The History of the Museum
The museum industry evolved from royal palaces and temples in Europe. These organizations were designed to exhibit exquisite objects that were created, hunted, or taken during conquests exclusively to be presented to a select few in elite society. The field and its objects manifested statements that separated themselves from underserved communities with a model of operation catered to scholars and wealthy donors. These structures were bold and intimidating and considered unwelcoming to many. Several organizations were established in settings outside of cities, on spacious parcels, which allowed them to set themselves apart from others, just as some European palaces and castles had.
Why Museums Do Not Work in Today’s Society
Given the European, upper class–entertainment and object-centered historical roots of the museum, we can see why the museum finds itself in this difficult, arguably ill-equipped, position today. The global Black Lives Matter movement helped unearth and make more visible the deep-rooted practices of discrimination that many museum workers face. It also made plain the standard practices of labor disenfranchisement among arts workers as a whole.
As we all deeply consider what this moment calls for—not only diversity but systemic practices of inclusion—we know that all global histories, experiences, and identities cannot be showcased in a single museum, even a large one. Daonne Huff, Director of Public Programs & Community Engagement at The Studio Museum in Harlem, said, “A museum cannot be all things to all people.”
This moment calls for culturally specific museums to shift from being object-centered to being people-centered. It will require a near-complete rewriting of the standard practices of museum culture, and will need to look to historically successful museums such as the Studio Museum and El Museo del Barrio.
Reconstruction, Representation, and Responsibility
This process goes beyond a hashtag or black square, but is an all-encompassing and constantly evolving unlearning process. Institutions will be unable to address these fraught histories without dismantling their foundations. It is in the space of critical acknowledgement and reform that regenerative change can occur.
The active responsibility of reconstructing museums and art institutions belongs to these institutions. Representation is not enough. One Black artist is not enough. One Black staff member is not enough. One post is not enough. A diversity and inclusion team is not enough. The institution, in its entirety, must commit to this work beyond this moment.
Community and Mutual Aid and Benefit Organizations That Work
The necessity for museums to shift their focus and priority from objects toward communities and people is significantly greater during the current pandemic and movements for social and racial justice. While we can call on museums to commit to doing this work, there are several spaces with missions that have always been geared toward caring for their communities.
Mutual benefit societies have been formed by marginalized populations as community self-improvement efforts since the days of the antislavery and abolition movements. The African Union Society (AUS) was the first attested Black mutual aid society in the United States. The union, whose founders include former enslaved people Newport Gardener and Pompe (Zingo) Jones, was established in November 1780 in Newport, Rhode Island. Not long after, in 1787, Absalom Jones and Richard Jones founded the Free African Society of Philadelphia. These founding organizations are the predecessors of many of today’s mutual aid centers and initiatives.
Recreation centers, grassroots nonprofit organizations, food pantries, and community gardens are just a few examples of spaces that provide and/or promote access to education, health and wellness initiatives, housing, food, and financial support in marginalized communities. The rise of the pandemic has led to the creation of virtual spaces and resource programs through which people can organize mutual aid for those within and outside of their direct communities. The following organizations are committed to doing the work that museums and other cultural and academic institutions are incapable of doing:
Innovative Outreach and Education in the Arts
It is crucial that we credit and support these existing initiatives, and there is much that museums can learn from these organizations about centering people and communities in the work that they do. As scholar Katherine McKittrick tweeted this summer: “We must notice and share and build on existing practices of liberation. Abolition isn’t elimination or erasure—these are antithetical to Black livingness. Abolition is presence and invention and reinvention.”
Like abolition, the recreation of museums as sites for serving Black people, indigenous people, and people of color will be a process of communal thinking that requires “presence, invention, and reinvention.”