museums & marginalization


For the next few days, the epicenter of the museum industry will be Atlanta, Georgia, location of the American Alliance of Museums’ 2015 Annual Meeting & Expo. This year’s theme, “The Social Value of Museums: Inspiring Change”, has particular resonance as the world’s attention is attuned to state violence and extrajudicial killings of black people in the United States and the movements that have surfaced in protest. [Note: As I write this, Baltimore is rising.]

From its website, AAM’s rationale behind the theme, in part:

The founding impulse of museums was social interaction, connection and engagement with the public. From their origins, museums have continually evolved to nurture and sustain the human spirit. Today, as we teach, inspire, collect, preserve and interpret, we fulfill our public service roles as community centers, forums for discussing the pressing social and political issues of the day while learning from the issues of the past.

Of course, museums should be mindful of all the aforementioned things. But focusing solely on what museums outwardly provide to the public–with the assumption that “public” encompasses a great deal of diversity–before addressing internal, systemic issues that replicate and perpetuate oppression puts the proverbial cart before the horse. As the great poet Lauryn Hill said, “How you gon’ win when you ain’t right within?”

Come again, museums. Come again.

Despite demographics indicating that potential visitors are more diverse than ever before, museums are still overwhelmingly staffed and led by white people. This problematic issue has been addressed in depth time and again, to no resolution. Not only am I tired of discussing it, I’m tired of living it.

I wrote about the lack of staff diversity in museums in 2010. When I wrote about it again in 2012, very little had changed. In 2014 I joined a cadre of museum professionals and supporters calling on the community to formally respond to state violence against black bodies in cities throughout the nation, a call to action that continues every third Wednesday on Twitter via #Museumsrespondtoferguson.

In 2015, a group of museum workers are examining unfair industry labor practices, many of which disproportionately affect people of color, at AAM2015 via #MuseumWorkersSpeak. That those who labor the most for the least compensation either can’t afford to attend or their positions aren’t considered worthy of funded professional development is shameful. Their presence is needed and sorely missed.

Museums are not immune to the injustices of the world. They can no longer hide behind mission statements, feel-good stories, and toothless diversity policies. Dissatisfaction and unrest have reached critical tipping points. It’s time for museums to stop talking about it and start being about it.