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, 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!


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.

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.


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           


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

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

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


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

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


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, 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

Welcome to MASS Action Blog!



Welcome to the MASS Action blog. This is a place to connect our community of practice, to share concepts and ideas, learning and experiences, and to post case studies from your institution. This is also a space to stay in touch with your fellow MASS Action participants as we continue to build on the important work of creating more equitable and socially just museums.