Two weeks ago, the Department of Homeland Security revealed that over 2,300 children were separated from their families along the Mexico-U.S. border under President Trump’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy. Although he has since reversed this order, parents and children remain separated in detainment centers, and it continues to be unclear how – and when – families will be reunited. In response, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators across the United States took to the streets on Saturday to protest the administration and to march in solidarity with immigrant families seeking asylum.
In this ever-changing political climate, museums have the ability to foster a safe and inclusive learning environment where individuals can come together to speak out and discuss immigration and other social injustices. As platforms for education, contemplation, and inspiration, museums also have a social responsibility to respond. How though, can such institutions take action?
The Oakland Museum of California has recently highlighted its Sent Away exhibition (permanently on view in the Museum’s Gallery of California History), which documents the experience of the seven thousand Japanese American families who were sent to the Tanforan Assembly Center internment camp in the 1940s under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066. “With the recent ‘Sent Away’ installation,” according to the Museum’s curator, Erendina Delgadillo, “we’ve been paying attention to whether the visitors really understand, and if it’s properly conveying the trajectory of racialized communities in moments of political and social stress.”
This is not the first time that museums have promptly responded to President Trump’s divisive policies. In February 2017, after announcing a travel and immigration ban against several Muslim-majority countries, MoMA protested by rehanging art made by artists from the list of banned nations. In a similar demonstration of solidarity, the Davis Museum at Wellesley College removed or covered any artworks in its collection that was “made by an immigrant” or “given by an immigrant,” surmounting to over twenty percent of its art being censored.
However, museums do not necessarily have to highlight their art to make a difference. They could also host symposia, guest speakers, readings, open forums, film screenings, panels, and other public programs that explore current events revolved around American history and culture, immigration, democracy, or government. For instance, the New-York Historical Society recently launched the Citizenship Project, an initiative that offers free American history courses for green card holders hoping to take their naturalization exam. It also hosts naturalization ceremonies, allowing individuals to come together to celebrate their new citizenship in an effort devoted to “telling the American story and fostering a community of learners to consider what it means to be an American, past and present.”
Unfortunately, museums largely remain silent about the stories of individuals who continue to be systematically excluded. While doing research for this blog post, I was surprised and saddened at the lack of museums responding to our current climate. As we have learned from our country’s history, apathy and silence will fuel, not heal, our society’s malaise. If more museums took the small step of acknowledging our political situation by actively becoming a part of the conversation, it would make a world of difference.