Social justice in museums is a topic that can be recognized recently in light of current political and social events that have challenged public dialogue on the topic. As members of a community and places of learning, museums hold a special role in contributing to discussions of social justice.
More than just exhibitions, museums now have the ability to share an immediate message and have it reach a broad audience without ever stepping foot in its physical space. Museums, especially recently, have taken to twitter to voice not only their concerns and goals, but to also reflect those voices of their communities.
Museums are constantly given the opportunity to represent diversity in the arts through the way they focus on artists, cultures, and narratives. Take, for example, the Brooklyn Museum, in one of my favorite examples of female representation in the arts. Not only does the museum have in its collection a large amount of artwork created by female artists, but it is also home to the Elizabeth A Sackler Center for Feminism and acts as a nucleus for feminist art, theory, and activism in the community where people are encouraged to visit and discuss topics of feminism and social justice.
Not only is this important as an exhibition for patrons to learn and grow in their discussion of feminist roles in society, but also as a discussion of feminist roles within museums. One of the biggest issues faced today in the museum world is the extreme lack of diversity in museum leaders. While most museum employees are female, not many of those are in leadership roles. And even more than that, what ethnicities are being represented by the majority in museum leadership? Monica Montgomery encouraged us to observe how people of color are represented as museum employees and among departments. For the most part, we see minority groups as part of the part-time, low-paying, and front-end. So where do we break the mold – do we start from the inside, the outside, or both at the same time?
If you are like me, you might like to read about the issues that affect you and your career goals. In 2015, the Andrew W Mellon Foundation ran a survey on the demographic of art museum staff (follow this link to read the survey).
Two points that are important to the previous argument on representation of minorities:
First, progress is likely to be swifter and easier on gender equality than on minority representation. As museum staff has become 60% female over the past decade or so, there is now also a preponderance of women in the curatorial, conservation, and educational roles that constitute the pipeline for leadership positions such as museum director, chief curator, and head of conservation or education. With close attention to equitable promotion and hiring practices for senior positions, art museums should be able to achieve greater gender equality in their leadership cohorts within the foreseeable future.
This sounds great and almost like female leaders can create even further change for minorities! But then…
By comparison, AAMD’s recent report found that 43% of directors themselves were women, with significant disparities in salary as well.
So, we can get the job, but we can’t get the pay? As @Nartist says in the previous tweet, “Patriarchal structure, hierarchy & pay scale =>impact POC”
As actors of social justice, how are museums representing equality and combating inequality without fetishizing the topics? These conversations museums have on social justice through networks like twitter and through exhibitions should also be represented in their actions. Visitors need a safe place to discuss these complex topics with their peers and fellow community members, because the more they get to know them, the easier it becomes to talk about them, and the better they can fight for them.
Prochia Moore exposes topics in discussing race in museums, first and foremost stating that museums do not understand the role race plays in them. How are they evaluating Critical Race Theory in the terms of examining their power in representing races? This theory has been applied as a way to examine how race is impacted on the educational system on a legal, social, economic, psychological, and policy basis. Looking at the roles of museums, she specifically encourages them to use this framework for the following:
1. How cultural heritage institutions exclude people of color as a result of the latter’s lack of participation within museum’s social media platforms.
2. The ways museum professionals privilege white cultures mores in their exhibitions or artist representation and how this might affect participation for people of color.
3. How exhibition development and curatorial authority might be perceived as a dominant narrative of whiteness. This could also contribute to an exclusion of narrative for non-whites.
After this recent election, a resurgence in these social justice movements has spread all over social media. I’m sure what felt like a moment of complete disregard for the progress we have made in museums and what we have talked for years, has just turned into an opportunity to create more conversations about what we have to do to move forward.
Days after the election, I visited the Brooklyn Museum in a lecture hosted by Shelby White and Leon Levy Director Anne Pasternak and Deputy Director and Chief Curator Nancy Spector with artist and feminist extraordinaire Marilyn Minter and friends. In what was originally going to be a discussion of female empowerment and her retrospective “Pretty Dirty” became a safe place to discuss our concerns of the idea of President Trump. This reinforces their role as a cultural and community space and reaffirming their role in social justice. Specifically, the Brooklyn Museum opened its doors for free to all visitors the days following the election results. Other took their roles within social media to tweet their thoughts using #museumsthedayafter to encourage a global discussion.
There is still a lot of work to be done in the museum profession to create social justice and reinforce safe places to discuss challenging topics. I encourage everyone to contribute to their local museum through social media and in the physical space. With your voices, the museum can do more.