For the Love of Al Green: Revisiting Bunch’s “Flies in the Buttermilk” 15 Years On

As you might have gathered by now, we’ve been publishing a new blogpost every day this week in preparation for the 2015 AAM Annual Meeting. Today, we hear from our regular contributor, Porchia Moore. As she’s getting ready to attend her first AAM Annual Meeting, she’s been compelled to revisit Lonnie Bunch’s 2000 essay “Flies in the Buttermilk: Museums, Diversity, and the Will to Change”. 15 years later, how does this essay resonate with the field? Read on to hear her perspective.

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It’s hard not to like a good ‘ole Al Green tune. “Love and Happiness” sends delicious slivers up my spine and my body shifts into an instant sway. In his now classic essay, “Flies in the Buttermilk: Museums, Diversity, and the Will to Change” published in 2000, Lonnie Bunch references these mesmerizing lyrics from Green’s 1971 hit “I’m So Tired”:

I’m so tired of being alone, I’m so tired of being on my own, Won’t you help me, girl, Just as soon as you can.

Bunch’s essay candidly describes his concerns regarding the lack of diversity in the museum profession. He alludes to the gravity of the situation with the powerful anecdote of lone museum conference attendees of color inadvertently singing Green’s lyrics as a kind of tongue-in-cheek response to the sheer lack of attendees of color. These are the flies singing a lament about the pervasive whiteness of the buttermilk; the glaring lack of fellow flies. In a short time, I will be heading to Atlanta, Georgia to participate in my very first American Alliance of Museums conference. My giddiness knows no bounds. The list of conference sessions, the exciting presentations, the conversations, the meeting up with friends—I am excited for it all. I approach the 2015 American Alliance of Museums conference with joyous anticipation; particularly because this year’s theme, “The Social Value of Museums: Inspiring Change”, is a magnification of the work that I do and increases my desire to continue my activist scholarship and research on diversity and inclusion in museums. As such, preparing for AAM called to memory Lonnie Bunch’s now famous essay. It is not lost on me that 15 years later, I have had my own “fly in the buttermilk” moments at numerous museum conferences. Rather than feel like the “dreaded fly”, I felt very much a part of the ebb and flow of the meetings as my main goal was to learn and to think critically about the arguments and ideas being presented. However, it would be disingenuous to say that I have not been keenly aware of the racial composition of these conferences for a number of reasons. First, it remains puzzling that in this era our field does not seem to attract and retain museum professionals of color. Second, I carry a deeper, more burdensome concern that this lack of diversity impacts the work museums are able to carry out and who they are able to serve and not serve. Finally, there is a gnawing fear that many still question why any of this even matters. What does the lack of museum professionals of color at these conferences have to do with the work that happens every day at cultural heritage institutions? Well, one answer is that the buttermilk-effect visible at museum conferences is essentially a replica of what is occurring in our museums every day. That is, there is a relationship between the lack of racial diversity at museum conferences and the participation of people of color in museums. But I am no fly and my colleagues are not just buttermilk. I am determined to gain new perspectives and believe we can create something good. Something new. Something different. This is a new era with new realities. What our visitors want and need is cultural equity. In turn, we should be equally mindful that our profession also requires equity. The thing is, cultural equity matters and its absence carries a harsh truth: the absence of cultural equity is psychologically violent. It feels like the deepest and most painful erasure. It is Al Green singing his sorrowful lyrics at the highest pitch and with the heaviest of hearts. It feels as if that girl will never come because she never valued him in the first place. It is imperative to understand that a lack of cultural equity is the crux of oppression in museums and that when museum professionals question the existence of oppression in museums, they commit the most egregious and most painful microagression. In my mind, the power of the AAM 2015 conference theme is that defining and establishing the social value of museums can perhaps inspire us to change our workforce composition. In many ways, this really is where the root of diversity and inclusion begins–with shifting the power structures and literal face of our institutions. The reality is that we ask our museum communities to trust our decisions, that we are committed to diversity, and that our goal is inclusion. Our museum workforce statistics, however, tell another story. Bunch argued this best 15 years ago, when he wrote these powerful words:

Museums all seek to develop long-term, mutually reciprocal relationships with a dizzying array of communities. Yet why should these groups really believe our rhetoric of cultural transformation unless we are willing to exert the energy and make the hard choices that accompany the creation of a meaningfully diverse profession?

Our nation is experiencing a new wave of racial awareness. Cultural equity is the act of engineering a cultural and institutional reckoning–acknowledging that we have a history of promoting white values and culture in unequal portions; and correcting this practice. If museums and other cultural heritage institutions do not take the lead on this; then who will? Starbucks? If we truly believe in inclusion as an institutional value that cuts across the museum field, we must begin by acknowledging and rectifying the peculiar de-facto invisibility of museum professionals of color in the museum workforce and practice what Bunch calls “in-reach:

We champion the practice of community outreach. But I think we need to promote “in reach”, a concept that challenges the profession to be more introspective, more deliberate, more honest, and more explicit in its efforts to change itself.

While the buttermilk effect has only minimally changed in the last 15 years, I would argue that the will to change has been on a rapid and spectacular incline. Bunch left us with a call to action in 2000. He maintained that we embody a will to change by establishing a diversity “Marshall Plan”, if you will. Slowly and mightily I see the call for change being answered. For example, in movements such as #musuemsrespondtoferguson and the subsequent Twitter chats on race and museums facilitated by some of the museum bloggers who helped shape this movement. In addition, there are many museum professionals writing about and discussing intelligent, creative, and culturally responsive ways to build inclusion; not just racially but intrinsically. Bunch challenged the museum community to come together and “generate a blueprint for successful change” in a “pan-professional” summit. I think I hear Al crooning “Let’s Stay Together”. Who is in?

References: Bunch, L. G. (2000). Flies in the buttermilk: Museums, diversity, and the will to change. Museum News, 79(4), 32-35.

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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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4 comments

  1. Reblogged this on Cabinet of Curiosities and commented:
    From one “fly” to another, I applaud this post by Porschia Moore. Actually, I can’t clap or co-sign hard or loud enough!

  2. […] For The Love Of Al Green: Revisiting Bunch’s “Flies in the Buttermilk” 15 Years On […]

  3. Therese Quinn · · Reply

    Hi, all. When I assign the essay by Bunch I always also assign “Museums, Racism, and the Inclusiveness Chasm” by Carlos Tortolero, which he wrote in response to “Flies…” It’s in Museum News Nov/Dec 2000. It’s powerful because he names institutional racism. If you can’t find a copy let me know; I have it PDF’d.

  4. Hi Therese, thank you for pointing us towards Carlos Tortolero’s piece! Could you send us your copy, we would love to read it (incluseum@gmail.com). Thanks!

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