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

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


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.


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.



Entry filed under: Art.

Museums Are Not Neutral: Wear It Across Your Heart 

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