Following is a short talk that I gave at the Facilitated Conversation About Inclusion and Equity in Conservation and Preservation that took place before the American Institute for Conservation conference in May 2017. Afterwards are some details of the event.
Tonight, I want us to expand our ideas of cultural institutions as places that collect and preserve the history of human ideas and human achievement. I want us to ask ourselves, if we challenge the status quo and we center our work on the people who have survived and still work to heal from these histories today, what are the possibilities? Whose lives that have been erased over time can our work uncover? What can each us do, within the scope of the work we’re already doing? Because at their core, institutions are groups of people working towards shared visions. Those people are us. We are our institutions. And we have the power to change them.
My mom visited my museum for the first time after almost 10 years of me working there, and after 40 years of living in my city. After looking through the South Asian sculptures, seeing Hindu murtis she hadn’t seen since she left India, one of her first questions to me was “so, how did all this stuff get here?” It didn’t take her much time to start thinking about British colonialism, becasure that history is not very old. My mom remembers colonialism. Likewise, people still remember slavery and native genocide. So while the last few years have ben pretty rough, it’s also been a rough few hundred years. Some awful and egregious things have happened to entire populations of people. We’ve been harassed, assaulted, abused, raped, trafficked and murdered en masse. And the residual effects of these traumas are still alive for many people today. Direct lines can be drawn through history to the prison industrial complex, the Dakota access pipeline, gentrification, globalized capitalism, and a number of other modern examples of these patterns playing out in our towns and cities everyday.
The history of human ideas and achievement is inextricably linked with some really awful, traumatic events. Our ability to travel over vast amounts of land, water and sky is entangled with histories of colonialism. Industrialization and many of the achievements in art and science that came with it couldn’t have happened if not for the forced labor of African people. The establishment and growth of our cities would not have been if not for the mass genocide of Native Americans. The word Chicago itself is rooted in indigenous languages, reminding us that we wouldn’t be here today if not for the forced removal of the people who spoke those languages, who inhabited and cared for this land for generations before the arrival of the area’s first settlers, many of whom our streets and parks are named after.
Cultural institutions are places that collect and preserve the history of human ideas and human achievement. What we collect and choose to preserve is limited by the histories we choose to ground our work in. Many of our institutions have benefited from the consolidation of power over time, and it limits what we see, and what we’re willing to say.
Over the course of the next few hours, we want to define a vision for our future, and outline what it will take to get us there. But ultimately, we want each of us in this room to recognize our own significance. To see that we have the power to transform our institutions and, indeed, change the world.
For many years, activists and organizers have been calling for people to do social transformational work within their own communities. This has manifested as white people working with white people to dismantle racism, men working with men to end rape culture, and so forth. Museums have taken to this call, too, as many national museum associations have created space to talk about equity and inclusion within their segments of the museum field. As institutions whose histories are often closely tied with traumatic histories, it’s critical work to the wider vision of transforming society towards a just future that couldn’t happen anywhere else.
In May of 2017, 76 conservators joined this call and gathered prior to the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works’ Annual Meeting for a Facilitated Conversation About Inclusion and Equity in Conservation and Preservation. It was a historical convening, whose purpose was to create a sense of solidarity among colleagues to influence the power dynamics in the conservation field and to begin to develop a shared vision for pursuing a more inclusive and equitable professional practice for the future of conservation. Sanchita Balachandran, a co-organizer is the convening shares: “we wanted to imagine and create a new kind of space that is limitless in response to the kind of oppressive limiting that has been a burden of our world and its history. This act is to say we have power to change, we have power to demand and make change.” From this foundation, we hoped to give attendees an opportunity to think about how to effect change in their professional practices through both short-term and long-term actions.
The conversation was facilitated by nikhil trivedi, a developer at a museum in Chicago and a thought leader on oppression in the museum field, Lisa Marie Pickens, a local consultant who does strategic planning and organizational development for grassroots community organizations in Chicago, and Manju Rajendran, a national organizer who came to us by way of AORTA.
Attendees said they found hope in the conversation. They saw potential for greater community in the conservation field. After our four hours together, folks were overwhelmingly hungry for more time to connect and dig deeper.
The conversation was organized by Sanchita Balachandran, Abigail Choudhury, Lauren Fair, Heather Galloway, Morgan Eva Hayes, and Anna Serotta.