Reflexive Cartography: Or, A Ritual For the Dying Museum Landscape – The Socio-political Impact of Change in Museums

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.

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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A branch of cartography, Reflexive Cartography, is essentially the recognition that mapmaking has the ability to shape expansive change. I have written and rewritten this piece numerous times because each time I submitted it, I felt the need to respond to the continual expanses; a shifting museum world re-shaping itself in real time.  Specifically, a succession of Open Letters, calls for resignations, the stepping down of leadership, efforts to unionize, creation of Mutual Aid Funds, published accounts of systemic racism in museums, and petrifying wave after wave of furloughs and layoffs all in the middle of both a global pandemic and socio-political uprisings. What I came to recognize is that expansion is at once a broadening to make room for something in the process of becoming and a breaking down; a form of decay.  There is a ritual required to witnessing decay as a result of expansive change: The first part of the ritual is to survey the land. What do the headlines of the last three months alone tell us about museums?

  1. That museums are unhealthy—they are more often than we care to admit run by (White) leaders who are racially illiterate and who perpetuate toxic work environments.
  2. That our funding models are antiquated and are directly and indirectly responsible for the total annihilation of the museum workforce amidst a global pandemic. We have museum directors running museums like Fortune 500 companies (earning Fortune 500 salaries to match while many museum workers earn a living by having more than one job). What is a museum without its brightest and best? And where are they found if not in the Museum Education, Curatorial, and Frontline departments to begin? How did we arrive at the best business model for an educational tool mirroring those of giant corporations?
  3. That the current work praxis of museums is its own virus. In that, allegiance to the notion of “institution” even as we profess to proclaim “community”; keeps us spatially, emotionally, and professionally locked into a system that wants to broaden and deepen into something brand new but is forced to continually contract and be abridged by an inherently white supremacist work culture known as “museum work”.
  4. That the harm perpetuated by all of three of the above as a result of interpersonal workplace trauma has permeated the museum field and created an immediate need for healing. In particular, for those Black/BIPOC, and/or change agents who are forced to function as “medics” in a system that is virulently ill.

In a volume edited by D.R. Fraser Taylor, the new branch of cartography essentially argues this: that mapmakers in New Worlds can use technology to meet the changing needs of society. In fact, through working in co-creation within communities, new maps can be created by its citizens to make sense of the current world. Reflexive cartography 1) increases agency and inclusion and 2) expands the bounds of sense-making so that new frontiers and geographical/topical landscapes can be shaped. To be reflexive is to react immediately to impact. As we have seen in the last several months, its has been nothing but impact. Blow after blow.

Therefore, the second part of ritual in witnessing decay is to let dead things die. Let’s stop trying to revive what is crying out for rebirth. Furthermore, museum workers are “society”. We are the very visitors that make up our own museums. We are our visitors. Our visitors are we. I maintain that part of the reasons why we often struggle with “engagement”, “community-building”, and more is because we have failed to truly verbalize and respond to the ways in which we need to change as an industry. Viewing ourselves as part of the collective; and not somehow outside of it allows us to better understand change. And so, Death/ Decay and illness requires healing.

WHAT ARE THE TECHNOLOGIES THAT WE CAN USE TO EVOKE EXPANSION?

  1. The technology of apology accompanied by changed behavior
  2. The technology of listening to Black/BIPOC/LGBTQI+ voices with the end result of ceding power

I envision that these technologies guide us to seek out healing behaviors.  Adrienne Maree Brown tell us brilliantly that it “is healing behavior, to look at something so broken and see the possibility and wholeness in it”. As a Critical Race Theorist, I interrogate museums not because I abhor them or because I want to see them die; but because I want to witness and be a part of their necessary rebirth. I love museums, deeply. I just don’t like where they appear to be headed.

White-led organizations are often oblivious to the irreparable harm that they cause. Other times, they are not only aware; but maintain violent workplace practices and yield power over museum professionals who speak out about racial microaggressions, unjust policies, and behavior that is not only unacceptable but designed to keep Whiteness in place. What we are witnessing is a collective “shaking of the table”. Museum professionals of all hues and( racial) identities who believe in structural change, racial and social justice, and genuine inclusion are forced to speak out in environments where they are being told their voices are too loud, too complicated, too much.  Even in this historic movement of change, job postings are being shared that indicate socio-political views must remain at home. With some institutions still grappling with how and why race and institutional racism matters. The reality is that that table needed to be removed a long time ago. What else can we construct rather than a table? Specifically, a table of white men and women. What maps and mapmakers can we use as our guides in the New World? Which is why museums needed to have listened to Black, Indigenous, BIPOC, and LGBTQI+ voices long ago. We are not marginalized voices; our voices have been suppressed through systems of oppression in the guise of professionalism, the myth of neutrality, and a death grip on old ways of thinking about museums. Fear of retribution when we are simply trying to be healthy; is unacceptable. Dismissing our documented, visible concerns as part of “agenda” will not hold.

To be clear, this is the making of New Worlds. And even as it is being shaped before our eyes reflexivity is required. Reflexivity is the nimble agility museums need now to pivot into the new—arising from the ashes of what feels like a slow Death; but what I envision as the arbiter of abundance and wonder.

Dr. Therese Quinn first introduced the mantra/vision of “Death to Museums” in her FWD: Museums Journal (2019) with this theme in and the incredible Death To Museums Team ( Emma, June, Rose) are leading a movement that many of us have been speaking about behind closed doors and on group Zooms for quite some time. The Death of the Museum. Quinn argues: “Death to Museums, Long Live the Museum”. My interpretation of this mantra is that there are other ways of knowing that simply have not been allowed into the museum space. Let us strive to fully embrace these changes. Let the old ways of doing museum work die. Quickly. We are encouraging our own obsolescence.

As we continue to read more letters, see more resignations, and hear more about call outs and call ins; it is my greatest hope that we will also cultivate spaces for healing and open apologies. What would it look like in real time for the harmed to be made whole? For the oppressed to be validated? For the ousted/targeted/silenced to be affirmed? For the space that was made tense to be filled with the radiance of changed behavior? For institutions to be metamorphized by ousting broken policies? For the hardworking museum professional to be paid their worth and value both in power and salary?

What is the plan in place for restitution regarding the pain, misery, and violence of workplace behavior that museums have predicated ; particularly on Black, Brown, and Queer bodies? In the midst of this rush to be inclusive; let us not fail to make public amends.

The third part of the ritual: put a map on the most critical of technologies: reparations for the wronged—protect museum workers. Let us build a New Museum.

 

2 comments

  1. […] 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. […]

  2. […] is a habit generally lead museums or heritage organizations that reflect collectively. If you read Dr. Porchia Moore on Incluseum this week, you know trying to overcome a workplace with a dominant white narrative will demand a […]

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