The Why of D+I: An [Afro]futuristic Gaze at Race and Museums

This last year has seen a number of diversity and inclusion (D&I) related  initiatives in the museum field. These have included, but are not limited to the Diversity and Inclusion in the 21st Century:Reimagining The Future of Museums workshop at the Smithsonian, the MuseumNext 2015 Conference, and the recent Race and Museums: Transformation and Justice convening. Amidst this growing number of exciting initiatives, the why of D&I might get lost or diluted or coopted. Today, our regular contributor Porchia Moore shares what has motivated her commitment to this work.

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In January of 2016, I was asked to help to organize a convening called Race and Museums: Transformation and Justice. I was drawn to these efforts because I have spent the last 5 years as a PhD Candidate in deep academic scholarship interrogating cultural heritage institutions, mainly museums, employing Critical Race Theory as my exploratory lens. I am known for presenting on race and museums, writing about race and museums, talking about race and museums because I am a critical race theorist working in and writing about museums. The center of my scholarship seeks to demonstrate why inclusion matters in museum work. While the foundation of my work on inclusion is race-based inclusion, it is and has always been intersectional.

When asked about why she seems fixated on writing about race and about blackness, Toni Morrison once referred to the world of literature as that of a diamond having many facets. She then paused, and stated that as a black woman, she does not write to address Whiteness. Rather, she cares about the power of good writing, in fact, excellent writing. Therefore; her work must do certain things. 1) It must be of exceptional quality and 2) it must address a world she wants and needs to see—one which must be created. Because of the low rate of which literature is published which centers and privileges blackness—black people—this is the manner in which Morrison’s work diffuses itself onto the page. She also argues something equally as important. Race and racism are distractions.

For me, “race work” has not as yet been a distraction. It is, the system which I am trying to dismantle—with intentionality, with grace, with core values of which I believe and utilize as the root of my research and praxis. These values are based on being thoughtfully critical of points of power in museum spaces. Therefore, my work demands that I write frequently about race and museums because I believe that excellence in museum work is inclusive. Inclusion is not a facet—it is the way to see the full beauty of the diamond. I believe also in spacemaking. It is good to know of how and of what posture to enter in—these are the things one must consider in real spacemaking efforts.

I come to the space of the field–of museum work– and of the space of the museum–and enter in to the space of ally-accomplice building as a cis-gender black woman born and raised in the Deep South. For me, this work while about objects and ideas and people and their stories, is a continuation of the work of my ancestors for civil rights—of equity and representation. Co-creation of narrative. Freedom from navigating physical buildings without the burden of performance. The power of voice. The complexity of our identities. It is a re-imaging of a future museum void of the elements which Morrison might call distraction. Therefore, for the past five and a half years, my scholarship has been to center my research on museums by examining privilege, oppression (thanks to Nikhil for helping to advance these ideas), and intersectionality.

As of late, as more conversations on inclusion and diversity increase, I have begun to wonder: What’s the “Why” of your museum’s D+I? A colleague of mine makes a face akin to nails being drug across a chalkboard whenever any conversation on diversity and inclusion begins with “racial demographics are changing”. I used to respond to her in amusement. Now, I understand. As we see Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, and so many others’ birthdays come and go. As I took my own children to protest rallies every day until the Confederate flag came down off the state house steps in my city of birth, Columbia, South Carolina; I think that authenticity and ethics are vital and necessary components to discuss before any spacemaking based initiatives are launched.

While changing demographics are fact, the realization that museums might enter into spacemaking efforts with its communities based on “need to” as opposed to “want to” is reason to pause. Being culturally responsive is ethical; being led into inclusion work for reasons other than this are fraught with tensions and are inherently problematic. Authenticity matters.

In my work, I am bringing, with the utmost intentionality; discourse, scholarship, terminology, and thought to a discipline/field which has for too long been stuck in a place called Diversity. But I am also a futurist, in some portion, an Afrofuturist. This year, I watched the African Diaspora flourish in the month of February replacing traditional Black History Month with fresh vigor and energy as we embraced Black Futures Month. The idea that while we revere, admire, honor, and respect the ancestors and efforts of our past; we take a step forward into a newly imagined future with new frameworks, willingness to adapt to new forms of activism—an exploration of themes of alienation and isolation which swiftly cut out “old think” and replaces it with bold notions of what constitutes identity and transformation based on principles for what we need and being clear about what is not needed. I want this kind of vision for the museum because I care about the excellence of museum work and for the communities of color who remain disengaged with museum spaces. I helped craft the Statement of Purpose for Race and Museums 2016: Transformation and Justice and advocated for the three tenets of oppression, privilege, and intersectionality because this is the core of my work. As many of us seek transformative change in the field, I continue to seek fellow spacemakers, futurists, and radicals bold enough to lean towards work which magnifies the diamond because the future of museums is now.

*Come hear my talks at the 2016 American Alliance of Museums conference in Washington, DC where I will be speaking on a number of conference sessions on museums, race, and inclusive language. Special acknowledgement to the American Alliance of Museums for awarding me a 2016 Alliance Fellowship Award.

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Porchia is an ABD (All But Dissertation)  PhD candidate at the University of South Carolina Carolina in the School of Library and Information Science and the McKissick Museum Management program. She serves on the Professional Development Committee for the South Carolina Federation of Museums. Moore is a Board Member for the Friends of African American Art Committee at the Columbia Museum of Art. She presents internationally at both museum and library conferences regularly. She is a regular contributing writer for The Incluseum. She has appeared on Carol Bossert’s Museum Life radio program and has multiple publications regarding her research interests: racial inclusion, community engagement, critical race theory, convergence issues in 21st century cultural heritage institutions, representations of racial identities in the digital landscape, and LIS curriculum reform. She has served on the planning team for museum conferences such as Museum Computer Network. She currently teaches at the University of South Carolina as a graduate teaching assistant in the School of Library and Information Science and works as a museum consultant at the Columbia Museum of Art and Historic Columbia Foundation where she trains incoming docents on cultural competency. She is cocreator of the Visitors of Color project. You can follow her @PorchiaMuseM, hire her at moorepa@email.sc.edu or just send her an email to chat.

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3 comments

  1. Thank you for these words Porchia: “While changing demographics are fact, the realization that museums might enter into spacemaking efforts with its communities based on “need to” as opposed to “want to” is reason to pause. Being culturally responsive is ethical; being led into inclusion work for reasons other than this are fraught with tensions and are inherently problematic.”

    In my own research on the experiences of enjoyment and alienation among Latina/o visitors to encyclopedic art museums, the difference between museums that “need to” include Latina/os and museums that “want to” include Latina/os is vast. I see “need to” in the annual production of Latina/o-themed events (e.g. Día de los Muertos) whereas “want to” creates bilingual signage; hires Latina/o staff; contracts Latina/o teaching artists; solicits community input through advisory boards and board members; and reconsiders the very conceptual organization of its exhibitions to offer a decolonizing, antiracist, and antioppressive experience for visitors. “Need to” counts success by the number of ‘diverse’ visitors coming through the doors; “wants to” seeks to remake the museum such that inclusion is a foundational value of its work.

    I would love to meet you at AAM and will look out for your sessions; mine (with Cecilia Garibay, Michelle Tovar, and Michelle Gomez) is called “Listening to Latina/os: Research and Outreach for Inclusion” and will be at 3:45 on May 28.

  2. Porchia Moore · · Reply

    Veronica, I thank you so much for your comments as well. Here is what struck me first, ““Need to” counts success by the number of ‘diverse’ visitors coming through the doors; “wants to” seeks to remake the museum such that inclusion is a foundational value of its work”. Yes! Yes! Yes! These variations are what makes inclusion preferable over any other efforts. Counting numbers diminishes the humanity of the individual in these contexts. How are real needs and wants being identified and genuine cultural responsiveness taking place if there is no real dialogue or encounter? I am looking forward to meeting you at AAM and will aim to attend your session. Looking forward to connecting! This is great!

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