The last two sessions wrapped up our review of the toolkit developed by the original MASS Action organizers and authors. The second to last convening covered the last chapter, which focused on pedagogy. Social justice efforts in museums have commonly come out of education departments. The toolkit interviewed educators from multiple different museums, and they covered topics relating to identity both as it pertained to the public-facing and behind-the-scenes work.
One passage in particular succinctly summarized the challenges museums face in this context:
“Museums hold institutional and cultural power as established by their colonial and imperial histories. Like other institutions (schools, hospitals, housing, policing, etc.) the ways in which museums maintain that power is by uncritically and unreflectively upholding the very systems that define this power. These systems, intersecting assemblages of capitalism, patriarchy, whiteness, ableism, and cis- and heteronormativity, have been historically presented as “objective” in museum interpretation and continue to be the lens by which objects and narratives are interpreted. As such, museum educators are tasked with making these interpretations accessible to audiences, the burden being to promote critical thinking and inquiry skills that deconstruct this “objectivity”. In our interviews, it became evident that one system of power that manifests most saliently is white supremacy.” (Greenberg, Antar, Callihan, 2017, p. 147)
Though educators are often asked to open minds and promote new ways of looking and thinking, the reality is that there is institutional history that comes into play. Meta-conversations that relate to the museum as a site of human intervention may not always be possible or encouraged. And in some cases, these conversations can resurface trauma for either educators or visitors. It can thus be tricky to navigate discussions about collections, exhibitions, and museums.
One key takeaway from this chapter was the idea of confronting whiteness, and talking about non-racist vs. anti-racist work within museums. By “othering” everything other than whiteness, it becomes hard to see all of the ways in which whiteness impacts day-to-day work. We can’t expect change to happen without becoming aware of the ways in which identity and societal norms come into play, especially as it pertains to white privilege. And importantly, though the focus of this chapter was on educators, all museum staff must be more self-aware and willing to be reflexive. Institutional transformation only happens when there is a critical mass.
The session started with an ice-breaker warm up, which asked us to work in pairs to get to know each other on a deeper level. This meant that we had to come up with questions we wish our colleagues asked us, rather than “how was your day?” I enjoyed this way of thinking about relationship-building in a professional setting. I ended up discussing the idea of asking what project or task someone was excited about as a way of connecting with them. Given how overworked folks are, it’s a good opportunity to focus on something that sparks their curiosity or allows them to develop or flex skills. It also provides insight into their values and passions.
The facilitators then provided a helpful overview of the five key themes of the chapter:
Centering anti-oppression work
Engaging with discomfort
All of these ideas came into play during the next discussions we had in groups. We were asked to come up with big, beautiful, scary questions “which will inspire us to take risks and head into uncertain territory” as Karleen Gardner - one of the educators interviewed - described (Greenberg, Antar, Callihan, 2017, p. 159).
I was thankful for the opportunity to listen in as others spoke candidly about the challenging questions they asked themselves. I knew immediately what big scary question I could ask myself, but struggled to speak up, ironic given the subject: “what do I have to lose in being more outspoken about these important issues?” In reality, I know what’s holding me back - imposter syndrome, generalized anxiety, and learned “feminine” docileness. These should not be crutches or excuses to do the necessary work to make our institution more equitable. Discomfort for me is placing myself in the conversation, rather than trying to do what I can silently, as an invisible force. It is feeling uncomfortable feelings in making myself a presence, taking up space, and making my opinions heard - regardless of how others perceive them. Some degree of conflict is necessary in confronting whiteness, and I need to learn how to handle that. I was finally able to share out to the group this question, and they were all supportive and understanding. I am still sitting with this, and thinking about ways I can break free.
We reconvened together as one group at the end to talk about some of our collective questions. It was eye-opening and helpful to learn about what others are thinking and feeling. And the experience underscored for me how important relationship-building and trust are with this type of work. Willingly embracing discomfort and conflict can only happen when you feel like you’re on the “same team” as someone else. Even though doing the work to make our museum more equitable will benefit everyone, it can still be viewed as a zero-sum game or an attack. As such, we need to be transparent and authentic with one another, so that white folks like myself aren’t blinded by defensiveness.
The last session of MASS Action was an opportunity to come together and reflect on what ideas we covered, what we got out of the toolkit and meetings, and what work was being done in the museum. The organizers shared out on three different initiatives that related to our conversations about equity. The first was a relationship with Enrich Chicago, which is training folks in positions of power at the museum to help undue legacies of racism. The second is a grant-funded project called Diversifying Art Museum Leadership Initiative, the goal of which is to diversify curatorial and management roles through paid fellowships and strategic mentorships. And finally, the museum has partnered with artEquity to investigate the dynamics of the museum and create training to help make the institution more inclusive and equitable. It is heartening to see that leadership is committed to this work, such that they are willing to admit that change is needed, to reach out to those with experience facilitating this work, and to provide resources through funding where it is necessary.
I didn’t expect for MASS Action to be so centered around internal relationships at the museum, but it makes a lot of sense. I found myself getting impatient at times, wishing that there were more concrete actions I could take in my day-to-day work to contribute. In the end, we need to approach change with empathy, and empathy is easier when we have already created bonds with one another. There will be uncomfortable conversations and challenging times ahead, if we collectively pursue this work of equity. Balancing kindness and honesty will help us to move forward together.
Greenberg, A., Antar, A., Callihan, E. (2017) Change-making through pedagogy. MASS Action Toolkit. Retrieved from https://static1.squarespace.com/static/58fa685dff7c50f78be5f2b2/t/59dcdd27e5dd5b5a1b51d9d8/1507646780650/TOOLKIT_10_2017.pdf