Tag Archives: race

The Dangers of Superficial Activism

Reposted from the blog of MASS Action (Museums as Sites of Social Action), an important cross-institutional initiative leading to actionable practices for greater equity and inclusion in our institutions. Be sure to visit the MASS Action website and check out their Toolkit under “Resources.”

Contributed by Kayleigh Bryant-Greenwell

Those that know me, especially those dedicated to the antiracist movement in museums, will likely find this post surprising and uncharacteristic of my practice. As a staunch supporter of social justice and changemaking in museums, it is very “off-brand” for me to affirm the limits of museum activism. Truthfully, I do believe museums can make a difference and more importantly that it is our duty to try. I am, nonetheless, writing this post on the boundaries of museum activism.

I was recently on an email chain conversation about the human rights crimes being committed at the border. A group of museum changemakers, we were discussing the damnable silence of museums on the issue. A group member wanted to end the silence with a social media post both condemning the atrocity and claiming a call to action for museums at large.

While I wholeheartedly support the effort to end museum silence—in silence we are complicit—this proposed effort gives me pause. We’re talking about the horrifically cruel and inhumane separation of children from their families upon entering the U.S. It is sickening and it is wrong.

But what is the call to action for museums?

The call to action as seen in Saturday, June 30th’s March was: reunite families and never separate them or any others ever again. The March served to demonstrate an angered public; but by the time it happened, the Trump administration had already enacted an executive order to cease forced separations, at least temporarily, because that’s not the endgame. The oppressive regime in power is actively rolling back human rights towards the goal of increased power and control. Their endgame is closed borders. So within museums, what is ours?

I point to the limitation of ineffective activism in museums in this specific situation, not to diminish the spirit of activism in museums. In fact, I want to see activism greatly expanded within our field. But I want true activism. Activism that is centered in action.

Unfortunately, I feel that most museum activism lies on The Scale of Effective Activism, somewhere between Superficial and Performative activism (see chart below).

Performative activism is highly visible, highly praised, but empty of strategy and impact. It is marches, rallies, viral hashtags, and grand displays of social cohesion around an issue. These efforts do not have a measurable impact of change. As the great activist organizer Saul Alinsky noted in his seminal Rules for Radicals, “Communication on a general basis without being fractured into the specifics of experience becomes rhetoric and it carries a very limited meaning.”

Even worse, Superficial activism—coopting the “brand” of activism without context or steps towards enacting internal or external change within the museum—serves to raise the visibility or popularity of the museum without any effort towards the cause. Alinsky dedicates an entire chapter in Radicals, “The Education of an Organizer,” on warning against the proliferation of organizing in name alone. He cautions, “They were radicals, and they were good at their job: they organized vast sectors of middle-class America in support of their programs. But they are gone, now, and any resemblance between them and the present professional labor organizer is only in title.”  To paraphrase Alinsky, tactics must always follow the communicated idea of change.

While it is important to be outraged and vocal, and there will always be a place for some Performed activism, we must consider the impact of these activist efforts. How do these efforts affect the opposition?

Do these efforts move the needle?

In our angered, empowered masses we have yet to effectively communicate to those who continually diminish the humanity of others. We are speaking in completely different languages. Without a radical action plan, our shows of force are dismissed as unimportant and ineffective.

In progressive Marches we speak in a language of “rightness, fairness, justice” while our opposition, in executive orders, policy change, and official mandates, speaks in a language of realized power unthreatened by words. And yet, we applaud every pithy protest sign we painstakingly create, as if we’ve achieved change, whereas we’ve frankly only communicated unrest, which is only enacted the first step towards change. The difference between working towards change and change is a lived experience: a constitutionally-protected marriage, a chance at a new life in a new land, the freedom to control your own body.

We cannot live in an illusion that museums can fix the world. Superficial and Performative activism can only provide an illusion of change. As illustrated in the Scale of Effective activism below, Superficial activism serves to provide the look of progress alone. Performative activism provides a sense of the magnitude of resistance, but doesn’t inherently provide changemaking action.

We must recognize these distinct versions of activism to truly understand the logistics of changemaking.

Museums can, and as MASS Action points out in the toolkit, museums should, sit somewhere between Performative and Authentic activism on this scale, and some may even achieve fully-realized change in Authentic activism. But in order to do so, we must recognize the progressive museum’s place within this trajectory.

Change is strategic. Justice is strategic.

When we eagerly take up activism in visible but actionless ways, we diminish the cause. When we jump to labeling ourselves “woke” without centering our practice in Social Justice and Critical Theory, we dilute our knowledge base. Mistakenly, we convince ourselves that we’ve done enough, when we’ve only done something.

Justice isn’t about “doing something,” it’s about doing the right thing. We are empathetic professionals. When we see the atrocities at the border we are inflamed and eager to start “doing something.” And of course museums can do any number of somethings (see examples below) in this border chaos and the resistance at large. Alinsky wrote, “The organizer knows that the real action is in the reaction of the opposition.” Authentic activism considers the endgame: protecting, expanding, or officializing human rights, not simply raising voice against the infringement of rights.

Effective Authentic activism demands us towards strategic, focused and goal-oriented action. We need our efforts to be tactical in order to be effective. Our future selves and loved ones don’t need our superficial activist distractions. They need real change.

If our goal is true justice we can’t continue to distract with all the unimpactful “somethings” we do. The cause isn’t over when we’ve accomplished something.

Yes, be courageous and radical and outraged. Be vocal and visible about it. But keep action at the center.

scale+of+effective+activism

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About the Author

KAYLEIGH BRYANT-GREENWELL is a Washington, D.C. cultural programmer and strategist with over 10 years of GLAM experience devoted to exploring ways to engage with marginalized audiences through art, museum, and social justice practice. As a DEAI facilitator, she is a contributor to national initiatives towards increasing equity and inclusion in museums including: MASS Action, The Empathetic Museum, and the inaugural National Summit for Teaching Slavery. She moderated the keynote conversation on education and equity for the American Alliance of Museums 2018 Annual Conference in Phoenix, AZ, with Suse Anderson, Donovan Livingston, and Frank Waln. As an education specialist with the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of African American History and Culture, she curates participatory public programs focusing on social justice issues, which empower museum audiences to share their own ideas and strategies towards equity. In 2015 she launched the inaugural year of the National Museum of Women in the Arts’ Women, Arts, and Social Change initiative, bringing in over 600 new audience members to the museum’s advocacy programming. Her writing is featured with Americans for the Arts, the American Alliance of Museums, and the National Art Education Association’s Viewfinder: a journal of art museum practice.

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Carrots and Peas: Disrupting Patterns of Thought through Mindfulness in Gallery Teaching

Written by Amanda Tobin

Earlier this month, I had the honor of leading a gallery teaching demonstration at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for a group of colleagues during the NAEA Pre-Conference for Museum Education. I had answered a call from the Museum Education Division looking for educators to showcase best practices that can be applied to using gallery teaching towards racial equity.

At MASS MoCA, we have been grappling with these questions in our current exhibition, Nick Cave: Until. An immersive, football-field-sized installation, Until was a departure in scale for Cave, who is well known for his human-sized Soundsuits. In aesthetic and in mission, however, Until is very Nick Cave: tchotchkes, sparkles, and wonder are expertly woven together in service of an urgent social mission around violence and racism.

Until is Cave’s response to the highly fraught instances of police violence towards communities of color. The title of the exhibition is a play on the phrase “innocent until proven guilty,” or, Cave suggests, “guilty until proven innocent,” drawing attention to the different ways the criminal justice system has different standards for different communities. As visitors progress throughout the installation, they are lead through an experience of awe to one of discomfort and vulnerability as the layers around violence and racism reveal themselves.

Nick Cave "Until" Exhibition 
Nick Cave: Until installation shot. Photo credit: MASS MoCA

No easy task for an Education Department. But we knew that Until would provide an unparalleled opportunity to engage new and existing audiences with these questions in ways that could provoke thought, dialogue, and ultimately, action in support of racial justice.

In designing our tours of Until, we relied on our tried-and-true three-pronged pedagogical approach at MASS MoCA: guided conversations, art-making, and mindfulness. That last piece is what I brought to NAEA. In my teaching practice at MASS MoCA, I’ve seen how mindfulness practices heighten students’ observations, building metacognitive skills and increasing focus and awareness. In Until, a walking meditation through Cave’s field of spinners has helped students realize their physical, bodily responses to moving through the space — which has been critical in developing attention to the images of guns and bullets woven throughout the field of spinners as well as to the anxiety, dizziness, and even fear such a space provokes. This is counterintuitive to many visitors, whose first response is typically “oohs” and “ahhs”; that something so beautiful could be so discomfiting is part of Cave’s intention, and mindfulness helps visitors make that connection.

At the Met, however, there was no large field of spinners within which to lead a guided walking meditation. Instead, I led a discussion around John Steuart Curry’s 1939 painting, John Brown, inviting my colleagues to explore gut reactions to the figures in the painting: the (anti-)hero abolitionist, John Brown, and an unnamed slave, easy to overlook in the lower left hand side of the painting. After collecting one-word reactions to each of the figures, I led a visual analysis of the image, to encourage the group to explore what visual elements (scale, shading, expression) had contributed to their first reactions. I chose not to disclose who the figures were at the beginning, but introduced John Brown and the anonymous Black man halfway through, to see what impact the identifying information had on our collective analysis.

JohnSteuertCurry_JohnBrown
John Steuart Curry, “John Brown” (1939)

Finally, I led the group in a mindfulness exercise around “carrots and peas,” adapted from Mindfulness & Acceptance in Multicultural Competency: A Contextual Approach to Sociocultural Diversity in Theory & Practice (edited by Akihiko Masuda).[1] Though intended for cognitive behavior therapists, the exercise has worked well in arts educative experiences I’ve led at MASS MoCA. As mindfulness practice goes, it’s more metacognitive than meditative, building consciousness of immediate assessments that often go unexamined or unacknowledged.

In essence, “carrots and peas” goes like this:

  1. Tell the group that you will ask a simple question (e.g., “I’m going to the grocery store. What should I buy?”) and providing an answer (“Carrots and peas”).
  2. Repeat the question with group providing the answer at least five times.
  3. Then ask them to answer the question one more time with a different answer.

More often than not, participants struggle to provide an answer that was not “carrots and peas.” Sometimes visitors blurt out “carrots and—” before cutting themselves off; most often there is simply a pause as their brains struggle to rewrite the script. After only five repetitions, the pattern is in place; one participant remarked that she “forgot what else you could even buy in a grocery store.” Another example of this thought pattern is to fill in the blank: “You can’t judge a book by: ____.” How hard is it to not think “its cover”?

The goal in using this exercise is to help visitors explore the implications for real-world or arts-based situations in which our actions may be informed by unconscious stereotypes. With the group last week, we followed up this exercise with a great conversation around John Brown and the unnamed Black man in Curry’s painting. We explored how Curry draws our visual attention to Brown first, and how “carrots and peas” can help us to instead learn to look for the other figure who is quite literally marginalized on the canvas, extrapolating into real-world scenarios regarding representation and power.

While no brief museum experience can upend years of cultural socialization, “carrots and peas” can lay a foundation for building a better awareness of one’s implicit biases. Through this call-and-response exercise, participants are shown how easily our minds build simplified patterns of thought — whether innocuous, as in carrots and peas, or harmful, as in stereotypes of Blackness and criminality — and how an awareness of this tendency can lead to a disruption of behavior that is based on unquestioned habits. By acknowledging these habits of thought, participants can identify whether or not these patterns align with their core values and can begin checking implicit biases to ensure they correct behavior that is detrimental to our humanity.

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About the Author

AMANDA TOBIN is the K-12 Education Manager at MASS MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts, where she has developed school engagement programs around social justice since 2014. She holds a B.A. in Art History and East Asian Studies from Oberlin College and an M.Ed. in Arts in Education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She is also an avid farm share member and crafter, needle felting small succulent plants after having no luck keeping real ones alive. She can be reached at atobin@massmoca.org.

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[1] Lillis, J. & Levin, M. (2014). Acceptance and mindfulness for undermining prejudice. In A. Masuda (Ed.), Mindfulness and acceptance in multicultural competency (181-196). Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc. p. 188.

Museums & #BlackLivesMatter

Written by Aleia Brown  and Adrianne Russell

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…?

“Mike Brown Silent Protest White House” by Elvert Barnes, CC BY 2.0
“Mike Brown Silent Protest White House” by Elvert Barnes, CC BY 2.0

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.

The Joint Statement from Museum Bloggers & Colleagues on Ferguson and Related Events, from which #museumsrespondtoFerguson generated, was an industry call-to-arms, primarily asking museums in the United States to similarly reflect upon their internal oppressive practices and actively demonstrate their roles as change agents fully embedded in our nation’s social, educational, and cultural infrastructure. The forward to “Museums, Equality, and Social Justice” (Sandell and Nightingale, ed.) makes this responsibility explicit:

“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”

“A Black Lives Matter protest of police brutality in the rotunda of the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota” by Nicholas Upton, CC BY-SA 2.0
“A Black Lives Matter protest of police brutality in the rotunda of the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota” by Nicholas Upton, CC BY-SA 2.0

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.

>>View #Museumsrespondtoferguson on Storify<<

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

“Eric Garner Protest 4th December 2014, Manhattan, NYC” by The All-Nite Images, CC BY-SA 2.0
“Eric Garner Protest 4th December 2014, Manhattan, NYC” by The All-Nite Images, CC BY-SA 2.0

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.

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Header Image: “Eric Garner Protests,” Photo by Paul Silva, Flickr.com,  CC BY 2.0