What Many “Diversity in Museums” Articles Ignore: Structural Racism

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On the porch with my copy of the “State of Black Museums,” August 2018 issue of The Public Historian, the journal of the National Council of Public History

The current trend in journalism and certain museum circles to put forward the idea that the dearth of racial diversity in curatorial roles in U.S. “museums” stems from a lack of qualified candidates ignores the fact that culturally-specific museums have long histories of training, hiring, and exhibiting art and culture of Black people and other people of color. The constant erasure of their work is purposeful. It obscures the entrenchment of structural racism in so-called “mainstream” museums.

To create equitable centers, it’s essential to know the histories of museums across sectors and to study how racism and anti-racism measures have operated in this country. The August 2018 issue of The Public Historian, the journal of the National Council of Public History, is another important resource for grasping a deeper understanding of the state of the museum field. Knowledge is power. Huge thanks to the organizers of the Association of African American Museums conference, #AAAM2018, for this gift to conference attendees.

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Student dancers and musicians greet AAM2018 conference attendees as we arrive at Hampton University Museum to honor its 150 years of cultural leadership. August 10, 2018, Hampton, Virginia.

As we recognized the 40th anniversary of the Association of African American Museums organization at this year’s conference, we also celebrated the 150th anniversity of Hampton University Museum. Black museums have been around for a long time! Their origins relate to this nation’s disenfranchisement of people of African descent. These centers should be models for leaders of traditionally white museums who include increasing diversity of staff and visitors as institutional goals. A reframing that acknowledges structural racism might lead to tackling systemic issues.

The August 2018 issue “State of Black Museums” is available online for free for a limited time.
I’ll add it to my Social Justice & Museums Resource List.  We need a record of the record.

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August 13, 2018 at 2:55 pm Leave a comment

Working through Oppression: Language as a Tool

 

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Vintage postcard features formerly enslaved woman standing at the New Orleans site where enslavers sold her. (Collection of author.)

Slaves. Fugitives. Runaways. Slave mistress.
Masters. Slave owners. Slave holders. Slave traders. Overseers. Plantations …

 

Our books, learning, teaching and imagination are steeped in limited frameworks. These terms reinforce the culture of dehumanization. Yet they often remain central and unchallenged forces in our lexicon.

Recently I followed a scholarly discussion via Twitter that highlights the trouble of this convention. Several historians reflected on their processes for finding words that better contextualize the truth of slavery. They also mentioned resistance they’ve encountered from editors who find their alternate expressions cumbersome.

On several occasions I’ve experienced opposition when I didn’t generalize oppression. The intransgience of some academics, museum professionals, and publishers can trip up, or even repel, those who are just entering these fields.  It is disheartening. However, it is not surprising. Ideologies of white supremacy and colonialism are foundational in these domains. Fortunately, some scholars, curators, educators, artists, students, designers, and others continue pushing at oppressive frameworks. We need to know who they are, how they work, and what they’ve created. We need to imagine what can we build together.

I’ve archived my favorite moments from the online discussion on Wakelet – The Afterlife of Slavery: Language & Ethics.”

 

 

 

July 19, 2018 at 10:11 pm Leave a comment

Your neutral is not our neutral

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“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” – Desmond Tutu

My blog post about the myth of neutrality in libraries, archives and museums. This post is from a First Nationsperspective

I had a discussion with someone once about if memory institutions, like museums, libraries and archives, should modify past classification and description of First Nations material that use antiquated and potentially offensive terminology, they said we could not because that would be whitewashing history and we need to remain objective and just present the facts. While part of me partially agrees, my retort was memory institutions have predominantly presented a colonial history as fact and have excluded the voices of marginalised people and by…

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February 23, 2018 at 7:10 pm Leave a comment

Taking Back Our Museums: #MuseumsAreNotNeutral Continues

img_20171108_210536_1581637098134.jpgThe Good News:
Thanks to hundreds of supporters we raised  $5669.79 for the Southern Poverty Law Center!

Today Mike Murawski and I relaunched our #MuseumsAreNotNeutral campaign to keep the dialogue going as we challenge the myth of museum neutrality. Letting everyone know that museums are shaped by and participate in sociopolitical arenas is the first of many steps to making our museums equity-centered institutions.

Now we are offering a few more colors and the proceeds will support Unidos Por Puerto Rico, United for Puerto Rico, an initiative providing assistance to those in Puerto Rico affected by the passage of Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria.
If you can, please purchase a shirt and share your pics with our hashtag #MuseumsAreNotNeutral.
https://www.bonfire.com/museums-are-not-neutral/ 

Related posts:

Changing the Things I Cannot Accept: Museums Are Not Neutral, by La Tanya S. Autry, Artstuffmatters blog, October 15, 2017

Museums Are Not Neutral: Wear It Across Your Heart, by La Tanya S. Autry Artstuffmatters blog,  August 31, 2017

“Museums Are Not Neutral” by Mike Murawski, Art Museum Teaching blog, August 31, 2017

“The Idea of Museum Neutrality: Where Did It Come From,” by Gretchen Jennings, Museum Commons blog, June 26, 2017

What is Curatorial Activism,” by Maura Reilly, Art News, 11/7/2017

 

November 9, 2017 at 3:36 am Leave a comment

Changing the Things I Cannot Accept: Museums Are Not Neutral


“I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept.” – Angela Davis

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Over the past 10 years I’ve worked in various positions at different art museums. For years, often I’ve been not only the only African-American person, but the only person of color, at institutional meetings. Yes, I meant that – years. Many times when I proposed programming centered on issues of racial inequality, white co-workers told me that the museum had to maintain a neutral stance or that my ideas sounded “political.” So they pushed aside my proposals. Each time I encountered that attitude, it was an attack on my body, my presence, my mind.

I have always known that museums are not neutral. They have never have been neutral. I would hope that our colleagues know that museums originate from colonialist endeavors. They are about power. As I have shared on social media networks, if anyone comes as me with that neutrality mess, I will take them down. I have had it with that narrow-minded perspective that ignores history and enables museums to operate as racist, sexist, and classist spaces.

A couple of months ago Mike Murawski and I started discussing this neutrality defense on Twitter. At some point he tweeted “museums are not neutral.” I answered, “that should be on t-shirt.” Not long after that exchange Mike wrote me and said let’s do just that. I’m so glad he did. Along with the hundreds of people who have supported our project, we’ve sparked critical discussion with our colleagues in museums, academic institutions, and broader publics. Also, we have raised over $5,000 for the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization that has lead social justice initiatives for decades.

I’m proud to do this work with all of you who center justice.

[A few days ago, thanks to my friend Mike Murawski, I shared a version of this statement with colleagues attending the Museums as a Site of Social Action, #MassActionMIA, gathering in Minneapolis.]

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If you would like to join us in making a statement against the myth of museum neutrality, please consider purchasing one of our Museums Are Not Neutral t-shirts. Proceeds support the Southern Poverty Law Center. https://www.bonfire.com/museums-are-not-neutral/ 

 

 

 

 

October 15, 2017 at 4:54 pm 6 comments

Museums Are Not Neutral: Wear It Across Your Heart 

My friend Mike Murawski, Director of Education & Public Programs at the Portland Art Museum, and I have launched our “Museums Are Not Neutral” initiative. We would love to see more of our institutions engaging their communities in a deeper manner about social and political issues. Some museum professionals claim that museums must be neutral spaces. We oppose that attitude and decided to put our position on a t-shirt – Museums Are Not Neutral.

I hope you agree that museums should be active forces for social justice. Please consider purchasing one of the shirts before the campaign ends on September 20, 2017. The shirts, which are available in two colors and a range of sizes, sell for $19.99. Proceeds will go to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

August 31, 2017 at 11:19 pm 3 comments

Reflecting on My Time at Yale: The “Museums and Social Justice Reading Group”

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from the series The Gates of Yale, 2014, La Tanya S. Autry

Last summer I co-founded the Museums and Social Justice Reading Group with two colleagues from Yale University Art Gallery.  We held a few gatherings off-site at local eateries and grappled with some difficult topics such as concepts of empathy, the possible roles of empathy in art museums, and how social justice might apply to art museum spaces.
While I had started my Social Justice & Museums Guide, open listing of resources, months before our group formed, I realized that it could serve as our un-official syllabus. (Museum professionals from areas across the U.S. have contributed suggestions to the list.) When I mentioned the reading group on Twitter, several colleagues expressed interest in joining via a digital platform. I liked the idea; but I decided to hold off on extending our project because we were in the initial stages.
Unfortunately, we didn’t have many gatherings because life happened. Our busy schedules dampened our energies. Even so I continue to mull over several of the discussion points we engaged. Down the road I plan to return to this initiative.

Recently I did send one last note to my fellow Museums and Social Justice Group members to serve as a farewell to that iteration of our endeavor and an invitation to continue what we started in other ways.
Below I’ve shared an adapted excerpt of that message as it spotlights significant calls for authentic commitments to critical reflection and social justice in our museums. These efforts deserve serious attention from curators, artists, educators, and others who care about the arts and humanities.
This letter also highlights the next steps of my career journey.

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While I have enjoyed curating my recent exhibition Let Us March On: Lee Friedlander and the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom, it has meant that my schedule has been jammed pack. Regretfully that stymied my ability to continue co-organizing our Museums and Social Justice Reading Group.
Now I’m just about to complete my fellowship at Yale- Friday, July 14th is my last day. I’ve learned a great deal during my time at here and will miss many people. As a parting gift, I would like to share a few more articles with you.

In February, the Davis Museum’s decided to remove art made by immigrants as response to Trump’s Muslim ban.
Later in May, in concert with NEMA, Margaret Middleton, a museum professional based in Providence, RI, organized a panel to discuss the museum’s project. Pampi, one of the co-panelists, wrote a rich reflection about the gathering.

Below please find links to essays by Pampi and Annie Wang, a Wellesley alum who critiqued the museum’s gesture much earlier. I feel that both authors did a good job at highlighting the Davis Museum’s lack of self-criticality.

Back in February, many art publications mentioned the museum’s decision. But I didn’t see any articles that put the lens on the inherent problems that many art museums would engage by pointing the finger at others about exclusionary practices. Moreover, most art writers failed to discuss how a ban against a particular ethnic group is different than one against all immigrants.

Pampi and Wang challenge all who both care about museums and support social justice to think deeply about how we can institute self-reflection and self-critique in our museums while negotiating the slippery terrain endemic to the colonialist origins of museums, trendiness of institutional inclusion rhetoric despite prevalent current practices and longstanding histories of exclusion in our museums, and the stated desire to be relevant in contemporary society. Tall order!

Critique of Davis Museum’s decision to remove art by immigrants

Mainstream press about Davis Museum’s decision to remove art by immigrants

More reading
The table of contents of the current issue of The Journal of Museum Education, Volume 42, No. 2, Summer 2017, “Identifying and Transforming Racism in Museum Education” looks fantastic. I haven’t gotten my hands on the journal yet. But I am eager to read the articles. 

Next month I will begin my new joint position as Curator of Art and Civil Rights at Mississippi Museum of Art and Tougaloo College. I plan to infuse my curatorial and teaching work with studies of the relationship of social justice to museums.  While I question the possibilities of change within existing frameworks at most art museums in the U.S., I continue to envision a future where more of our art centers are grounded in anti-racist and equitable labor practices. It’s going to require much more critical praxis to make enduring intersectional, structural changes.

Thank you for taking part in my initial efforts in this area during my time at Yale. I look forward to more conversations. If you are also committed to this work, please do keep in touch. You can also find me on several social media platforms under the digital handle Artstuffmatters.

Onwards!

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July 14, 2017 at 7:43 pm Leave a comment

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