Museums and the Ally Position

On May 31, 2017, a noose was found in the National Museum of African American for History and Culture. Previously, another similar device was found in a tree outside the Hirshhorn.

Both institutions are part of the Smithsonian, our national museum system whose collections are part of our national holdings. These institutions collect and preserve our collective history and project our best future. They are the place of so many field trips and family moments. Millions of visitors, both Americans and our guests, walk through their halls to be educated, entertained, rejuvenated, and regaled. Everyday, these institutions share the best of our nation for anyone who wants to enter their hallowed halls.

The placement of these implements of death feels like an attack on the best of this nation, on our collective intellectual culture. For museum professionals, it feels like an attack, as if the fear-mongering of the real world has impinged upon our sacred ground.  Yet, remember, museums are not just hallowed halls, immune to history. Museums are not neutral. Museums are spaces in which choices are made. Objects are nominated as important; certain stories are left aside in lieu of others. Acts like this serve to remind us that when museums challenge the status quo, it makes people uncomfortable. It makes some people angry.

How should we respond to this anger? First, and foremost, by remembering, that for some people this attack is much more than an attack on their field/ work. The noose is a symbol of oppression in our society, certainly. But, for African-Americans, it is not solely a symbol. The noose is their lived history. People alive today remember lynchings, very well. This is not ancient history. For black museum professionals walking into work today, this is more than theory. Someone chose to make a threat at a museum; it does not feel empty. So, first and foremost, we as a field need to respond to this anger by allowing our African-American colleagues to react. We need to be okay with their anger, with their sadness, with their emotions. Let their feelings be the center of this conversation. As allies, that should be our first, and most important step.  Amplify their voices.

Then, continue to do hard work. I often think museum challenges to the status quo are so subtle, non-museum people are completely unaware of our glacial movements towards relevancy. Acts like this give me hope that the field is challenging the status quo in appreciable ways. Of course, these heinous acts also signal the huge challenges that face museums and society in general in the fight towards an empathetic and equitable society.

So, today, as you talk about this, or think about this, keep up the fight, but just remember this fight is more than academic for some of among us. The noose is a tool of death, a reminder than for some in our society, life can be stolen on the altar of hate.



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