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Racism in Museums

Updated: Jan 28, 2021

By Melissa del Carmen Gomez

Image via Tony Dejak/AP

As time progressed, we have witnessed a change in how institutions, media, and companies handle systematic racism. As an art history student, I have visited many museums, learned about events, and have seen the ways institutions handled non-Western works. These institutions have a history with colonialism and normally portray their Western works much differently than their non-Western works. But these issues arise from non-diverse staff members, curators, directors, and microaggressions BIPOC staff members endure in the workforce.

During this pandemic, museums were closed due to safety measures. But during these times, a call of action was proclaimed to bring about a change in the way museums are organized. For instance, Dismantle NOMA is a collective focused on the New Orleans Museum of Art and the microaggressions toward Black and LGBTQIA+ museum workers at the institution, as well as a call for diversity within its employees. For security purposes, an employee who chose to remain anonymous wrote, “As a former employee, I both felt and witnessed a pervasive culture of racism and nepotism/cronyism. My interactions with higher-level staff and observations of hiring practices, prioritization, dealings with HR, and treatment of exhibits on the third floor support the accusations being brought forth. I at one time even used the word 'plantation culture' in regards to what I was seeing.”

Other collectives have come about. In an open letter to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, former employees have called for a change in leadership due to inequalities and layoffs. Taylor Brandon, the only Black communications staff member at SFMOMA, created the No Neutral Alliance organization, which supports and provides resources to Black artists in the Bay Area, as well as emails with Neal Benezra (the Helen and Charles Swhab Director at SFMOMA). On June 29th, SFMOMA announced it would be creating a new diversity and inclusion plan. Although SFMOMA had been in contact with Taylor Brandon and the No Neutral Alliance discussing the racial aggressions, the institution chose not to have the alliance be part of this plan.

Image via No Neutral Alliance

In an essay titled Art in America by Maurice Berger, it discusses how museums are mostly led by White people. “Who are the patrons of art, the museum board members, the collectors?” he asked. “Who is the audience for high culture? Who is allowed to interpret culture? Who is asked to make fundamental policy decisions? Who sets the priorities? Is the art world merely mirroring social changes or can art institutions actually play a role in challenging the conditions of institutional racism in America?”

Image via Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images

This essay brings up a point. Museums and staff are predominately white. When it comes to exhibits portraying BIPOC art and exhibits, there is a sense of separation. A museum exhibit for the sake of representation. What are traditional African tribal masks doing at a museum, when it should be back with their tribe? Are these tribes profiting off of this exhibit? Who curated the exhibit, was it anyone from the community? At the end of the day, who is benefitting from these sorts of exhibits, and is the portrayal appropriate?

These sorts of questions should be brought about when visiting museums and museums should listen to these collectives, be more diverse with their staff members, and give a portion of profit to BIPOC communities when it comes to exhibits portraying BIPOC art. Collectives are working hard to bring about a change in the way museums are handling the systematic racism in their institutions. As an educational institution, it should be the mission of museum directors and staff members to make their BIPOC employees feel included, and their voices are uplifted when expressing their concerns and complaints. When making a “Call for Diversity” statement, they should include and work closely with BIPOC voices to create a better work environment.

Written by writer Melissa del Carmen Gomez

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