I am taking a break today from my ongoing exploration of field trips to explore a currently pressing issue. I will return to the subject of schools and museums on Thursday.
Over the past ten days, I have been part of discussions – largely taking place on social media, which is worth contemplating in a separate post – asking the question, “How should museums respond to the grand jury verdicts related to the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner?” These discussions have led me to a more basic question: Should museums respond to events such as these? By “events such as these” I mean moments of political crisis, not natural crisis. These moments are caused and defined by injustice. They are different from a natural disaster, such as an earthquake or a hurricane, in which there are no sides to take, only collective grieving.
The impetus to respond to political crisis is both personal and institutional. On a personal level, many of us want to respond, want to challenge our feelings of helplessness and anger. We want to do something to help. We want to be part of making the world a better place, we want to fight injustice.
On an institutional level, we want our museums to be relevant. At moments of crisis, it feels like “relevance” is synonymous with being involved in that crisis in some way, with helping to soothe and heal. If museums ignore such a crisis, does that make them irrelevant?
There are two ways in which museums might respond to a moment of political crisis. The first is to take a stand, to fight for what we believe is right. The second is to create a space for dialogue. These two responses are antithetical to each other: An institution cannot simultaneously position itself politically and be a space that welcomes all perspectives. But the responses require similar conditions. Both responses require a museum to have laid the groundwork of considering how their collection and exhibitions relate to important contemporary social issues. And both responses require that museums be equipped to facilitate discussions that may be far outside our expertise.
Laying the Groundwork
If you want to dismantle racism and shift the power of your racial privilege then understanding your positionality and how your identity impacts your personal life, teaching practice and values has to happen.
-Keonna Hendrick, Facebook, December 4, 2014
On Saturday, I attended a workshop on “Critical Cultural Competency and Anti-Racism.” The workshop had been scheduled prior to the grand jury verdicts. It was hosted by a local Episcopal Church, as part of a larger initiative of the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago, working in partnership with the workshop leaders, an organization called Crossroads. The Diocese has clearly made a commitment to addressing issues of race, as evidenced by its ongoing relationship with Crossroads. The workshop was introduced with a videotaped welcome from the Bishop of Chicago contextualizing the workshop in the larger mission of the church. And on the website of the Diocese of Chicago, anti-racism is the first item under the menu-bar item “Building the Church.” (Please note, I am not Episcopal, and do not intend to promote the Episcopal Church, although I was very impressed by their work on anti-racism.)
The call for museums to respond to Ferguson and Staten Island is not, to my understanding, being led by leadership in museums. Scrolling through the twitter feeds of the American Alliance of Museums and the Association of Art Museum Directors, there is not one reference to these events, nor one call to action. The Crossroads anti-racism workshop called on participants to step back and take a distanced perspective on society, including its power structures and “framework of dominance.” To look deeply and meaningfully at racism, we need to critically examine our own institutions. Most museums are largely staffed by white people. They often evidence a difference in the color of administrative and support staff. They are run by boards made up of the “One Percent”. Until we can make change in our own institutions, any effort to address issues such as the Ferguson grand jury verdict will be artificial, and will be perceived as such. These efforts could weaken instead of strengthen our claim to relevance.
Along with critically examining our own institutions, museums must take time in moments not fraught with crisis to understand how our work relates to contemporary issues of importance. Science centers must think about the demographics of scientists and engineers, and how they can play a role in diversifying these fields. Historic houses must look at the lives not only of the residents of the house, but of those who made this life possible. Who built the house? Who were the servants? How were these people treated?
This is hard work. How does The Frick Collection spin connections between its phenomenal art collection, and the elegant palace of Henry Clay Frick, and the lives of most of its visitors? How does the Art Institute of Chicago articulate connections in a way that is visible to visitors, and to the public of Chicago?
Museums are clearly positioned to get people together and talking. And when it comes to issues that resonate on a social level (people-to-people, not people-to-nature [like Hurricane Sandy], for example), how can we simultaneously encourage open discussion and risk-taking among ourselves and with museum visitors while also remaining sensitive to cultures we don’t know and experiences we don’t have in common? That’s what makes this different from Hurricane Sandy. Ultimately, with all salient events (Ferguson, Hurricane Sandy, 9/11, etc.), there’s a responsibility that comes with opening up these kinds of conversations–are we as museum educators trained and equipped to navigate these conversations effectively?
-Ashley Mask, Facebook, December 5, 2014
Even in museums that have made an institutional commitment to connect collections and institutions to contemporary life, staff may not be trained to lead programs that relate to hot-button social issues. Over the past decade or two, the Brooklyn Museum has established its commitment to African American artists, displaying a Kehinde Wiley painting in the entrance hall and featuring retrospectives of artists such as Jean Basquiat and Mickalene Thomas. According to its website, the Museum currently features the installation Revolution! Works from the Black Arts Movement. This installation of recent acquisitions features art from a movement that, according to the Museum’s website, “sprung up in the U.S. as the cultural expression of Black Power politics. Its leadership, which included poets, playwrights, musicians, and fine artists, rejected the dominance of the largely white mainstream art establishments that undervalued their work as black artists and created a radical alternative artistic movement based on social and political ideologies rather than narrow aesthetic dictates.”
With an exhibition such as this one on view, visitors may start the conversation. I think it would be difficult to look at a painting of Angela Davis this week and not think about Michael Brown and Eric Garner. A tour in which visitors spontaneously started to talk about Brown and Garner would be an example of a museum providing a safe space for discussion.
But when that conversation is initiated, the educator (or other front line staff member) needs strategies for responding. Crossroads’ staff training and careful curriculum development were evident in their staff preparedness and structure (all workshops are taught by a pair, one of whom is white and the other, a person of color), careful scaffolding of ideas, and handouts. The Brooklyn Museum has an excellent education department, and tours are lead by staff and paid interns who go through extensive training. But to my knowledge that training does not include strategies for facilitating politically loaded conversations about current events, or ongoing lectures about current events. How do we facilitate a conversation that may include opposing, and heated, perspectives? How do we maintain a safe space while allowing people to disagree? How do we correct misunderstandings and faulty assumptions that emerge in conversation? How do we guide these conversations to help people better understand each other and the world we live in? This is no small feat, and one that few of our front line staff are trained for.
Most museums do not have the capacity for mediating moments of social crisis. In order to build this capacity, museums would be well-served to look inward, and to understand their own missions, cultures, and systems of power. Museums that decide they must address categories of political and social events would then need to commit resources to meaningful, ongoing staff training. Only then will we be prepared to respond when the next political crisis occurs.
Earlier in this post I asked, if museums ignore such a crisis, does that make them irrelevant? Is it imperative that every museum begin the work of institutional assessment and capacity building? When I began thinking about this issue, my answer was no. There are lovely museums, museums that I would eagerly visit, which do not seem to care at all about the contemporary world. But as I further ponder this issue, my answer has changed. Museums do not have to be relevant. Like lovely jewels, they can be wonderful places to visit, full of beautiful objects. They can be interesting, and informative. But if a museum wants to be relevant, than it does indeed need to situate itself in the contemporary world, and create a space that not only allows but inspires difficult and interesting conversations with visitors.
Thanks to Monica Marino of the Metropolitan Museum of Art for starting a rare, truly useful conversation on Facebook. And look for an upcoming post from blogger Gretchen Jennings on this topic.