Museum Studies Students Facilitate Discussions about Race/Racism in a Museum

In conjunction with the Race: Are We So Different exhibit currently on view at the Pacific Science Center in Seattle, WA, students from the University of Washington’s Museology masters program had the opportunity to sign up for a ground-breaking class centered on the following questions:

  • What is the U.S. concept of race?
  • What do racism and white privilege look like in the U.S.?
  • How do we talk about these complex, sometimes silenced topics in a way that opens us to listening, understanding, connection and action toward equity among all racial groups?
  • What roles can museums have in creating opportunities for conversations about race and racism, and action toward racial equity within museums and the community?
  • How can we foster and facilitate this dialogue with our peers and co-workers, boards and donors, visitors and partners?

This course was also designed to help students prepare for hands-on facilitation of discussions about race and racism in a museum setting. Together with their instructor, students developed a structure for leading hour-long conversations with Pacific Science Center visitors. Today, 5 of the students who participated in the class answer questions for the Incluseum.

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What were your motivations for joining this class?

Ellen: Although I had worked as a facilitator in dialogue groups prior to this class, they had never revolved around an issue that is so critical in today’s society. I strongly believe that one of the most effective ways to address issues of social justice is to talk about them. Creating a safe environment to have these discussions, particularly after people have been confronted with issues of race in an exhibit, can allow a meaningful discussion with the potential for change. My hope was that these dialogues would ignite an idea of how we, as a society, can change and start a conversation that will expand outside of the Pacific Science Center and the RACE exhibit.

Sarah T.: Having just left a job at a museum that was trying to attract a more diverse audience, I was especially interested in learning more about race in museums and how facilitated dialogue can forge connections with the community. It seems to me that as museums continue to become welcoming to all people, we, as museum professionals, should learn how to engage better with everyone to achieve the ultimate goal of being as inclusive as possible.

Diana: I’ll echo my colleagues a bit: I spent time before graduate school working with marginalized communities and saw how all too often museums can seem to be impenetrable ivory towers for the white elite. I want to work in museum education, but in order to really understand the groups my museum needs to reach, I need to confront my own biases and prejudices. My hope was that in taking this class I would learn not only about racism but about the ways in which museums can act as agents of change in their communities.

Anna L: As a Latina woman growing up in southern Idaho, I often felt underrepresented in museums within the area, especially considering the growth of the Latino community. As an undergraduate studying history, my emphasis focused on minority studies. When this course was offered, I felt that this was the opportunity to open dialogue concerning the displacement of people of color. I believe it is pertinent that all museums understand the various communities they represent and the potential audiences they may attract. Open discussions concerning racial and ethnic cultures can only help shorten the gap between classic museum practices and the communities’ voice.

Sarah O.: I have been involved in social justice work for a large part of my academic career which focused on women, gender, and sexuality.  I think museums are vessels for collaboration and inclusion, specifically of underrepresented and marginalized groups. Whether museums are there yet or have realized they can be that connecting medium, I’m not sure. But offering a course like this to emerging museum professionals is a great stepping stone. I joined this graduate program from a non profit background and plan to continue similar work in a museum atmosphere.

What will you remember most about your experience leading a post-visit discussion group?

Ellen: The facilitations were all incredibly memorable. I was blown away by how open and honest people were about things they have experienced or questions they have about what can be a very uncomfortable topic. It was always such a meaningful experience for me when a white person and a person of color could talk openly with each other and realize that neither person minded being asked tough questions about their privilege or their personal experiences, in fact they welcomed it. One of the ground rules in these facilitations is to accept non-closure, to know that we aren’t going to solve racism in one hour-long discussion. I expected this to be difficult for people since I, personally, have such a hard time with non-closure. At the end of these discussions – which often ended in further conversation among participants and hugging – all I felt was hope. I always left these groups with a smile on my face and a really good feeling about what we had accomplished.

Sarah T.: Surprisingly, my most memorable experience was when we only had one participant in our dialogue group. Because of this, we had to completely switch the format into a less formal guided conversation on the fly. I won’t state her name here, but the woman we spoke with shared her story of moving to Seattle when she was young from the south. In fact, she had never actually left her hometown before she caught a bus out west. She spoke with us about what is was like to be the first African American woman to get a PhD in english from the university she attended, and the struggles she faced teaching as a woman of color. She was very interested in what we were learning, and seemed encouraged to know that the next generation of museum professionals are engaged in this kind learning. Although, this was not a typical facilitated conversation, our casual conversation was more meaningful than myself or my co-facilitators could have anticipated. It ended with her sharing her card with us and hoping we would keep in touch. I left knowing that this work does, and should have a place in museums.

Diana: I’ve now facilitated six discussions, and each time is different. Sometimes I feel like we’re making a positive impact on our participants (and they’re making a positive impact on each other and on us), and other times I’m sad because, while we’ve come a long way, we have a long way yet to go. I worked with one group of young people who chatted very casually about the terrible, racist things people have said to them, and that was very hard to hear. I want to be hopeful for the future, but I’m afraid we won’t get there without a lot of hard work. These dialogues are a great place to start, and I’m grateful to have had the experience to facilitate them. I hope to be able to use the knowledge and skills I’ve gained from our conversations to improve my own practice and also to inspire my future institutions to be more aware of the issue of race and how it affects us in museums.

Anna L: When I first started facilitating discussions with my classmates, I sometimes left the sessions feeling disheartened and concerned over the lack of societal progress when it regards racism. I would share personal stories from my youth and the various acts of discrimination that were directed to me, and often leave the sessions raw and emotional. One day I had the wonderful opportunity to meet an African American woman who lived during the time of segregation and she stated, “I have lived too long to not notice change in the world.” Her story brought me hope. I was sometimes stuck in a whirlwind of my own racial pain and her words changed my entire perspective. Life has changed, racial perspectives have changed, and is continuing to change. As an emerging museum curator, I need to cling to hope and change so that other young children of color also see what this wonderful woman showed me.

Sarah O.: As Sarah T. has already shared, one of the most memorable discussions was really less of a facilitation and more of a casual conversation with the first African American English PhD Graduate from UW. She was exactly what we all needed at that moment, she reiterated the importance of this work and she said “we gave her hope.”  In actuality, she was able to lift us up with just a conversation and the feeling of support we all felt together made the experience the most memorable of the course for me, she gave me more hope than she knew. Another memorable experience was when I was fortunate enough to facilitate a conversation with high school students.  Many of the students in the group identified as biracial,, hearing their stories specifically of how they are treated when they are with their white parent in comparison to their parent of color, hit really close to home for me. Hearing their own experiences that were so similar to mine really reinforced how positive and constructive dialogue like this can be, creating a sense of support and remembering that we are not alone.

How do you foresee this experience impacting your practice?

Ellen: I expected that this class would further my dialogue skills. I expected to feel a lot of guilt in this class and while I did feel some of that in our first few meetings, I now feel so tremendously hopeful. I recognize that small things can make the biggest difference and that confronting my privilege as a white woman working in a mostly white field will help me affect change. I am interested in evaluation and public programs as a future museum career option. In that respect, the dialogue skills that I have learned from this course will allow me to further the conversation on race or any other social issue in an effective manner.

Sarah T.: When I enrolled in this course I thought I would primarily gain tools for dialogue facilitation more than anything else. In reality, while I certainly feel more comfortable facilitating and holding dialogue sessions, I don’t think that will be the biggest takeaway for me from this course. I learned so much more about systemic oppression, and the reality of racism in America than I ever knew existed before, and that is what I will carry with me into my practice as a museum professional.

Diana: Like Ellen and Sarah said, I think the dialogue facilitation skills, while useful, will be subsidiary to the general knowledge I’ve gained about racism. I do hope to be able to create spaces for dialogue in my future practice, because the mere act of talking can spur great changes. More importantly though, is how I’ve learned to see the world differently, and to rethink a lot of what I had previously taken for granted. I’ll second Ellen’s hope, but as professionals we really need to be proactive at addressing issues of inequality in all of our institutions, and I think this class has given me the building blocks to do so.

Anna L: I want to be a curator. I want to bring difficult topics and controversial questions to the forefront of peoples’ minds and thought that this course would give me the skillset to broach such difficult topics. While the dialogue and facilitation skills were an asset to learn, this course taught me so much more. Exhibits like the RACE exhibit do well in introducing the reality of racism, both as a form of systematic oppression and in personal experiences. But more importantly, I was forced to deal with my own internalized forms of oppression and relive acts of racism that I personally experienced as a Latina youth and young adult. It was painful and raw at times, and I have come to accept that exhibits that are blatant and occasionally controversial are uncomfortable from a personal perspective. There is no immediate solution to such difficult questions and to understand this was harsh and frustrating. As a person of color, I want to know my voice is heard in exhibits. As a potential curator and emerging museum professional, I now understand that these forms of exhibits can create visceral reactions and it is important that those reactions be validated, researched, and presented in a manner that is educational and true to those who have the lived experiences.

Sarah O.: This experience was beneficial so to better prepare me for creating dialogue and feeling more comfortable in my own skin when speaking on such heavy topics.  Specifically, gaining a more refined knowledge of the topic of racism, I believe will support my endeavors going forward in museums. As someone planning to go into public programs and education, having the skills that I have gained here will be immensely powerful in my hopes to create more inclusive opportunities while working toward understanding how to create a more community driven practice. Being part of this work and learning of the injustices around me is similar to the feminist theory of the rose colored glasses.  When we become aware of oppression around us, it’s like we have taken off our rose colored glasses and we can choose to put them back on or keep them off.  I do not wish to put them back on and plan on integrating the experiences I have learned here in my work toward a more equitable future in the museum world.

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Have you seen the traveling exhibition Race: Are We so Different? If so, what about the exhibit struck you? What did you find missing? What did you learn about race and racism that you didn’t know before?

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