Reflections on our “Race in the Museum” Mixer

Recently on The Incluseum Blog, we have had a number of professionals, including Diana Falchuk, Chieko Phillips, and Robert Garfinkle, weigh-in on representations of race in museums, allyship, and the role of museums as a place for addressing and engaging with issues of race and racism present in our communities. As a result, we became interested in exploring possibilities for real-time efforts to engage museum professionals in conversation about their experiences of race as well as their understanding of the role museums could–and maybe should–play in addressing race. We partnered in this idea with Seattle Emerging Museum Professionals to coordinate a mixer event, “Race in the Museum,” which manifested as a cross between a happy hour, an intimate conversation, and a panel discussion. We hope this event is the first of a series, which may go on to look a little different as we find the most comfortable format for dialogue on race and racism in museums.

Discussing "Race in the Museum."Photo courtesy: Seattle Emerging Museum Professionals.

Discussing “Race in the Museum.”
Photo courtesy: Seattle Emerging Museum Professionals.

We learned a lot from both coordinating the event and reflecting on the conversations that occurred throughout the evening. What follows is our attempt to dig deeper into some of the dialogues that were started, call attention to some common feelings that were voiced, and suggest future actions to keep our conversations rolling.

Most questions and comments that came up and were addressed during the event truly deserve a deeper exploration (a common feeling expressed after the evening was over). One such question was: (paraphrase) “Can art by brown people ever be disassociated from issues of race instead of being seen as art by brown people?” To those who attended the event and asked this question: please chime in and expand this dialogue if you would like!

Why is it that art by people of color is always the focus of discourses and contextualization based on their identity as artists of color?  Mikala Woodward of the WING responded to the question by holding up an image of a painting by a white male of the signing of the Declaration of Independance. Her point was that this painting is as much about race as anything else; it is by a white male (John Trumbull) depicting all white men, significantly conveying the context of our country being founded on principles established by middle-class/wealthy white men who considered themselves, “We the People…” Whiteness conveys so many meanings here!

John Trumbull "Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776"

John Trumbull “Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776″

The fact is that art by white people is also invested with meanings associated with their racial identity. It is a function of racism in our institutions–museums included–that whiteness is not also considered impactful on the artist’s work and perspective.

As museum professionals that work in a field that is disproportionately white, a couple of our colleagues of color expressed that they were often called upon to do the work of educating their white colleagues about the reality and impact of race, or were being asked to do the work of inclusion (work against the racism that excludes many individuals of color from engaging in museums.)  Here is our candid thoughts on this as white people:  In institutions it does, but SHOULD NOT always fall to people of color to educate white professionals or patrons about why race matters, or about how what they do and think, and how the institution functions, is a result of white privilege.

How can we, as white museum professionals educate ourselves in order to support our colleagues of color by modeling white behavior and intention that is anti-racist and educates other white friends, family and peers? How can we begin dismantling racism present in our museums and carry out our work through an anti-racist lens? These are important questions we wish to expand upon in our next blogpost.

As for some lessons we learned about hosting a discussion about race:

  • More time is necessary for exploring each question that was raised.
  • Now that questions have been raised, we need to continue gathering to have more in-depth discussions as a community.
  • When inviting guests, even if our time is short, each person needs to have the chance to state their stake in the issue of race and racism and what personally motivates them to join such a discussion. This will create an environment where intention is recognized and trust is developed before moving into dialogue.
  • We are not working on these issues alone. We should gain inspiration from anti-racist leadership outside our field and connect with anti-racism work in our greater community when we can.


Stay tuned…

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One comment

  1. Jonathan Cunningham · · Reply

    Thanks for this post. And for listing the self-reflections that came from it. The discussion was good but it felt like it was just getting going as it came to a conclusion. So doing it again makes a lot of sense. As a person of color and museum professional, I was glad to be in the room. I REALLY hope we’re able to go even more in depth next time, and like you said, give more space for everyone in the room to be able to speak freely on this challenging subject.

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