Radical Trust

This month, our regular contributor Porchia Moore expands on the concept of Radical Trust she introduced in her last blog post for us. This form of trust is fundamental to her vision of the Kaleidoscope Museums, a museum that is, at its core, racially diverse and in which visitors of all backgrounds see themselves reflected in the objects on display. What do you think of Radical Trust? How can your museum better foster Radical Trust?

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When I first began speaking about Radical Trust, I was asked to expound upon its meaning. I must admit that at the time, a clear definition was not available to me, and I only understood that when I spoke about museums and the need for more Radical Trust, what I meant was a new posture of sorts. Recently, I was asked to facilitate a special training for 16 docents specifically addressing racial inclusion and cultural competence for Historic Columbia Foundation in Columbia (HCF), located in Columbia, South Carolina. HCF manages several historic house museums in the state capital and surrounding Richland County. I was thrilled that HCF was addressing these issues as our state has always existed as a hotbed of racial tensions and the confederate flag still flies on our state house grounds.

At the onset of the training, I provided some historical context for the museum-going habits of people of color.  I then explained some key concepts and terms central to my work as a critical race scholar, for example, white privilege. I distributed a handout (available here) which addressed cultural sensitivity within the context of museums. The handout comprises of a list of culturally competent Do’s and Don’ts. I opened the floor for dialogue on what their experiences were as docents at other cultural heritage institutions and  we went on to discuss notions of public white space and the importance of cultural competency in the 21st century. It was one of the most rewarding and powerful experiences in my academic and professional career to date. The resolute eagerness of the docents, all white with the exception of two African American women, to incorporate the language of cultural competence and to incorporate new and/or complex modalities for understanding race into their tours was phenomenal. I implored the group to ask hard questions regarding race and cultural competence and they did.

As part of my training workshop, I created a short activity. I presented the docents with the following terms:

  • Blacks
  • African-Americans
  • Colored People
  • Slaves
  • Enslaved Peoples
  • Enslaved persons
  • Formerly enslaved persons
  • Formerly enslaved African Americans
  • Enslaved African Americans
  • Enslaved Africans

I then asked them which term(s) would prove appropriate if giving a tour when referring to an individual who had experienced the institution of slavery. I created this activity in response to a museum curator’s frustrations that were shared with me. The curator had spent months creating an exhibit only to have several concerns raised when the label copy referred to individuals as “formerly enslaved African Americans”.  The curator felt that this term was not only appropriate; but respectful.  I tried to explain that given the information that was shared with me, the visitor took issue with the notion that an enslaved person was identified as an American—this is very much rooted in some of the complex nuances associated with African American identity and notions of assigned labels and/or identifying monikers. In particular, the visitor addressed historical instances of exclusion and inclusion regarding the status of citizen in this country for people of color. In this instance, Enslaved African American suggested an incidence of inclusion and that the enslaved was somehow operating within the democratic process.

What I explained to the docents during the training is that there will never be a time when someone will not be offended by something as this is always an issue associated with the interpretation of historical events. However, I firmly believe that this incident proves precisely why, cultural competence, the immersive penetration of cultural responsiveness is so vital. While it is not the goal to acquiesce to every visitor’s desire for personalized interpretation and meaning; it is the goal to be proficient and responsive enough to be able to navigate a culturally adept conversation so that when the visitor questions the use of a term, logical and cognizant responses can be issued which demonstrate not only deep-level critical analysis of  culture  and cultural understanding but also  the promotion of institutional values which indicate a commitment toward promoting diverse systems of value. I feel that this proficiency sends the message that inclusivity is a well-thought and embedded means of action; not merely an initiative.

Which term(s) above would you employ? Would you be able to assess why each term might be acceptable or deemed inappropriate to a visitor of color?

I left the training highly aware that this specialized training that HCF organized is the posture that I was referring to previously. It is a leaning in, a pressing backward, a moving forward, a leaning to the side-whatever posture is necessary to go after the heart of the community and to nourish it with new energy, the wisdom of 21st century cultural relations, and inclusive vision.  It is the willingness to do the work. The sustenance to have the hard conversations.

To conclude, I am also very proud of the work that HCF is doing with their Mann-Simons Community Engagement Project, which is funded by the IMLS. For me, the project is the very definition of Radical Trust. Members of the community are given an opportunity to privilege their own narratives and ways of knowing while simultaneously being reintroduced to the significance of cultural heritage and cultural heritage objects through the historic house museum. In addition, local area high school students are provided technological equipment and skills as they document their community, advocate for history, and frequently explore the historic house museum properties as they introduce friends and family to the experience of museum-going. A lasting trust is being established between not only the historic house museum and the community but this program fosters trust between the youth and the elders and will no doubt prove to have a lasting foothold in the community—that is radical. The project exemplifies a deep-level engagement and a commitment to advocating for participation from the community on a multi-generational level. You can learn more about the Mann-Simons Community Engagement Project here.

Two of the participating students made an orientation video about the Mann-Simons Engagement project for their peers:

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Porchia Moore, is a third year doctoral candidate dually enrolled in the School of Library and Information Science and McKissick Museum’s Museum Management Program at the University of South Carolina. She is the recipient of the Cultural Heritage Informatics Leadership fellowship as endowed by the Laura Bush 21st Century Librarian Grant. Her work employs Critical Race Theory as an informative framework for interrogating and exploring the museum space as a means to advocate for inclusion in the museum world. In addition, she is interested in the intersection between culture, technology, information, and race. She is a 2013-2014 Humanities, Arts, Science & Technology Alliance & Colloboratory (HASTAC) Scholar. Currently, she serves a two year appointment to the Professional Development Committee, which helps design and plan the annual conference for the South Carolina Federation of Museums. She regularly presents on race, culture, and museums at conferences such as Museums and the Web and Museum Computer Network. She is an avid lover of museums, having explored museums from Malaysia to New Zealand and back. Follow her on Twitter @PorchiaMuseM.



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