Last night I gave an Ignite talk at MCN 2015 in Minneapolis about museums and oppression. An Ignite talk is a 5-minute presentation with 20 slides that advance automatically every 15 seconds. I fit a lot in there, so I thought it might be useful for folks at the conference to refer back to what I said. Below is a video, my slides, and the text from my talk, entitled Towards an Anti-Oppression Museum Manifesto:
Before I begin, I just want to recognize that like most things in this world, this talk wouldn’t have come together if not for the leadership and support of women and gender fluid folks. Rose, Aletheia and Porchia at Incluseum, Suse Cairns, Masum at the Smithsonian, Amita at the Skokie Public Library, Keisa Reynolds, Colleen Dilenschneider and the countless people who participated in the slides you’re about to see. So here we go!
I live two lives. At the Art Institute of Chicago for 10 years I’ve been surrounded by technical innovators, genius developers, smart designers, and a collection of some of the greatest documented creative achievements.
Outside of work, I’m surrounded by innovators of a different sort—grassroots community organizers, queer activists, radical philanthropists, prison abolitionists, rape victim advocates, healers and artists, all who look at the world through an anti-oppression lens.
We fight for a more just world, we work to heal our communities from historic traumatic events that are still alive for many of us today, we work to distribute power more equitably and to make our world safer for those that are the most unsafe.
For the future of museums, these two worlds cannot remain separate. So tonight I want to invite you into my other life. I want to bring what I’ve learned about social justice movements to the work that we do here—producing, managing and developing technologies in museums.
Our spaces are alienating for many of the people I’m close to, and we’re not alone. We see museums as part of a legacy of aggression and power that our institutions have benefited from. In order for this climate to change, museums have to operate within an anti-oppression framework.
As a result, our institutions will change. For example, my friends and family might see themselves in our projects, collections might be presented with a critical analysis of where our objects came from and my communities might be invited to participate in mutually beneficial ways.
But first let’s talk about what an anti-oppression framework is. It’s a tool that came out of second-wave feminism to challenge the ways people are treated and targeted with violence based on our identities—things like race, gender, ability and so on.
This framework examines and addresses everything from our own assumptions to institutional policies. It believes everybody is hurt by oppression, including those in positions of privilege. And it recognizes multiple oppressions operating at the same time, all the time.
For instance, as a man I benefit from male supremacy, and as a person of color I’m dominated by white supremacy. And keep in mind that in this framework, no one is a bad person. The systems that perpetuate oppressions are the problem. No human is the enemy.
This is work that we do with love, compassion and care. So, let’s challenge ourselves this week to think about our current projects through an anti-oppression lens. How can we use what we’re already doing to create anti-oppressive spaces for our visitors?
There’s work like this already happening in our field. The Oakland Museum curates in cooperation with the communities they represent. They have control over program development, and the institution is conscious of their own history as tied to oppression. It’s a fundamental part of their practice.
For us in museum technology, it means thinking about access, but it more fundamentally requires us to interrogate the content we present. We can start by asking questions. I’ll give you a few to think about centered on history, power, and representation.
Whose histories do we value? How can we think about histories that have been systematically erased over time? We can examine dynamics of power to look at the perspectives we present. Whose voices are missing or have been filtered by our institutions’ motivations?
Finally, who gets to be represented by their own, fully empowered choice? Who doesn’t get to give permission for their legacies to be used in our work? And who decides how they’re represented?
As educational institutions, it’s crucial we recognize that the histories we use have been written by those who’ve held power over time. Take a moment to think about the resources that founded your collections and institutions. Are there ways they’ve has benefited from slavery, genocide, colonialism and war?
This is complicated work that requires time, effort and commitment. We have to be vulnerable enough to hear how we oppress others in spite of our intentions. It’s a lot to ask, so don’t do this alone. Find allies here and at your institutions.
I leave you with two calls to action: First, this week let’s think about how we can use our current projects to create anti-oppressive spaces for our visitors. I’m here and I’m available to support you in thinking this through, so please come find me.
Then, after MCN commit to a regular conversation with one other person about how your institution has benefitted from slavery, genocide, colonialism and war. And start with one question: who were the black people who have been lost in your histories?
That’s it, one person, one question. Can you do this? Do this for yourselves and the people you love. Do this because Black lives matter. Because Black lives have always mattered. Because trans lives matter. No more war! End all genocide! End sexual violence! Smash patriarchy!