Sitting Down with Association of Children’s Museum’s Executive Director Laura Huerta Migus

Sitting Down with Association of Children’s Museums’ Executive Director Laura Huerta Migus

This month, we had the opportunity to sit down with Laura Huerta Migus, Executive Director of the Association of Children’s Museums (ACM) and discuss this statement ACM put out in response to inhumane treatment of immigrant children in detention centers. 

We talked at length about the role and responsibility cultural organizations have in advocating for and taking a stance on social issues that impact their staffs and audiences. (And yes, non-profit cultural institutions can advocate; AAM came up with an FAQ guide that addresses this very issue.) “Dialogue around social justice should be framed as structural. There is an emphasis on how this is hearts-and-minds work, but if you approach it from a structural point of view, it’s easier to channel your emotions into actions,” stated Huerta Migus. Part of translating individual values into organizational values for ACM has been developing an internal process that expedites its capacity to respond in a time-sensitive manner. 

As a response to requests from member institutions and internal staff, ACM has been building capacity for this work in recent years. In 2015, the ACM conference was held in Indianapolis, Indiana, and happened to coincide with the anti-LGBTQ Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the law that allows individuals to cite religious reasons in discriminating against other individuals, signed by then-Governor Mike Pence. ACM drafted a letter to Pence, citing that the legislation directly impacted attendees’ safety and well-being, as well as impeded ACM’s hosting of the conference.

On September 24, 2017, Trump signed Presidential Proclamation 9645 (aka the Muslim Travel Ban), the third attempt to deliver on his campaign promise to create a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” ACM responded by starting their 90 Days of Action for a #WorldTheyDeserve campaign on social media, which highlighted programs or exhibits that served and were welcoming immigrant families and children. 

[Image description: an example of a social media banner museums could use to promote the Association of Children’s Museums 90 Day of Action campaign #WorldTheyDeserve. It reads “Our museum is part of a global community working to create a world that honors all children and respects the diverse ways in which they learn and develop.”]

[Image description: an example of a social media banner museums could use to promote the Association of Children’s Museums 90 Day of Action campaign #WorldTheyDeserve. It reads “Our museum is part of a global community working to create a world that honors all children and respects the diverse ways in which they learn and develop.”]

With these two examples as precedent, ACM staff worked with their Board of Directors to develop a systematized process that would allow for a quicker turnaround for putting out messages with calls to action in response to critical social justice issues. “The Association is a collective voice with entry points for members to amplify the message, and sometimes member institutions choose not to amplify. In a lot of ways, it is safer for an association to make a statement versus an individual institution,” said Huerta Migus. However, she identified some concrete questions that any museum can ask when developing a process.

The first step of the process was education the Board’s Executive Committee on how issues not usually associated with museums affect museum visitors and staff. Huerta Migus emphasized asking the necessity of making sure to ground statements and actions in vision and mission statements by asking does this issue confirm and validate our mission and value statements or the issue in direct conflict with these statements? How does it affect our work? In order to move beyond just releasing a statement, ACM prioritizes making a recommendation for a concrete call to action or consequence. 

[Image description: Association of Children’s Museums Strategic Roadmap Our Vision: A world that honors all children and respects the diverse ways in which they learn and develop.  Our Mission: ACM champions children’s museums worldwide.  Why We Do What We Do: We believe children’s museums are a unique community where children are valued citizens with the right to developmentally-appropriate and high-quality learning experiences Play is learning, and it is critical to the healthy social, emotional, and cognitive development of children. Family, culture, environment, and society are recognized as critical factors in all children’s lives to effectively serve them, pursuing equity and inclusion is a best practice that reflects a commitment to serving all children and families and advancing the growth of our field.]

[Image description: Association of Children’s Museums Strategic Roadmap
Our Vision: A world that honors all children and respects the diverse ways in which they learn and develop.
Our Mission: ACM champions children’s museums worldwide.
Why We Do What We Do: We believe children’s museums are a unique community where children are valued citizens with the right to developmentally-appropriate and high-quality learning experiences Play is learning, and it is critical to the healthy social, emotional, and cognitive development of children. Family, culture, environment, and society are recognized as critical factors in all children’s lives to effectively serve them, pursuing equity and inclusion is a best practice that reflects a commitment to serving all children and families and advancing the growth of our field.]

In the example of the recent immigration raids, ACM recognized a direct impact for member institutions to carry out services. Whether it be community outreach or after school programming that are geared specifically to immigrant populations, families were afraid to congregate and often would not access these programs.

Responding to large social issues does not have to be over-programmed. Huerta Migus invites us to ask what is the easiest, most substantive step? She cited the efforts of the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh’s response to the Tree of Life shootings. The museum offered free admission for 5 days, engaged staff internally to affirm the museum is a place of healing and inspiration, and hosted a pop-up exhibition called XOXO: Love and Forgiveness, where children’s voices were amplified through interactive storytelling. 

[Image description: screenshot of a Tweet from the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh that reads “We would like the museum to serve as a safe place where families can gather, express their feelings, play and be creative in this difficult time. Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh offers free admission from Mon, Oct 29, through Fri, Nov 2. We are stronger together than apart.]

[Image description: screenshot of a Tweet from the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh that reads “We would like the museum to serve as a safe place where families can gather, express their feelings, play and be creative in this difficult time. Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh offers free admission from Mon, Oct 29, through Fri, Nov 2. We are stronger together than apart.]

By identifying key filters grounded in institution values, museums and other cultural organizations absolutely have a role in responding to social justice issues. In planning for long-term action and understanding the structural inequities that impact internal and external communities, our field can act on the side of justice and be responsive. 

[Image description: Our Key Takeaways 1. Find opportunities to help your Board better understand the issues impacting your communities. 2. Work with your Board to develop a Response Protocol, a series of strategic filters or questions that will support decision-making that is mission and values-driven. 3. When something happens, be prepared, as staff and Board, to answer the questions: Does this [incident, policy, etc.] affirm our mission, or is it a direct challenge to what we as an organization stand for and are trying to accomplish? Can we make an argument that this is impacting us as an organization? Is there something for the museum to advocate for or take action on? How can we leverage what we do? How can we contribute to the community?

[Image description: Our Key Takeaways
1. Find opportunities to help your Board better understand the issues impacting your communities.
2. Work with your Board to develop a Response Protocol, a series of strategic filters or questions that will support decision-making that is mission and values-driven.
3. When something happens, be prepared, as staff and Board, to answer the questions:
Does this [incident, policy, etc.] affirm our mission, or is it a direct challenge to what we as an organization stand for and are trying to accomplish? Can we make an argument that this is impacting us as an organization?
Is there something for the museum to advocate for or take action on?
How can we leverage what we do? How can we contribute to the community?

Answering these questions can help guide decision-making, and build shared understanding, internally and with our Boards, of what our organizations do and stand for. Ultimately, we need systems and structures in place, because the issues we are addressing (racism, xenophobia, homophobia, etc.) are structural.

Written by Anniessa Antar

#MASSActionReadingGroup Chapter 8

Reposted from The Incluseum.

And here is the final chapter of the MASS Action Toolkit! Thank you to all those who have participated in the online reading group. We hope that you will join us for the final tweetchat on 08/05 at 12pm Eastern.

***

Change-Making through Pedagogy

Authors: Alyssa Greenberg, Anniessa Antar, Elisabeth Callihan

Including interviews with educators: Alyssa Machida, Hannah Heller, Keonna Hendrick, Marit Dewhurst, Paula Santos, Nenette Luarca-Shoaf, Wendy Ng

This final chapter in the MASS Action toolkit’s Theory section asserts that educators, because of their required skill sets, have been leaders in the museum movement to expand audiences and address social justice. These skills include “active listening, understanding human development and learning theory, and advocating for visitors’ needs.” The authors go on to describe the different ways some museum educators have shaped and use pedagogies that move their institutions toward greater inclusion, equity, diversity and justice. They call out women of color as those most likely to lead the way in this museum work, and acknowledge the physical and mental toll this takes on them. The authors continue by acknowledging that working conditions—labor practices, degrees of autonomy, and the levels of microaggressions and awareness throughout the institution—impact the ways educators can shape pedagogy. Four practices that come from progressive pedagogy are called out as critical:

  • Rigorous practice includes conducting research and understanding critical race theory, whiteness studies, and critical pedagogy. To avoid falling into routines that support racism, consistent questioning of practices is necessary.

  • Confronting whiteness means interrogating the systemic ways white privilege and its narratives continue to shape museums, holding these systems up to the light, and committing to change them. It’s not enough to focus on the symptoms; to be inclusive we must tackle the ingrained, systemic practices that work against inclusion.

  • Developing a culture of critical reflection across the museum, at all levels, is required.

  • Those who experience white privilege must engage with the discomfort of ceding power and let go of defensiveness in order to reduce the pain and suffering that white supremacy norms perpetuate.

This week’s downloads and link:

Chapter 8

Worksheet 8

Facilitation Outline 8

Chapter 8 Tweetchat will be held Monday 08/05

#MASSActionReadingGroup Chapter 7

Reposted from The Incluseum.

Collections: How We Hold the Stuff We Hold in Trust

Authors: Joy Bivens, Ben Garcia, Porchia Moore, nikhil trivedi, Aletheia Wittman

The authors challenge traditional thinking about museum collecting practices, calling the field to shift from a focus on a museum’s claim of objective ownership of collections to collaboration and transparency with stakeholder communities. Their guiding principles are consent and access for the origin and descendant communities of museum collections, and telling suppressed histories. Working collaboratively and sharing decision-making power with communities is a major theme throughout. They explain this work as one step in purposefully dismantling the colonial ideologies upon which large, encyclopedic museums in the U.S. were founded. The chapter poses questions for museum self-reflection on collecting practices, suggests new practices, and offers tools for doing this work. The authors write of collecting as a form of storytelling and ask the field: which stories do we choose to tell? who do we allow to participate in telling stories? when we negotiate these stories with communities and original owners, what are the power dynamics, including economic factors? The authors explain that their work comes from a place of love for their museums and people. “Our overarching suggestion is that museums and cultural institutions create long-term visions for how their collections can foster equity, inclusion, and paradigms for shared authority and knowledge creation.”

This week’s downloads and link:

Chapter 7

Worksheet 7

Facilitation Outline 7

Chapter 7 Tweetchat will be held Monday 07/22

#MASSActionReadingGroup Chapter 6

Reposted from The Incluseum.

Sharing Authority: Creating Content and Experiences

Written by C. Lashaw, E. Orantes

This chapter discusses issues and strategies useful in museum efforts to remain relevant while responding to societal and demographic shifts. The chapter discusses the methods: Contribution, Collaboration (both internal and external), and Co-creation. The chapter examine these methods through case study.  The chapter examines the value of museums initiating dialogue and providing space for community members to examine significate concerns. The chapter also looks at costs and potential benefits of community engagement.

This week’s downloads and link:

Chapter 6

No Worksheet this week.

Facilitation Outline 6

Chapter 6 Tweetchat will be held Monday 07/08 from 12-1PM.

#MASSActionReadingGroup Chapter 5

Reposted from The Incluseum.

Wow, we’re halfway through the Toolkit! Thank you to all of you who’ve been on this journey with us. As we releaser chapter 5 today, we would like to invite you to share feedback with us about the reading group…what else or what more can we do to best facilitate your participation and engagement? What would you like to see more of? You can email your feedback to incluseum@gmail.com.

Happy reading!

***

Interpretation: Liberating the Narrative

Written by A. Anderson, A. Rogers, E. Potter, E. Cook, K. Gardner, M. Murawski, S. Anila, A. Machida

This chapter begins by discussing the role of interpretation as institutional voice. The authors make the point that interpretation is a system of communicating the museum’s values and narratives to visitors and other stakeholders. The chapter suggests four strategies in advancing and decolonizing institution interpretation: liberating Interpretation, inviting multiple voices, honoring lived experiences, and attending to absences. Each of these strategies involve decentering the institution as the authoritative voice and looking for ways to include the voices of those previously marginalized, oppressed or absent in traditional interpretation.

This week’s downloads and link:

Chapter 5

Worksheet 5

Facilitation Outline 5

Chapter 5 Tweetchat will be held Monday 06/24 from 12-1PM

#MASSActionReadingGroup Chapter 4

Reposted from The Incluseum.

This week, we release chapter 4 and worksheet 4 of the Mass Action Toolkit. Many of the ideas developed in this chapter build on what we read in chapter 3. Happy reading, and as always, you are invited to share thoughts/comments/ideas below.

Chapter 4 tweetchat will take place June 10 from 12-1PM EST.

***

Inclusive Leadership: Avoiding a Legacy of Irrelevance

Written by Chris Taylor

This chapter focuses on inclusive leadership for organizational change in museums. Oftentimes “inclusion” is discussed in the context of how museums can be more inclusive towards “non-traditional” museum visitors and audiences, but this chapter emphasizes the necessity of building inclusion into museum structures for internal transformation. Museums in the 21st century facing challenges of diversity, inclusion, equity, and access require strong leaders that have the courage and commitment to challenge dominant organizational paradigms and practices in a sustained, continual process of change. Developing inclusive leadership happens at the individual, team/group, and organizational levels. Museum leaders need to build their own individual human capacity of knowledge, skills, and attitudes, as well as strengthen organizational capacity by empowering and nurturing growth of their staff. This involves the ability to address and work through adaptive challenges—ones that confront people’s fundamental beliefs, attitudes, and values. Inclusive leaders must be able to examine deeply held beliefs and values on a personal and organizational level, and when challenged, be able to engage in critical self-reflection to continue learning and growth. Inclusive leaders must also be willing to listen and trust other members of their organization, recognizing and addressing their own unconscious biases, blind spots, and dominant ideologies that may counter progressive, equitable work. This chapter makes clear that inclusion cannot simply be an aspirational goal of an organization. Inclusive practices and cultures must be built into the structures of the museum first.

This week’s downloads and link:

Chapter 4

Worksheet 4

Facilitation Outline 4

#MASSActionReadingGroup Chapter 3

Reposted from the Incluseum.

Thanks to everyone who joined in on the Tweetchat yesterday. We had a rich conversation centered on chapter 2 that will be available on the blog next Monday.

On to chapter 3! Be aware that this chapter is significantly longer than the previous two, it’s actually the longest one of the Toolkit…40 pages…so plan accordingly. The next Tweetchat will be on Monday 05/27. I will be joined by one of this chapter’s co-authors, Chris Taylor. Happy reading!

***

Organizational Culture and Change: Making the Case for Inclusion

Written by Chris Taylor and Mischa Kegan

This chapter begins by nuancing the terms “diversity” and “inclusion.” Although used frequently and synonymously, they are separate, complex concepts. Diversity goes beyond its common usage of evoking “diversity of…” expertise or background on racial and ethnic lines. Diversity calls for disrupting and counteracting dominant and normative modes of thinking and working in museum organizational culture. This includes racial and ethnic forms of identity but also diversity based on gender, sexuality, ability, language, class, and more. It is also important to acknowledge that diversity is not a problem to be solved by filling demographic quotas and percentages; diversity means honoring and celebrating many ways of being, and creating spaces where people can engage as their full, authentic selves. Inclusion, is a process of actively and sincerely building multiple and various forms of access into the organizational culture. To work towards diversity and inclusion, it is important that simply invoking them through rhetoric is not enough. Museums need to acknowledge that as institutions, their systems are structured in oppressive and imbalanced dynamics of power—regardless of whether or not there was any intention to do so. Our museums carry origins and legacies of White Supremacy and multiple forms of oppression that must be identified and countered. Oftentimes these forms of oppression and privilege prevalent in museums cannot be detected without critical literacy and training. It is therefore important for museums to invest in, and trust, a dedicated core of staff or consultants whose responsibility is to work towards inclusive, organizational change and transformation.

This week’s downloads and link:

Chapter 3

Worksheet 3

Facilitation Outline 3aFacilitation Outline 3b

Chapter 3 Tweetchat will be held Monday 05/27 from 12-1PM EST

#MASSActionReadingGroup Chapter 1

We will meet on Twitter on Monday, April 29, 12:00-12:30pm EST for our first Tweetchat that will focus on chapter 1 of the MASS Action Toolkit. While it is not required to sign up for the Tweetchat, it is helpful for us to see what kind of interest there is across the field and to continue building our curious community invested in transformation, so if you would like to sign up, please do so here.

Below is a chapter summary to orient you to this week’s content (reposted from Art Museum Teaching).

*     *     *

Getting Started: What We Need to Change and Why

Written by Adam Patterson, Aletheia Wittman, Chieko Phillips, Gamynne Guillotte, Therese Quinn, Adrianne Russell

This introductory chapter establishes the underlying philosophy behind MASS Action and investigates the question: What does it mean for museums to be “sites of social action?” It calls for the urgency and necessity of museum practitioners throughout the field to sharpen their critical literacy, and their capability to unearth systemic issues such as structural racism and other forms of oppression that are inherently embedded in the institution.

There is a movement spreading across cultural organizations nationally asserting that museums are not neutral spaces. Complex problems related to colonialism, ableism, sexism, racism, and capitalism are all embedded in the institution and manifest themselves in the everyday operations of museums from hiring practices, staffing, organizational culture, management, fundraising, collection policies, to pedagogy, interpretation, and paradigms for engagement.

If museums and their staff claim to be relevant sites for engagement for their communities, this takes on huge responsibilities to not only acknowledge and navigate difficult issues, but to work towards sincere and critical action. The work of MASS Action centers justice, it does not leave it in the margins. There is a real moral imperative to this work as museums move forward collectively to set higher standards of conduct in the field.

Questions to consider as you read:

  • What would cultural transformation look like at your institution?

  • Why should your institution engage in this work?

This week’s downloads and links:

  • Chapter 1

  • Worksheet 1 - Discussion questions to think about before/during/after reading.

  • Facilitation Outline 1 - This was developed by Art Institute of Chicago’s 2017 MASS Action team and is an excellent resource if you would like to facilitate your own discussion.

#MASSActionReadingGroup

We are very excited to launch a reading group around the 8 chapters of the MASS Action Toolkit over the course of 16 weeks. In addition to the downloadable chapters and worksheets that we will post on this blog (The Incluseum, Art Museum Teaching, and Museum Commons will also be posting) , we will have access to dialogue facilitation outlines that the Art Institute of Chicago’s 2018 MASS Action Organizing Team developed for each chapter! You can use these if you are interested in hosting a reading group with colleagues.

Thank you to our friends at The Incluseum for getting this initiative off the ground!

Every other Monday, a chapter and worksheet from the MASS Action Toolkit will be “assigned” and we will meet via Twitter for a 30 minute Tweetchat. The chapters and worksheets will be posted every couple weeks. All you have to do is download the chapter with its accompanying worksheet to participate.

Schedule:

  • Monday 04/15: Introductions

    • Assignment: Chapter 1 and Worksheet 1

  • Monday 04/29: Chapter 1: What We Need to Change and Why

    • 12pm EST: #MassActionReadingGroup Tweetchat: Chapter 1 and Worksheet 1

    • Assignment: Chapter 2 and Worksheet 2

  • Monday 05/13: Chapter 2: Moving Toward Internal Transformation: Awareness, Acceptance, Action 

    • 12pm EST: #MassActionReadingGroup Tweetchat: Chapter 2 and Worksheet 2

    • Assignment: Chapter 3 and Worksheet 3

  • Monday 05/27: Chapter 3: Organization Culture and Change: Making the Case for Inclusion

    • 12pm EST: #MassActionReadingGroup Tweetchat: Chapter 3 and Worksheet 3

    • Assignment: Chapter 4 and Worksheet 4

  • Monday 06/10: Chapter 4: Inclusive Leadership: Avoiding a Legacy of Irrelevance

    • 12pm EST: #MassActionReadingGroup Tweetchat: Chapter 4 and Worksheet 4

    • Assignment: Chapter 5 and Worksheet 5

  • Monday 06/24: Chapter 5: Interpretation: Liberating the Narrative

    • 12pm EST: #MassActionReadingGroup Tweetchat: Chapter 5 and Worksheet 5

    • Assignment: Chapter 6 (no worksheet this week)

  • Monday 07/08: Chapter 6: Sharing Authority: Creating Content and Experiences

    • 12pm EST: #MassActionReadingGroup Tweetchat: Chapter 6

    • Assignment: Chapter 7 and Worksheet 7

  • Monday 07/22: Chapter 7: Collections: How We Hold the Stuff We Hold in Trust

    • 12pm EST: #MassActionReadingGroup Tweetchat: Chapter 7 and Worksheet 7

    • Assignment: Chapter 8 and Worksheet 8

  • Monday 08/05: Chapter 8: Change-Making through Pedagogy

    • 12pm EST: #MassActionReadingGroup Tweetchat: Chapter 8 and Worksheet 8

Want to Participate?

Sign up here! Join us for a Tweetchat! Signing up isn’t mandatory, but will help give us an idea of who is taking part as we explore this collaborative reading journey together.

Want to make your reading journey even more meaningful? Ask a colleague or peer to participate with you. Teaming up offers many benefits, such as increased motivation, and a sense of community.

Connection Opportunity! We All Get Free

Are you heading to AAM’s Annual Meeting in New Orleans this year? Our friends at Museums and Race are organizing We All Get Free, a pre-meeting retreat on Saturday, May 18, 2019 from 12:30 PM – 4:30 PM (CDT).

This is a great opportunity to connect with colleagues and build on themes aligned with MASS Action.

WE ALL GET FREE is a half-day, interdisciplinary retreat rooted in restorative justice, radical self-care, artistic expression, dialogic skill-building, and role-play. We will leave having addressed the following objectives:

  1. Strengthen our network and make meaningful connections with professionals deeply committed to understanding and advancing diversity, equity, access, and inclusion work across the museum field.

  2. Develop a shared understanding and critique of our museum practice, particularly the urgency and implications, when viewed through human rights and social justice frameworks.

  3. Engage in dialogue and reflection about our roles, rights, and responsibilities–both personal and professional–using Restorative Justice models.

  4. Conclude the retreat feeling energized, empowered with new resources, an accountability partner, and a plan for engaging within our community, particularly with colleagues across cultural, racial, and ideological spectra.

More details can be found here, including registration information.

March Collective Action - MASS Action Toolkit Facilitation Guides

On Tuesday, March 26 at 12pm CST, nikhil trivedi will be hosting a conversation about the MASS Action Facilitation Guides that he and staff at Art Institute of Chicago developed. If you have used the guides, and would be willing to share your experience, or if you are interested in how to use them at your institution, please join us:

Call Details

MASS Action: Facilitation Guides discussion

Tuesday, Mar 26 at 12:00PM Central Time

Join Zoom Meeting: https://zoom.us/j/200169150

Or dial in: (929) 205 6099; meeting ID: 200 169 150 Click here to add to Google calendar

Looking forward to connecting then!

If you have a topic you would like to lead for our Community Garden Collective Action, please feel free to sign up here.

As always, we want to hear from you, so please email us at massaction@artsmia.org if you have any questions, would like to lead a presentation, or propose an activity or share an experience with the MASS Action community.

February Collective Action - Advocating Social Justice

Last month, we set the stage with reflection and goal-setting; this month, we encourage you to put your goal on paper using a tool developed by Margaret Middleton, who has developed a worksheet for "Advocating for Social Justice Work in Museums".

Please share your completed worksheets via email or the FB group so that this network can help support and amplify your work!

Looking ahead to March’s collective action, now that we have (re)established some goals, we are going to be sharing some stories of the success and challenges we are experiencing. If you are interested in sharing your experiences, please reach out to us at massaction@artsmia.org or sign up here for a Community Garden monthly presentation.

January Collective Action - Roadmap Check-in

It has been three-and-a-half months since we met in October and as part of the action planning we did at the Convening, we are due in for a check-in. This is an opportunity to reflect and set some goals for the next months to come.

So, in the next week, let’s commit some time to:

  1. Reflect on what’s been happening

  2. Set some new goals for the road ahead.

  3. Check in with ourselves and each other!

In broad strokes, how would you define the last 3+ months: Are you still working towards the same goal? Have you shifted, stalled, leapt ahead?

It may be helpful to consult the Action Map you created at the Convening to check in on the goals you outlined at that time. (Or click on the thumbnail to access a new Action Map template.)

Using the Action Map or a blank piece of paper or whatever works for you, set a goal.
This doesn’t have to be giant.
Maybe you want to start a discussion group; or change the way you organize a program; or revise a policy.
Whatever it is, write it down.
Jot down the people you need to connect with, some steps you need to take to accomplish it, etc. and assign a realistic timeframe in which to accomplish it.
p.s. The Action Planning Worksheet from the Convening might be a useful tool for this part.

Click the thumbnail to access the Action Planning Worksheet template.

Now that we’ve checked in on our goals, let’s check in on ourselves. How are you feeling? Do you have the fuel to keep going?

Have a full tank and loads of momentum? That’s great! Why not share a note of support or self-care strategy with a colleague or the MASS Action network?

Is your tank running low right now? Reach out. Remember, this movement is about us working TOGETHER to dismantle some pretty big systems. We can’t do it alone. Stay connected!

The most powerful thing about MASS Action is the group of people that make up this movement. (That’s you.)

Share what’s working.

We are all learning from each other, so if you are finding effective strategies, please share them via:

  • The massaction@artsmia.org email

  • The MASS Action Facebook page

  • Twitter: (brand new hashtag!) #massaction2019

Let us know if you need support.

We are in this together, so please reach out via FB or Twitter to connect, or email us at massaction@artsmia.org and we can connect you with peers who are tackling similar things.

The Dangers of Superficial Activism

Contributed by Kayleigh Bryant-Greenwell

Those that know me, especially those dedicated to the antiracist movement in museums, will likely find this post surprising and uncharacteristic of my practice. As a staunch supporter of social justice and changemaking in museums, it is very “off-brand” for me to affirm the limits of museum activism. Truthfully, I do believe museums can make a difference and more importantly that it is our duty to try. I am, nonetheless, writing this post on the boundaries of museum activism.

I was recently on an email chain conversation about the human rights crimes being committed at the border. A group of museum changemakers, we were discussing the damnable silence of museums on the issue. A group member wanted to end the silence with a social media post both condemning the atrocity and claiming a call to action for museums at large.

While I wholeheartedly support the effort to end museum silence—in silence we are complicit—this proposed effort gives me pause. We’re talking about the horrifically cruel and inhumane separation of children from their families upon entering the U.S. It is sickening and it is wrong.

But what is the call to action for museums?

The call to action as seen in Saturday, June 30th’s March was: reunite families and never separate them or any others ever again. The March served to demonstrate an angered public; but by the time it happened, the Trump administration had already enacted an executive order to cease forced separations, at least temporarily, because that's not the endgame. The oppressive regime in power is actively rolling back human rights towards the goal of increased power and control. Their endgame is closed borders. So within museums, what is ours?

I point to the limitation of ineffective activism in museums in this specific situation, not to diminish the spirit of activism in museums. In fact, I want to see activism greatly expanded within our field. But I want true activism. Activism that is centered in action.

Unfortunately, I feel that most museum activism lies on The Scale of Effective Activism, somewhere between Superficial and Performative activism (see chart below).

Performative activism is highly visible, highly praised, but empty of strategy and impact. It is marches, rallies, viral hashtags, and grand displays of social cohesion around an issue. These efforts do not have a measurable impact of change. As the great activist organizer Saul Alinsky noted in his seminal Rules for Radicals, “Communication on a general basis without being fractured into the specifics of experience becomes rhetoric and it carries a very limited meaning.”

Even worse, Superficial activism—coopting the “brand” of activism without context or steps towards enacting internal or external change within the museum—serves to raise the visibility or popularity of the museum without any effort towards the cause. Alinsky dedicates an entire chapter in Radicals, “The Education of an Organizer,” on warning against the proliferation of organizing in name alone. He cautions, “They were radicals, and they were good at their job: they organized vast sectors of middle-class America in support of their programs. But they are gone, now, and any resemblance between them and the present professional labor organizer is only in title.”  To paraphrase Alinsky, tactics must always follow the communicated idea of change.

While it is important to be outraged and vocal, and there will always be a place for some Performed activism, we must consider the impact of these activist efforts. How do these efforts affect the opposition?

Do these efforts move the needle?

In our angered, empowered masses we have yet to effectively communicate to those who continually diminish the humanity of others. We are speaking in completely different languages. Without a radical action plan, our shows of force are dismissed as unimportant and ineffective.

In progressive Marches we speak in a language of “rightness, fairness, justice” while our opposition, in executive orders, policy change, and official mandates, speaks in a language of realized power unthreatened by words. And yet, we applaud every pithy protest sign we painstakingly create, as if we’ve achieved change, whereas we’ve frankly only communicated unrest, which is only enacted the first step towards change. The difference between working towards change and change is a lived experience: a constitutionally-protected marriage, a chance at a new life in a new land, the freedom to control your own body.

We cannot live in an illusion that museums can fix the world. Superficial and Performative activism can only provide an illusion of change. As illustrated in the Scale of Effective activism below, Superficial activism serves to provide the look of progress alone. Performative activism provides a sense of the magnitude of resistance, but doesn’t inherently provide changemaking action.

We must recognize these distinct versions of activism to truly understand the logistics of changemaking.

Museums can, and as MASS Action points out in the toolkit, museums should, sit somewhere between Performative and Authentic activism on this scale, and some may even achieve fully-realized change in Authentic activism. But in order to do so, we must recognize the progressive museum’s place within this trajectory.

Change is strategic. Justice is strategic.

When we eagerly take up activism in visible but actionless ways, we diminish the cause. When we jump to labeling ourselves “woke” without centering our practice in Social Justice and Critical Theory, we dilute our knowledge base. Mistakenly, we convince ourselves that we’ve done enough, when we’ve only done something.

Justice isn’t about “doing something,” it’s about doing the right thing. We are empathetic professionals. When we see the atrocities at the border we are inflamed and eager to start “doing something.” And of course museums can do any number of somethings (see examples below) in this border chaos and the resistance at large. Alinsky wrote, “The organizer knows that the real action is in the reaction of the opposition.” Authentic activism considers the endgame: protecting, expanding, or officializing human rights, not simply raising voice against the infringement of rights.

Effective Authentic activism demands us towards strategic, focused and goal-oriented action. We need our efforts to be tactical in order to be effective. Our future selves and loved ones don’t need our superficial activist distractions. They need real change.

If our goal is true justice we can’t continue to distract with all the unimpactful “somethings” we do. The cause isn’t over when we’ve accomplished something.

Yes, be courageous and radical and outraged. Be vocal and visible about it. But keep action at the center.


Here are two quick questions to ask of your institutions about their activist efforts:

scale of effective activism.jpg

Kayleigh Bryant-Greenwell is a Washington, D.C. cultural programmer and strategist with over 10 years of GLAM experience devoted to exploring ways to engage with marginalized audiences through art, museum, and social justice practice. As a DEAI facilitator, she is a contributor to national initiatives towards increasing equity and inclusion in museums including: MASS Action, The Empathetic Museum, and the inaugural National Summit for Teaching Slavery. She moderated the keynote conversation on education and equity for the American Alliance of Museums 2018 Annual Conference in Phoenix, AZ, with Suse Anderson, Donovan Livingston, and Frank Waln. As an education specialist with the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of African American History and Culture, she curates participatory public programs focusing on social justice issues, which empower museum audiences to share their own ideas and strategies towards equity. In 2015 she launched the inaugural year of the National Museum of Women in the Arts’ Women, Arts, and Social Change initiative, bringing in over 600 new audience members to the museum’s advocacy programming. Her writing is featured with Americans for the Arts, the American Alliance of Museums, and the National Art Education Association’s Viewfinder: a journal of art museum practice.

Whiteness and Museum Education

Contributed by Hannah Heller

This article originally appeared on https://incluseum.com/, and is used with permission.

A white museum educator is facilitating a conversation about an installation art work, consisting of a group of ten brightly dressed male mannequins with a group of white high school students. The artist has purposefully used patterned textiles in the place of skin color. The students start to describe the figures as “thugs,” speculating they might be drug dealers. Instead of pressing the group on their assumptions about that these figures, the educator pivots to a conversation about class markers, asking the students what they say that makes them think the figures are from a lower social class.

In a different museum, a white museum educator is facilitating a conversation, again with a predominantly white, suburban high school group, about a photograph of a staged vignette with all Black male models. The students engage in a nuanced conversation about the relationship between some negative stereotypes the artist used to convey Blackness (tattoos, loose cash) and some elements that our biased culture does not associate with Blackness (fatherhood, photographs of family). One question is left unasked: what makes us associate cash, or tattoos, or gold chains, in this case explicitly connected to Blackness, with something negative in the first place?

In an interview with another white museum educator, she comments that she feels “awkward” teaching from a particular, explicitly racially charged art work, “because everyone wants me to pick a side… and I can not, I am a neutral facilitator, right? Everything I do is student directed, student centered, student focused. What I think doesn’t matter at all… I have to keep it out. That’s just professionalism.” When asked about what she does when a student makes an offensive or problematic comment, she answers, “my job is to paraphrase, validate, and move on (emphasis mine).”

All of these are real interactions that I have personally witnessed in my investigations as a white museum educator examining the intersection between race, racism, and art museum education, specifically gallery teaching. Individually, each may not necessarily reveal very much, but taken together a picture starts to emerge of the various ways whiteness is enacted in museum education, both on an individual and systemic, institutionalized level, and the ways in which even the most well meaning white museum educators propagate systems of oppression, specifically white supremacy. In this blog post, I hope to introduce myself, define whiteness, and share some of my initial findings in advance of my dissertation research on how whiteness manifests in the way white people use objects to teach about race and racism.

I found myself originally drawn to the intersection of race and art museum education (admittedly exceedingly late in the game) as a result of a personal, academic, and professional transformative experience that happened to me in the aftermath of Michael Brown’s murder in Ferguson, Missouri in the summer of 2014. Of course, it was not the first time a white police officer extrajudicially shot and killed a Black person, but the publicization and nationwide protest around this particular event spurred something in me. I began to read about the prevalence of racism in American society, how embedded it is in nearly every institution we rely on. I started initiating conversations with friends and family members, as well as the different museum publics I work with as an art museum educator, probing their reactions to this event and ones like it; many of these conversations were uncomfortable, as it is difficult for white people to openly admit to benefiting from certain privileges simply because of the color of their skin without feeling defensive, or guilty (DiAngelo, 2011).

Given that the museum field is overwhelmingly white (Mellon Foundation, 2015), and after conducting a couple different pilot studies that surfaced instances such as the ones described above, it quickly became clear to me that it’s well past time for white museum educators to assume responsibility for this problem of our own making. While structurally low within the hierarchies of our institutions, we have immense power if you consider how much exposure to our various publics we have, how much we shape the way our visitors, particularly students, experience our spaces. Part of owning this responsibility and rectifying the impacts of our whiteness is making the important shift from defining racist acts exclusively in terms of the victims and start defining our own characteristics as perpetrators.

What is Whiteness?

It is important to note that long before whiteness became acknowledged within the academy as a viable field of study, writers of color had been writing about and defining whiteness for decades. In 1903, W. E. B. Du Bois named “the problem of the color line”– the distance between white and “darker… races of men” to be the problem of the 20th century (p. 41). Ellison (1952/2002), Baldwin (1985), and Fanon (1967) each acknowledged that whiteness is the root of the problem that is racism. And Tony Morrison (1992) in her book Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination articulated the impact of whiteness in this way:

It is as if I had been looking at a fishbowl — the glide and flick of the golden scales, the green tip, the bolt of white careening back from the gills; the castles at the bottom, surrounded by pebbles and tiny, intricate fronds of green; the barely disturbed water, the flecks of waste and food, the tranquil bubbles traveling to the surface — and suddenly I saw the bowl, the structure that transparently (and invisibly) permits the ordered life it contains to exist in the larger world (p. 17).

Whiteness, in other words, is the bowl that contains the movement, shape, and form of the fish and water within it. You can miss it if you aren’t looking for it.
While whiteness has been defined in varied ways, it is generally agreed that is a socially constructed racial category, one designed to privilege its members (Giroux, 1997; Karenga, 1999; Roediger, 1999; Stokes-Brown, 2002). For too long it has been defined as an expression of what it is not, an ever shifting, contorting construction of “otherness” (Jacobson, 1999). As Ruth Frankenberg (1996) puts it, “whiteness comes to self-name . . . simply through a triumphant ‘I am not that (p. 7)’” She provides a multifaceted definition of whiteness that addresses three components that feed each other. She defines whiteness as:

… a location of structural advantage, of race privilege. Second it is a ‘standpoint,’ a place from which white people look at ourselves, at others, and at society. Third, ‘whiteness’ refers to a set of cultural practices that are usually unmarked and unnamed (p. 1).

In short, whiteness is not only defined by a position of structural advantage (what we talk about when we talk about white privilege in its many forms) but also a state of being, a position of “unconsciousness,” described by bell hooks (1994) as an invisibility to its members that perpetuates a lack of critical reflexivity, a looking inward, required to truly upend its pursuant oppressive behaviors.
Whiteness in Education

These behaviors manifest in every aspect of society, not least of which in education. There is a large body of research on impacts of whiteness in classroom settings, revealing impacts both in teaching methods, curriculum, and policies. I’ll share a couple studies that illustrate the inequities that can happen when whiteness factors too largely in a classroom or pre-service settings:

  • Lowered expectations for POC students, employing a deficit model of thinking (Chubbuck, 2004; Marx, 2004; McCarthy, 2003), and a loyalty to tracking, which has been demonstrated to be a biased form of categorizing students into lower and higher performing levels (Chubbuck, 2004) .
  • White teachers in predominantly white settings are more likely to “gloss over” issues related to race than in more diverse ones (Haviland, 2008).
  • In treating non-dominant groups with sympathy, rather than empathy or with any critical thinking about the circumstances that contribute to their perceived otherness, it “has had the effect of reproducing the sense of oddness, differentness, exceptionality of these groups” (Dyer, 1997, p. 141).

The lack of critical thinking conveyed in the last point can be observed especially in curricular elements, for example when US students learn about slavery, more often than not emphasis is placed on the experiences of enslaved people, what their lives might have been like, but rarely any emphasis at all on the actual white perpetrators who enslaved them, who was and remains accountable?

My Observations of Whiteness in Museum Education

While well documented in classroom contexts, whiteness is underexplored in museum education, particularly gallery teaching. I began to wonder how museum educators choose– or as the case often is, not choose– to engage with race on their tours and developed two different pilot studies ahead of my dissertation to develop my thoughts, one of which was a comparison study, observing and interviewing two museum educators of color (Marieke and Juan) and two WME (Cara and Kristine) leading tours of work by the same artist to compare how educators of color and White educators treated race using similar art works. This study was just the start (in fact one of my major findings is that we need more time to keep thinking these issues through!), and findings indicated a couple different avoidance strategies, but to start I’ll share one of my major findings around use of language.

Specificity of Language (euphemisms)

Use of language figured prominently as a subtle way educators either purposefully operationalized race on their tours, or, as was the case more often with white educators, softened the focus on race per se.

While the two educators of color were more likely to approach a substantial conversation about race regardless of the racial makeup of their group, they were still aware of the power of language and its place within any contextual work in order to get students on the same page. One example of this is Juan’s aforementioned “agenda” of elucidating agreed upon terms, such as Latino, Hispanic, colonialism, as well as Marieke’s well taken point about “getting people on same page” via a “racism 101” lesson.

On the other hand, White educators often utilized euphemistic linguistic tools as a way of speaking around race, but not necessarily on race itself. Revealingly, neither Cara nor Kristine actually referenced Black people or African Americans by name on their tours, despite that oppressed group being the primary focus of the artist’s work. Instead they relied on euphemisms like “diversity,” class, or status, or strived to make race based references more universally relevant. This speaks to the urgency behind Dewhurst & Hendricks (2016) charge for educators to become comfortable using common terminology associated with conversations about race, such as systemic violence, institutionalized racism, structural racism, construct of race, etc. Too often educators avoid these topics out of fear for speaking out of turn, offending someone, or citing incorrect information (a sentiment voiced repeatedly by Cara). In so doing, we avoid potentially difficult, however productive conversations (Dewhurst & Hendricks, 2016, p. 27).

For example, Cara asked a series of open ended questions about skin bleaching on her tour, seeking to create a link to the artist’s interest in skin color as an accessory, given readily available methods of skin bleaching in the artist’s home country. While this was more or less achieved, nevertheless the arguably more pressing and relevant question of why someone would want lighter color skin in the first place was never addressed. This makes sense given Cara’s overall approach to inquiry with the artist’s work, praising the artist’s goal of drawing people in visually through use of bright, attractive materials. She correlated this with the artist’s interest in drawing the viewer in visually and then gradually letting the hidden message of the work settle in. With her students, she allows them similarly to start with what they see and go from there– a common tactic in museum education:

Oh, let me just start with class and status and like, I see this money, I see money things and like wealth. And I can approach that, I can digest that. And then as you keep looking at it, you realize there’s so much more here (personal communication, March 30, 3016).

When asked about it in the interview, Cara noted the relationship between why a person would want to appear lighter skinned, in order to be perceived as having a higher status within society, but still did not make the connection between light skinned-ness and Whiteness, and why within a nearly all Black Caribbean society, whiteness would still be held up as the thing that is “best.” Put another way, because Cara felt more comfortable couching her course of inquiry solely within her students’ immediate observations, they were never compelled to interrogate more critically relevant issues that may not necessarily occur to them by looking, such as what about white skin is desirable in the first place– a query that has nothing to do with class, but rather the values we construct and apply to skin tone (ie, race).

Kristine was slightly more explicit when referring to race, but when the art became about references to violence against Black people, its relationship to race was silenced. When discussing a piece that makes explicit references to murders perpetrated against Black youths, she referred to “a child” in Chicago who “had been killed,” (note the passive voice) but not the circumstances related to his death. While not necessarily an obvious difference, the language that we use and how we use it can be hugely important as far as representing certain values. Fine’s (1987, 2003) concept of “naming” speaks to the importance of specificity of our language. Not naming forms of oppression can be an inadvertent “means of silencing students” (p. 249).

Conclusion – Power of Reflective Practice

This study was just a start, with a small sample and some very preliminary findings to keep testing. But I think there’s enough there to indicate that there’s work to be done as far as white museum educators thinking critically and reflexively about their practice, and how their racial identity impacts their work. Reflective practice is a super important (albeit often overlooked) element of good practice. Reflection for White practitioners doing this work takes on further nuance.

McIntyre (1997) notes that all too often it is researchers, educators, writers, and artists of color articulating anti-racist discourse (as per my observations this is still still true 20 years later); at the risk of centering whiteness, she advocates for supporting White educators to find their own critical voice against White supremacy (p. xi). Following her study in which she studied White classroom teachers, I argue that in order for White educators to be better prepared to support all students, particularly as demographic research maintains our student body is growing more and more racially diverse, they must engage in reflective exercises designed to “develop a range of insights about their own socialization processes and their own locations as White… teachers” (p. 5). Because whiteness is often invisible or hard to define, White educators have difficulty identifying where it manifests, and in turn, what their responsibilities are as far as countering it (DiAngelo, 2011). Because of this, white practitioners tend to have difficulty with placing the onus of change on themselves. Only when it is made visible can it be disrupted.

So how to do this? Here’s some suggestions, feel free to add more!

  • Develop a community of practice. Find some colleagues, sit down over coffee or something stronger, and try to answer for yourselves what it means to you to be white, to be a white educator, to work in white institutions.
  • Ask someone you trust to observe you, or record yourself teaching or interacting with guests (with permission!). What can you observe about the choices you make? Do you notice any avoidance strategies around choice of object, language that you use?
  • Ask if you can shadow some tours with colleagues of color. I’ve long felt that we have so much to learn from each other in general, and I have learned so much from my POC colleagues specifically around developing a teaching practice that is inherently anti-racist, that is shaped by a need to call out problematic behaviors that we see in our world, our institutions, in the objects themselves– and further, modeling for our students what calling those behaviors out can look like.

I hope to write more in the future as my study develops, and welcome any feedback along the way. Feel free to be in touch with any questions or comments! hannah.d.heller@gmail.com@museum_matters

Sources

Baldwin, J. (1985). The price of the ticket: Collected nonfiction. 1948-1985. Macmillan.

Brown, C. S. (2002). Refusing racism: White allies and the struggle for civil rights. Teachers College Press.

Chubbuck, S. M. (2004). Whiteness enacted, whiteness disrupted: The complexity of personal congruence. American educational research journal, 41(2), 301-333.

Dewhurst, M. & Hendricks, K. (2016). Dismantling Racism in Museum Education. Journal of Folklore and Education, 3, 25-30.

DiAngelo, R. (2011). White fragility. The International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, 3(3).

Dyer, R. (1997). Whiteness. Screen, 29, 44–45.

Ellison, R. (1952). Invisible Man. New York: Vintage, 19.

Fanon, F. (1967). Black skin, white masks. New York.

Fine, M. (2003). Silencing and nurturing voice in an improbable context: Urban adolescents in public school. Silenced voices and extraordinary conversations: Re-imagining schools, 13-37.

Frankenberg, R. (1993). White women, race matters: The social construction of whiteness. University of Minnesota Press.

Haviland, V. S. (2008). “Things Get Glossed Over” Rearticulating the Silencing Power of Whiteness in Education. Journal of Teacher Education, 59(1), 40–54.

Hooks, B. (1994). Outlaw culture: Resisting representations. Routledge.

Giroux, H. (1997). Rewriting the Discourse of Racial Identity: Towards a Pedagogy and Politics of Whiteness. Harvard Educational Review: July 1997, Vol. 67, No. 2, pp. 285-321.

Jacobson, M. F. (1999). Whiteness of a different color. Harvard University Press.

Karenga, M. (1999). Whiteness studies: Deceptive or welcome discourse? Black Issues in Higher
Education, 16, 26–27.

Marx, S. (2004). Regarding whiteness: Exploring and intervening in the effects of white racism in teacher education. Equity & Excellence in Education, 37(1), 31-43.

McCarthy, C. (2003). Contradictions of power and identity: Whiteness studies and the call of teacher education. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 16(1), 127–133.

McIntyre, A. (1997). Making meaning of whiteness: Exploring racial identity with white teachers. Suny Press.

Morrison, T. (1992). Playing in the dark: Whiteness and the literary imagination. New York: Vintage.

Roediger, D. R. (1999). The wages of whiteness: Race and the making of the American working class. Verso.

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. (2015). Art Museum Staff Demographic Survey. https://mellon.org/media/filer_public/ba/99/ba99e53a-48d5-4038-80e1-66f9ba1c020e/awmf_museum_diversity_report_aamd_7-28-15.pdf

Hannah Heller is an NYC based museum educator, and has taught and worked on research and evaluation projects in several cultural institutions including the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, Inc., Whitney Museum of American Art, El Museo del Barrio, the American Folk Art Museum, and the Museum of Arts and Design. She is currently a doctoral candidate in the Art & Art Education program at Teachers College, and holds a MA in Museum Education from Tufts University. Her research interests include developing orientations towards social justice through close looking at art; she believes art can play an active and healing role, especially when addressing difficult topics such as race and racism in a group setting.

AAM 2018

The 2018 Annual Meeting of the American Alliance of Museums is underway, and there is a strong showing of MASS Action collaborators here this year. If you are in Phoenix for the conference, please come say hello! Follow #AAM2018 and #MassActionMia to join and participate in the conversation.

SUNDAY, MAY 6

Karleen Gardner
Creating Place and Space: Museums and the Immigration Experience
1:00 PM - 2:15 PM
Location: 127 ABC

Chris Taylor
Impact and Scalability: Building Civic Engagement into Every Museum
2:30 PM - 3:45 PM
Location: 224 AB

Omar Eaton-Martinez
Interviews from 2040: Leadership and Sustainability, Truth and Reconciliation 
4pm to 5:15pm
Location: 126 ABC           

Nicole Ivy
Beyond Diversity: Lessons from the AAM DEAI Working Group
4:00 PM - 5:15 PM
Location: 125 AB

Michelle Moon, Heather Nielsen, Sonnet Takahisa
I Made It at the Art Museum: Maker Spaces in Art Museums
4:00 PM - 5:15 PM
Location: 122 AB

Jason Porter
30th Annual Excellence in Exhibition
4:00 PM - 5:15 PM
Location: 229 AB

Emily Potter-Ndiaye
Engaging Teens through History: Careers and Workforce Development
4pm - 5:15pm
Location: 222 ABC           

MONDAY, MAY 7

Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko, Ben Garcia
Decolonizing the Museum: Reflection, Vision, and Change
8:45 AM - 10:00 AM
Location: 131 ABC

EXPO HIGHLIGHT
Museums & Race Transformation and Justice Lounge
See M&R website for full schedule and information. Follow @MuseumsandRace #MuseumsandRace to join the conversation.
Monday 12pm – Wednesday 12pm
Location: Booth 1704 in the Expo Hall

Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko, Nicole Ivy, Margaret Middleton, Aletheia Wittman
Open Forum on Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion
1:30 PM - 3:30 PM
Location: 224 AB

Christine Lashaw
Beyond Words: Immersive Interpretive Strategies in Art Exhibitions
1:45 PM - 3:00 PM
Location: 125 AB

Jason Porter
(Non)Profiteering: Mission versus Margin
1:45 PM - 3:00 PM
Location: 225 AB

Lauren Zalut
Engaging the System: Museums Working in the Incarceration System
1:45 PM - 3:00 PM
Location: 128 AB

HAPPY HOUR HIGHLIGHT
DivCom + #drinkingaboutequity meetup
5:30 – 7pm
Location: Valley Bar 

TUESDAY, MAY 8

Chris Taylor
Making Space for (Other) Voices: Challenging Perceptions
8:45 AM - 10:00 AM
Location: 229 AB

Nicole Ivy
Museum Inclusion: New Report from the Mellon Foundation/AAMD
8:45 AM - 10:00 AM
Location: 126 ABC

Janeen Bryant
Are Museums the Rightful Home for Confederate Monuments?
8:45 AM - 10:00 AM
Location: 129 AB

Alice Anderson
Measuring Awe and Critical Thinking in Museums
1:30 PM - 2:45 PM
Location: 227 ABC

Marjorie Bequette
Learning from Non-Visitors: Finding Better Ways to Reach Out to and Serve Underrepresented Groups
1:30 PM - 2:45 PM
Location: 129 AB

Elisabeth Callihan, Divya Rao Heffley
Experimental Museum Processes: New Models for Collaboration, Agency, and Voice
1:30 PM - 2:45 PM
Location: 225 AB

Latino Network
Latinos in Conversation on Global Immigration Politics and Policies
4:30 PM - 5:30 PM
Location: 123

HAPPY HOUR HIGHLIGHT
MASS Action Happy Hour + Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, Inclusion Mixer
5:30 – 7 PM
Location: Hyatt Hotel 

WEDNESDAY, MAY 9

Kayleigh Bryant-Greenwell, co-moderator
Keynote Speaker: Donovan Livingston & Frank Waln
9:00 AM - 10:00 AM
Location: North Ballroom

Janeen Bryant, Omar Eaton-Martinez, Ben Garcia, Stacey Mann
Museums and Race Report Card: Looking Back to Move Forward
10:15 AM - 11:30 AM
Location: 129 AB           

Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko, Gretchen Jennings, Chris Taylor
The Empathetic Museum: Mission Impossible?
10:15 AM - 11:30 AM
Location: 225 AB

Joanne Jones-Rizzi, Kenneth Morris
A Change in Elevation: Museums Rising to the Challenge of Equity
10:15 AM - 11:30 AM
Location: 128 AB

Wendy Ng
Case Study: Activating Agentic Indigenous Voices and Ancestral Objects through Digital Learning
10:15 AM - 10:45 AM
Location: 228 AB

Margaret Middleton
Building Capacity Through Social Justice: Lessons from Children's Museums
11:45 AM - 1:00 PM
Location: 227 ABC

 

 

It’s Time to Listen: This Guggenheim Project Showed the Importance of Lending an Ear

Contributed by Rachel Ropeik

This article originally appeared on guggenheim.org/blogs, and is used with permission. 

Over the past year, our news cycles and social media exchanges have often seemed to be platforms for increasingly one-way communication. People of all political affiliations are using what tools they have to share their ideas as fully formed faits accomplis. Should anyone try to question or discuss those ideas, the tone of the discourse often devolves even further, with the result that little–if any–empathy or understanding is reached.

This was the state of affairs last spring and summer, when Lenka Clayton and Jon Rubin’s . . . circle through New York project sent six different items and ideas rotating through six different locations around Manhattan, the Bronx, and Queens. In July, the Guggenheim hosted “A Call to Action against Social Injustice,” a thoughtful appeal composed by St. Philip’s Church in Harlem. An interdepartmental team of curators and educators came together to brainstorm ideas for how to take action in response, and after some discussion, we decided to focus in on this section: “Always be just as ready to listen as you are emboldened to speak out for or against others.”

As the Manager of Public Engagement at the Guggenheim, I train and manage a number of educators who regularly talk with our visitors. I encourage the educators to be participants in two-way conversations, not experts delivering one-way content. To respond to the call to action, we embraced that idea and decided to make our visitors the experts, with museum staff as their attentive listeners.

We crafted a question to ask our visitors that’s been on the minds of many museum workers: What roles can cultural institutions play in times of social and political change?

Then we put out an invitation to any interested Guggenheim staff, especially those who don’t usually interact directly with visitors. Who wanted to head out into our galleries to pose this question to visitors and record what they said in response? Nineteen staff members from six different departments (Education, Curatorial, Marketing, Security, Library & Archives, and Development) volunteered. Since many of these staffers were nervous about opening themselves up to these conversations—after all, we were asking people to discuss a sensitive topic with strangers where the answers might be directly opposed to their own thoughts and feelings—we hired Keonna Hendrick, a cultural strategist and educator, to provide some professional (and personal) development sessions.

All of the participants were required to attend one of Keonna’s training sessions, where she focused on techniques for listening, even when we might not agree. We also encouraged our staff to truly embody that role of listener, to encourage and record visitors’ thoughts without judgment and without engaging in debate, giving our visitors the metaphorical microphone.

With these tools and guidelines under their belts, the staff volunteers went out into the galleries for a total of about forty hours of listening to our visitors. Over that period, we learned that out of nearly two hundred responding visitors, significant percentages of them see museums as places for dialogue, for learning, for sanctuary, and for direct social engagement. Sometimes these desires are at odds with each other. To me, that is the value of hearing what our visitors have to say. They are not a monolithic group, and they look to museums to play different roles in their lives. Here are a few of the things they told us:

“A cultural institution becomes a venue for creative minds to showcase the social and political change of every era.”

“Culture can’t be divorced from politics and cultural institutions must reflect this! Especially now, reflect back and uplift the voices of the vulnerable—communities of color, women, immigrants, LGBTQI, etc.”

“Dare [to] criticize and challenge left-wing orthodoxy.”

I like to think that in addition to getting direct contact with our visitors’ points of view, our staff gained another benefit from their participation in . . . circle through New York. When it came time to gather feedback from them on how it felt to take part in this listening action, many of them shared an appreciation for the direct visitor insights, but just as many referenced the listening itself as their most powerful or significant takeaway. One staffer noted, “The biggest takeaway for me from this experience was the act of listening . . . We need more communication that is free from judgment and mutually respectful.” Another remarked, “The training workshop was really helpful for me and I am finding it applicable in work and life.”

At a time when so much of our public discourse is aggressive or aggrieved, hurting or hurtful, with little in between, I’m holding onto the lessons from our month of listening. I have outlined our process here, hoping that other museums might be able to adapt this approach to learn from their own visitors and foster real-time, face-to-face conversation. Here’s to meaningful listening, in 2018 and beyond.

© 2018 The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation

Thoughts on Museum Neutrality: What is the Conflict?

Contributed by Gretchen Jennings

Can Museums Be Neutral? ,a post by Museum Questions blogger Rebecca Herz, galvanized museum discussions on Twitter and Facebook in December, 2017. The conversation died down over the holidays, but I’ve continued to reflect on some of the important questions that were raised. Earlier in the new year I posted thoughts by Dan Spock on the topic, in which he argued that balance and accuracy must be part of the conversation..

There is not (yet) a single narrative on this issue. Those of us writing about museum non-neutrality are building a line of inquiry, not an air-tight definition. Continuing in this investigative spirit, I’d like to focus on one issue raised by Herz’s post: that neutrality presupposes a conflict in which one does or does not take sides.  I believe that museums are indeed engaged in conflict. What is its nature?

Some might say that it lies in engagement with rifts in our society—racism, sexism, homophobia, the legacy of slavery, mass incarceration, income inequality, immigration policy. These are indeed divisive issues that some museums such as the National Museum of African American Culture and History Eastern State Penitentiary and The Levine Museum of the New South have rightly taken on in exhibitions, programming, and public statements.  However, there is a more basic source of conflict in our field: a conversation about the nature of museums themselves, It is here that we find the roots of our non-neutrality. And it is this conflict that we must address even while keeping our eyes on the wider world.

For insight, read the powerful introduction to the downloadable Toolkit for MASS Action:  Museum as Site for Social Action. The authors locate museums’ origins in a particular world view that privileges a Western (and white) set of values regarding race, sex, and class. Beliefs in the primacy of scientific understanding, Enlightenment philosophies, and encyclopedic knowledge may appear to be self-evident and benign, but they are entangled with colonial “expedition, appropriation, and export” and the creation of a system of taxonomy.  “The system makes claims on rationality but its biases and limitations are readily apparent.” That most museums, whatever their discipline or niche, come from this set of values means that they have already chosen (consciously or unconsciously) a side. “Museums do not just describe or collect cultural knowledge; they create it” (p. 12).  It is for this reason that we can say that museums are not neutral.

Worldwide travel, immigration, the flight of refugees, global commerce—all of these mean that the racially, culturally homogeneous nation state (if it ever truly existed) is a thing of the past.  Museums of all disciplines cannot continue to affirm a single narrative as the norm if they wish to remain relevant cultural institutions.

The current discussion about non-neutrality asks that museums

  1. Acknowledge the default position (described above) that most cultural institutions currently hold..
  2. Admit that they are indeed creating knowledge, not just displaying it; that their missions and collections reflect A point of view rather than THE last word. Art museum labels and catalogs, for example, should be more transparent about how and why they select some art/artists over others. Children’s museums should be aware that their assumptions about the value of play are culturally conditioned. They should present wider options diverse family participation..
  3. Take steps to move all of their organizational systems (Board membership, hiring policies, collections management, etc).toward inclusion, equity and justice, Museums must shift from practices reflective of a single dominant perspective to a more transparent and inclusive model.

In other words, museums must acknowledge that they already stand for what appears to many as an oppressive, unyielding, and exclusionary set of values. Museums must examine this stance, and they must decide if they wish to change sides. Cosmetic initiatives such as hiring a person of color for “underserved audiences” or bringing in a temporary curator on a diversity fellowship are not the answer. Real change requires systemic transformation.

The following are three initiatives that provide resources for this kind of intensive work.

The MASSAction Toolkit–

Visitors of Color

The Empathetic Museum Initiative

I want to be clear that this post is not advocating that museums avoid or ignore current issues that affect their audiences.  it’s my experience, however, that unless an institution is engaged in the internal work of inclusion and equity, its efforts to become involved in larger issues are likely to be reactive, patronizing, and sporadic.  Museums that are deeply involved in their own self-reflection and transformation will contribute to our world in ways that are authentic, grounded, and sustainable.  This is the kind of non-neutrality that we need.

25 Ways to See and Act on Decentering Whiteness Aka White Supremacy in the Museum

Contributed by Radiah Harper

Hello warriors. Since returning home from the MASS Action convening, I’ve been thinking about the conversations, comments, and action steps we talked about during our time together. It seems to me ‘how to’ touch the humanity of this work, which is our social justice practice, is on folks’ minds. My original intent was to share this piece with the leadership circle from the other day. Today, I’m thinking there are take-aways for all of us.

My goal here is to offer a way in to the question of how to decenter whiteness in the museum. My suggestions are in no way comprehensive, for instance they do not address every colonial issue like stolen cultural patrimony or the economic foundation of the museum. However, I do ask: What self-reflection is necessary to do the work of ending white supremacy in the museum? What skills do we need to build culturally competent relationships and spaces?

Knowing we are the museum, here are 25 ways to check where you are in decentering whiteness or white supremacy. 

1. If you are not seeing every black, brown, tan, and cream person of color as a person of stature equal to your own, you are not doing the work.

2. If you are not including the research and perspective of people of color in your work on people of color, you are not doing the work.

3. If you work with people of color and one person tells you their supervisor is racist and you don’t believe them, you are not doing the work.

4. If you haven’t addressed racism in the workplace, you are not doing the work.

5. If you haven’t looked inside yourself to recognize your own biases, you have not begun the work.

6. If you work with people of color and they quit the job stating the supervisor could not accept the differences between them, you’re not doing the work.

7. If you are still writing labels about the art, history, and culture of people of color without talking to or researching the perspectives of people of color, you are not doing the work.

8. If you are not co-creating materials with people of color, you are not doing the work.

9. If you are not locating where, how and to what degree people of color and white people are interconnected, you are not doing the work.

10. If you are only recruiting and hiring people of color with education and experience like your own, you are not doing the work.

11. If the voices of people of color inside and outside the institution are not accepted as true and knowledgeable, you are not doing the work.

12. If your institutional mission does not include an equity and inclusion statement, you are not doing the work.

13. If there are no woke people of color on your senior management team, you are not doing the work.

14. If people of color in the institution are not contributing to idea generation and the implementation of exhibitions and programs, you are not doing the work.

15. If the images of people of color are not in your brochures and videos or on your website, you are not doing the work.

16. If images of people of color in states of authority, and not just dancing, are not used in your marketing materials, you are not doing the work.

17. If the photographer comes to the museum to capture the activities of staff and visitors, and s/he fails to produce photographs of the people of color, you are not doing the work.

18. If there are no people of color at your fundraiser beside seat fillers, you are not doing the work.

19. If your acquisitions team or individual curators are finally purchasing objects of black, brown, tan, and cream people and they select the most visually unattractive representation of a person or historical narrative and they say but it references a moment in time and you let that go, you are not doing the work.

20. If there are no people of color in every facet of your museum then you are not doing the work.

21. If people of color are not in positions of power throughout your institution then, you are not doing the work.

22. If people of color are not creating, implementing, and leading without a white gaze hovering, then you are not doing the work.

23. If you think people of color are angry and you use that to stop progress, you’re not doing the work.

24. If the white voice has the final word in every situation, then you are not doing the work of decentering whiteness in an institution located within a global society made predominately of people of color.

25. If the antidotes to the preceding challenges are not in your consciousness yet, explore them deeply with your colleagues and get to work.

“Let us be those creative dissenters who will call our beloved nation to a higher destiny; to a new plateau of compassion, to a more noble expression of humanness.” ―
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Q. What would you add?

Radiah Harper
October 2017