The Black Lives Matter movement (BLM), as many have said before us, is long overdue. It has forced us all to examine ourselves and have incredibly difficult discussions with friends and family. While communities across the United States call for this action and for the removal of the racist symbols, many museums are wondering, are we next?
And the answer is yeah, probably. Not only has the BLM movement brought police brutality and systemic racism to the forefront of international conversations, but it has also called museums and their staffs to examine their own institutionalized racist methodologies. And for good reason. Museums are colonial institutions whose methodologies are steeped in racist, misogynistic, and classist philosophies existing within settler colonialism. To start this conversation, we need a little history lesson.
The “Golden Age” of museums in the United States occurred during the nineteenth century, birthing our oldest institutions… and providing our standards for methodologies. They were built to house the “discoveries” of anthropologists, ethnographers, archeologists, biologists, and others. Created to be spaces where our societal philosophies are put on display, racism could be justified and proven with the physical evidence “found” in the field. The World’s Fairs and human zoos, also of that century, used exhibitions to do just that.
Additionally, art museums have served as reservoirs of artistic inspiration for centuries, providing artists with iconography and styles of past artists to align themselves within the greater history of art. However, as museums collected work, predominantly by white men, others from society (white women and Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color (BIPOC) and their cultures) were marginalized and seen as inspiration for the artistic “genius” on display.
These structural and collecting practices manifest within hiring practices. Though women make up 60% of the museum workforce, most directorships are held by men. 73% of museum staff are white, meaning that less than 1 in 3 museum staff are BIPOC. However, those who are telling their stories, reporting some incredible (yet not out of the ordinary) accounts of racism.
Like political and societal leaders today, museum professionals are being forced to recognize that if methodologies and perspectives don’t change, we will continue to perpetuate racism.
So, what do we do?
1. LISTEN and believe
2. Hire BIPOC who are equally qualified for positions and don’t tokenize them once they’re there
3. Display and collect art by, and stories about, BIPOC and LGBTQIA2S+ artists and communities
4. Deeply examine and question why things are done certain ways
5. Be accountable for your institution: fire racist employees
Anti-racism work is hard. Because of museum foundations, change frictions against much of what we have learned and accepted about museum work.
It is time we served our communities in ways that actually help them: unlearn, listen, and do something about it.
Sarah Hixson (she/her/hers) is an aspiring curator and educator focusing on DEAI and indigenization work and incorporating activism into museum practices. If you have questions for Sarah, please comment below or send an email to email@example.com.
 Main example: the story about Sarah Baartman  See “Primitivism” at MoMA, 1984  https://sr.ithaka.org/publications/art-museum-staff-demographic-survey-2018/#:~:text=The%20gender%20composition%20of%20museum,as%20shown%20in%20Figure%201.  Check out @changethemuseum on Instagram for more. Other accounts, like @_fortheculture2020 are focusing on institutions rather than stories, and holding them accountable. Cover image from Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Lives_Matter