Art History and museums still have a lot to offer us.
I had a lot to say about museums and their potential for both good and evil before May of 2020, but the past 6 weeks of protests and calls to revise the way we tell and sell humanity’s stories have made it clear that it’s time to start talking out loud.
Last week, my museum friends and I devoured every available post by a newly-created Instagram account, @changethemuseum. In the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Oluwatoyin “Toyin” Salau and many, many, too many other black Americans, this account seeks to “[pressure] US museums to move beyond lip service proclamations by amplifying tales of unchecked racism.” This is a positive step forward as the movement seeks to illuminate the systemic rather than fight against isolated incidents. Cultural institutions are without a doubt one of these racist systems. While the posts can be hard to stomach because of the sheer disrespect and ignorance, they have yet to shock me. But they made me revisit a question I’ve asked myself since stepping into art museum education: is this work worth it? Are museums too far gone? I have decided that they are not, and that I am not giving up on the potential of the art museum to be a force for good. I’m basically Luke, museums are basically Vader. I’m Rey, museums are Kylo Ren.
We are right to recognize the elitism, sexism, classism and racism that hold art museums back from being instruments of change. The history of museums is rooted in the history of colonialism. Some American museums claim we never bathed in colonialism, the irony of the entire country as a settler-colonial institution being lost on us. Even if we can argue that our museum was a gift of an independently wealthy American philanthropist, then we must still address the backbone of American wealth (slavery). We have to address Manifest Destiny, salvage ethnography and white saviorism, sexism and the grossly inflated economics of the art market.
Yet, would we not be hard-pressed to find an institution free from this systemically racist, sexist and classist legacy? Education, real estate, banking, politics, Hollywood – we see the same patterns repeated. The thing about systemic racism (and sexism) is how it infects our systems. Make no mistake; this does not exonerate museums. The worst thing to do now would be to act as though we have a high horse to climb up on and flee doing the hard work. Yet if we can learn to own and admit to our fraught origin story, we have everything at our fingertips to reach back and examine history and human expression. As Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie Bunch said in a statement after the murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020,
“Although it will be a monumental task, the past is replete with examples of ordinary people working together to overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges. History is a guide to a better future and demonstrates that we can become a better society—but only if we collectively demand it from each other and from the institutions responsible for administering justice.”
Every human civilization leaves art behind. Art can skirt the privileging of a certain culture’s written language. Art is not bound by history because every person, no matter the age of an object, brings a new element to experiencing the work. Yet it can illuminate history. Art is subject to multiple interpretations, for better or worse. Museum professionals must willing to do the work in service of art have the opportunity to unlearn our conditioning of privileging Western philosophy and language. Art exists as a vessel for curiosity, play, and exploration, but also as a vessel for intercultural understanding as one of the most important ways in which people and cultures express their worldviews and perspectives. Different perspectives allow us to see ourselves as part of the fabric of our world and have the potential to minimize essentialism and individualism. Because all cultures create art, it becomes an overarching framing device for understanding similarities as well as differences. If we do the work – and why else did we get into this profession? – it can be the easiest thing in the world not to let museums succumb to the dark side.