Can museums focus on justice and liberation while managing the onset of hybrid work?
I've mentioned before that I recently read The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together by Heather McGhee and was thinking about the imposed zero-sum race view that she describes—that whites in the US have been trained to consider benefits for others as benefits that have been taken away from them.
Why does this matter? In museums, leaders have said—or at least implied—that the institutions are going to hire more people of color and that this will change the "look" of the museum's workforce. And why shouldn't it, whites may think. But then the zero-sum mentality kicks in, telling whites that the "one available job"—and those museum jobs are under threat from the growth/scarcity obsession, exacerbated by the pandemic, —is going to go to someone else. And, dammit, we whites worked hard and sacrificed for that job.
Museums in a pandemic world are short of TMPR—Time, Money, People, and Resources—and therefore prone to zero-sum gatekeeping all the time, especially in an unpredictable age of hybrid work. This doesn't mean that museums lack action plans or serious intentions, but simply that there's a lot going on, and making museums into justice-based organizations (beyond the moniker of "antiracist") can't be done in workers' spare time.
So here are some links to check out while you mull that over.
This Twitter thread on land acknowledgments is worth reading—what does the reading of tribe names accomplish at that time? True justice requires action and commitment and respect for the living communities that are still there. Read more from Dr. Jessica Hernandez's site here.
Though it's fallen out of mainstream (white) media again, revelations about murderous residential schools have been happening for decades. Here's a must-read Twitter thread on yesterday's (September 30) National Day for Truth and Reconciliation in Canada. Truthout also has this on the media's neverending fixation on certain missing women and the erasure of others.
The Met recently hired an indigenous curator. Here's a quote from a New York Times article:
For all of her learning, Norby is less academic in her approach to art than many curators, preferring to talk about how her M.F.A. in printmaking and photography informs her curatorial work. “I’m interested in what goes into making something — the physical and emotional toll. I’m not interested in which artist is hot,” she said. “I love to see things that are deeply connected to aesthetic protocols but have something new and fresh in them as well.”
That passion is on view from the moment you enter the new rotation of “Art of Native America.” The map that initially greeted visitors demarking nine Native American cultural areas — Woodlands, Plains, Plateau, and so forth — is gone. “There are distinct homelands,” Norby acknowledges, “but there was much more exchange than maps can communicate, and, anyway, maps are settler ideas of Indigenous cultures.” …
Read this Truthout interview on the erasure of the humanity and history of indigenous peoples in North America, all as the "founders" of white North America copied indigenous political and confederation structures. This echoes the current practices of predominantly white institutions (PWI) discussing "community" in an abstract, org-wide manner. White land acknowledgments can still objectify and owner-focus the land. This Boston Review piece on the US's neverending settler colonialist enterprise, where even immigrants are recruited to prove their whiteness as settlers, is worth reading as well.
I'll also mention this article from New York magazine's The Cut about the only indigenous curator in The Met's "In America" exhibition. Like with the previous link, I'll leave it without comment, as I do on all matters specifically about my workplace.
It's worth considering how the "pushback" over critical race theory (not that it's being taught outside a few institutions of higher learning) is leading to its own pushback from teachers and their unions. Read these Truthout articles about educators who are quitting over this false debate and the fiction of race neutrality. (Kinda makes you think of another fake neutrality, right?)
Boston Review has a couple of other articles which you should check out—about Nat Turner and white historiography and whose suffering really matters. When any organization sees others as others, it furthers the dehumanization of the non-elites. I'll be mentioning for a while that I'm currently reading Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism, and the connection between racism and fascism is there for all to witness.
You should read this Robb Report article on the experiences of Black curators in museums, about how museums need to not just hire staff from many races but support them with “a deeper infrastructure, for not just the moment but for moving forward.”
There's also this Guardian interview with philosopher Paul Gilroy:
Anti-racism has changed since Gilroy’s youth, its edge blunted. For much of the 20th century, being against racism meant being for a radically different political and economic settlement, such as socialism or communism. Today it can mean little more than doing what Gilroy mockingly calls “McKinsey multiculturalism”: keeping unjust societies as they are, except with a few “black and brown bodies” in the corporate boardrooms. (“I’m not very interested in decolonising the 1%”, he told me.) What is left is a more individualistic anti-racist culture, which is keen on checking privilege and affirming the validity of other people’s experiences, but has trouble creating durable institutions or political programmes.
An article in Harvard Business Review claims to have a better type of unconscious bias training. I had my problems with the piece, but I did appreciate the statement that organizations must expand their ideas of "inner circles" and bring together colleagues who wouldn't know each other due to silos that reinforce hierarchy. This is especially important during our hybrid work experiment—staff must experience all parts of the institution (like at the Baltimore Museum of Art, where guards are curating an exhibition next year; hopefully, this won't be a one-off). (Check out these HBR articles on inclusive cultures and inclusive hybrid work, too.)
I'll end with this Fast Company article that describes one leader's attempt to change the look of design education, and, finally, this must-read from Medium, with this thought:
Is it possible that the best way to achieve antiracism’s goals is not by being against racism, but by being in favor of liberation?
Can museums be organizations of liberation? Starting with themselves?
I hope you appreciate the links. The word "enjoy" gets harder and harder to use …
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Links of the Week: October 1, 2021: Walk and Chew Gum by Robert J Weisberg is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.