Sunday, May 31, 2020

If I Ran a Museum in the US Right Now

It's been months since my last blog post--as my Gang of Five told me, "when you're ready to write again, you will."  I had an idea a week or so ago that I never got to, but today I realized that I needed to reflect publicly on the events of the last few days here in the United States.

On December 1, 2013,  I wrote a post called "If I Ran a Museum in Kyiv Right Now." I had (and still have) a deep affection for Ukraine, its people and its possibilities and December 1 was the day that student protests morphed into something bigger and different, leading to many deaths, a revolution and a war in the East of Ukraine with Russia that continues to this day. My dear friend and colleague Ihor Poshyvailo read that post late at night, and he's been generous in saying that it inspired him to go to Maidan and begin collecting the stories and objects.  He's now the director of the Museum of the Revolution of Dignity, the museum that emerged from those days.  But in fact, friends, colleagues and former students immediately began doing so many things:  they were on the barricades, they served as medics, they made and delivered food--they supported each other and their community.

As I watched my social media feeds over the last few days I was struck by what seemed to be a lack of action and support from US museums.  Marilia Bonas, a Brazilian colleague asked on Twitter, "Waiting to see more and more american museums public statements against racism.  EUA (USA) had a strong position in defence of the new museum definition in Kyoto. Where are you guys?" 

So when directors spoke up, it really stood out:

Lori Fogarty of the Oakland Museum wrote, in a museum tweeted signed directly by her not just about support, but about action: "Members of our staff are engaging in brave and authentic dialogue about this moment...We will also be exploring ways for the Muaseum as an organization to respond, continue the vital work of equity and inclusion and insure that we give voice to the cry for an end to violence against black people, people of color and other brothers, sisters and siblings who feel the impact of marginalization and inhumanity."

Jorge Zamanillo, Executive Director of History Miami sent a direct message to his community in the Instagram post below, directly assuming responsibility for the harm that museums have caused in the continuing legacy of racism.  

If I were the director of a US museum right now, I would speak out.  But equally importantly, I would see what actions we, as a museum, could take.  It's no secret that museums are financially hurting right now, just as members of our community are.  

So what can you do?  Begin by asking some of these questions.

  • Can your museum serve as a safe haven for those who feel unsafe from the police?  What kind of direct aid can you give?  I saw somewhere today (who can help find info?) that staff from a museum in New York were outside with masks, milk, and other supplies for protestors.  
  • How can your museum begin dialogues? with whom?
  • Have you looked deeply at your collections, your hiring policies, and the ways in which you welcome visitors?  
  • Have you joined the protests in your city?
  • How are legacies of racism embedded in all of those--and how can you change them?
  • If you're a director, have you had a frank conversation with your board about expectations for their behavior and support of anti-racist work?

In 2013, I suggested that Ukrainians might want to begin collecting objects.  To be honest, I can't decide if that's something museums should be doing right now.  We should not be doing that unless we address the larger systemic issues of society and our institutions at the same time.  The answer to addressing those issues will be different in every community--but every museum--from the smallest historical society to the Smithsonian can play a part (see the National Museum of African American History and Culture's new web portal Talking About Race or check out the work of the many Sites of Conscience in the United States and around the globe addressing the difficult work of reconciliation--we have many lessons to learn from elsewhere).

If you want more suggestions, check out this blog post from Museum Education Roundtable for specific suggestions to support your community and to make change within your organization. It should be no surprise that the quickest professional organization to respond was one comprised of museum educators--hardest hit by Covid-related unemployment yet most connected to community.

A year or so after I published that post about Ukraine, I was one of a number of bloggers who jointly shared the post, #MuseumsRespondtoFerguson.  It's deeply saddening to realize how true that post still rings:
There is hardly a community in the U.S. that is untouched by the reverberations emanating from Ferguson and its aftermath. Therefore we believe that museums everywhere should get involved. What should be our role--as institutions that claim to conduct their activities for the public benefit--in the face of ongoing struggles for greater social justice both at the local and national level? 
We urge museums to consider these questions by first looking within. Is there equity and diversity in your policy and practice regarding staff, volunteers, and Board members? Are staff members talking about Ferguson and the deeper issues it raises? How do these issues relate to the mission and audience of your museum?  Do you have volunteers? What are they thinking and saying? How can the museum help volunteers and partners address their own questions about race, violence, and community?
I wish I had more answers than questions, but I want to end by expressing my particular appreciation for young colleagues who have been far braver than I ever was at the start of my career:  Aleia Brown and Adrianne Russell, who spearheaded the #MuseumsRespondtoFerguson effort along with Gretchen Jennings, and whose regular tweet chats on the topic gave shape to new approaches;  other bloggers and activists,  and the many colleagues now working for fair and equitable treatment through the formation of unions at their museums.  I am in your debt.

Top photo:  Photo by Fibonacci Blue/Flickr