Personal musings. Views are my own.

Towards an anti-oppression museum manifesto

During a panel about open authority at #MCN2014, I was struck by a question Porchia Moore asked: “why don’t visitors of color participate at the rates of other groups?” This is a question that I’ve pondered myself for some time, and I appreciated her creating space for discussion with other museum professionals.

Firstly, I would like to think about participation in terms broader than race, to ask “why don’t visitors who are targets of various intersecting oppressions participate?” So that we include in the conversation class, gender, sexual orientation, ability, size, immigration status, religion, mental health, and other ways in which power is unevenly distributed between people. But in this article I’ll focus on race specifically in the U.S. for brevity and to speak from my own experience.

Moore defined participation in museums partly by noting that a number of people of color she surveyed hadn’t been to a museum in over five years. Prior to my current position visiting museums wasn’t really on my radar either, which is still true for a number of people of color I’m close to. I’ve worked for almost 10 years at a museum that has a significant number of Hindu murtis on display. My Hindu parents visited my museum for the first time ever this past summer!

One of the big questions that gave me pause when I did walk though galleries and halls was “how did all this stuff get here?” It was clear to me that museums are inextricably linked with histories of colonialism, genocide and slavery, but collections didn’t seem to be presented in ways that honestly spoke to these aspects of the institutions’ histories. Invisibilizing those histories seemed to ignore the historical traumas our communities continue to heal from today, and seemed to privilege the perspectives of those historically powerful enough to separate those struggles from their legacies. That left me with a very deep feeling that museums weren’t talking to me, and therefore were not places I was welcome to.

Another big question I carried with me was “who’s telling these stories?” With an appreciation for scholarship, I understood that there are multiple perspectives on history, and ours are influenced by who has controlled history over time. If those who control the past dominate the present, through whom’s lenses are stories about these collections being told?

Now that I’ve worked at a museum for some time, I have a better understanding of why these histories aren’t included in museums’ narratives. Museums and cultural institutions in the U.S. function in an economic system that requires us to make decisions that will lead to reliable monetary outcomes. And while our collections are primary in all that we do, the capitalist system we operate in creates constraints that make it difficult to be vulnerable. There’s fear that being that open and honest will lead to smaller crowds and less buzz, which could have an economic impact on our institutions’ abilities to keep our doors open.

I understand these complexities, but I believe that in order for museums to have long-term, sustained relationships with a broad spectrum of people in the communities we serve, we must do more. Colonialism, genocide and slavery are traumatic community events we are all still struggling to heal from today, whether we have ancestry with people targeted by these forms of violence, people who perpetuated them, or both. For museums to truly be a forum for visitors of color, and not a temple for those with privilege, we need to do work with our staff, boards, volunteers, vendors and with our communities to have honest conversations about our institutional and collections’ histories.

Furthermore, conversations about race shouldn’t be siloed around certain parts of our collections. Oppression plays a role in the history and acquisition of all the works in our collections, and if we are to grow with our communities we need to move towards a place where we can honestly talk about even the unpleasant aspects of all our histories.

I’m glad I found that I’m not the only or the first person to think about these things. I’d like to connect further with Porchia and find other people in the museum sector thinking and working in this area. If that’s you, or if you know someone I should connect with, please let me know!