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.
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.
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.”
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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?
- 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?
- 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.
- Use your collection! Know what you have, through and through. Take opportunities to research objects that you think might have another perspective to share.
- 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!