The Black Lives Matter Movement captured the world’s attention following the killing of George Floyd by police. “Floyd’s last words “I can’t breathe” became a rallying cry for raising the public's awareness of systemic racism.
This movement has become a pivotal time to address systemic racism, one hundred and eighty years after the civil war to end slavery, America’s primal scene of racial division. Yet, are museums prepared to address racism?
The urgency to address racism is already beginning to take place at a few museums across the country. The American Museum of Natural History took down the racist statue of Theodore Roosevelt, and the director of the National Museum of American History, Anthea M. Hartig, issued a statement in support of the victims of police brutality, while providing historical context for racial violence in America. And recently museum staff members at the Metropolitan Museum and SFMOMA have begun to raise concerns about institutional racism.
The time is right for museums to confront these issues and to do so on an institutional level. But what does that entail? Here is what I recommend:
The Museum's mission statement is a powerful way to demonstrate a commitment to anti-racism because it defines the overall goal of the institution. A vision statement can outline a specific path to addressing racism and what the museum hopes to accomplish over a period of time.
The most significant challenge for museums is to diversify staff by including more black people and people of color in leadership positions across the organization. The composition of the staff reflects the institution’s cultural values. The “culture” of the organization is a code word for race or maintaining a homogeneous organization. It’s hard to foster diversity and inclusion or show a commitment to anti-racism when museums are struggling on a basic institutional level to diversify the workforce. Other strategic decisions should also include the diversification of Museum boards. This is crucial because board members exercise a strong degree of decision-making power and can hold leaders accountable.
In addition to staff and board members, museums must also demonstrate a commitment to diversifying exhibitions and collections that reflect the racial diversity of the community and the country. To effectively achieve this, museums must rethink how exhibitions and collections are installed and develop better relationships with Black artists who are willing to address racism and police brutality. This challenge is clearly reflected in a recent article about Shaun Leonardo whose exhibition on police brutality was canceled without being provided any explanation. In addition, museums should consider installations that deviate from linear progressions by exploring juxtapositions that encourage critical discussions about race and/or integrate interactive content to reflect how race is both present and absent in the ways we represent the world.
Museum language is also a big obstacle to discussing race. Race neutral language that is used to title exhibitions or describe the content of work on display obfuscates and obscures the contributions of Black people in art, history, and culture, thereby perpetuating systems of domination and exclusion. The problem with language is likewise reflected in how museums choose to engage audiences on the web. Content that is featured online is often presented in a top down way which discourages feedback that may reflect varying racial viewpoints. For example, museum blog posts routinely disable comments to avoid public scrutiny.
Most museums do a great job of offering educational programs to engage diverse audiences, but educators must explore ways to engage audiences, so that race is included in the discussion. Educators and docents must be comfortable with addressing conflict and difference in regards to race, and work to improve facilitation skills so that visitors can be engaged in a welcoming, inclusive, and nonthreatening way. It is important to emphasize that discussions about race do not constrain, limit, or deviate from objects on display, but help to expand the normalized discourse that occurs in museums. Otherwise, discussions about art, history, and culture will continue to elide and marginalize black people and people of color as problematic and less significant.
What is evident is that museums prefer to play it safe. This makes it difficult for them to comprehend their role in the perpetuation of institutional racism and/or realizing the importance of getting feedback from racially diverse communities that challenge the homogeneity of a predominately white museum culture.
A lot of work needs to be done if museums aim to embrace a commitment to anti-racism and it will have to begin at the museum leadership level. In my next article, I will address my own experiences in the museum field and what I recommend as a “pedagogy of anti-racism” to make race and racism an integral part of the discussion.
Timothy Brown, Museum Administrator, Educator, Digital Creator, Tech Blogger and Independent Consultant