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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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.