This piece was originally written by Elisabeth Callihan, MASS Action co-founder and project manager, as the Introduction to the MASS Action (Museum as Site for Social Action) Toolkit published in 2017. We are very happy to feature it here on The Incluseum (which has supported this project from it’s earliest stages) with the permission of the author. Applications to attend the 2018 MASS Action Convening in Minneapolis are open and the deadline is July 30. The convening will be October 10-12, but don’t wait until then to get familiar with the many resources already available through MASS Action! Visit museumaction.org to get involved.
The project had a name before it had a plan. Museum As Site for Social Action: MASS Action. The acronym came to me before I knew what it would become.
In December 2014, a group of museum bloggers wrote a joint statement urging museums to respond to the crisis happening in Ferguson and across the country. Very few did. Many of us, particularly those in predominately white-led organizations, just talked about it. Should we respond? I mean, is it really our role as a museum?
#museumsrespondtoFerguson was born. They began holding weekly conversations about the role and responsibility of museums in confronting social injustices.
Months later, at a museum conference in Atlanta, Baltimore was rising up but many of us stayed seated. Presenting on projects as if nothing was happening. What could we really do?
#MuseumWorkersSpeak held a meeting in an overflowing gallery and demanded museums turn the social justice lens inward to address inequitable internal practices.
The juxtaposition between those doing “the work”—both creating and calling for justice and greater equity in the field—and those who were not questioning the status quo, seemed like an immense chasm.
There was another group of colleagues out there, though. Those for whom the refrain of “Should we respond?” had shifted to “We should respond. But in what way and how?” I frequently heard colleagues say they wanted to do this work, but did not know how or where to begin.
That’s where I saw an opportunity. If our museums are only held back because we lack the tools to do the work and the roadmap to move forward, then let’s give people the tools and the roadmap! There are many colleagues out there doing good work, so this project could aggregate what they are doing; we could put that all together in a toolkit, share it widely with the field, then everyone will have what they need to get to work.
This seems naïve looking back. But I wouldn’t know that at the time.
I was brand new, only a few months on the job here at the Minneapolis Institute of Art when I shared the seedling of an idea with Karleen Gardner, Director of Learning Innovation, and we presented it to our director and president Kaywin Feldman. I remember being nervous. In my experience, there are not many directors that, when presented with an emergent project that has promise (and a price tag) but no guarantees, will so immediately say yes. But she did so without hesitation.
I then reached out to a handful of colleagues across the country—people who were asking questions and challenging the field—to discuss the idea. They may not have known then exactly what was ahead, but they saw a possibility of what this could become. This group of inspiring individuals would become our advisors, and they have been unwaveringly supportive of and committed to this project for the past two years. We first met in Minneapolis in the fall of 2015 and, with their vision and insight, created a three-year roadmap, a plan for collaborative action that would be a call for greater equity and social justice in museums.
From there, we reached out to more colleagues, change-makers and thought-leaders, from institutions small and large, from art museums and science centers and historical sites, universities, a children’s museum. In this group there were educators, curators, facilitators, interpreters, researchers, writers, scholars, artists, activists, and agitators. We connected online over the summer of 2016, animatedly discussing what we thought were the most urgent issues in the field to address.
I thought, initially, that we would be focusing on our external outputs, programming, community engagement, but quickly realized through our conversations that we couldn’t address those, the metaphorical leaves on a tree, before we looked at the roots: the structures and internal workings and systems of museums. If we can change those, then everything else will follow more naturally.
This group gathered in person in Minneapolis in the fall of 2016. For three days, we discussed the issues of institutional transformation, creating an inclusive culture, widening interpretation, sharing authority, decolonizing collections and the museum. We formed small working groups around these topics and began outlining our vision for a “toolkit”, which would be a group of essays, tools, and resources. On the last day, we stood in a circle and shared reflections on our experience together and our commitment to the work ahead, and I realized that what we were creating was actually more than a product, it was a community.
We have been working together within this community the past year, piecing together time when we could. As many of you know, we are often overcommitted in the museum field, and these contributors are no less so. Yet, they somehow made space and time to connect and to build— whether it was to share an article or a word of support to one another, or to sit down and write what you will read within these pages.
And so, what we have written here is not so much a toolkit as it is a documentation of our thinking, our process, which is shared in hopes that it will spark your thinking and be a catalyst for change within your own institutions. It turns out the real tool is this: continued work. Everyone will have to do the work.
MASS Action is not a project anymore. It is a network of people, individuals committed to seeing the museum field change, connecting in solidarity, recognizing there is strength in numbers. That, like fractals, if we all individually commit to do our part on a small scale, we will start to see change on a large scale. That with enough voices, we can make change.
This book is the product of that commitment. And the vision, the passion, and the energy of this network of people. It is imperfect and incomplete. As it should be, because it is has been waiting for you. It has been waiting for others to take it, to read it, to use it, to figure out how to apply it.
This is a journey. And we are not at the beginning. It was started by people before us, and—as much as I like to think that will end at some point in the future—it will continue after us. Museums hold the stories, the discoveries, the treasures of human history, creativity, culture, and knowledge. So as long as museums are around (and I hope it’s a long time), then we—the people who work inside of them—will continually have to challenge whose stories are being told and by whom. We will always have work to do.
So let’s keep working.
– “Introduction,” MASS Action Toolkit, 2017
Elisabeth Callihan is Head of Multi-Generational Learning at the Minneapolis Institute of Art where she leads a team of practitioners who co-create programming that connects our communities with the museum’s collections and uses art as a lens to explore social issues. She is the co-founder and project manager for MASS Action.