We Who Believe in Freedom Cannot Rest

A year ago, a group of museum bloggers released a joint statement in response to the events that had taken place in Ferguson and beyond. The statement was accompanied by a Twitter chat that was facilitated by Aleia Brown and Adrianne Russell –#museumrespondtoferguson. They’ve continued to host #museumrespondtoferguson Twitter chats on a regular basis over the last 12 months, aiming to explore and ultimately take down how racism is at play in museums. To celebrate the 1 year anniversary of #museumrespondtoferguson, Aleia and Adrianne share with the Incluseum their reflections on these conversations.

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MUSEUMS (2)

Just this week, New York Magazine published “Because this Place Has Been Showing How Black Lives Matter for 90 Years” about the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Although the article briefly details nearly a century’s long history of the Schomburg, it speaks to the future of the #museumsrespondtoferguson Twitter chat. The Schomburg – along with other Black art, history, and cultural institutions – have been serving Black communities, and centering their narratives as vital to understanding the United States. Some institutions like the Hampton University Museum (founded in 1868), and Association for the Study of African American Life and History (which Dr. Carter G. Woodson founded in 1915) began researching, documenting and sharing Black history and culture during the nadir of race relations. Their work took shape when it was not only subversive to assert Blackness as humanity, but also meant risking their livelihood. We acknowledge their work, risk and courage. Moving forward, the vision for #museumsrespondtoferguson must be grounded on the premise of gaining inspiration from Black museums whose very existence protests white supremacy.

Several common threads appeared in the chats, which lead to our inspiration for #museumsrespondtoferguson moving forward. The first thing that we noticed was that although many were (and still are) hesitant to speak, there are some museum professionals who jumped in the conversation citing the likes of classic museologist John Cotton Dana. While there is a lot that contemporary museum professionals can learn from Dana, he never specifically addressed race in his work and there is no documentation of him having progressive race politics. Museum professionals should take a more thoughtful approach on who they cite. Citations are important because they indicate who matters to particular organizations and the field more broadly. Repeatedly citing Dana is a form of erasure. Why not cite people and organizations (predominantly Black women) who have been doing work on race and intersecting social issues? Why are these people and organizations not more visible?

To be clear, some of our colleagues have not been complicit in this erasure. They have adamantly articulated how our thinking and approach to conversations have influenced their parallel social concerns. For example, #MuseumWorkersSpeak acknowledges and attributes its ground rules and intersectional thinking on labor and race to #museumsrespondtoferguson. Elissa Frankle’s presentation Pay Your F-ing Interns also starts with thanking #museumsrespondtoferguson, among others, for contributing to her thinking.

While achieving a better understanding of race in the field is everyone’s responsibility, we noticed that the chats did not necessarily help Black museum professionals or organizations. Given the title of the chat, #museumsrespondtoferguson cannot simply be a space that helps nonblack people work through contentious race issues in museums and the United States. It has to also be a space that illuminates and supports the work of black museums, professionals, and creators.

Our review of the storifies and in-person conversations also revealed that fear of taking risks ultimately prevented (and still prevents) people from acting. This conversations revealed that people were often aware of actions they could take to advance racial understanding and equity, but fear prevented them from taking the actual step. We hope that by focusing more on black institutions and black professionals, the broader field will be inspired by a group of people who have continuously taken risks.

Finally, we want everyone to know that #museumsrespondtoferguson does not and cannot have a timeline. Commitment to anti-racism in any facet of life has always been a lifelong pursuit in the United States. Backlash has always followed gains in race-relations, which substantiates that there will never be a smooth timeline that always progresses forward. #Museumsrespondtoferguson is successful because we are still doing this work a year later and will continue doing this work.

Aleia Brown — @aleiabrown
Adrianne Russell — @adriannerussell

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6 comments

  1. Thanks for the year summary and creating a space for a dialogue that is centered in the equity of agency. As long as human beings wear skin and flesh issues of race and ethnicity will always be front and center. Thank you for #standinginthegap

  2. […] “We Who Believe in Freedom Cannot Rest”, our reflection on #museumsrespondtoferguson one year on, is up today on The Incluseum blog. […]

  3. #museumsrespondtoferguson is incredibly impactful to me as an individual museum professional—as a result of your advocacy I recognize the authority I have heretofore assumed in my educator role and therefore analyze my professional activity and audiences (ones I attract and others that aren’t there) as something for which I am accountable and must change for more equitable ends. I am accountable in my own way for creating space in the museum field for POC professionals, from entry-level through senior leadership. This year I have taken some intentional actions. I have so much to learn from simply listening to the experiences of POC professional peers so thank you, thank you for the great work that you are doing and #nevergiveup the fight

  4. artstuffmatters · · Reply

    I’m eager to continue working through these difficult issues with #museumsrespondtoferguson in the upcoming year. It will be great to focus our attention on established models. This honing will probably introduce many scholars and artists of color to the participants.
    I’m fairly certain that none of my museum studies classes featured museum theorists who are people of color. We definitely did discuss John Cotton Dana along with Benjamin Ives Gillman; but failed to examine the rise of black museums in the U.S. Instead, I learned of folks addressing issues of race through my studies in critical race theory and the arts. I suppose that many other museum courses have obscured this crucial work as well.
    Conversations centered on readings in this undervalued area would be helpful. Yet I know that some people have trouble transferring information from one domain to another. So I propose that our discussions include envisioning how museum professionals at institutions that lack or are resistant to the analysis of race can enact featured strategies at their museums. That way this re-centering could create widespread structural change.

  5. […] this year’s activities I’ve found support in the #museumsrespondtoferguson initiative which started in response to the December 2014 Joint Statement from Museum Bloggers and Colleagues […]

  6. […] expounding on difficult and contested histories. This is evidenced in the two projects I co-lead, #museumsrespondtoferguson and #BlkTwitterstorians. My involvement with the AASLH Women’s History Affinity Group, the […]

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