A Museum Director Reflects on #MuseumsrespondtoFerguson

I’m pleased to begin the New Year with a guest post from Deborah Schwartz, President of the Brooklyn Historical Society.  As many readers know, a number off other bloggers and I have been posting about the role of museums in responding to Ferguson (using that one word to stand for the series of events that has galvanized public conversation in the form of protests, artistic statements, and discussion about the lethal brew of racial prejudice and violence that is part of our country’s history and culture). I’ve recently noticed the courageous and timely programming that BHS has been creating about race, and I asked Deborah if she would share her institution’s philosophy and approach as a contribution to the discussion and as an example of what other museums might do.  Note especially Deborah’s questions at the end of her post about how the programming at a historical society might translate to another institution such as an art museum.  Meanwhile, the discussion on #museumsrespondto Ferguson continues to grow on Twitter. All best for the New Year.  Gretchen

Reflections on programming in a time of racial injustice and social distress


Author Baratunde Thurston leads a free BHS program entitled “A Conversation About Conversations About Race” in November, 2014. Courtesy of BHS.

Author Baratunde Thurston leads a free BHS program entitled “A Conversation About Conversations About Race” in November, 2014.
Courtesy of BHS.

As President of the Brooklyn Historical Society, I was honored when Gretchen approached me about writing a guest blog in conjunction with the #museumsrespondtoFerguson conversation.  I have followed the thoughtful responses by an esteemed group of bloggers throughout this fraught period in our history. Not wanting to repeat what has been written, I will take time to reflect upon the importance of context for the work we do as museum professionals.


Context #1: The questions around police-community relations have become newly urgent, but are not new. In New York City the issues envelop our daily lives, because of the continued, public demonstrations in response to the tragic and pointless deaths of Akai Gurley in a public housing development in Queens in August and Eric Garner on Staten Island in July, and the deeper injustices that continue in our society.  We now confront the equally tragic and senseless killing of two police officers by a deeply disturbed young man, whose actions have created additional political tension in a city where racial inequity in the criminal justice system is very much on the public’s minds and in their hearts. At the same time these cases are not isolated or unique, with many, many historical antecedents, more than many people realize or want to acknowledge. Without my prompting, could you have named Robert Bandy, the victim of a police shooting which prompted the Harlem riots of July1943?


Context #2: History is a vital modality for understanding the dilemmas of contemporary life.  The mission of the Brooklyn Historical Society (BHS) is to grant the past an opportunity to speak, with its many ambiguities and lacunae to the present, thereby making the vibrant history of Brooklyn tangible, relevant, and meaningful for today’s diverse communities, and for generations to come. The projects on which we work are selected to further this mission.  In recent years, they have included Crossing Borders, Bridging Generations, an oral history and programming project about people of mixed-heritage in Brooklyn; and In Pursuit of Freedom, a project about the history and legacy of Abolition in Brooklyn, created in collaboration with Weeksville Heritage Center and the Irondale Theater Ensemble.  These projects are based on a fundamental premise that any analysis of the past should provide the opportunity to reflect upon the impact of history on our current and future condition as a society.


Audience members at Brooklyn Historical Society’s annual “What Are You?” program, part of the “Crossing Borders, Bridging Generations” mixed-heritage oral history and public programming initiative. Courtesy of BHS.

Audience members at Brooklyn Historical Society’s annual “What Are You?” program, part of the “Crossing Borders, Bridging Generations” mixed-heritage oral history and public programming initiative. Courtesy of BHS.

In Pursuit of Freedom and Crossing Borders, Bridging Generations manifest approaches to our commitment to local history, and our belief that history worth exploring is history that is relevant to the needs and interests of present day New Yorkers.  Programs that surround these projects over the past several years have included  “ A Conversation about Conversations about Race;”Black Churches and the Civil Rights ovement: A Legacy of Activism;” Screenings and public conversations built around  “Created Equal,” the NEH project that explores the civil rights struggle in America; “An Urban Education in Three Acts: Hold Fast to Dreams, Deborah Meier and Yo, Miss;” “Brooklyn’s On Fire: Bushwick is Burning; ” and a series called Told it First Hand, that explores the history of Hip-Hop, Gentrification and other topics curated by BHS Trustee and founder of the Hip Hop Festival, Wes Jackson. The list of programs goes on, and each program is tied to aspects of our exhibitions and oral history programs.


Context #3: The Brooklyn Historical Society is a small historical society in a city chock full of large and venerable cultural institutions, each offering the public a myriad of exhibitions and public programs day in and day out.  Our highly creative and savvy staff* works hard to create programming that has made BHS a “go to” place for public discussion, resulting frequently in capacity crowds (200 people). What makes us an attractive choice for people to come and learn (a question we ask ourselves perpetually)?


I see the answer as three fold: First, these programs highlight the expertise of some of America’s best, brightest, and most fearless thinkers—people who believe that history and our present social dilemmas are not easily reduced to sound bites, happy endings, or simple solutions. This winter our public will be treated to conversations with Eric Foner, Isabel Wilkerson, Henry Louis Gates, and Ai-jen Poo, among others.


Second, our audiences have learned that our programs are designed to include them as participants. Conversation is a central component of every program. At BHS, it is not only a matter of questions FROM the audience directed AT the speaker(s); but also an invitation, dare I say an expectation, that the audience will be active participants, adding insights, responses to fellow audience members, and often providing recommendations of additional relevant resources. It is commonplace for our guest speakers to note how much they enjoy being part of the programs at BHS, that our audiences are knowledgeable, engaged, and that the dialogue is rewarding.


It is also worth noting that we make an effort to ensure that our programs are affordable to all who are inclined to engage, not just those who have disposable income to pay for them. Tickets to events at BHS are generally free, or $5, and only occasionally $10. Admission is pay what you wish.


Finally, I believe the success of these programs is based upon the constancy of our consideration of issues of race and social justice in frequent aspects of our interactions with the public.  Without being overly dogmatic and prescriptive, we do not believe the history of Brooklyn can be adequately presented by occasional gestures to the topic of civil rights and social justice. These programs are built upon a commitment on the part of the staff and our Board to explore and investigate these topics over time.


On December 4, we had scheduled a program entitled “Invisible Child, One Year Later,” a discussion with Andrea Elliot, author of the New York Times five-part series “Invisible Child,” and NYC City public school teacher Faith Hester, moderated by WNYC’s Andrea Bernstein.  So, when the decision not to indict came down in the Eric Garner case in New York City on December 3rd, the audience in attendance was ready to talk about the impact of the decision, the experience of NYC public school students as they came to terms with what had happened, and the host of consequences that would follow. The conversation was alternatively empathic, angry, tender, and emotional for the panelists and the audience. All were moved, some to action, others to keep talking, others to reading and the pursuit of knowledge and historical context.


The lessons here are multiple. Museums really can be places for constructive dialogue and participation. But I don’t believe these programs can succeed as an occasional conversation, or a symbolic gesture. Rather, successful programs and the audience who attends them require consistent demonstrations of engagement that includes presentations by speakers of substance and depth, and respectful conversation with fellow audience members. Expectations have been set and our job is to fulfill those expectations with a sequence of thought provoking, well-informed exhibitions and programs that marry historical expertise and analysis with a vigilant eye to making the present and the future better for all.


One final reflection. As the former Deputy Director for Education at the Museum of Modern Art, I have asked myself what my response to the Eric Garner, Akai Gurley and Michael Brown cases would have been. Would I have developed a series built around the voices of contemporary artists who are engaged in matters of social and racial justice? Would Glenn Ligon, Carrie Mae Weems and David Hammons in conversation with activists and journalists result in good programming at MoMA? Would there be a way to engage the curatorial and education staff in issues around whether deconstruction and abstraction both further and hinder our understandings of issues of race and social justice?  Equally or more important, would the MoMA audience be ready to participate in any such conversation? Would they have come looking for it? Would such a series be sustainable? Does MoMA have the same mandate that the Brooklyn Historical Society has? I would love to hear your thoughts on the questions.


Note of thanks:

I want to acknowledge the extraordinary creativity and dedication of the BHS staff, led by Marcia Ely, Vice President for Programs and External Affairs. Without their smart planning skills, these programs would not have the impact they do.


Deborah F Schwartz

President, Brooklyn Historical Society

January 4, 2015


6 thoughts on “A Museum Director Reflects on #MuseumsrespondtoFerguson

  1. Just a few hours after the services for Michael Brown, the MO Historical Society hosted a public dialogue where 600 people attended to voice their concerns and listen to each other. It would not have been possible to convene such a group if there had not been a platform built on years of engagement with minority communities and leaders. Debbie Schwartz opened the doors of the Brooklyn Historical Society to the many faces of Brooklyn. She invited that ecclectic community to bring their ideas about exhibitions to the Historical Society and allowed groups to develop exhibits — to tell their stories. Her tenacious work is centered on making the museum the community’s own. Likewise the devoted staff in St. Louis have worked to earn public trust. Public trust cannot be built on occasional forays into places and spaces that are beyond the interest of museum boards and leaders. Open doors are critical, but so is a strategic collection plan that see in these tragedies an opportunity to collect and prepare to tell the evolving story that strives for and too often fails to deliver on the social justice front. These collective tragedies have struck a forceful blow to the American Dream. They also shine a bright light on the role our museums can play in intrepreting the American condition and the new role our field must play in encouraging dialogue and becoming part of the solution.

    • Thanks, Anita, It’s nice to hear from you. . I agree, it’s the museums that are consistently making the effort to connect with their communities that are ready and best able to respond when crises like these occur.

  2. I appreciate Deborah Schwartz thoughtful perspectives on programming during times of conflict. Indeed, the Brooklyn Historical Society has developed impressive community-centered programs.

    It’s interesting to see a director of a history museum concentrating on the discussions brought forward by the #museumsforferguson initiative. #museumsforferguson has highlighted that history-oriented museums have been more responsive to the protests against police brutality and social inequities in the judicial system than other types of museums. Some people may believe that addressing social issues is more appropriate for history museums than art museums. However, art museums do not exist in a vacuum; they are part of the world. The objects, images, and performances that they feature are socially constructed. As Deborah pointed out, there are approaches that art museums could employ to respond to Ferguson. The issue then seems to center on institutional missions and conceptions about communities. Is social justice an inherent value? Does the museum actually serve the communities that surround it?

    I believe #museumsforferguson is urging institutions to reassess their engagement practices to consider a broader and more diverse demographic of people as members of their target communities. Various articles have underscored the deficiency in diversity of visitors at museums. Responding to critical social issues in a sustained manner as Deborah mentions, is one way to bridge the diversity gaps.

    In addition to concentrating on public engagement strategies, the #museumsforferguson initiative spotlights internal institutional issues of diversity and labor at museums. As many reports have indicated museums are sorely lacking in terms of diversity especially in terms of leadership. Some professionals see this moment of attention on social inequities as an opportunity for museums to investigate their own actions and work on improving the internal dynamics.

    • Thanks, La Tanya, I think your comment is right on. I agree that a big issue is, as you say, “institutional missions and conceptions about communities.” I think that the museum role as essentially public and civic institutions is prior to their specific collections in terms of social responsibility. As you say whether museums focus on art, science or whatever, they don’t exist in a vacuum.

  3. Thank you for this post, Gretchen and Deborah. This post reinforces for me the idea that museums cannot program in response to events such as specific incidences of violence or racism. Rather, institutions should make issues of importance to their audience central in an ongoing way. The already scheduled programs of the Brooklyn Historical Society, along with an established reputation for caring what audiences think and say, allowed for important conversations related to current events.

    • Thanks, Rebecca, have asked Aleia and Adrianne to think about having folks read this post and discuss questions Deborah raises in a twitter chat, if not this one then one in future.

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