Creating a Framework for Institutional Genealogy

The following piece is one of two co-posts on Institutional Genealogy launching today. The second post can be found on the MASS Action blog (link here). In that post, Elisabeth Callihan debriefs a program in May where we discussed and demonstrated the Institutional Genealogy framework with the MASS Action Anti-racist Community of Practice. And be sure to take a look at MASS Action’s resources and ways to get engaged (link to learn more here). – Aletheia

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“Institutional genealogy” is a phrase I first started using instinctually to describe the process of museums and other nonprofits addressing their “institutional legacies”. (1) Institutional legacies are the lasting impacts of historic inequity and exclusion often brought about by white supremacy, colonialism and other systems of oppression. (2)

In the immediate aftermath of George Floyd’s murder Chieko Phillips, 4Culture Heritage Program Director, and I were talking about how museums were responding. The most common thing she was hearing from the heritage organization’s she works with was, “We don’t know where to start.” Around the same time I was doing some reflection about what I wanted to do next as a freelance museum worker and, more importantly, what I could offer museums that wanted to understand how to get started. I used the phrase “Institutional Genealogy” while describing my ideas for how I would want to work with museums and heritage organizations. Chieko got the concept immediately. She asked me, “What does this mean to you? What do you think this would involve?” I set about defining “Institutional Genealogy” in earnest and sharing my ideas with peers and collaborators for feedback. Here are some of the fruits of this work, so far.


Institutional Genealogy

noun: A critical framework for assessing an organization’s origins, ancestors and older forms.

As a framework there are three essential things Institutional Genealogy brings together:

  1. Metaphor

Genealogy, as a metaphor and a framework for critique, has been used previously in philosophical traditions, in a fruitful and provocative way for addressing the origins of ideas—how concepts we take for granted today came to be. (3)

It is also a particularly salient metaphor to describe looking into the roots of our cultural heritage organizations, who are often using the tools of genealogy for interpretive purposes or literal familial genealogy research. 

  • What happens when we turn the genealogical tools of historical understanding and connection-making inward to face our own organizational pasts? 
  • How will our sense of self, and how we move through the world, change when we know better where we have come from?
  1. Method 

To examine the past—and make connections between past, present, and future—we need entry points that are sensitive to who we are and where we are headed as unique organizations. This is where some of the more specific aspects of Institutional Genealogy come in. 

I propose a process for Institutional Genealogy with 5 different stages, or entry points:

  1. Getting Started – Establishing a baseline awareness for what you know now, what you want to know more about and clarifying your purpose for doing this work now. 
  2. Taking Inventory – Public records, archival material, oral histories, historic sites—these are just some of the sources you might identify and research to learn more about your organization’s history.
  3. Synthesis – Draft an expanded historic narrative based on all you have researched so far.
  4. Interpretation – Share and receive feedback on your expanded historic narrative and research.
  5. Analysis – Make a plan to use new awareness for the past to prioritize, and move forward on, current and future equity goals.

The steps are designed to help organization’s avoid the reductive pitfalls of narratives that romanticize the past (nostalgia) or romanticize the future (postalgia). All steps build on each other to expand understanding of the past and establish a solid foundation for moving forward. 

  1. Movement

We can examine our past as a means to gain expanded awareness that will help us face a pressing challenge or take advantage of a timely opportunity for civic relevance. The point of looking into our roots and origins is that it helps us lay a foundation from which we can move forward with purpose, intention and understanding.

A facilitation focus

My approach to working with individuals and organizations that want to do Institutional Genealogy draws heavily from coaching theory and techniques. Inquiry and listening are the priorities for my work with an organization interested in applying the method I describe above. My view is that to help a client move past a place of being stuck, you support them in reconnecting with, or identifying, internal strengths, resources and expertise they already have to meet their challenge. So, I (the facilitator) am an organization’s guide for doing Institutional Genealogy, not the expert. 

Limitations

There are limitations to the scope of the Institutional Genealogy framework which are important to highlight. Institutional Genealogy is not intended to be a silver-bullet for all the ongoing work that new awareness for the past might inspire—for example, healing, restitution, reconciliation. It can be an important piece of the puzzle when applied toward any of those journeys, but healing, restitution, reconciliation—those are all distinct processes in and of themselves and require unique engagement and decision-making partnerships with external stakeholders and communities. 

Strengths

Institutional Genealogy offers practical starting places, even when you doubt your organization has the records or paper trail to reveal anything substantially informative to your efforts today. It is an approach best suited to cultivating practices that deepen your awareness for and engagement with your organization’s past, without prescribing where asking questions about your past might take you. It is a framework to help you translate lessons from your past into wisdom you can use to ground your efforts as you face the inequity and exclusion that persists in your organization head-on.

Embracing our Role and Responsibilities

Today, museums and cultural heritage organizations are increasingly embracing their role in raising public awareness for a multi-vocal past where we can all see ourselves represented. Yet, our field tends to frame historic narratives as external rather than examining how they, too, are immersed in them. The work to illuminate undertold and suppressed histories is inextricably entwined to the lives and events shaping our own organizations. Often this connection is crystal clear for those groups and communities to which our organizations have been irrelevant and unresponsive over time.

National legacies, rooted in historic inequities that reverberate through time in the form of policy and practice, always have local dimensions and idiosyncrasies. That micro scale is what we all engage with in our daily lives. This is where exclusion becomes less abstract, more personal, part of our lived experience. To dismantle the most pervasive inequities society-wide, it is going to take ALL local institutions confronting their past. Arts and heritage organization’s must own the fact that we have access to an embedded and localized understanding of how inequity can manifest close to home. In acknowledging this, we take responsibility for our share of the work ahead as community partners—making choices that move us all toward a more equitable future.

  1. Paquet Kinsley, R. & Wittman, A. (2016). “Bringing Self-Examination to the Center of Social Justice Work in Museums.” Museum Magazine (Jan/Feb 2016). http://ww2.aam-us.org/docs/default-source/resource-library/bringing-self-examination-to-the-center-of-social-justice-work-in-museums.pdf?sfvrsn=0
  2. trivedi, nikhil. (2015) “Oppression: A Museum Primer.” The Incluseum Blog. https://incluseum.com/2015/02/04/oppression-a-museum-primer/
  3. Bevir, Mark. (2008) “What is Genealogy” Journal of the Philosophy of History. https://escholarship.org/content/qt4046g0fp/qt4046g0fp.pdf?t=lnq5di

More Resources

  • A summary of “Step 1: Getting Started,” is now free to download here.
  • An “Introduction to Institutional Genealogy” slide deck is free to download here.
  • If Institutional Genealogy is something your organization wants to collaborate on, get in touch.

Acknowledgements

The Institutional Genealogy framework was introduced in December 2020. Since then, over 200 cultural heritage and museum professionals have participated in a presentation, workshop or coaching session about how to apply the framework at their home organizations.

Recent opportunities to engage with the Institutional Genealogy framework have been developed in partnership with:

Special thanks to Rose Paquet, Amy Batiste, Radiah Harper, Gretchen Jennings, as well as those who have participated in the recent Institutional Genealogy programs for sharing their expertise and thoughtful feedback on this framework as it has continued to evolve.


Aletheia Wittman (she/her) is an independent consultant who works with arts and cultural heritage organizations. She co founded The Incluseum in 2012 and currently acts as co-director. Wittman previously worked at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture in Seattle, WA from 2017-2020 and from 2012-2016 she managed exhibits as well as youth and family programming for the Seattle Architecture Foundation (SAF). Aletheia holds an MA Museology from the University of Washington where she researched emerging curatorial practice in art museums and how those practices engage with social justice issues. You can follow her on twitter @aletheiajane or find out more about her current and past work on her website (link here).

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