12 Dec



The recent series of events, from Ferguson to Cleveland and New York, have created a watershed moment. Things must change. New laws and policies may help, but any movement toward greater cultural and racial understanding and communication must be supported by our country’s cultural and educational infrastructure. Museums are a part of this educational and cultural network. What should be our role(s)?

Schools and other arts organizations are rising to the challenge.University law schools are hosting seminars on Ferguson. Colleges are addressing greater cultural and racial understanding in various courses. National education organizations and individual teachers are developing relevant curriculum resources, including the#FergusonSyllabus project initiated by Dr. Marcia Chatelain. Artists and arts organizations are contributing their spaces and their creative energies. And pop culture icons, from basketball players torock stars, are making highly visible commentary with their clothes and voices.

Where do museums fit in? Some might say that only museums with specific African American collections have a role, or perhaps only museums situated in the communities where these events have occurred. As mediators of culture, all museums should commit to identifying how to connect to relevant contemporary issues irrespective of collection, focus, or mission.

We are a community of museum bloggers who write from a variety of perspectives and museum disciplines.  Yet our posts contain similar phrases such as  “21st century museums,” “changing museum paradigms,” “inclusiveness,” “co-curation,” “participatory” and “the museum as forum.”  We believe that strong connections should exist between museums and their communities. Forging those connections means listening and responding to those we serve and those we wish to serve.

There is hardly a community in the U.S. that is untouched by the reverberations emanating from Ferguson and its aftermath. Therefore we believe that museums everywhere should get involved. What should be our role — as institutions that claim to conduct their activities for the public benefit — in the face of ongoing struggles for greater social justice both at the local and national level?

We urge museums to consider these questions by first looking within. Are staff members talking about Ferguson and the deeper issues it raises? How do they relate to the mission and audience of your museum?  Do you have volunteers? What are they thinking and saying? How can the museum help volunteers and partners address their own questions about race, violence, and community?

We urge museums to look to their communities. Are there civic organizations in your area that are hosting conversations? Could you offer your auditorium as a meeting place? Could your director or other senior staff join local initiatives on this topic? If your museum has not until now been involved in community discussions, you may be met at first with suspicion as to your intentions. But now is a great time to start being involved.

Join with your community in addressing these issues. Museums may offer a unique range of resources and support to civic groups that are hoping to organize workshops or public conversations. Museums may want to use this moment not only to “respond” but also to “invest”in conversations and partnerships that call out inequity and racism and commit to positive change.

We invite you to join us in amplifying this statement. As of now, only the Association of African American Museums has issued a formal statement (show link) about the larger issues related to Ferguson, Cleveland, and Staten Island. We believe that the silence of other museum organizations sends a message that these issues are the concern only of African Americans and African American museums. We know that this is not the case. This is a concern of all Americans. We are seeing in a variety of media – blogs, public statements, and conversations on Twitter and Facebook — that colleagues of all racial and ethnic backgrounds are concerned and are seeking guidance and dialogue in understanding the role of museums regarding these troubling events. We hope that organizations such as the American Alliance of Museums; the Association of Science-Technology Centers; the Association of Children’s Museums; theAmerican Association for State and Local History and others, will join us in acknowledging the connections between our institutions and the social justice issues highlighted by Ferguson and related events.

You can join us by…

  • Posting and sharing this statement on your organization’s website or social media
  • Contributing to and following the Twitter tag #museumsrespondtoFerguson which is growing daily
  • Checking out ArtMuseumTeaching which has a regularly updated resource, Teaching #Ferguson: Connecting with Resources
  • Sharing additional resources in the comments
  • Asking your professional organization to respond
  • Checking out the programs at The Missouri History Museum. It has held programs related to Ferguson since August and is planning more for 2015.
  • Look at the website for International Coalition of Sites of Conscience. They are developing information on how to conduct community conversations on race.
01 Dec

MCN 2014: Performative Participation and Diversity

This the last of my wrap-up posts on MCN. I also storified my notes, so they don’t complete disappear into the ether of my Twitter feed.

Race, culture, and socio-economic class also loomed large for me at #MCN2014. Certainly, the wonderful Ignite helped move me towards that conversation. But, given my own professional labors in community engagement, outreach, and action, I was particularly receptive to these conversations. In the days before the Ferguson grand jury was announced, perhaps race was foremost in our consciousness. But, for me, the issue has been ever present. Museums receive funds from organizations that are eager to “impact the diversity of audiences.” Diversity is just one such coded term. (Community is another common one.) This phrase is a sort of catch phrase for something very specific. The actual meaning of diversity could be said to be a mix. An alien newly arrived at Earth might rationally state that diversity could include a mix of ages, genders, socio-economic classes, and races. But, diversity in the museum context is more often a coded term for something specific. In many regions, this means African-American; in some, Latino. Generally, museums are attempting to bring in the poorest denizens of their region.

The challenge is that the impetus for such initiatives is altruistic. Certainly, there are major implied barriers in museums. Breaking these barriers is incredibly challenging. They are invisible to most average visitors and staff members. They are felt by those who not feel welcome for their background, education-level, race, ethnicity. While invisible, they are very real. Diversity initiatives, in their best forms, are about finding useful ways to create chinks in these barriers. Museums have certainly been guilty of paternalistically planning the best programs for an intended group. But, now, museums have started to do much better. Ideally, these initiatives are done in a shared manner, working with those in the target group.

Yet, we still find ourselves carefully employing works like diversity and community, knowing full well that we have much more discrete meanings. As a field, we do need to have more honest terminology about race and ethnicity, power and authority. Now, given the state of race in America, museums are not alone in our inability to discuss race and class honestly. But, rather than trying to be just as good as the rest of the messed up conversations, museums have an opportunity to do better. We are not schools. We are not politicians or government officials, mostly. We are in a limnal space. We have dinosaurs and sculptures and butterflies and beautiful paintings. We have the best of human innovation and the most magnificent aspects of the natural world in our halls. We house the universals of existence. In other words, we are universal, and so in the unique position to move the conversations about race and power forward. We can push past banal, tentative discussions about diversity and community and into a phase where we can honestly deal with race.

01 Dec

MCN Recap 2014: Open Authority/ Shared Access

Open-authority, shared-authority, open-access, shared-access was another theme that seeped through many of the conversations at #MCN2014. People all over are now finding/ demanding transparency of organizations and even governments. If ISIS has annual reports about their reports, then shouldn’t museums? But, in what ways can museums open up access while at the same time maintaining their core competency, collections interpreted in reputable ways.

Yet, what is the term for allowing other others into our community of practice? In my mind, open access is the most reasonable term. Sharing is hard; my daughters, and their dolls, can attest to that. Sharing has the baggage of loss associated with it, mostly loss of power. The fear for many museums is that shared production of content would result in a devaluation of the core brand. Yet, many of our collections could actually profit from citizen interpreters. Think of how you might remember an amazing story about the museum coin fountain in your childhood museum, like when your friend waited until the guard’s back was turned to stand upon in. Or, more seriously, if objects of your faith are housed within a museum collection, your perspective might truly transform the way that the institution understands that collection.

Open access is a term that implies transparency, which in its own way might feel frighteningly honest. But, openness doesn’t mean losing ground or power. From the point of an institution, open access might be the least frightening. It is about bringing your arcane knowledge into the open, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that you lose all your power. You are offering something but not everything.