Museum Studies at Tufts University

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Tag: social justice

Museums Celebrate Juneteenth

Over the weekend, many people across the nation celebrated Juneteenth — a day made all the more special this year because it was finally made a national holiday, the first new one declared since Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in 1983. This long overdue step in our country’s story is vital, yet it is also just the beginning: a reminder of all we have yet to accomplish in bringing freedom, justice, and equality to all. As beacons of history, social enlightenment and education, and change, museums are uniquely situated to tell the story of Juneteenth and its implications, and many have long been doing so.

June 19th, 2021: Houston dancer Prescylia Mae performs at the dedication ceremony for a new mural honoring emancipation, Galveston, Texas. via Galveston County Daily News

 
First, what is Juneteenth? This holiday, long celebrated by Black Americans, commemorates June 19th, 1865. On this day, the arrival of Union troops to Galveston, Texas informed the still-enslaved African Americans that they were free; the Emancipation Proclamation, signed all the way back in 1863, was at last the law of the land. Peace had come nearly two months prior, resulting in the South’s defeat; the treaty was signed, President Abraham Lincoln already dead. Yet news spread slowly, and enslavers resisted the change, meaning that these Texan African Americans still did not know they were free; Juneteenth remembers the day that the belated news finally reached them. Celebrations of this holiday spread rapidly through Black communities in the following years, and now, it has finally been acknowledged on a federal level.
 
So what can we expect from the museum field going forward, with Juneteenth finally being a part of the national consciousness? Here is just a brief list of examples of what we saw this year, and what we can expect from now on.
 

Members of the Pan African Rhythm Cooperative perform at the grand opening of the Harriet Tubman Museum, which doubled as a Juneteenth celebration.

This museum had its long-anticipated grand opening on June 19th, 2021, combining the ceremony with a Juneteenth celebration. The commemoration included performances by the Pan African Rhythm Cooperative, Civil War reenactments, communal prayer, and a discussion of the meaning of Juneteenth. Four hundred community members gathered to attend. 
 
 
NMAAHC honored Juneteenth with a whole series of virtual programs, which included insights from novelists, professors, eminent scholars, singer-songwriters, storytellers, and museum professionals. These online events, free and open to the public, grappled with the meaning of Juneteenth historically and in our modern climate, while also educating participants about African American cultural traditions, literature, activism, and even food. Watch those programs and learn more about the holiday on NMAAHC’s Juneteenth resource page here.
 
Over the weekend, the MFA commemorated Juneteenth with free admission to the museum and a series of outdoor events, including a concert organized by BAMS Fest (an organization dedicated to breaking down racial barriers in the arts), art-making inspired by and discussions in tribute to Basquiat, and a screening of the new documentary Summer of Soul, presented in partnership with the Roxbury International Film Festival. The MFA’s events illustrate the ability of museums of all types to fight for racial justice and celebrate the contributions of people of color in our nation.
 

Informational slides on Juneteenth. via blkfreedom.org

On June 15th, 2021, blkfreedom.org hosted a spectacular virtual event of education and celebration. Ten museums of African American history and culture participated, demonstrating the sheer power and impact of museums in cooperation with one another. The entire event can be viewed online here. The participating museums:
 
Amistad Research Center, New Orleans, LA
 
With these and other events across the country, American museums used Juneteenth as an opportunity to celebrate, honor, remember, and educate. Hopefully, we can expect such commemorations of our newest national holiday for years to come.

A Promise for All People: Reflecting on an Afternoon at Boston’s Old State House

I have been fascinated by the history of the early Americas and United States since middle school, and dreamed of one day moving to the Boston area — since American Revolution sites are pretty hard to come by in my hometown on the central coast of California. When I arrived last autumn to begin my studies at Tufts, one of the first places I headed for was the Old State House, and it is a museum visit that has stuck with me all these months later. As I sit in California, home for a visit before it’s back to New England, I thought I would use my first post as the new History editor to reflect on that first afternoon I spent making a pilgrimage to this powerful place.

The Old State House is an impressive building. Built all the way back in 1713, it has been restored and maintained beautifully. A two-story brick structure, it manages to still catch the eye, though it is surrounded now by a swarm of much taller modern buildings.

The Old State House, 12 September 2020.

That first day, I paused outside for a few minutes; I’ve done so every time I’ve returned. The infamous Boston Massacre (for so it was called by beloved propagandists like Paul Revere) occurred here, in the shadow of this building, on the snowy night of March 5th, 1770. An initially harmless scuffle — characterized by shouting and snowball-throwing — between Bostonians and British soldiers, many of whom were intimately acquainted because of the army’s longtime residence in the city, ended badly, and five patriots lost their lives. They are all buried together, in the Old Granary Burying Ground, a five-minute walk from the Old State House. This is another place I like to pause. Once I witnessed a father reading the victims’ names off the headstone to his little son and daughter — telling them the story of that chilly night. They listened unwaveringly.

The headstone for the Boston Massacre victims at the Old Granary Burying Ground, 12 September 2020.

One of the names this man read to his children was Crispus Attucks. As I walked through the Old State House that day, feeling the periodic rumble of the subway beneath me, it was this Crispus Attucks — not the Liberty Tree Flag, not John Hancock’s deep red coat, not the musket dug up at Bunker Hill — who most captured my attention.

Crispus Attucks was a sailor; he worked at sea and on the docks of the Atlantic coast; he was in Boston that night; he was, tradition tells us, the first to die. Beyond that, we don’t know much about him — except that he was part Black, part Native American. He was a man of two peoples, both of whom were severely oppressed, marginalized, and enslaved — in an era when white British colonists were crying for freedom from the “slavery” of the British crown but ignoring the rights of others. Attucks was the first to die for the cause of liberty though white patriots had no intention of offering him such a right.

On my visit to the Old State House that warm September afternoon, I climbed the stairs to the second story and was met with the special exhibit Reflecting Attucks, which examined the man’s memory, the legend he has become. Attucks is a civil rights icon and a symbol of freedom, equality, and courage, everything America should and could be. The information about the exhibit online says that Attucks’s legacy “reminds us that as long as the nation fails to realize the promise of the American Revolution for all of its people, we will always need another Attucks.”

Crispus Attucks by William H. Johnson, 1945. Via the online exhibit Reflecting Attucks.

It wasn’t what I had expected to be struck with at the Old State House in Boston. I thought I would leave thinking about John and Sam Adams, Paul Revere, John Hancock; or the night that protesting patriots tore down the building’s famous lion and unicorn statues; or the day the Declaration of Independence was read aloud from its balcony. Instead, I was thinking about our world today — the current moment of reckoning in this country, the demands of so many that we do finally realize the promise of the American Revolution for all of its people.

Every time I have returned to or reflected upon the Old State House, I think about the power of museums to make us confront the past and motivate us to shape the future. Crispus Attucks’s name reverberates through the rooms of that brick building, the wooden floors that shake with the movement of the subway, the ground outside which once was stained with his blood — and beckons us to listen, to learn, and to change.

For information on the Old State House’s hours and admission, click here. To check out the online Reflecting Attucks exhibit, click here.

Making Use of the Tools We Have

This week the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) announced that they will be closing their doors for four months later this year to complete their ongoing renovation and completely rehang their collection. When the museum reopens in the fall, they will rotate their collection more frequently, juxtapose works in different mediums, and, crucially, include more works that emphasize the contributions of women, people of color, and non-European artists to modern and contemporary art. They will also partner with the Studio Museum in Harlem, an American art museum that focuses on African American artists, to display their collection while that museum is being renovated.

This is a massive and much needed undertaking. Women and people of color have historically been included in MoMA’s exhibits in marginal ways. A 2015 Artnet survey of solo exhibitions from 2007-2014 at major American art museums found that only 20% of MoMA’s shows featured women artists. Not that these types of exclusion are limited to MoMA. Artnet recently looked at exhibitions of work by black artists at 30 major museums from 2008 to 2018 and found that they accounted for a mere 7.6 percent. So full-throated attempts to remedy these biases and gaps are welcomed. But not every museum can afford to close for months to revamp their space or aggressively collect work from marginalized artists. What can workers at those institutions do?

I recently attended a workshop on Social Justice and Museums run by Nicole Claris, Manager of School Programs at the MFA, Boston, and Sara Egan, from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. The workshop was put on by the Young Emerging Professionals group of the New England Museum Association. Its focus was on how to marshal resources to create exhibits, programming, and other experiences that surface marginalized lives and multiple points of view. Examples of real life successes were shared, like revamping a volunteer training program to give docents the knowledge and tools they needed to tell inclusive and truthful stories. Then step by step instructions for how to apply these intentions to your institution were shared:

  1. The work begins with you. Take a moment to check with yourself and see if you are able to take feedback about your work. It is ok to make mistakes, but we also have to be able to learn from them. This is how we build more inclusive experiences that share multiple perspectives.
  2. Define your goals and audience. What tools and objects do you already have in your institution? Perhaps it is a piece of art featuring a person of color. Are you telling that story? Maybe your historical institution starts its narrative when Europeans came on the scene. Can you surface the indigenous story as well?
  3. Get support. Determine how the actions you want to take relate to your institutional values and priorities. Identify people in your institution that could be allies. Build an external network of people who can help you do this work – who is doing this work that you can point to as a leader? What community organizations can you build relationships with to help your organization change? Who can help you with your blind spots and keep you honest?
  4. Identify activities that align with your goals. External resources from organizations doing this sort of thinking can help. Among those recommended were the Teaching Tolerance Project from the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Empathetic Museum Maturity Model.
  5. Use your collection! Know what you have, through and through. Take opportunities to research objects that you think might have another perspective to share.
  6. Picture success. What will change look like in your institution? Remember that incremental change is better than no change at all.

We don’t all work at MoMA, but we can all make changes that tell wider, more robust stories about art, history, science, and the world. Do you have resources for doing this sort of work? Share in the comments!

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