What Should A Museum Look Like In 2020?

Historians in the News
tags: museums, racism, Police, art history, public history, White Supremacy

Black life—our joys and our oppression—has been embedded into American history since the first ship of enslaved Africans arrived in 1619. Now we’re seeing a seismic shift in how individuals, corporations, and institutions are reckoning with our nation’s racism.

On social media, companies use marketing dollars to value signal their “wokeness”; a trend that has made its way into the cultural sphere, with museums sharing the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag alongside works by African American artists. In an ideal world, this show of solidarity would be powerful. But, as a former employee of Creative Time, the Studio Museum in Harlem, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I, like many art workers and visitors, have been underwhelmed. Watching museums like the British Museum and the Met—institutions with historic ties to colonialism—use a slogan rather than admit to their own roles in the “race problem” ignites a desire for a more holistic investigation of museums not only as homes for art and culture, but as entities with both the buying power and the political ties to make a lasting impact on life beyond this uprising.

There is a chasm between institutions issuing newsletters about “standing in solidarity” and those, like the Walker Art Center, that have, for example, stopped contracting their local police force for public events. Historically, museums have used themed exhibitions, acquisitions schemes, or public programs to signal a shift, but otherwise they continue with business as usual. Real shifts must be seen from the sidewalk to the boardroom. There is an urgent and long-standing need for long-term commitments to diverse hiring and executive leadership, divestment from the police, accessibility, and a zero-tolerance policy for racism from staff or visitors.

Of course, none of these demands are new. They’ve been introduced by the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition, the Art Workers Coalition, Women Artists in Revolution, and others since the turn of the century and before. Until changes are made, there is no volume of social media posts or public letters that could undo museums’ willing complicity in white supremacy. Here, a group of art workers share testimonials, observations, and ideas for a path forward.


Workers’ collective

“At AMT we have appreciated most those who have made clear statements of intent and particularly those that have already started to follow them with concrete actions: the Walker Art Center’s immediate divestment from the MPLS P.D.; the Vera List Center’s direct connection of racial justice to labor justice within the structures of cultural organizations. Some museums have been talking about taking this moment to support and lift up those already doing this work, which we applaud but have not seen concrete action on. One way would be to redistribute wealth to museums in the Association of African American Museums, many of which operate on budgets magnitudes smaller than places like MoMA or the Met and, unlike those museums, are under existential threat from COVID-closure revenue losses. The African American Museum in Philadelphia is threatened with the loss of its entire city budget funding at the same time it reasserts its duty as ‘remind[ing] the public of the historical context of police violence against Black people.’

What comes to mind are mostly examples of cultural institutions’ failures to pivot that we wish museums would acknowledge and apologize for. The Metropolitan, for example, and its failure to learn from the intervention of the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition in 1969. MoMA and its failure to learn from the intervention of the Art Workers’ Coalition during the Vietnam War. One positive example that comes to mind in this moment, and we don’t see people referencing, is that of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam during the Second World War. Under Nazi occupation, curator Willem Sandberg joined the Dutch resistance and used Stedelijk offices and equipment to print forged identity papers and plan the resistance operation to bomb a civil-records office used to identify Jewish citizens.”

Read entire article at Vanity Fair

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