Today’s  post comes to you from Colleen Sutherland, recent Tufts Museum Studies graduate and previous co-editor of the Tufts Museum Studies Blog. To read some of her previous work, click here.

Where have museums been during the recent incidents of police-related violence, protests, and the discussion around race? As community spaces, museums are in the unique position to engage with their communities around contemporary events, particularly ones that are traumatic and require unprecedented action that no one seems to know how to take. Museums should have their fingers on the pulse of their communities, and should be able to both respond with their constituents and help create proactive solutions.

One of the major goals of museums is to inspire critical thinking, and a big part of critical thinking is understanding other perspectives, whether or not you agree with them.  Yet no matter your point of view, it seems like no one is really talking to each other – it’s more like at each other. There is a lot of confusion, anger, and pain felt by all parties involved. Museums can and should be helping people understand what is happening right now, especially when you consider how much the nation is already talking about the state of race relations, violence, gun rights, and injustice. If we want museums to be safe spaces where their communities can turn to for discussion and learning, we need to put our money where our mouths are, so to speak. If we’re not helping to further the conversation, does that make us inauthentic or disingenuous?

Museums can play a huge role in helping people understand and discuss, and eventually to help produce solutions and begin to heal. Some museums are responding to this need, and I’ll talk about that later. Still, some museums might be hesitant because they don’t want to get mired down in political discussions, or that they don’t believe that the topics fit their missions. But if the mission of a museum is to engage with its audience, to serve the needs of its community, then I would argue that programming around social justice is all the more imperative. Some museums might not know how to proceed and so are putting it off or are stuck in discussion with how to begin. And that’s understandable. These are huge, systemic issues that can be very difficult to facilitate. But that’s why it’s even more important that we lead the discussion and the action. Museums have experience talking about hard topics, or at least facilitating discussion, so they have a natural place encouraging people to sort through complex emotions and thoughts. And that’s what we as a nation need right now, when we’re having trouble communicating with each other.

For museums to be effective at this, we need to be more flexible and responsive to the needs of our communities. It takes a long time for an exhibition to go from concept to opening night, and many museums already have their public programming set through the fall. That doesn’t mean that extra pop-up exhibitions or programs can’t be added, however. It’s relatively easy to add in town hall type discussions, talks lead by staff members, or even conversations surrounding relevant books, poems, or films. Perhaps museums can encourage these types of extra programs by changing some of the ways that programs are presented to the public, to allow for events that are timely and relevant without a long marketing push.

Here are some museums that are joining in on the discussions, with exhibitions and programming – past, present, or future – to give you ideas if you’re feeling stuck:

  • Museums Discuss Black Lives Matter: This YouTube video is almost two hours long, but it’s completely worth it. As many of you know from previous posts I’ve written, my focus is on education, and this video is from the NYC Museum Educators Roundtable. However, the discussion they held at the Whitney Museum is applicable to more than just educators. The discussion centers around “how museum workers, from front-line staff to departments and institutions, have addressed the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and continue to advocate for change.” Even if you don’t agree with everything that’s being said, it’s a very helpful resource and that dialogue is important.
  • The African American Museum in Philadelphia
    • Arresting Patterns I recently had an opportunity to visit this exhibition in May, and it is phenomenal. Through a mixture of contemporary art, news clippings, and some extremely striking video vignettes of young men talking about their encounters with police, the exhibition helps you start an internal dialogue and gives you ways to carry that dialogue over externally.
    • Community-focused Open House and Town Hall discussion around the systemic disparity inherent in the US justice system, and its impact on communities of color.” There are live performances and a panel discussion by community leaders.
  • The Underground Museum (a collaboration between LACMA and MOCA):
    • Nonfiction exhibition “pulls together works of art that investigate, either explicitly or implicitly, the culture of violence perpetrated on black citizens.”
    • Holding Court, “a new series of conversations and performances connecting artists, writers, political thinkers and audiences on the social issues and creative endeavors that matter most.”
  • The African American History Museum (scheduled to open this fall in Washington, DC) has an exhibition focusing on Black Lives Matter

It is important to note, though, that most of the museums discussed above already have mechanisms in place to talk about social justice. So how do museums who don’t have that join the discussion? Is your museum addressing these issues, and if so, how are you doing it?