In museums, we talk about empowering and we talk about sharing the stories of communities of color, but we need to do more than that. If we were succeeding at sharing these stories, museum audiences and workers would not be overwhelmingly white and Michelle Obama would not have said earlier this year, “You see, there are so many kids in this country who look at places like museums and concert halls and other cultural centers and they think to themselves, well, that’s not a place for me, for someone who looks like me, for someone who comes from my neighborhood.”
As Liz Ogbu put it in her keynote speech at the MCN Conference in Minneapolis, instead of empowering, we need to co-power. When we empower, she explained, we keep the authority of our institutions and bestow it unto other communities, but when we co-power, we acknowledge the power those communities innately carry—power that too often has been dismissed. This power includes oral storytelling traditions that have been dismissed in favor of the written word and artistic traditions that have been dismissed as craft and dialects that have been dismissed as improper. Until we move away from a method of storytelling that keeps us as institutions in the position of authority and toward one in which we recognize the power of communities in telling their own stories, there are limits to how far we as museums can progress. This is a lesson that was reiterated to me over the course of the conference.
I heard this lesson in Nikhil Trivedi’s ignite talk when he said, “As educational institutions, it’s crucial that we recognize that the histories we use have been written by those who have held power over time. … We have to be vulnerable enough to hear how we oppress others in spite of our intentions.” I heard it again when Adrianne Russell, in her talk on #museagency with Porschia Moore, asked, “What good are external ‘outreach’ initiatives if your internal systems are oppressive?” and when we talked about social change in social media in the Social Media Unconference.
Museums love to avoid things for fear of upsetting people. Be brave, fellow museum pros! Complaints also mean people care. #MCN2015
— Rachel Ropeik (@TheArtRopeik) November 6, 2015
I saw a museum co-powering local communities firsthand when I visited the “We Are Hmong Minnesota” exhibition at the Minnesota History Center, which was curated by Hmong community in Minnesota. Are there biases? Sure. But where are there not biases? As Adrianne Russell put it at MCN, “Museums are not neutral spaces so we should just throw that out the door.”
Until there is no center, no norm, we will still be entrenched in our systems of power. The museums we create, the exhibitions we prioritize, tell us at every turn whose histories are “important.” Meanwhile, the museums we don’t create, the exhibitions we don’t prioritize—or, arguably worse, the communities to whom we don’t grant the authority to tell their own stories—tell us whose histories were not important enough to make the cut. And, despite our best intentions, these absences show us that museums are “not a place for me.” We all have bias, museums included. Is this wrong? No, it’s just a fact. Only by destigmatizing bias and recognizing our own biases can we take away the power they hold over us. In fact, our own desire for objectivity could be called a bias. Why do we aspire to objectivity when we could aspire to authenticity?
Let’s continue the discussion we started at MCN #museagency.