By Elena Gonzales
Exhibitions have shaped our ideologies and prejudices in ways so prevalent they’re nearly invisible. But to the majority of people: women, people of color, low-income people, and other marginalized communities, the disrespect and disenfranchisement is highly visible. Just as exhibitions have been used to produce systemic injustice across our societies, they can also be used to create change. In many nations and fields of study, museum workers are refusing the elitist, colonial histories of their institutions and creating change from within. Anti-racist work is becoming central to their institutions’ practices. My new book, Exhibitions for Social Justice, looks at all kinds of curatorial work for social justice across more than twenty institutions from around the Americas and Europe and also contains much more detailed versions of the stories in this essay.
Curators are mining their collections with fresh eyes, telling the histories of faces that might once have hidden in the shadows. The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, which originated as an emblem of and maintainer of colonial power, has been exposing race and racism throughout the museum through its innovative Adjustment of Colonial Terminology project, which began in 2015, and related tour about the “Colonial Past.” Museums helped build and maintain racist and exclusive ideologies for centuries. Now these institutions must demonstrate that their power can be pro-social, anti-racist, and inclusive.
Anti-racist curatorial work is of particular urgency now. We live in a world that is perilously divided into those who hoard a glut of resources and those who keenly feel scarcity. In February 2019, Kevin Kellherwrote a piece in Fortune about work by Gabriel Zucman, a professor of economics at UC Berkeley. Zucman’s piece from the National Bureau of Economic Research stated that income inequality has reached a level not seen since before the Great Depression in the US. Furthermore, just as the top 1% has become richer, “the share of wealth owned by the bottom 90% has collapsed in similar proportions.” As Kellher reported, the only country Zucman found with similarly high levels of wealth inequality was Russia.
As our planet’s climate changes, the socio-economic divides across the globe have even more dire consequences. Gabe Bullard of the National Geographic reported on the Paris Climate Talks in 2015, showing how climate change would devastate poor communities around the world first. One important problem is already food scarcity. Poor households spend more of their budgets on food. Over time, climate change will drive up agriculture prices in most of the world at a pace of more than 17%. But in Sub-Saharan Africa, the pace of increase will be more than 77% by 2080.
That doesn’t even address the collapsing ecosystems and scarcity of housing that climate change is causing.
Unfortunately, the deepest and most pernicious divides in resource and privilege still fall along racial lines. An article by Courtney Martin in the NY Times from this past spring revisited familiar stories about how much wealthier white families are than Black, Latinx, and Indigenous ones but added to that the fact that the proportion of Black families with no savings or only debt rose 8.5% between 1983 and 2016. As Martin put it, “you can’t buy your way out of racism…. The Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates was arrested while entering his own home.” Black wealth doesn’t protect Black families the way that white wealth protects white families.
In addition to “eating wealth for breakfast,” as Martin put it, racism is life-threatening. The threats from racism range from violence to poverty, from neglect in the medical realm, for example, to mental illness. People actually end up with PTSD from living with racism, to say nothing of depression.[i] When racist ideologies are endorsed at the highest level of government, as they are in the current white supremacist administration, anti-racist efforts must be of paramount concern to curators.
That is because curators are tinkerers in our informational environments.[ii] Our informational environments inform the development of our opinions and, from there, our choices of when and how to take action. After friends and family, museums have long been one of the most trusted sources of information, above and beyond the regular news media and, of course, social media.[iii]
In what remains of this essay, I will briefly examine several curatorial practices that function in an anti-racist manner. Though they use different mechanisms, the exhibitions all point to the value of collaboration, sharing space, and building open narratives that contain multiple points of entry for visitors. This practice of collaboration, which is a thread through anti-racist work, makes sense because it defies the practice of othering that is at the root of racism. When we share histories and develop shared senses of identity, when we collaborate respectfully on understanding our past and envisioning a shared future, racism has no purchase. And curators, artists, and visitors alike can actively refute it.
The National Museum of Mexican Art (NMMA) in Chicago began as a protest on the part of six Chicago Public School teachers who were tired of not having engaging, relevant resources to share with their Mexican students. Since the early 1980s, it has become a world-class institution with a collection of over 10,000 objects. Two different exhibitions by the NMMA, The African Presence in México(2006) and A Declaration of Immigration(2008) actively opposed different types of racism in different ways using related strategies.
The African Presence sought to bring to light a chapter of Mexican history that had been missing from basic public knowledge and schooling in Mexico for four hundred years. The project of telling the integral role the African presence plays in Mexicanidad or Mexican identity was an anti-racist one that explicitly opposed the casta system or pigmentocracy that is unofficially still at work in Mexico. The project was also anti-racist in that it sought to unite Mexicans and African Americans in the US around shared history and shared goals. One of the most important tools in doing this project was building a steering committee for the project half of which was comprised of Black leaders in Chicago. This committee came on board at the outset of the project and did real work at every level. The collaboration was real and the relationships were built on respect. This work undergirded and legitimized the museum’s project.
Declaration of Immigration sought to explore the variety of contemporary immigrants’ experiences and thereby pushed the museum to do something completely new: include the work of artists who were not only not Mexican but also not even Latin American. In order to address the breadth of experience, the NMMA welcomed fifty-eight artists from all over the world. This openness and collaboration, which did not come naturally to the NMMA, once again won the day as the artists’ work made a rainbow of anti-racist statements with one voice.
The National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) in Washington, DC, which opened in 2016, uses several important techniques in its anti-racist work, though here I will only have the space to discuss one. The museum uses specificity both in a memorial capacity, harkening back to Maya Lin’s work on the Vietnam Memorial as so many memorials have, and a celebratory one. From the deepest floor of the museum, the history of the transatlantic slave trade, visitors begin to be inundated with details, displayed prominently and conscientiously. Long walls featuring the names of each ship carrying human cargo, its country of origin, date of its voyage, and the number of enslaved souls that boarded compared with the number of those who survived echoes other lists of names. One example is a monument on that same floor to the 609 people who Thomas Jefferson enslaved at Monticello: each brick features one first name.
Another example faces the one from Monticello, a border of listings – advertisements – for the sale of human beings. They reproduce the price, description of the person or people, names, and a date. These painful details are echoed in the upper floors of the museum where visitors can find, for example, a wall of Black Olympians, each with his or her own small plaque bearing a name, event, and date. Somber or celebratory, these details are signs of respect, as is the entire assemblage of Black history and culture that is the museum. In a world where Black history in particular has often been silenced, obscured, or even discarded, NMAAHC sings an ode to details and, where necessary, fragments.[iv] (Indeed, the use of fragments in the museum deserves an essay unto itself.)
As NMAAHC does with Black culture, Americans, which opened in 2018 at the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), demonstrates how images and ideas about American Indians have permeated every part of American culture.
Both NMAI and NMAAHC engage in frequent, bold, and highly visible truth telling. This is crucial to both building respect for Native and Black people and cultivating these museum spaces as anti-racist and anti-colonial spaces. NMAAHC’s outstanding soundscapes enable them to describe the development of whiteness and Blackness in a way everyone can hear. NMAI plainly explains the bipartisan support that led nine consecutive presidents of the US to engage in Indian Removal. Both institutions use bold, big text headings to get visitors’ attention around some important issues. At NMAAHC, for example, a didactic panel about Mary McLeod Bethune, founder of the National Council of Negro Women, proclaims “AMERICA CAN BE CHANGED. IT WILL BE CHANGED.” NMAI states in a similar moment “Pocahontas didn’t save John Smith. She saved America.” In Americans, however, NMAI also engages in an important practice routinely throughout the galleries: questioning visitors and encouraging them to question each other. For example, another large header panel in Americans reads: “Who really won the battle of Little Bighorn? It’s complicated.” This strategy builds memory as it inspires visitors to think of actual answers to the questions and rehearse them.
There are so many other techniques and examples that warrant attention in this area. And each of the strategies, institutions, and exhibitions discussed here are worthy of much more exploration than was possible in this short article. Some of them are addressed at length in Exhibitions for Social Justice. Others are newer and I hope to have the opportunity to write about them further at a later date. Nevertheless, the toolbox of curatorial practices I’ve briefly discussed here is a useful beginning in an anti-racist curatorial project. Collaboration, sharing, building respect, being specific, making big statements, and questioning the visitor are all tactics that have strengthened these projects.
Elena Gonzales, PhD, is an independent scholar focusing on curatorial work for social justice and museums’ roles in society today. She is the author of Exhibitions for Social Justice from Routledge’s Museum Meanings Series (2019). She has curated exhibitions since 2006 and has taught curatorial studies since 2010. She guides the planning of an annual schedule of more than 20 exhibitions per year at the Evanston Art Center. Gonzales is co-editor of Museums and Civic Discourse: History, Current Practice, and Future Prospects, a digital public humanities project forthcoming from Greenhouse Studios.
Antar, Anniessa, Camille Erickson, Sarah Winter, eds. MASS Action Toolkit.
“Center for the Future of Museums: Trust Me, I’m a Museum.” Center for the Future of Museums (blog), February 3, 2015. http://futureofmuseums.blogspot.com/2015/02/trust-me-im-museum_3.html.
Crenshaw, Kimberlé Williams. “Mapping the Margins.” In Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed the Movement. New York, NY: The New Press, 1995.
“Equal Justice Initiative |.” Accessed June 20, 2019. https://eji.org/.
Gonzales, Elena. Exhibitions for Social Justice. London: Routledge, 2019.
“Home.” Black Mamas Matter Alliance. Accessed June 20, 2019. https://blackmamasmatter.org/.
“Museums & Race.” Museums & Race. Accessed February 9, 2017. https://museumsandrace.org/.
“Social Justice & Museums Resources List.” Google Docs. Accessed April 23, 2016. https://docs.google.com/document/d/1o_rUpYGLVOhrsgfwXbnAWjoE3N3bpv6zDbFDLLs_iCE/edit?usp=embed_facebook.
“Southern Poverty Law Center.” Accessed June 20, 2019. https://www.splcenter.org/.
“The Empathetic Museum.” The Empathetic Museum. Accessed March 14, 2017. http://empatheticmuseum.weebly.com/.
[i] See these additional resources for more information: “Equal Justice Initiative |,” accessed June 20, 2019, https://eji.org/; “Southern Poverty Law Center,” accessed June 20, 2019, https://www.splcenter.org/; “Home,” Black Mamas Matter Alliance, accessed June 20, 2019, https://blackmamasmatter.org/.
[ii] Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, “Mapping the Margins,” in Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed the Movement (New York, NY: The New Press, 1995).
[iii]Public trust in museums may be founded on a flawed perception of museums as unbiased or neutral. See this post for a link to the original study on public trust from 2001 and follow up commentary. “Center for the Future of Museums: Trust Me, I’m a Museum,” Center for the Future of Museums (blog), February 3, 2015, http://futureofmuseums.blogspot.com/2015/02/trust-me-im-museum_3.html. See also #MuseumsAreNotNeutral on Twitter: https://twitter.com/search?q=%23museumsarenotneutral&src=typed_query
[iv] The Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University recently closed its exhibition, Caravans of Gold, which also dealt with significant fragments. The exhibition is traveling.
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