A Critical Lens on Diversity and Inclusion in Museums: #museumsrespondtoferguson

Over the past year the social media initiative #museumsrespondtoferguson has empowered individuals committed to building equity and expanding civic discourse in the museum field. Participants across a range of experience levels, positions, museum types, and locations connect on Twitter via the hashtag, or searchable keyword, #museumsrespondtoferguson monthly to examine the role of race in collection practices, exhibitions, programming, staffing and board representation, and community involvement. Organizers Aleia Brown and Adrianne Russell developed the project in December 2014 in concert with the rising tides of social protest against police brutality. At this time a group of museum professionals issued the Joint Statement from Museum Bloggers and Colleagues on Ferguson and Related Events. In keeping with the call for action, #museumsrespondtoferguson aims to assist colleagues in all types of museums to create “greater cultural and racial understanding and communication.”[i] Comparable to the Joint Statement, #museumsrespondtoferguson stresses the need for internal discussions and studies of systemic racism within museums.

During the hour-long meetings participants (who include educators, curators, exhibition designers, bloggers, editors, and students) explore privilege, strategies for fostering change, challenges, goals, and achievements. As these discussions urge members to negotiate their personal investment in racism, they can produce uncertainty and discontent. The July 2015 chat’s attention to white privilege underscored this crisis situation.[ii] Before the meeting, organizers asked participants to read John Metta’s essay “I, Racist.”[iii] Instead of presenting several questions over the hour as customary, Brown and Russell asked just one: “Do you get it?” After about twenty minutes people responded. Several participants expressed that they did not understand the author’s position. Others shared that they feared identifying with the racist individuals in the account. For me the question seemed too simple. I identified with the burden of racism that Metta describes. I wondered how we could only address “Do you get it?” for an entire hour. Was that a trick question? Are we going to do a close reading of each section of the essay? Although I questioned the question, I stayed with the group and afterward realized that it opened important doors. The varied responses indicated the differences in our life experiences and understandings of racism.

Despite the current spotlight on systemic racism in the U.S., some museum experts counter that #museumsrespondtoferguson’s charge is inappropriate. In her March 2015 essay “On Morning Coffee & Museum Activism” Elizabeth Merritt, director of the Center for the Future of Museums, American Alliance of Museums likened #museumsrespondtoferguson to Starbucks’ ill-fated “Race Together” campaign that attempted to promote conversations about racial concerns. Merritt argued that museums for the most part should not react to the “headline issue of the day or week or month.”[iv] Additionally, she suggested that certain museums are more suitable for tackling this divisive subject. She did not mention if she has ever participated in the #museumsrespondtoferguson discussions or if she reached out to organizers or other participants. In the comments section, the initiative’s cofounder Adrianne Russell refuted Merritt’s straw man claim by offering her firsthand experience of the group’s efforts. She highlighted #museumrespondtoferguson’s call for museums to investigate their own “internal structures that contribute to anti-blackness and racial inequity”[v] and contended that all museums should employ self-critique. While Merritt’s statements do not indicate serious engagement with the work or objectives of #museumsrespondtoferguson, her essay on AAM’s website may signal that the project has hit a nerve in the supposed “mainstream” museum sphere.

My yearlong association with the chats has convinced me that the dialogic approach of #museumsrespondtoferguson serves as a useful model for museums committed to social justice. Early on I sometimes felt frustrated that our conversations did not emphasize action steps. However, over the months I appreciated the need for basic and regular activities centered on terms, concepts, and listening. This work is complex as it entails ideologies that many people have not investigated deeply even though these forces shape our lives politically, socially, and emotionally. When I consider how diversity and inclusion have been and continue to be problematic areas for most U.S. museums, Aleia Brown’s words resound: “A successful framework for museums dealing w[ith] race relations doesn’t exist. We have to imagine and activate it.”[vi] The #museumsrespondtoferguson initiative marshals and partners with the instrumental work of African American museums, select curators and directors, artists who opposed racism in museums, civil and human rights activists, critical race theorists, historians, and other affiliated online groups such as #MuseumWorkersSpeak, #Blktwitterstorians, and #museblack to outline an approach. This endeavor has inspired me to team up with others who share my interests in issues of race in art museums.[vii] I have developed the Social Justice and Museums Resources List[viii], an open access collaborative Google Document featuring articles, digital projects, discussions, and exhibitions. Also, I am producing a critical race theory toolkit for art museum curators and educators that will showcase generative work occurring within this domain.

~ La Tanya S. Autry, University of Delaware

[i]Joint Statement from Museum Bloggers and Colleagues on Ferguson and Related Events,” The Uncatalogued Museum, blog, December 11, 2014, (accessed January 24, 2016).

[ii] Aleia Brown, #museumsresponftoferguson8, Storify, July 2015 (accessed January 24, 2016).

[iii] John Metta, “I, Racist,” Huffington Post, July 10, 2015 (accessed January 24, 2016).

[iv] Elizabeth Merritt, “On Morning Coffee & Museum Activism,” Center for the Future of Museums, American Alliance of Museums, March 26, 2015, (accessed January 24, 2016).

[v]Adrianne Russell comment, “On Morning Coffee & Museum Activism,” April 7, 2015.

[vi] Aleia Brown, #museumsrespondtoferguson, tweet July 11, 2015, @aleiabrown.

[vii] La Tanya S. Autry, “This Year and Always- Museums and Social Justice,” Artstuffmatters, blog, December 21, 2015 (accessed January 24, 2016).

[viii] La Tanya S. Autry, “Social Justice and Museums Resources List,” online document, initiated July 2015 (accessed January 24, 2016).

Discussion

5 comments
  1. La Tanya, I’m happy to see the seriousness with which you’ve taken up the topic of racism here. Merritt’s remark was glib and inappropriate. Racism is a signal feature of the way our country was founded and has been organized and lived in since then. And I think (hope) it’s a throughline in the conversation we’ll have at NCPH, judging from these posts. Though I personally think that every museum should view this as an issue it needs to address, I think, at a minimum, racism is a mandatory concern of any museum that receives public funding.

    The critical race theory toolkit is a long overdue that should be in place everywhere. (I would love to learn more about the resources you’re gathering.) Thank you for initiating this and the Museums and Social Justice Resource list! The latter should be cross listed with this group’s Zotero library, I think. There is overlap, even though it’s not 100%.

    I’m so excited to reconnect in Baltimore!

  2. Thank you for your in-depth assessment of #museumsrespondtoferguson.

    I can relate to your frustration with the chat’s lack of focus on specific action steps. As the co-moderator, I’ve found this issue to be somewhat of a tortured space. Adrianne and I are ultimately interested in achieving specific action steps, but we quickly realized 1.) many museums professionals did not have the cultural competencies to successfully take these action steps, and weren’t aware of these deficiencies, or 2.) were eager to take action steps to cross off a diversity objective rather than engage the process of critically examining race politics in museums. We are currently working with a couple institutions to define and execute specific action steps as they have demonstrated that they are ready to take on that work. Social change is a process, and we have stressed the importance of taking action, even while learning.

  3. Lyra Monteiro says:

    As someone who has (embarrassingly) not engaged with #museumsrespondtoferguson, I found this statement really helpful–thanks! I’ll definitely check out the next meeting.

  4. Jennifer Scott says:

    Thank you, La Tanya, for all of your efforts to center race as a discussion in museums and also fro this resource list, which is very helpful. needed, and agreat idea!.

  5. Omar Eaton-Martinez says:

    I appreciate this statement. Its critical and well thought out. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us!

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