Do Black Lives Matter in Museums?

As a Black woman and emerging museum curator with several years of experience in the industry, I have often reflected upon my own positionality within these institutions, which are rooted in the colonial project. Originating from the nineteenth-century world fairs and expositions that exhibited living non-European people and their cultural objects as spectacles and sources of curiosity for a white European gaze, the modern-day museum’s antecedents in coloniality continue to lay bare their legacies. Museums still display looted cultural objects without transparency. Artwork by Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) is frequently narrated by white voices, for white audiences. BIPOC hold significantly fewer high-ranking leadership positions within the industry than their counterparts. 

The violent murder of George Floyd amidst the COVID pandemic has added vigor and urgency to these issues. Just as police body cameras and civilian recorded footage have exposed the vilest acts of police brutality (#Defundthepolice), so have abundant open letters from former and current museum professionals exposed the pervasiveness of institutional racism. The question posed by cultural workers and academics for decades demands answers: How can we decolonize, or work against, the racist legacies of museums?

While I would love to see more BIPOC individuals employed in higher positions, the burden of decolonizing work cannot fall solely upon our shoulders. Hiring Black museum professionals will not undo the systemic white supremacy that undergirds these institutions. Similarly, collecting and displaying work by Black artists is not a simple corrective to the problems at hand. A deeper epistemological shift—a change in the way we think and view the world—is required. This shift must highlight the ways colonialism and systematic racism continue to inform institutional practices and must move away from concepts of allyship often embedded in savior complexes, to a more egalitarian position that amplifies Black voices by giving us space and letting us speak for ourselves. Finally, a top-to-bottom change is needed in the distribution of power so that educators and communities are centered. 

Museums that are committed to displaying works by Black artists need to be just as enthusiastic about engaging with the Black community ethically and responsibly. 

Museums often advertise exhibitions of work from “marginalized” communities. Yet, if that community is not actively engaging in these spaces, not experiencing the visual narratives that take part in their histories, then the exhibition partially fails in its mission. Black culture cannot be consumed solely by a white middle and elite upper-class. Museums that are committed to displaying works by Black artists need to be just as enthusiastic about engaging with the Black community ethically and responsibly. 

To allow for more inclusive and collaborative practices that work toward the betterment of the community, the political power structures undergirding museums need to be reconfigured. The early COVID lay-offs of museum educators in major institutions, such as the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City, demonstrate which departments the museum prioritizes. A museum cannot sustain or function without the integral service that educators provide as the liaison between the community and the institution. Educators’ autonomy and decision-making capacities must be reinforced, and art preparators, gallery attendants, and front-desk clerks must be highlighted. 

On a more personal note, I would be lying if I said that museums’ responses to the recent events haven’t discouraged me a bit from the field. From the lackluster apology letters to the recent Whitney Museum scandal involving unethical acquisitions of Black photographers’ works at discounted rates for a now canceled exhibition, I often ask myself, are they really hearing our pain? Yet, I’m also reminded of the transformative qualities of art as a source of healing, affirming, and radicalizing change. One of the best pieces of advice that I received from a Black curator I admire was that we must create spaces either within or outside of institutions that affirm and support our Blackness. We must create spaces where Black Lives Matter within the museum. 

Chasitie Brown is a doctoral student in the department of Art History at the University of Texas at Austin. She specializes in contemporary Afro-Caribbean art with a focus on Cuba. Her research interests include exhibition histories/practices, artistic networks, collaborative practices, and conceptualizations of Blackness throughout the Caribbean and Latin America. She hopes to become a curator in the future where she can create experiences and creative exchanges that center on these concerns.

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