Carol Bossert’s weekly Museum Life program on VoiceAmerica satellite radio brings all kinds of current museum issues to the fore. I was happy to be part of a discussion she hosted on Friday, January 23, 2015 called “Following up on Ferguson.” I joined Melanie Adams, the Managing Director for Community Education and Events for the Missouri History Museum and President of the Midwest Museums Association; Sam Black, the Director of African American Programs at the Senator John Heinz History Center and President of the Association of African American Museums; and Adrianne Russell, museum professional, writer, and blogger at Cabinets of Curiosity. I hope you’ll listen to the podcast of our discussion on the ways in which museums and museum professional associations have and have not addressed the tensions and issues raised by Ferguson and related events of the past few months.
Some take-aways that I gleaned from our conversation are the following:
- Deeply connecting to one’s community (what I call “The Empathetic Museum”) is not a matter of warm feelings about visitors. Rather, as Melanie pointed out, her museum’s readiness to host a town meeting (find it on You Tube) for St. Louis area residents on the day of Michael Brown’s funeral emerged out of a continuing commitment, from the Board and the Director to front-line staff, to address community issues. Related to this mission is the proper training of staff and the use of trained facilitators to host public discussions and forums. The Ferguson Town Meeting grew out of this mission and vision for the museum. Museum empathy is a matter of museum policy decisions, a consistent habit of thinking about the museum’s connection to its community. Sam Black confirmed this in his discussion of ongoing programs his museum has been hosting for several years on civil rights issues in the Pittsburgh area, connected to a related exhibition. From Slavery to Freedom, that opened in 2012. Within these ongoing programs the museum was able to incorporate discussion of Ferguson.
- Museums are all over the map on this issue. Carol asked us to comment on what has surprised us about the discussion of museums’ response to Ferguson. Adrianne, who along with Aleia Brown has begun a series of twitter chats (3rd Wednesday of the month, 2 pm EST) using the tag #museumsrespondtoFerguson, was surprised at how many people asked why more museums were not discussing Ferguson. I didn’t have a chance to say this on air, but I have been blown away by comments from museum staff who said they had been specifically forbidden to answer visitor questions or comment on social media about Ferguson. “It’s not our issue,” one person was told.
- The need to focus on the role of museums as part of the cultural fabric of their cities, towns, and communities. A sentence in the Joint Statement by museum bloggers that gave pause to some people is “As mediators of culture, all museums should commit to identifying how they can connect to relevant contemporary issues irrespective of collection, focus, or mission.” Colleagues commented that museums should always put mission and collection first. But before they are art, history, or science institutions, museums are public, civic, cultural institutions. They are defined this way by ICOM (International Committee on Museums); they draw much of their support from public funding; their physical foundations share the same soil as schools, churches, libraries, and other civic institutions. It is this characteristic, in my view, rather than their specific collection or mission that obligates museums to be aware of and to respond to deep, endemic cultural issues. And there is no issue deeper or more endemic in American society than racism and the discrimination it begets against people of color.
- African American museums have long experience in addressing issues of race and prejudice. As Sam said, African American museums have mostly grown out of their communities and have never disengaged. Mainstream museums often feel uncomfortable and shy away from conversations about race, even when they develop exhibitions that explore the topic and its ramifications. This sounds like an opportunity for fruitful collaboration between institutions that are new to the discussion and museums that have a history with it. In fact, it would be a great model for the field if, in preparation for its April conference on The Social Impact of Museums in Atlanta (heart of the Civil Rights Movement) AAM would partner on some events and programming with AAAM, whose summer 2015 conference is going to address milestones in African American history.
So tune in to the January 23 episode of Museum Life and catch up on the conversation on museums’ roles in the wake of Ferguson.