and often hollow statements of ‘solidarity,’ and post the #BlackoutTuesday black squares on their social media accounts without considering the impact. Many of these predominantly white museums have been called out for their superficial and performative acts (see more about SFMoMA, Guggenheim, the Met, and Nelson Atkins, just to name a small few), and more will be held accountable to these statements as we see whether or not they commit to making the changes needed to dismantle racism, take action, and transform their institutions.
In addition to using the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, several institutions have also used the hashtag #MuseumsAreNotNeutral. While we never claim to control the use of the #MuseumsAreNotNeutral hashtag, it has certainly represented a grassroots movement for all of those who stand against the myth and lie of museum neutrality. La Tanya S. Autry, curator and co-producer of Museums Are Not Neutral, writes via Twitter: “we hate seeing people co-opt it to perpetuate more abuse. Museums could identify their investment in racism, apologize, and create community-derived action plans.”
For any institutions who have used the #MuseumsAreNotNeutral hashtag in recent days, I would simply ask that your team reflect on what this means for you, and where your organization stands when it comes to actions and transformative changes that tear down and refuse the system of white supremacy that is the foundation of most museums. “Museums Are Not Neutral” is a message and call to action that has been around for many decades (long before hashtags), and it continues to be a powerful call to action right now in this moment because of the time, energy, labor, risk-taking, and truth-telling of so many Black museum leaders, curators, educators, organizers, and activists. When you use these words, back them up with action — stop causing harm and commit to change!
I am grateful for the real questions shared by Madison Rose (@nomadiso) via Instagram on June 2, 2020, the day that many referred to as #BlackoutTuesday. I wanted to share these questions below as a way to help guide institutions and those in positions of authority within museums to think through their own process of internal reflection, critique, and transformation. This is not a moment to “check the boxes” and do something just because everyone else is doing it — this is a moment for true leadership, substantive and seismic change, and for institutions to choose to stand apart as they directly address racism, colonialism, and oppression within their walls and in conversation with their communities.
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[posted by Madison Rose @nomadiso]
In 2017, co-producers of the #MuseumsAreNotNeutral movement, La Tanya S. Autry and Mike Murawski dedicated their time to refuse the myth of neutrality that many museum professionals often take and calling for an equity-based transformation of museums.
It’s essential to hold their message during this time. To acknowledge the politics in everything we do. Museums are always making choices where to spend their time, their money, and their influence. A simple post on Instagram providing solidarity because the public forced them to is bare minimum. Highlighting dead Black artists with an inspirational quote isn’t support. It’s time for internal institutional critique to start to dismantle white supremacy, inequities, and colonialism in our institutions. Can museums be redeemable?
Some real questions to ask:
What work are you doing internally to fight institutional racism?
How accessible are you making that information?
Who is making decisions?
Are you redistributing the white wealth?
Is there Black leadership?
Are you owning your mistakes and making amends?
Are you laying off BIPOC workers?
Are you donating to Black community organizations?
What is the % of Black art do you have in your collection?
What are you going to do with your stolen African artifacts?
What efforts are you making toward decolonizing your museum?
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.
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!
What is the social and emotional responsibility of museums, especially as many public institutions strive to be a vital part of their local communities?
How can our collections and exhibitions help visitors critically and thoughtfully engage with present-day realities?
How do museums decide which political or social issues to engage with, and which ones to be silent about?
If these issues don’t directly relate to something in our galleries, can museums still be a site for people to gather and grapple with these difficult topics?
And finally—perhaps the biggest and most provocative question—can museums be neutral in all of this? What is the value, if any, of remaining silent?
These questions—and many more—are being asked this summer at the museum I work for, the Portland Art Museum, which recently opened two exhibitions that relate directly to the politically charged realities of our time: an immersive multimedia project by artist Josh Kline entitled Freedom, and a focus exhibition of the work of Portland artist Arvie Smith. As we personally responded to the news cycles of the summer, we wondered how our visitors might bring their feelings of anger, fear, grief, pain, hope, love, and healing to their experience with these exhibitions and our collection. Should we do anything different, or just allow the art to spark that connection on its own with the people who happen to visit?
After a few rapidly planned cross-departmental meetings combined with some unplanned hallway conversations, the general consensus was to do something. One of our attempted strategies, among others, was to develop a guide to support productive conversation and dialogue in the galleries. After all, the idea of ‘conversation’ has been such a core value for gallery teaching at our institution for many years, as well as for my own personal teaching practice (see “Reflecting on the Learning Power of Conversation in Museums”).
I am writing this post to share the prototype of our Have Conversations Here Guide, and talk briefly about the various resources that I pulled together to develop the text of this guide. While I know that this guide is far from perfect, I am such a fan of an ‘open source’ mindset and just simply getting it out there. I welcome productive feedback, other useful resources, and both success and failure stories for when others have experimented with strategies like this.
But before discussing the Guide in more detail, it only makes sense to provide a bit more information about the Kline and Smith exhibitions that essentially sparked this extended thinking about productive dialogue here at our museum.
Art Provokes Conversations
Taking up an entire floor of the museum’s modern and contemporary wing, Josh Kline’s exhibition Freedom explores issues of social justice activism, policing, surveillance technologies, and corporate/government power. The work includes video monitors; a recreation of Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan (a space taken over by Occupy Wall Street in 2011); life-size sculptures of police officers in tactical gear with Teletubby heads; videos embedded in the torsos of the police figures that include Black Lives Matter activists and retired police officers; and an installation of replicated donuts bearing police crests, handcuffs, asphalt, and broken auto glass. Inspired by his own participation in the Occupy movement, Kline asks visitors to confront the recent past and its repercussions, while contemplating our roles as citizens in this pivotal moment when the uses of technology, notions of privacy, and the social order are rapidly shifting.
In a different part of the museum, the brightly-colored paintings of Arvie Smith draw subject matter directly from his own African American roots and lived experience. A key work in the exhibition is Smith’s Strange Fruit (1992), depicting the lynching of a young black man by two robed KKK members, and borrowing its title from the Abel Meeropol song made famous by Billie Holiday. Additional works such as Hands Up Don’t Shoot (2015) include stereotyped caricatures of African Americans like Aunt Jemima and direct references to police violence and the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014.
Both Smith and Kline clearly see their work as intended to spark conversation and dialogue around these challenging issues, inviting visitors to not only grapple with the imagery and subject matter of their work but also with the connected realities of the world we are experiencing every day. In an interview with Portland Monthly Magazine, Kline talks about the relationship of activism and art, and the role he sees his art playing:
“Art doesn’t directly change the world. It provokes conversations and gives people space to think about their world in ways that aren’t usually possible through mass media, but it doesn’t have the power to topple corrupt governments or feed the hungry. Art operates via the ripple effect and through indirect influence. As an artist, I feel fortunate to have a public platform right now and I want to use it to speak out about issues that I feel are important—while at the same time making work that reflects the human experience in the present.”
Along these same lines, Smith discusses the importance of dialogue in an interview with the museum:
“I think everybody comes to these strong emotional situations from their own frame of reference, and I’m going to see things one way, someone else is going to see it another way—doesn’t mean I’m right; doesn’t mean their right or wrong. We have a difference of opinion. And, somewhere, through dialogue, hopefully, we can come together & make this a better world to live in.”
Developing a Conversation Guide
As part of our multifaceted conversations about how to support our visitors in having meaningful, respectful dialogue here at the museum (and after their visit), I spent time researching and developing a Conversation Guide that we could share. I scoured all of my existing resources on teaching, critical pedagogy, community activism, and museum learning, and printed out dozens of training manuals and facilitation guides that related directly to having conversations about difficult topics. My desk was completely covered.
After drafting up an extensive multi-page guide that included far too much text and too many prompts, I edited it all down until it fit on one single page. I sent this off to a few amazing colleagues at other museums, handed it to fellow staff at my museum, shared it with a few key community members, met with our director, and brought together all their feedback to create the final prototype: Have Conversations Here. We uploaded it to our website on the Visit page and emailed it to all staff and docents. I also began handing it out at programs and events developed through specific community outreach efforts related to these exhibitions, including the PDX Social Justice Community Art Project and a panel discussion “Race in America After Ferguson” with Rev. Traci Blackmon from Christ the King United Church of Christ in Florissant, Missouri.
As you’ll quickly notice, the key sources of inspiration and content for this guide included Hillel International’s Ask Big Questions, the Public Conversations Project, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance Project, the curriculum resources of Teaching for Change, and PBS’ Talking with Kids guides, especially their guide for Talking with Kids about the News. If you are not familiar with any of these project and resources, I highly recommend you check them out and share them with your staff or colleagues. I have been a huge fan of Ask Big Questions for years, and I found the field manuals from the Public Conversations Project to be incredibly detailed and useful (for creating this guide, as well as for my own professional practice).
I am pasting the full text of this Have Conversations Here guide below in this blog post, so anyone can use any portion of this without needing to surgically remove it from a PDF. I hope that some of you find this useful, and perhaps might use some of this content in your own museums (if you do, let me know, and please continue to cite the sources for this guide).
I couldn’t end this post without including the following quote from curator Michael Brenson (which sadly didn’t make it into the guide); a quote that has resonated with me for years and best represents what I value about the powerful kinds of conversations we can facilitate in museums.
“In the best conversations, no one is used; ownership is shared. Everyone leaves with a sense that the ideas exchanged belong to each person present. Everyone also leaves respecting those who were part of the exchange, whether or not there was agreement. For me, conversation does make connections, it helps make connection possible.”
You are welcome to talk and have conversations here at the museum. We encourage you to use the galleries throughout the museum as spaces for dialogue, while always remaining respectful of all visitors. Explore together, look closely, and find a place within the museum to sit and talk about what you see and experience.
Dialogue is a powerful mode of conversation that genuinely seeks mutual understanding. It can occur between friends, co-workers, family members, and even among strangers. And it can certainly occur between people who do not share the same experiences, perspectives, or ideas. Learning to listen carefully and disagree respectfully are essential skills in today’s world.
Share your views.
Listen with care.
“Talking in museums is one of the things that makes them matter, and the way in which we talk in museums is one of the things that define for us what they are.” – Adam Gopnik, writer
EXPLORE THE GALLERIES
Consider visiting artworks on view that more directly explore some of the politically- and socially-charged issues we see in the news today, including policing, racial violence, stereotypes, and social justice activism.
Take some time to experience these artworks, think about your responses, and have a conversation with someone else in which you share your perspective and listen to theirs. Consider these questions:
How have events related to these issues affected you personally?
What life experiences of your own might connect with the work by these artists?
How are these artists challenging you?
If you’ve used this guide to spark any conversations with others—whether during or after your visit to the museum—think about any insights you’ve gained and how you might extend this experience.
Have you noticed anything new about yourself and how you view the world?
How might these conversations help you better understand someone else’s perspective?
How might you create more opportunities for reflection and dialogue?
TALKING & LISTENING STRATEGIES FOR FAMILIES
Talking about issues of social justice and violence with kids can be challenging. Children are curious and constantly ask questions about the world around them. In one breath, they might ask about a range of topics — from the weather to something they heard on the news. Whether at home, in the car, or here at the museum, it can be difficult to know how respond when difficult questions come up.
To help support these types of conversations here at the museum for all ages, we wanted to offer a few flexible suggestions. These strategies might help your family talk together about some of the socially- or politically-charged artworks you might encounter during your visit to the museum.
Start by finding out what your child knows.
When a difficult issue comes up, ask an open-ended question like “What have you heard about it?” This encourages your child to let you know what they are thinking.
Ask a follow up question.
Depending on your child’s comments, ask another question to get them thinking, such as “Why do you think that happened?” or “What do you think people should do to help?”
Give children the information they need to know in a way that makes sense to them. At times, a few sentences are enough.
Listen and acknowledge.
If a child sees or hears something that might worry and upset them, recognize their feelings and comfort them. This acknowledges your child’s feelings, helps them feel secure, and encourages them to tell you more.
(Adapted from “Talking with Kids about the News,” a resource for parents available online at pbs.org/parents/talkingwithkids/news)
This guide draws from the following projects and resources to develop these strategies to promote active, productive dialogue and reflection. Learn more by visiting the websites listed here:
Featured Header Image: Artist Demian DinéYazhi’ leading a conversation in the galleries of the Portland Art Museum’s Center for Contemporary Native Art with participants in the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) program. Photo by Cody Maxwell.
Written by Alyssa Greenberg, doctoral candidate in the Department of Art History at the University of Illinois at Chicago; founding member of Museum Workers Speak
Reposted from The Incluseum blog, an online forum advocating that inclusion become an integral priority for all museums and flourish through supportive community relationships.
On September 25-26, I participated in MuseumNext’s first stateside convening at the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA). Since 2009, MuseumNext has organized annual conferences in cities across Europe to highlight current best practices and future directions for the museum field. Starting with Indianapolis this year, MuseumNext will hold conferences annually in the fall in the States and in the spring in Europe. This fall’s topic was “Building Inclusive Museums” (not to be confused with the International Conference on the Inclusive Museum — though it’s great to see the topic gaining increasingly widespread attention).Through two days of jam-packed conference sessions, the themes explored ranged from sharing power and authority with museum audiences to fostering more inclusive hiring and labor practices within institutions. In this blog post, I’ll share two of my greatest takeaways from the conference.
1. Redefining and interrogating inclusion
There were at least as many definitions of inclusion as there were speakers at the podium. Something that came up again and again was the idea of sharing power and responsibility with communities beyond museum walls. For example, Independent Curator and and Public Engagement Consultant Sarah Schultz used the Open Field project, which she founded at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, as a case study to explain how inviting “community members” (a phrase that merits further unpacking) into the process of creating public programming is essential to creating an inclusive space.
Similarly, in the realm of exhibition development, Smithsonian Curator Masum Momaya advocated engaging community members “from concept to closing.” Manager of Digital Content/Social Media Lori Byrd-McDevitt shared a case study of a “community blogging” initiative at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis.The museum demonstrated “radical trust” by allowing selected bloggers free rein to create content for their website. Byrd-McDevitt anticipated that questions of compensation might arise in the audience, and she was clear that community bloggers received the benefit of blogging experience as well as perks such as meals, goodie bags, access to museum events, and museum membership — but not financial compensation.
Momaya followed up on this topic in the Q&A following Simon’s talk, asking how an activist museum director can address wage disparity and privilege. Though Simon’s talk was called “Fighting for Inclusion,” she responded that the issues of working conditions described by Momaya were “not our fight” — a viewpoint with which I disagree. When museum staff members partner with community members to do museum work, and there’s an imbalance in voice or compensation or decision-making power, that partnership can reinforce rather than challenge social inequalities. If we are to continue promoting inclusion as a value within our field, we will need to put more thought into how to address this tension. How can we persuade museum workers at all levels — including museum leaders — that equitable working conditions are central to inclusion?
2. Who’s (not) in the room
Museum Evangelist Adrianne Russell pointed out that the high registration cost (tickets were in the $400 range) (not to mention travel costs!) kept MuseumNext attendance out of reach of many museum workers. I was fortunate to be able to attend the conference with the help of a senior colleague, who let me ride with her from Chicago and even subsidized my lodging! This amazing, above-and-beyond support for an emerging professional from a leader in the field was instrumental — but not everyone can be so lucky.
I concur with Russell that while the free livestreaming went quite far in making the conference accessible to a wider audience, the impact of having a more diverse community of museum workers in the room would have had a significant impact on the conference discourse, especially if the conference had had a more audience-engaged format. Many people followed the stream and engaged the conference topics over Twitter, but having their voices physically present to ask questions and address the presenters in person would be a huge improvement.
Presenters and participants alike called attention to who was in the room — and who was missing. With a few exceptions, the “sea of white women” (to borrow an apt phrase someone used to describe the museum field at a Museum Workers Speak event in Chicago) was visible both behind the podium and in the audience. This topic deserves further interrogation. In her presentation, Co-Founder of Brown Girls Museum Blog Ravon Ruffin mentioned the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Art Museum Staff Demographic Survey and argued, “We can’t talk about museums unless we confront our own privilege to collectively be in this room.”
By far, the most radical and provocative presentations were delivered by women of color — specifically, Co-Founder of Museum Hue Monica O. Montgomery, Momaya, and Ruffin. Those are the presentations I encourage you, readers, to watch or rewatch. Throughout the conference, most of the presentations delivered by white women were operating in the “success story” mode pervasive in the museum field, flattering participants’ current understandings of inclusion without pushing further. Why was the critical role of pushing the field to work harder for inclusion seemingly left to women of color alone? And since they did speak up, will we listen?
Reposted from project CODE WORDS, an experiment in online publishing and discourse around issues of technology and theory in museums. Read more great essays by leading thinkers in the field by visiting the project on Medium. [republished with permission of the authors]
In the early nineteenth century, a small population of free people of color speckled the United States. Some of them did not disrupt the status quo, but revolutionaries like Denmark Vesey of Charleston, South Carolina called for the nation to burn.
A founding member of Emmanuel AME Church, Vesey primarily recruited church members for the insurrection. His plan leaked to slave owners before he could make Charleston a site of liberation. The Mayor organized a militia to catch all co-conspirators. Vigilante justice reigned over the city too, but it did not stop for good. On June 17, 2015 self-proclaimed white supremacist Dylan Roof reignited that spirit of vigilante justice and murdered nine Emmanuel AME Church parishioners with the intent to start a race war nearly a century after Vesey planned his uprising.
Black people have long struggled for their freedom and civil rights in America. Denmark Vesey is an example of this. Therefore, uprisings across the nation after repeated incidents of white police officers shooting unarmed black citizens is not just an inciting 2015 headline. It falls along the continuum of black people protesting against state sanctioned violence and over policing in their communities. So why do museums continually hesitate in responding to Ferguson and Baltimore and Staten Island and Cleveland and Charleston and…?
Are Museums Really Ready to Respond to Ferguson?
In Bridget McKenzie’s Code:Words piece, “Toward the Sociocratic Museum”, McKenzie proposes a new model of museum to counter the existing plutocratic and bureaucratic archetypes that have arisen from plunder and oppression or are discomfitingly in bed with problematic corporate entities, respectively. In theory, the sociocratic museum would forego being participatory and engaging on its surface for “governance that is non-hierarchical, consent-based and rooted in its communities.” Recently, museums have championed inclusion and engagement. But the digital landscape and communities of color have pushed back, creating spaces that discuss their lived experience and critiquing how other people view it.
McKenzie’s piece cited #museumsrespondtoFerguson, a Twitter chat we co-host the third Wednesday of each month 1PMCST/2PMEST, as an example of how people-driven movements in the digital realm can inspire change in museums. In 2014, tens of thousands of Americans took to the streets protesting the killings of unarmed black citizens by police in Staten Island, Beavercreek, Ferguson, Cleveland, Baltimore (and unfortunately many more in subsequent months). These actions were inspired, organized, shared (and ultimately spied on) via a host of digital platforms, most notably Twitter, which has the highest percentage of black adult users according to recent research. It’s the digital equivalent of an old-school office water cooler. It’s where news breaks, information is shared, and racist tomfoolery is dragged to the carpet.
Claiming Their Space Digitally
#BlackLivesMatter, and other movements, rallied marginalized people and amplified their unified voices. They claimed virtual space instead of waiting for it to be doled out to them. Traditional gatekeepers were rendered moot. Schools, arts organizations, libraries, and other entities responded with public statements denouncing police brutality, presented related programs, or offered their venues as community gathering spaces.
“No matter what a museum’s legal structure, whether publicly funded, or authorised by society to function as a charity, it is expected to contribute to the common good. If its basic values do not include solidarity with the excluded, then the museum is reinforcing that exclusion”
Museums pride themselves on embodying the common good, on honoring its social compacts, and being physically and virtually relevant. Precious resources are devoted to “engagement”, a term so buzzy and overused that it often elicits groans and eye-rolls from museum employees tasked with bringing the nebulous concept to life.
These colleagues regularly communicate via tags such as #musesocial, #musetech, and #museEd to crowdsource solutions and exchange practices, so convening in digital spaces isn’t new. However, using those spaces to openly examine anti-blackness in museums certainly is.
Twitter: The Tool for Activists Online
Social activism is inherently risky but protest in the physical world can take place with a certain degree of professional protection. You can demonstrate outside of work hours or anonymously donate to causes of your choice. But participating in a Twitter chat explicitly dedicated to confronting your current or potential employers’ systemic oppression under your personal account, which might even include your image (and almost overwhelmingly some variation of a “these ideas are mine alone” disclaimer), is practically an act of rebellion in an industry with a long history of conformity, exclusion, and aversion to transparency.
The aforementioned Joint Statement was born digitally and continues to live online, making it more accessible than a paper document. Conversations responding to overarching themes like race, police brutality and community relations dominate the online landscape now. The monthly Twitter chat is a limb of the statement, keeping the conversation alive. Twitter has been the most appropriate online social media platform seeing that it is the most immediate and democratic.
Facebook, the most popular social media platform, originally started exclusively for Harvard students. Eventually, it expanded to a service for all Ivy League schools along with Stanford University. It was not until 2006 that anyone of appropriate age could join the site. Contrarily, Twitter has always allowed anyone with a valid email address to join the site. Anyone can build a sizeable audience without educational, economic or social weight.
While one of the high points of Twitter is that it very democratic, that aspect also hurts our ability to account for everyone engaged in the conversation. Twitter allows participants to see the full conversation. It also gives them the choice to be an onlooker without forcing them to participate. Because of this, we know there is a group of people who read the Tweets but do not contribute to the conversation. This is frustrating because it does not allow us to capture a complete sample of the comments surrounding certain themes.
To capture the Tweets that are present in the chat, we use Storify. While Storify provides a great summary of the chat, it does not retain tweets if a user deletes them. We are still researching the best tools for tracking tweets on a limited (i.e. no) budget. So far, NodeXL (visual) and TAGS (archiving) are possible contenders due to free, open source templates, although the TAGS archive reflects some bias in its often incomplete results.
Twitter is also useful in the sense that it’s immediate. It’s a space for discourse and thinking aloud in public. And it has a record for social change. Among many other times, Egyptians most notably used Twitter in 2011 to organize actions in hopes of overthrowing President Hosni Mubarak. Its record for serving as a platform for social change made it the top choice for housing #museumsrespondtoFerguson.
This particular Storify, which focused on museums and oppression illustrates how Twitter introduced new perspectives and sources outside the mainstream to some of our chat participants. Margaret Middleton noted, #BlackLivesMatter has completely transformed the way I see the world.” Through these chats, Twitter continues to demonstrate to us that we can spread information that disrupts traditional narratives quickly and effectively.
The Stutter-Step Between Hashtag to Action
For all the good Twitter is, it still presents some challenges. How do we move out of an online safe space, to a space of action? We did not even provide a Storify for our fifth chat which asked participants to share anti-blackness work they have engaged since being a part of #museumsrespondtoFerguson. There were barely any tweets to archive. Instead of seeing action, that particular chat pulled back a veneer and exposed fear and tepid hopes. After several chats, it seemed like participants were still unsure about how to respond to Ferguson. We have pushed for museums and museum professionals to first examine the ways they perpetuate or dismantle oppression. Before museums can truly engage communities, they have to do the internal work. To be sure, this work is not easy, and it is far more complex than providing a tidy and succinct list of ten steps to engage with the black community.
Some comments, like one that relegated #museumsrespondtoFerguson to being “about museum staff talking amongst themselves — not a bad thing, but seems tangential in some way to community engagement,” are discouraging. Museums can’t engage communities of color before acknowledging and working through their role in marginalizing black and brown people. Furthermore, museum professionals cannot continue to cite early museologists like John Cotton Dana without providing the context that Newark struggled with desegregating its public spaces.
While John Cotton Dana wrote about engaging all people and making collections accessible and relevant, black people were not necessarily included in this plan. Dana demonstrated progressive ideas about gender, but never explicitly advocated for race equity. This is the type of deconstruction that needs to take place before museums attempt to engage a community that they have historically turned away. Learning about the likes of Mabel Wilson, in addition to Dana, makes for a more thoughtful and relevant approach to engaging black communities. #museumsrespondtoFerguson seeks to expose participants to different voices and thought processes that museums continue to ignore.
The chat generates thoughtful commentary, and has also inspired #MuseumWorkersSpeak, a conversation about labor and equity in the field. However, participants express some hesitancy, and even fearfulness, in putting these conversations to action. This was especially evident in our fifth chat where participants could barely answer the questions because they had not actually put in work to evaluate or comment on. We have not found the best solution for moving the conversation to action. Jumping back to the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, participants in their online advocacy never hesitated to take action. Action was intuitive. They believed in change and were willing to work for it.
Maybe, in this country racial change is not intuitive. And while Twitter can foster productive conversations, it has not fostered enough tangible actions in the museum community. The Charleston Massacre unfortunately connects us to the nineteenth century motto of vigilante justice against black people. Museums can no longer view contemporary iterations of racialized violence as traumatic headlines too difficult to work through in their spaces. As organizations with renewed commitment to community engagement, #museumsrespondtoFerguson needs to manifest in gallery spaces, programming and outreach.