A couple weeks ago, a group of museum and arts bloggers (including Incluseumers) got together digitally to draft a joint statement urging U.S. museums to respond to events like those that recently took place in Ferguson and beyond. At this time of escalating outcry about police brutality and unnecessary use of force targeting black people, many asked: Are we at a turning point for discussions about race in the U.S.? And by extension, a turning point in our museums that desire to function as a forum and be relevant to local communities? In the week that followed, these bloggers released the statement on their respective platforms; it’s our turn to do so here.
For our contribution to the collective action of posting the joint statement, we have invited some friends who are bloggers and occasional contributors to the Incluseum to join us in raising critical questions sparked by the statement and the discussion that has followed on social media (e.g., through the hashtag #museumsrespondtoferguson) along with articulating a call to action. The questions and actions we propose (presented after the statement below) are fueled by our shared love for museums and belief that these organizations can grow. They also indicate that we view the statement as a starting point, rather than an end. As such, we will use these questions and action steps to structure future contributions to the Incluseum blog, but first, lets turn to the joint statement:
Joint Statement from Museum Bloggers and Colleagues on Ferguson and related events
The recent series of events, from Ferguson to Cleveland and New York, have created a watershed moment. Things must change. New laws and policies will help, but any movement toward greater cultural and racial understanding and communication must be supported by our country’s cultural and educational infrastructure. Museums are a part of this educational and cultural network. What should be our role(s)?
Schools and other arts organizations are rising to the challenge. University law schools are hosting seminars on Ferguson. Colleges are addressing greater cultural and racial understanding in various courses. National education organizations and individual teachers are developing relevant curriculum resources, including the #FergusonSyllabus project initiated by Dr. Marcia Chatelain. Artists and arts organizations are contributing their spaces and their creative energies. And pop culture icons, from basketball players to rock stars, are making highly visible commentary with their clothes and voices.
Where do museums fit in? Some might say that only museums with specific African American collections have a role, or perhaps only museums situated in the communities where these events have occurred. As mediators of culture, all museums should commit to identifying how they can connect to relevant contemporary issues irrespective of collection, focus, or mission.
We are a community of museum bloggers who write from a variety of perspectives and museum disciplines. Yet our posts contain similar phrases such as “21st century museums,” “changing museum paradigms,” “inclusiveness,” “co-curation,” “participatory” and “the museum as forum.” We believe that strong connections should exist between museums and their communities. Forging those connections means listening and responding to those we serve and those we wish to serve.
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?
We urge museums to look to their communities. Are there civic organizations in your area that are hosting conversations? Could you offer your auditorium as a meeting place? Could your director or other senior staff join local initiatives on this topic? If your museum has not until now been involved in community discussions, you may be met at first with suspicion as to your intentions. But now is a great time to start being involved.
Join with your community in addressing these issues. Museums may offer a unique range of resources and support to civic groups that are hoping to organize workshops or public conversations. Museums may want to use this moment not only to “respond” but also to “invest” in conversations and partnerships that call out inequity and racism and commit to positive change.
We invite you to join us in amplifying this statement. As of now, only the Association of African American Museums has issued a formal statement about the larger issues related to Ferguson, Cleveland and Staten Island. We believe that the silence of other museum organizations sends a message that these issues are the concern only of African Americans and African American Museums. We know that this is not the case. We are seeing in a variety of media – blogs, public statements, and conversations on Twitter and Facebook—that colleagues of all racial and ethnic backgrounds are concerned and are seeking guidance and dialogue in understanding the role of museums regarding these troubling events. We hope that organizations such as the American Alliance of Museums; the Association of Science-Technology Centers; the Association of Children’s Museums; the American Association for State and Local History and others, will join us in acknowledging the connections between our institutions and the social justice issues highlighted by Ferguson and related events.
You can join us by…
- Posting and sharing this statement on your organization’s website or social media
- Contributing to and following the Twitter tag #museumsrespondtoFerguson which is growing daily
- Checking out Art Museum Teaching which has a regularly updated resource, Teaching #Ferguson: Connecting with Resources
- Sharing additional resources in the comments
- Asking your professional organization to respond
- Checking out the programs at The Missouri History Museum. It has held programs related to Ferguson since August and is planning more for 2015.
- Looking at the website for International Coalition of Sites of Conscience. They are developing information on how to conduct community conversations on race.
Participating Bloggers and Colleagues
Gretchen Jennings, Museum Commons
Aletheia Wittman and Rose Paquet Kinsley, The Incluseum
Aleia Brown, AleiaBrown.org
Steven Lubar, On Public Humanities
Mike Murawski, Art Museum Teaching
Linda Norris, The Uncataloged Museum
Paul Orselli ExhibiTricks: A Museum/Exhibit/Design Blog
Ed Rodley, Thinking About Museums
Adrianne Russell, Cabinet of Curiosities
Nina Simon, Museum 2.0
Rainey Tisdale, CityStories
Jeanne Vergeront Museum Notes
Porchia Moore, Cultural Heritage Informatics Librarian, University of South Carolina + regular contributor, Incluseum The Incluseum
* * * *
Inspired by the joint statement, we ask ourselves the following, non-exhaustive questions:
- What does it look like for museums to act/function as allies?
- What aspects of our institutional histories do we have to acknowledge and work to heal from in order to begin/further the work of allyship with black communities?
- To act as allies, how can we provide both safe spaces and healing spaces? What steps need to be taken before we can authentically do that?
- As race and racism continue to be the centric motif regarding national events, what obligation do museums have to consciously recruit more museum professionals of color–more specifically in positions of administrative power/authority, or in front-facing roles?
- How will the AAM’s Diversity and Inclusion Statement impact this at all?
- How do museums treat people from oppressed groups they already employ? Do folks from oppressed groups feel safe and respected? Are turnover rates of oppressed groups comparable to those of dominant groups? If not, why?
- What “right now” actions can museums do to show solidarity?
- In what ways do we currently ally with black communities? Are those ways mutually beneficial, do we share power equally, and do we recognize when to give up some of our power?
- What is institutional “voice” and how can a museum professional employed by an institution show solidarity and not feel as if that voice is muted by institutional narrative?
- How can museums build systems to respond faster by embracing change, being more nimble, and empowering employees to act rather than ask permission?
- In what ways do museums reinforce white supremacy and perpetuate other oppressions, including race, class, citizenship status, religion, gender, sexual orientation, size, ability and mental health?
- Are museums focused on “community” to justify the acquisition of cultural objects or are museums truly invested in their community members?
CALL TO ACTION:
So far, we have outlined questions the Joint Statement has evoked. Throughout, we have suggested broad goals museums can set to begin confronting and undoing oppression. But what concrete steps could museums take towards these goals? We propose these non-exhaustive “next steps”:
- Offer your space, wi-fi, bathrooms to local protests in your area.
- Share local media or live feeds from activists covering protests and other actions in your area or region. This is your community. Retweet, reblog, share.
- Create responsive programming. Screenings, talks, pop-up exhibitions. These can be co-curated with activist members of your community or with local action groups.
- Offer anti-oppression staff training(s).
- Start a staff anti-oppression reading group.
- Convene a staff work group on documenting how collections are connected with histories of and contemporary lived experiences of oppression.
- Invest in long-term, quality relationships with organizations that serve folks from oppressed groups.
We believe these steps would offer a starting point for staff to examine their privilege and how they benefit from structures of power as well as begin the work of building community within the museum around issues of social justice. What other steps should be included in this list?
The set of questions and action steps above was collaboratively compiled by the following individuals:
Elise Granata is on a mission to bridge the gap between alternative and institutional arts. Whether booking 500-person Zombie Proms in New York or being an on-the-ground advocate for the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History, her passion is rooted deeply in community engagement between arts institutions and marginalized communities. She runs a blog about grassroots arts called GRASSTRONAUT. She graduated with a BA in Arts Management and Art History from SUNY Purchase and is currently the Marketing and Engagement Coordinator at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History after work in music, theatre, dance, and visual arts on the east coast. Find her on the internet at @elisegranata
Porchia More 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.
Margaret Middleton is the exhibit designer for Boston Children’s Museum. She is an artist and craftsperson with a passion for designing and creating playful learning environments. She writes the blog On Exhibit and can be found on Twitter @MagMidd.
nikhil trivedi is a web developer, composer and activist. He works at an art museum in Chicago developing web-based software in Java, PHP and Drupal. After hours, he creates music and art using a number of tools: guitar, sitar, composing noise, sound, and through collaborations with other artists. He’s a volunteer medical advocate for Rape Victim Advocates, and participates in movements to end oppression. When none of that’s happening, he likes to hike, make herbal medicines, and drink warm glasses of chai. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter at @nikhiltri
Aletheia Wittman and Rose Paquet Kinsley are the co-founders and coordinators of the Incluseum project and blog.