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How Every Museum Can Respond to Ferguson

By Imagining America | February 16, 2015

greenberg_photoBy Alyssa Greenberg, PAGE 2014-15 Fellow

In December 2014, a cohort of museum bloggers and their colleagues published a joint statement on Ferguson and related events that incited a wave of conversations about the relationship between museums and #blacklivesmatter.  The cohort contended that because Ferguson and its aftermath have impacted virtually all communities across the country, and because museums have a stated commitment to the public, museums should get involved.  Significantly, the cohort urged looking inward as a first step, asking:

Is there equity and diversity in your policy and practice regarding staff, volunteers, and Board members? Are staff members talking about Ferguson and the deeper issues it raises? How do these issues 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?[i]

Although this joint statement only raised these questions briefly, they gesture toward an important and under-discussed issue: museums’ complicity in social inequality.  The response on Twitter, on the airwaves, and in the blogosphere made it clear just how direly the museum community needs further dialogue — and action — on this issue.  Social justice has been a hot topic in museum education in recent years (this year, the theme of the American Alliance of Museums’ annual conference is “The Social Value of Museums: Inspiring Change”) and though it’s widely accepted that museums can and should act as agents of social change, the field has largely failed to interrogate the relationship between a commitment to social justice and internal museum practices.

On social media, the conversation about how museums’ internal conditions impede their capacity as agents of social change is beginning to surface.  In two #museumsrespondtoferguson Twitter chats, museum professionals discussed museums’ public-facing responses to Ferguson (or lack thereof) (see Storify summaries here and here) and the second chat honed in on museums’ internal politics in areas including hiring, leadership, and working environment.  On the Museum Life podcast, cohort members Gretchen Jennings pointed out that until museums transform internally, they will be unable to “really connect with the audiences that they say they want to attract, and specifically people of color” and Adrianne Russell explained that “philosophically, a lot of museums would agree” that social justice is important, “but that internal, organizational work is not being done that reflects that.”  Russell also illustrated that the same social problems in museums’ communities linger unaddressed within museums as well, and this disconnect will remain in place until museums transform internally.[ii]  And here on the Imagining America #PAGE2Ferguson Blog Salon, La Tanya S. Autry declared that her “Art Museum Mission” entails admitting, addressing, and resisting systems of privilege.[iii]  Through powerful calls to action, social-justice-oriented museum professionals have proclaimed the internal transformation of museums as a necessary step to asserting that #blacklivesmatter.

In my own career as a museum professional and museum researcher, I have seen these internal inequalities manifest.  I have seen the pervasiveness of unpaid work in museums, and how most of the unpaid interns I know are white women, often interning under the umbrella of an academic program. Those not fortunate enough to be cushioned by financial support from families often take on student debt in exchange for the dubious privilege of working for free.  (I have been one of these interns, and the numbers suggest that they’re ubiquitous: according to a recent survey of 66 American museums, 86% of museums benefit from the labor of unpaid museum educators.)[iv]  I have seen the dearth of available living-wage museum jobs.  I know many talented museum professionals who are people of color, who have left the field because they could not secure living-wage museum jobs, instead turning to different fields including social science research, food service, and tutoring.  I have seen how museum directors earning six figures and their colleagues who cannot afford their living expenses parallel the dynamics of the 1% and the 99% that spurred the Occupy movement.  And I have seen how the internal culture of museums stifles conversations about wages and working conditions.  The irony of the situation is obvious: as museums publicly proclaim their commitment to inclusivity, they perpetuate the exclusion of people of color and those from low-income backgrounds through their own internal labor practices. (Adrianne Russell’s description of the “‘social justice for some but not all’ conundrum” comes to mind.)[v]

Museum professionals don’t always see that their internal practices perpetuate exclusion, but I hope that this conversation is beginning to make that clear.  Internal museum dynamics are preventing people of color and those from less privileged backgrounds from having a seat at the table in museums.  When museum programming emphasizes inclusion, but museum work is only accessible for the privileged, an all-too-familiar dynamic results: privileged groups write and interpret the history of the marginalized for them, and the museum perpetuates the very exclusivity it claims to be challenging.[vi]

[i] Adrianne Russell et al., “joint statement from museum bloggers & colleagues on ferguson & related events,” Cabinet of Curiosities (blog), December 11, 2014, https://adriannerussell.wordpress.com/2014/12/11/joint-statement-from-museum-bloggers-colleagues-on-ferguson/.

[ii] Carol Bossert with Gretchen Jennings and Adrianne Russell, Following Up on Ferguson, Museum Life (podcast), January 23, 2015, http://www.voiceamerica.com/episode/82947/following-up-on-ferguson.

[iii] La Tanya S. Autry, “My Art Museum Mission,” Imagining America #PAGE2Ferguson Blog Salon, January 26, 2015, http://imaginingamerica.org/blog/2015/01/26/my-art-museum-mission/.

[iv] Rebecca Herz, “To Pay or Not to Pay: A 2013-14 Study of Museum Practice” Museum Questions (blog), December 18, 2014, http://museumquestions.com/2014/12/18/to-pay-or-not-to-pay-a-2013-14-study-of-museum-practice/.

[v] Adrianne Russell, Twitter post, January 21, 2015, 3:31 p.m., https://twitter.com/adriannerussell.

[vi] La Tanya S. Autry, Twitter post, January 21, 2015, 1:22 p.m., https://twitter.com/artstuffmatters.