Museums and a Culture of Justice

This week’s readings regarding the role of museums in responding to current events centered around ideas of social justice all came from a progressive, activist stance within the museum field. A fundamental question to the readings was “what is the role of museums?” in addressing social justice, current events, race, activism, etc. In this regard, they were all in agreement that museums do have a role. No one argued that they don’t. I thought the articles/blog entries were inspiring, but only a few times did they mention the landscape they are up against. Perhaps it is difficult in this time to find anything written from a staunchly opposite viewpoint, but I am interested in the type of resistance proponents of socially conscious institutions face. One roadblock that was mentioned surrounded funding, a reoccurring and discouraging aspect of museum work for us this semester. Writing about the invisible histories of privileged institutions which are linked to infrastructures of colonialism and slavery, Trivedi remarks, “Now that I’ve worked at a museum for some time, I have a better understanding of why these histories aren’t included in museums’ narratives. Museums and cultural institutions in the U.S. function in an economic system that requires us to make decisions that will lead to reliable monetary outcomes.” This theme of brushing difficult or disruptive subjects under the rug as to not upset the precarious balance of traditional values and big-name endowments to an institution is a reality in the field at large. How can it be overcome to allow for the type of engaging, productive, community-focused education that the institutions in these articles advance?

That said, I do agree that museums have a social responsibility to address difficult issues that are happening in their environment, rather than act as a utopian space of humanity and enlightenment. They should serve as forums for community discussion, key players in community building, provide opportunities for continuing education, and a safe space for questioning and healing.

Two articles or examples stood out to me the most. First, the Northwest African American Museum’s #Ferguson PechaKucha stood out as an innovative way to build community and address pertinent national issues in locally-driven way. The featured panelists didn’t act as authorities on a topic, but were chosen to open discussion and introduce ideas from a broad range of perspectives. The use of the hashtagging continued the conversation locally, allowed participants to broadcast their perspectives during and following the event, and allowed them to participate in a national conversation. In this event, the museum served as a safe space for people to connect with the issue, engage each other in addressing it, shape a broader conversation, and provide tools for activism. It can be easily replicated in other institutions, dealing with a variety of issues. It allows the institution to participate in community building and in social justice in a democratic way, making their resources available without defining the way they will be used. Heeding the advice of Adams in “Practical and Compassionate Advice on Museums and Community Conflict,” however, this model can go even further. Adams cautions against reactionary engagement,  arguing that “Exhibits and programs with a community focus should not happen only after a tragic community event, but take place throughout the year.  By providing a space for difficult conversations on issues of race, class, gender identity, and immigration, museums establish themselves as a place where communities can come together to discuss conflict and begin to find resolution.” This is in the same vein as dialogic musuems and something that Sites of Conscience especially keep as part of their mission, but I think it is something both important and possible for a variety of cultural institutions, which broadly aim to serve the public.

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