While The International Coalition of Sites of Conscience has been active since 1999, I am addressing their work today because what they do is crucial to and resonant with our current national moment. They offer a hopeful example for many in the museum field who are here for the “long game” of building collective power to use memory as a means to resist oppression today and always. From their website:
We have seen how – in every part of the world – the past has lessons for our future. By analyzing the underlying factors that resulted in the Holocaust we might find ways to prevent genocide today; by walking in the shoes of past generations of immigrants, we might better understand immigration struggles today; and in unraveling the mechanisms of past dictatorships, we can fight repression today.
This is why we work not only to preserve memories of historical events, but also to understand the context in which these events occurred and apply the lessons we have learned to today’s struggles for human rights and social justice.
Sites of Conscience use the lessons of history to spark conscience in people all around the world so that they can choose the actions that promote justice and lasting peace today.
Sites of Conscience also frames their work in terms of “human rights”, “transitional justice” and the process of “truth and reconciliation”, as used by South Africa and Canada in their Truth and Reconciliation Commissions. But, what does it look like when applied to museums and historic sites? Take a look at Sites of Conscience’s list of over 200 member organizations and you will see a broad base of examples.
Of particularly interest to me during a recent talk given by Sarah Pharaon, Senior Director of Methodology and Practice for Sites of Conscience, was the framework for truth-telling that they use in work with member sites or when they consult with organizations like museums. They describe truth as a concept with 4 aspects including: forensic truth, personal truth, social truth and healing truth. While museums are traditionally associated with forensic truth or ,”the stuff,” the other truths; first-hand experiences (personal truth), the master narratives (social truth) as well as the narrative that contributes to remedying a wrong or injustice (healing truth) are all intertwined as aspects of Truth. This framework is applicable beyond historic sites and museums that are linked directly to memories of human rights abuses. They are applicable to any museum or site shaped by the ripple effects of injustice and oppression. For example, consider the influence that colonialism, settler colonialism, anti-immigrant/refugee laws and policies, slavery, jim crow, transphobia, ablism, and homophobia have had in our heritage and cultural institutions over the years. An intentionally complex model of truth telling, like the one used by Sites of Conscience, could be a transformative starting point for museums as they face legacies of oppression within their organizational structure and narratives.
Be sure to check out Sites of Conscience’s new Rapid Response Team initiative here. Also – new today – they have a Front Page Dialogue tool on the Women’s March and intersectionality available to download for free here.
Aletheia Wittman cofounded and coordinates The Incluseum. She is the founder of Inclusion Facilitation, a consultancy based in Seattle, Washington where she is an independent curator, programmer and inclusion facilitator. Over the last four and half years Aletheia worked as Exhibit and Public Programs Manager for the Seattle Architecture Foundation (SAF); collaborating with SAF volunteers and community partners to develop programs that focus on community driven architecture and design. She is on the advisory team for MASS Action (Museums As A Site for Social Action) with the Minneapolis Institute of Art and is a officer for the American Alliance of Museums Diversity Committee. She has worked on projects with the Museums & Race Initiative and All Rise Seattle among others. Aletheia has an MA Museology from the University of Washington where she researched emerging curatorial practices in art museums and their relationship to social justice. She tweets at @AletheiaJane and you can contact her for questions or to hire her by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.