Cartography: A Black Woman’s Response to Museums in the Time of Racial Uprising

This blogpost is authored by Dr. Porchia Moore, who has been an Advisor and Regular Contributing Writer to The Incluseum for many years. This post in the first of what will be a 3-part series. You can read Part 2 here.

Dr. Moore is Department Head and Assistant Professor of Museum Studies at the University of Florida. She is a Critical Race Scholar interrogating the role and function of race in museums and the cultural heritage sector. She is the co-creator of The Visitors of Color Project. Dr. Moore speaks internationally on issues of race, equity, and inclusion. She presents regularly at museum conferences such as AAM, MCN, SEMC, Museums and the Web. Dr. Moore has served on numerous museum and museum professionals boards and committees. She previously served as Inclusion Catalyst at the Columbia Museum of Art where she also worked as consulting curator of African-American Art for the Spoken rotating art gallery. She served as project advisor for MASS Action, was one of the founding architects for Museums and Race, and, as previously mentioned, is Project Advisor and Regular Contributing Writer for Incluseum. She has partnered with museums across the nation on education, training, and workshops on race and anti-racism in museums. You can follow her on Twitter @PorchiaMuseM.

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One of my good friends has this expression that she says often. I love the expression. It signifies to me that something that we have witnessed or that someone has said is not only unclear, it needs tangible proof and shape. Often, the thing in question is suspect. Fuzzy. We need to be able to scrutinize it, put it in our hands, turn it around up and down-get the coordinates. When things are unclear and muddled, she proclaims with gusto: “I need a map on it”.

And so, we both laugh. And then, we go in search of said “map”.

In the case of the museum field one does not have to look far for maps that relate to anti-racist and inclusive scholarship and practice. There is MASS Action and the MASS Action toolkit, The Incluseum, Museums and Race, The Visitors of Color Project, Museum Workers Speak, Look at Art. Get Paid, Of By For All, Museum Hue, #MuseumsRespondToFerguson, #MuseumsAreNotNeutral, Museum Detox, Dr. Sina Bahram’s work on Disability and Accessibility, Empathetic Museum, Margret Middleton’s Queer Inclusive Museum work, and a myriad of other initiatives and scholarship led by museum professionals here and abroad. Groundbreaking, powerful work. In fact, activist-scholarship and praxis has only increased over the years with project after project, initiative after initiative.

We have maps for days. We have been speaking out about structural and institutional racism in museums for years.

I have served as Project Advisor, Co-Architect, and community member for more than three of the above initiatives. My mapmaking has taken a toll on my physical body. My emotional and mental health. My mapmaking has rendered me too radical for certain institutions. It has cost me jobs. It has even threatened my physical safety. I have seen phenomenal people leave the field because their dedication to this work left them isolated, labeled, and jobless. As a Black woman working in the museum field, there is a high cost to commitment to creating inclusive spaces and the labor of anti-racist work. Because you see, many of us have had to navigate the hostility of white leadership, microaggressions, dismissal, discomfort, and “Final Say”. Some of us still have leadership espousing colorblind philosophies or believing in neutrality.

While I am certainly not the first person in the field writing and speaking about these issues, I am one of the first who applied Critical Race Theory as a lens to interrogate these issues of equity, access, and inclusion in museums as institutions and to call out and identify why “diversity” was not only hegemonic; but violent. I was told that my work was too radical and focused too much on race. The part where I identified myself as a Critical Race Theorist seemingly rendered invisible.

We “cartographers” for racial equity and inclusion in museums have been mapmaking for quite some time.

I love the work that I do. And yet, I am tired of offering up my maps.

Because it is clear that not everyone can read them.

Because it is clear that not everyone is reading them.

Because it is clear that not everyone can understand them.

Because it is clear that there is no common direction in the field towards genuine transformation and change.

Because it is clear that not everyone believes in the map.

Because it is clear that not everyone wants our maps.

Geo-scientists have studied why it is that there are some whose brains literally make them unable to “read” maps. It is a kind of blindness of the mind. The human brain utilizes a process called “Spatial Orientation” to help us find our way. Spatial orientation is the sense-making tool that allows us to navigate environments, it is our brain’s way of making maps to explore new spaces. Studies have shown that over-reliance on tools such as GPS actually atrophy the part of the brain that creates neuropathways for internal mapmaking. Metaphorically, white fragility, allegiance to colonialized practice, and the rigidities of Whiteness have created deep atrophy in many of our cultural heritage sectors. Reliance upon maps increases an ability to read them—to find your way. To create internal coordinates. To reduce “blindness”.

Museum Professionals (with little to no decision-making power) have created maps. Our maps are there for the reading. Free. Accessible.

But what of our museum leaders? What from our museum professional organizations?

I recall how on this very platform myself, Rose, and Aletheia co-authored a series of posts about museum activism. We were also joined by Dr. Nicole Ivy, Dr. Joseph Gonzales, and Margaret Middleton in collaboratively authoring some of these posts. This collective writing was in direct response to how the work that we and other museum professionals had been doing toward equity, access, and inclusion was being viewed as “activists” and not having a place in the field. With people being afraid to post freely about race and racism because they had been censored by their museums. With two solid years of critical dialogue occurring on Twitter via chats hosted and facilitated by Adrianne Russell and Dr. Aleia Brown (#MuseumsRespondToFerguson) and additional chats hosted by museum professionals having to make disclaimers about their views being their own; not their institutions. This is why a majority of these recent solidarity statements ring hollow. Since our very first Museum Workers Speak rogue session in Atlanta at the 2015 AAM Annual Meeting, against the backdrop of the brutal killing of Freddie Gray, we have been a collective of museum professionals asking for change in our field. Creating a long list of resources and producing scholarship addressing the need for systemic change. By these solidarity statements, one would assume that museums were using our maps. While in fact, Black lives are the very ones which have been negatively impacted by the current furloughs, lay-offs, policies, and practices of museums.

SHOW US YOUR MAPS

At the end of the day, there are a multitude of changes that can be made instantaneously by museums to demonstrate commitment to anti-racism—internally and externally. It is essential to the work of decolonization and to the enterprise of museums themselves as institutions. While many scoffed at the international debacle of ICOM’s desire to redefine museums; I felt that it was more than an academic enterprise. I maintain that it was an opportunity for us to declare and affirm/confirm all of the work that so many of us mapmakers had already been doing to achieve “The New Museum”—and ask for more.

Spatial Orientation

Demonstrate willingness to make significant changes—by making the changes.

In spite of anti-racist materials and resources both compiled and created for this field; the work has overwhelmingly been rejected, reduced, diminished, co-opted for profit, deemed too radical, deemed not suitable, deemed not applicable, wholly ignored, and had the language and rhetoric usurped for grants applications with no intention of making structural changes. Left the bodies, minds, and professional careers, especially of Black women, maligned and battered.

Therefore, I am asking the leadership of all museums and professional organizations to show us your maps.

  1. Clearly demonstrate the financial circuitry for how museum memberships support the work of anti-racism in your local museums. Because if it does not, why do local communities need to pay for memberships?
  2. Clearly demonstrate the financial circuitry for how professional museum memberships support the work of anti-racism in the field. Because if it does not, why do museum professionals need to pay for memberships?
  3. Read the comments underneath your current solidarity statements posted on social media and understand just how much work there is to be done.
  4. Show us pictures of your museum boards.
  5. Tell us the dates and times when you will ask current board members to step down. (In fact, do we even need boards?)
  6. Tell us when you replace those board members with community members who reflect your community and/or the representation needed to increase equity, access, and inclusion.
  7. Show us your process for selecting these members. Not members who are deemed “respectable”, “magical”, or “vetted” through your personal social networks. Select members who will challenge and stretch you; not those with social capital that aligns with your views.
  8. Name 3 immediate changes you will make to demonstrate that you are committed to anti-racism. Post these changes and ask your museum workers and communities to hold you accountable.
  9. Promote and/or hire Black and POC staff members in authority and decision-making positions.
  10. Amplify! There are so many ways to amplify. Amplify voices, power, artists, ant-racist policies, messaging and more to demonstrate commitment to anti-racism.

Note that it was Paula Santos and Alyssa Greenberg and the rest of the amazing leaders of Museum Workers Speak who led the charge of seeking ways to support museum workers who had been impacted by Covid-19. They did this through the creation of a mutual aid fund. Museum workers helping museum workers. As of this writing, they have placed over 20K in the hands of museum workers in need with a pledge of placing 10K+ more into the hands of Black museum workers. Institutions will not save us; but we can save ourselves. If you want change; demand it. When it’s not clear—put a map on it.

 

6 comments

  1. Bettina Carbonell, Associate Professor, English · · Reply

    Thank you very much for this deeply contextualized position statement, the concept of mapping, and these practical prescriptions for change. I come to the subject as an academic specializing in American studies–not a museum professional–with research interests in visual culture, activism, and the work of museums. Since the closure of museums due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and then the heightened visibility of racism (a longstanding global pandemic) after the killing of George Floyd, I have been monitoring how both mainstream and culturally specific museums are reaching out to their publics. Your work is very valuable in that context and I’m looking forward to future posts.

  2. Porchia,
    Cartography is such a powerful metaphor here. Yes, the maps have been laid out for a long time now when it comes to taking action and dismantling racism, ableism, and colonialism within museums — those in positions of power at museums simply continue to choose to ignore those maps and that scholarship. In fact, many white museum leaders are actively challenging and pushing back against those maps, erasing them over and over again with the hopes that new ones will not be created. Ain’t gonna happen — not with the community of change that is constantly growing and fiercely demanding that museums take action and be held accountable. Thank you for writing this. Your scholarship and leadership is a light.
    -Mike

  3. While I’m still digesting this call to authentic and principled action, I deeply respect the request to supply the “dates and times” for actions taken. That demand for specificity exacts clear accountability.

    Thank you, Dr. Moore, for mapping our some of what is on your mind.

  4. […] time. And read what black women have to say. This week I read Dr. Porchia Moore’s post for Incluseum. It’s about mapmaking and we fragile white folk who can’t see the forest for the trees. […]

  5. […] it’s time. And read what black women have to say. . . [e.g.] Dr. Porchia Moore’s post for Incluseum. . . we fragile white folk who can’t see the forest for the trees. . . McNamara’s “Why Your […]

  6. […] This blogpost is authored by Dr. Porchia Moore, who has been an Advisor and Regular Contributing Writer to The Incluseum for many years. This post is Part 2 in a 3-part series…so stay tuned! You can read Part 1 here. […]

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