Unfinished. Revisiting HORSE, a Pre-COVID Project to Support Social Action in Rural Museums Part 1

Over the next four blogposts, Zachary Stocks (@Museumorphosis) will be sharing with us a project he created called Heritage Organizations for Rural Social Equity (HORSE). We welcome this focus on smaller and rural cultural heritage organization since they often get left out of the greater conversations related to equity work in museums.

Part 2 of this 4 part series will discuss the foundational philosophy behind HORSE, outlining why museums should serve as sites for social action, and why that work is important for rural museums in particular. Part 3 will present the first two steps of the four-part methodology for rural museums to help create more equitable communities. Part 4 will present the last two steps of this methodology.

Zachary is a returning contributor to The Incluseum; you can read his previous blogpost here. Thank you, Zachary for sharing your work and reflections with The Incluseum community!

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Part I.

In 2017, I watched online as white supremacists marching through Charlottesville, in my home state of Virginia, for the deadly United the Right rally. The attendees were not hooded Klansmen, but angry young white men who looked identical to people I interacted with every day –on the bus, at the gym, and in my apartment complex. I had recently left a job at an African American museum in a major city for a new role at a heritage museum in a small coastal Oregon seaport, hours from the interstate. Without a support network of my Black family, friends, and coworkers, I felt a sudden, terrifying loneliness. I was in one of the whitest corners of the US watching the rise of American fascism out in the open, and nothing about my new job or new home encouraged me to speak out about me fears with any assurances that I would be understood or supported.

I was not alone in my feelings. For over a decade, prominent voices within our field has spoken out about the myth of the politically neutral museum. In the aftermath of several high-profile murders of Black, Indigenous, Jewish, and Latinx Americans, a new chorus of museum workers was speaking out on social media about how our museums had failed to disavow white supremacy. While museums publicly boasted about how they support and serve their diverse communities, their unwillingness to dismantle oppressive internal systems represented the same social inequalities enforced violently by police and the criminal justice system. But their apathy only betrays public accountability. Ambivalence to racist violence, legal and social inequities, poverty, food and housing insecurity and other issues only benefits the perpetrators. Museum neutrality is a security blanket, not a solution. Museums’ fear of being branded as “political” for taking a stance again white supremacy has only allowed racism to proliferate insidiously within their own institution through barrier to entry, microaggressions, and unrecognized contributions of POC workers. There is no “common ground” to be had with those who do not believe in everyone’s right to exist. 

Museums can be great allies in resisting white supremacy, but first, they must acknowledge the lived experiences of people of color, womxn, the LGBTIQ communities, and others, and publicly affirm that their lives matter. With this most basic obligation of empathy and decency met, museums, individuals, and businesses can then work together to use their resources in ways that move us closer to a society where everyone can live and thrive.

I decided that the current circumstances were too dire to sit by and wait for museums to be better. I would use whatever time and energy I could spare to work with others to dismantle oppressive practices in our field. In gatherings of museum workers, I brought with me this determination and my perspective from the heritage sphere. I believe that as keepers of history and truth, heritage museums have a particular responsibility to examine the ways they have historically perpetuated (and still perpetuate) systemic inequality. And, that when heritage museums recognize these realities and stop avoiding “controversial” topics, they can start leveraging their power, trust, and influence to heal historical trauma and work toward solutions to shared social problems.

But I also represented another demographic amongst gatherings of museum professionals. As a newly rural resident, I was disappointed to see that so-called “field wide conversations” rarely had perspective from museums outside of major metropolitan areas. This is a missed opportunity. Small and rural museums have unique tactics which would benefit the museum community at large, and their communities are typically the most vulnerable to social and economic inequality. Also, by raw number, small local heritage museums actually represent the majority of museums in the United States. 

Back in 2014, my graduate thesis explored commonalities in small museums’ social work efforts. That research revealed the following about the ways small museums participate in local social action:

  • Their social action is rooted in collaboration
  • Their social action is a mutual investment in the community and in their own institution
  • They determine the success of their social action based on noticeable reductions in the local social problem(s) their actions address

(To learn more: Activist Social Work in Small Museums: A Community Level Exploration. University of Washington)

These findings felt significant but seemed incomplete upon later reflection. I was disappointed to have focused my work entirely on identifying the tactical similarities of museums that already do this work, as opposed to offering any guidance for museums to engage in social action for the first time. 

It was because of this that I was determined to create a practical “how-to” guide for rural museums to engage in social action, while also educating urban museums on the community-driven social activism already happening in rural communities, though often by different names and methods than are typically found in cities. 

I started out on this work with the firm moral belief that all of us have a part to play in building the kind of communities we all want to live in. Our public institutions have an even greater responsibility to do so. With that in mind, I decided to look for professional development outside of museums and found it in the practices of grassroots community organizing. In 2019 I applied for, and was awarded, a fellowship with an Oregon-based rural community justice non-profit called Rural Organizing Project to develop new skills in community organizing which I could then apply towards a particular topic or campaign. Using what I had found in 2014 as a foundation, and the training I received from Rural Organizing Project, I worked backwards to create a replicable model for rural heritage museums to recognize their potential to create real social change in their communities and help create a network of museums committed to advancing racial and social equity across Oregon’s rural counties. 

I called this project Heritage Organizations for Rural Social Equity (HORSE). HORSE offered a methodology for heritage museums to creating meaningful social change in their communities based on everything I had learned from my own work and the brilliant work of other museum social activists. The four components I proposed for rural museums to pursue as part of HORSE were the following:

  1. Creating Inclusive Policies
  2. Advocating for Vulnerable People
  3. Developing Responsive Community Programming
  4. Connecting with Other Organizations

For one year, I promoted HORSE through virtual communication and on-site consultation. In all, six museums agreed to participate in the program, representing every region in Oregon outside of Portland. They would be the test pilots for this methodology. To ensure HORSE’s success, I created a website to market the program and assembled a team of strategic advisors representing Oregon’s state and private heritage funding organizations and from the state museum network. 

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In all, each participating museum completed at least a portion of the HORSE methodology. Staff and board members worked with me to interrogate their organization for bias and develop drafts for new DEAI policies and equity statements, some of which were then ratified and put to use. All but one museum displayed the HORSE welcome signage in their windows, and several museums planned and put on a public program addressing a local social issue, many for the first time. These ranged from a community healing project to commemorate a lynching to a conversation about local drug addiction which would pair a historical talk with a training on how to administer naloxone. 

My goal was for HORSE to sustain itself in perpetuity and grow through the leadership of the first six museums. However, without continuous coordination it was not possible to track participating museums’ progress and support their grantmaking efforts and program development. Remote project platforms I created to connect participating museums to one another never developed into a useful communication network, perhaps as a consequence of the realities of physical separation and unreliable technology that plague rural communities. As well, sites had no incentive to devote their limited time in service to this work. HORSE was free for museums but offered no accreditation or public recognition for their participation. As my own fellowship ended and I took on a new job, I was no longer able to give my own time to travel and facilitate HORSE efforts in progress. It became clear by the fall that HORSE would not be able to continue as intended. After a final presentation on the findings at the Oregon Museums Association annual meeting, I deactivated the project website.

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It is only now, as COVID-19 has upended our lives and work, that I am returning to the incomplete work of HORSE. This series will share unpublished material for the handbook I had hoped to offer rural museums that joined the HORSE cohort, written between February and October 2019. In it, I called out social problems which disproportionately affect rural Americans of color and others, such as environmental degradation, white supremacist organizing, threats to tribal sovereignty and more. While that handbook was never completed as intended, the writing remains as relevant as ever, particularly as coronavirus has had an outsized impact on the health and economies of rural communities more so than big cities.

The slow decline of the rural heritage museums I wrote about almost two years ago has accelerated in unimaginable ways. Here in Oregon, many small museums which are the only keepers of tremendous community history will never open their doors again. I am grieving for them, for the people they employ, and those they serve. My hope is that the heritage museums that make it through the pandemic will recognize that the old ways of business no longer apply. Their job now –unquestionably—is to give back to their communities through the resources they have in pursuit of a better world. Perhaps the methodology I presented through HORSE can still serve as a useful model for museums looking ahead to what they can become.

Zachary Stocks is a public historian and writer. He is the part time Executive Director of Oregon Black Pioneers, Oregon’s African American historical society, and a seasonal interpretive ranger at Lewis and Clark National Historical Park. You can find Zachary online at @Museumorphosis.

3 comments

  1. […] Part 1 of this 4-part series discussed the origin of this project. Next week, we’ll share part 3 that will present the first two steps of the four-part methodology for rural museums to help create more equitable communities. Part 4 will present the last two steps of this methodology. […]

  2. […] Part 1 of this 4-part series discussed the origin of this project. Part 2 discussed the foundational philosophy behind HORSE, outlining why museums should serve as sites for social action, and why that work is important for rural museums in particular. Part 4 will present the last two steps of this methodology. […]

  3. […] Part 1 of this 4-part series discussed the origin of this project. Part 2 discussed the foundational philosophy behind HORSE, outlining why museums should serve as sites for social action, and why that work is important for rural museums in particular. Finally, Part 3 presented the first two steps of the four-part methodology for rural museums to help create more equitable communities. […]

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