This month I interviewed the founders of a new digital humanities project, #MuseumsRespondtoFerguson. Aleia Brown (left) is the co-founder of #MuseumsRespondtoFerguson and #BlkTwitterstorians. Her written work on museums, race and gender has appeared in Slate, Timeline, MuseumNext, History@Work and other online platforms. She holds a joint appointment at the Michigan State University Museum and the Department of History. Adrianne Russell (right) is a museum educator, writer, and nonprofit consultant. She has written and presented about the intersections of art, race, equity, and culture for Fusion, Temporary Art Review, Smithsonian Magazine, American Alliance of Museums, and her blog, Cabinet of Curiosities.
Kami Fletcher: Please share with us the origin and catalyst of the hashtag, #MuseumsRespondtoFerguson.
Aleia Brown & Adrianne Russell: Our involvement in #MuseumsRespondtoFerguson is rooted in a deep desire to push museums and public history to more thoughtfully engage race, racialized spaces and the history of state sanctioned violence. Desperately hoping to find any type of action around museums working through anti-blackness, we met in 2014 through a group of museum bloggers who were also looking for museums to take some sort of action. We contributed to what eventually became the Joint Statement from Museum Bloggers and Colleagues on Ferguson and Related Events. In December 2014, we co-hosted the first Twitter chat and decided to commit to it as ongoing work. Our chats take place on the third Wednesday of each month at 9 PM EST. We also share information using the hashtag throughout the month. 2016 was our first year of doing live collaborations and consultations in and outside of physical museum spaces.
KF: #MuseumsRespondtoFerguson is as poignant as it is needed. Reviewing the tweets, it seems like a space for members of the public to collectively express their anger/outrage concerning state sanctioned violence and strategize ways to respond. It also seems to be a platform for museum professionals to discuss how their particular archive, historic property, or heritage site can get involved. Was this the intent?
AB & AR: We definitely encourage openness and expressions of anger/outrage and frustration. This is a critical point in our discussion for several reasons. A search of the hashtag helps museum professionals understand that they are not alone in their pursuit towards more inclusive spaces. This same anger and outrage has exposed inequities in how we think about, preserve and present histories to colleagues who were not previously aware (intentionally or unintentionally). Though we encourage openness, often at conferences colleagues will confide that they follow our work but don’t participate or use the hashtag. Many still fear negative consequences for speaking specifically about racial injustices, or race in general. There are several museums that gave official directives to personnel not to discuss Ferguson or any of the other related incidents. We want to encourage change so we spend a great deal of time in the actual Twitter chat discussing our vision for what museum practice should look like when it engages race and its intersections. We share articles, and examples of related exhibitions, programs and policies. We did not have a crystal clear vision of how our work would materialize and evolve, but we wanted to, at the very least, keep the hashtag alive so that there was always documentation of our resistance and proposed solutions.
— Will Walker (@willcooperstown) February 4, 2015
KF: Most think of museums as passive brick and mortar spaces where the community is told to “do not touch” and “be quiet.” How is social action and protest to occur within the museum?
AB & AR: We first like to draw attention to early Black museums in particular whose very existence is a form of social action and protest. Institutions like the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and the Hampton University Museum were founded and operated during what many historians identify as the nadir of racism. Essentially, asserting Blackness as humanity and worthy of being documented and presented to the public was incredibly subversive in the late nineteenth century. We believe there is a need for contemporary museums to look to centuries old Black institutions to navigate our current racial climate.
Mainstream museums, however, have to alter some of their functions if they are to remain relevant to a growing population that is both more diverse, and more willing to express their dissatisfaction with museum narratives that are often white, nationalist, and male. Even the narratives outside of these are lacking. For example, the way museums portray women’s history lacks intersectionality. Contemporary work presented to the public on the 19th amendment rarely acknowledges that Black women, especially in the South, did not have a protected level of enfranchisement until the Voting Rights Act of 1965. There has also been an erasure of Shirley Chisholm and other women of color who ran for president and secured a party nomination. News outlets have started to place Hillary Clinton in this continuum of women in politics, but we have not found much museum work pushing the boundaries of the popular understanding beyond white women.
Like other practitioners, Aleia has argued that museums should operate more as public forums rather than sacred temples. Our greatest asset is the material culture and documented narratives we have that we can use to work through our differences and imagine better futures. But we can’t forget real, living people. We think museums would be significantly more useful if they were more like incubators or learning labs. What if we developed restorative justice programs where both victims and perpetrators had to identify with something in collections and publicly share their reflections? That is just one very radical and visceral way to change the function of museums. This wouldn’t fix the carceral state, but perhaps it would make the public think more critically about healing and punishment.
It is also important to note that although museums often strive to be apolitical by choosing not to address social issues, specifically anti-black racism, they are very much political. By choosing not to address race in their hiring practices, permanent collections, exhibition materials and outreach they are further accommodating–rather then challenging–inequality. Silence and erasure are harmful in many ways. They negatively affect those who decide to work at museums. It is difficult to attract young people who see that museums consistently overlook their identity and possibly their interests.
KF: What ideological shift has to occur so that the public envisions museums, not just as receptacles of memory, but also as active sites? How do you see the hashtag contributing to this shift?
AB & AR: The hashtag is responsible for starting and continuing the most public conversation on race and intersectionality in museum studies. In terms of ideological shifts, museum staff have to change the way they talk about identity. The conversations are often muddled with phrases like, “these issue” and “difficult histories.” Sometimes in chats and consultation groups, we have banned those phrases to force people to clarify what is troubling them. We cannot improve our interpretation of race, gender, sexuality, class, country of origin and so forth if we continue to refer to everything that is not cis white male as “it,”or “difficult.”
Also museums are still unnecessarily holding on to a very specific way of interpreting history to appeal to a very narrow audience. All too often we come in contact with museum staff who want a quick checklist or just want to dive in and throw something up on the walls to seem current. We have emphasized the need for staff at these institutions to think about the ways they perpetuate inequities and how they will pursue the long term commitment of undoing this. Some institutions like the Minnesota Historical Society have created an entire department dedicated to strategizing and doing this work throughout all facets of the museum. This requires an incredible amount of time rethinking funding structures, personnel, emotional investments and so forth.
— Andrea Burns (@HistoryAndrea) February 16, 2015
KF: What are your future plans for #museumsrespondtoferguson? What do you envision for the future?
AB & AR: We will still continue with the monthly chats. Beyond that, we have enjoyed our collaborative and consultation work. To date, our most fulfilling work was with the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center project Crosslines: A Culture Lab on Intersectionality. We envision growing this work. Recently, we also started thinking through how to empower visitors. Some visitors have contacted us, frustrated with museum exhibitions that either omit or placate narratives, but they are unsure of how to communicate this with museum staff. We are working on ways to help them cultivate their voice. Much of our future work will occur outside of museums and we are proud of that. We love museums and their potential, which is why we are so dedicated to making them better. We are glad to be part of a tradition of black women working outside of institutions to encourage fundamental changes within institutions.
Kami Fletcher is an Assistant Professor of African American History at Delaware State University. She received a Ph.D. in History from Morgan State University in 2013. Her research centers on African American burial grounds, Black towns, and early 20th century Black female undertakers. Follow her on Twitter @.permission.