Should museums respond to the grand jury verdicts in Ferguson and New York City?

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?

Photograph posted on twitter by Motor City Muckraker and reposted by The Wright Museum.

Photograph of protesters responding to Eric Garner’s death, posted on twitter by Motor City Muckraker and reposted by The Wright Museum.

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?

Building Expertise

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.”

Wadsworth A. Jarrell, Revolutionary (Angela Davis), 1971, on view in the current exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. Photo from and labeled for reuse according to Google.

Wadsworth A. Jarrell, Revolutionary (Angela Davis), 1971, on view in the current exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. Photo from and labeled for reuse according to Google.

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. 

11 thoughts on “Should museums respond to the grand jury verdicts in Ferguson and New York City?

  1. It may be bad form to share a comment from my mother on this website, but I found her response of interest, and it’s always useful to hear from people beyond the museum walls.

    “For what it is worth — hearing from an older generation — I prefer my museums to be silent about current events. I don’t really care what museum curators think about racism and justice, about Ferguson and Staten Island, or what have you. The exception is if a museum wants to mount an exhibit that is in itself part of that dialogue: about race or women etc. But by in large I am not convinced that everything has to have a one-to-one relevance. Does Bach? I grew up thinking of Wagner as forbidden, but I actually like his operas. What qualifications does a curator bring to the question of race and legal justice? Why does a Ph.D. in art history or a degree in museum education give the museum spokesperson any credentials in this area?

    “So I’d say, no museums, leave it alone. We don’t all have to participate in every crisis at every moment. Perhaps museums need to think about larger or more distant issues — which demand a perspective that is hard to find at the moment something has occurred. We live in such an information-filled, noisy world. I love museums as spaces where I can be alone to think about what is in front of me — in quiet and solitude.”

  2. I would set aside the question of whether museum should or should not get involved and deal with these pertinent and painful issues (concerning injustice). I think rather that the question might be: ‘What are the consequences for either action?’. Part of the museum’s Renaissance origins mark it out as a space of removal from the world, a place of scholarly contemplation. This aspect is still very much part of the museum’s character. However, it was also committed, as an Enlightenment institution, to the cause of universal education. What could be more crucial to educate ourselves on besides the issues of dominance and power exercised along the valences or ethnicity?

    The short of this is that if an institution decides to ignore events like Ferguson and Eric Garner’s death at the hands of police, then it will not be relevant to those conversations we want to have on injustice. Other museums will provide the spaces for this, and will carry on the dialogue well or not, but will be the places we go to when crisis comes. The Frick will still be there, but just won’t be the place where we gather to hold hands and sit vigil for bodies that are victimized by our own systems of justice. Truth is, I enjoy both types (keeping in mind this is a very rough distinction and not all museums, or even most, fall into this easy opposition) and we need to recognize the need for spaces of engagement and spaces for disentangling ourselves from the sticky politics of daily life.

  3. This question seems to function like a Rorschach test: projective towards what we personally believe a museum stands in society.

    If I were to believe that a museum should be separate and apart from society, or a site of reflection and contemplation as an escape from political turmoil (or natural crises, for that matter) – I am probably not bothered by the silence. I probably like my museum spaces quiet and silent.

    If I were to believe that museums are being tapped both implicitly and explicitly to fulfill the gap where other institutions have fallen short, I probably am outraged by the silence. And more to the point, outraged by what kinds of other dialogues have derailed this discussion.

    To believe that those issues from the inside guts of museums stand apart from the issues on the outside of society is to have one’s head in the sand about race and change in 2014.

    One larger problem with this argument is that this also asserts that the wake of the Ferguson and Staten Island decisions are akin to just “any crisis” at a given moment. Waves of protest galvanized by real action to dismantle dominant discourses under the #blacklivesmatter (for instance, Teaching #BlackLivesMatter: Countering the Pedagogies of Anti-Black Racism) are addressing ways for others to become involved, and the silence coming from the museum field suddenly seems deafening. As Herz points out, “the call for museums to respond to Ferguson and Staten Island is not…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.” Silence is deafening in this particular crisis. Maybe we need to look harder inward before deciding the limitations of our core capabilities.

    Sad fact is that there probably hasn’t been too many museum programming or current exhibitions or existing collection connections in place for “most” museums to utilize to talk about what has been happening in Ferguson and in sites of protest across the nation now. Perhaps it’s time to ask why some of us, me included, are left scratching our heads at the disconnect.

    So, where to go from here? Well, I would like to take the opportunity for many of the fearless museum programming that either was in place long before these outrageous tragedies happened OR is starting up right now that seem unafraid in addressing race or anti-black racism in their actual programming — and move towards a larger cause of building both awareness and action at this time of civic unrest:
    Looking Back at ‘Black Male’: Thelma Golden, Hilton Als and Huey Copeland
    Friday, December 12, 2014 6:30 PM
    The New School Auditorium, 66 West 12th Street

    Teaching #BlackLivesMatter: Countering the Pedagogies of Anti-Black Racism
    Friday, December 19 10:00-12:00 in the Skylight Conference Room at The Graduate Center, CUNY
    Co-sponsored by Revolutionizing American Studies & the Advanced Research Collaborative
    “An event to address racialization and state power as scholar-teachers, working at the level of both immediately executable plans for teaching/research, and longer term strategies for making the academy accountable to racial violence.”

  4. Thank you, Rosanna, for clarifying this dichotomy, and for asking “where do we go from here?” I have been struck by noticing where there is pre-existing programming that feels current right now – I think the Thelma Golden lecture is probably an example of this? I suspect that this will be the strongest programming, as it stems from a meaningful commitment, rather than taking advantage of a moment of interest.

  5. There are two issues I’d like to address. Whether museums want to imagine themselves as separate spaces, unrelated to issues outside, they are not, have never been, and never will be. That is a kind of ideological fiction that naturalizes what we then call the status quo, from questions of aesthetic taste, to cultural histories and valuations, to how we imagine communities, whether visible or invisible on the wall, in the gallery and outside our doors. With a PhD in art history, my opinion on Ferguson may be of no more or less interest than anothers (though I don’t believe it is something I must renounce to do my job), but depending on what kind of scholar I am and how I see the museum’s role, I might have some insight on how art has both played a role in producing the hierarchies, biases and stereotypes that have been passed down over centuries in various way, many of them connected to visual culture and its interpretation, AND how artists, concerned citizens, and critics have identified and tried to push back these forces taking the visual arts as an important and valued site for discussion, debate and inspiration. I might be able to set up an experience that impacts how and what we “just see before us” and what we take away from the Enlightenment museums’ seeming urgent insistence that we just appreciate aesthetic and ignore the world outside. This need not be the only take-away, and not all work will lend itself to such analysis, but when we ignore opportunities to explore history’s relevance to our current crisis, the silence is deafening.

    And then per your thought that museum’s can either take a position or host a dialogue, but not both, that seems a firmer binary than I believe necessary. I think I can have a personal position and then desire to be in dialogue with those who see things differently. I also thing positions themselves are infrequently binaries in such complex crisis, so you could imagine an institutional position that mistrust and fear between police and communities of color is a significant problem that shouldn’t be swept under the rug, but then seek solutions together that don’t shut out various perspectives.

    • You raise a wonderful way to address critical issues in museums. But in order to talk about how artists, critics, and concerned citizens have tried to “push back” you might need to critique museums themselves. Would the museum allow this? To discuss Enlightenment museums’ insistence on the aesthetic is to critique the way some large museums still appear to visitors. How would the Metropolitan Museum of Art feel about this? (Not the staff – I think most of the staff would approve. I mean the Director and the Board of Trustees.)

  6. As you suggest, this thinking is working its way up, and while it may be a while till it is embraced by the Board of the Met, there are a lot of people and spaces interested and open to this self-reflection and critique as part of their work in the field. If audiences begin to encounter even limited instances of this approach, at perhaps smaller institutions like the Queens Museum or in a particular program like MoMa’s Design and Violence blog, they can also take those tools to other institutional settings and will discover on their own how silencing an aesthetics-only approach can be.

  7. Pingback: Museums in the News: Thoughts on #museumsrespondtoFerguson, Museums’ Values, and My Values | Talking About Tough Stuff

  8. if museums want to tackle difficult issues, they should find community partners who have the training and expertise to lead productive discussions and programs. The Missouri History Museum provides opportunities for discussions on a wide range of issues from the Civil War to Ferguson. My staff does not lead these discussions. We partner with organizations like the Anti-Defamation League or the National Confeerence for Community Justice who train facilitators for just such discussions. Museums can’t be expected to have all of the answers, but they should be places where the questions are asked.

  9. Rebecca, your article generated a lot of conversation among museum educators at the Brooklyn Museum. I feel strongly that our everyday practice of “teaching with care” is equally if not more important as a one-time program (the “why isolate black history to February” mode of thinking). That said, we have dedicated our January Teacher Leadership Program (taking place tomorrow) to think/talk/do more about this topic with our teacher community. We are following a shared authority model and look forward to learning as much from our classroom-based colleagues, as we are hoping to offer them in return. For more info about the program, visit:

  10. Pingback: What is an ethical museum? | Museum Questions

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