#MuseumsrespondtoFerguson: Systemic racism, representation, and museums as peaceful congregant spaces


Museums entered the national conversation again last week when Dylann Roof massacred nine African-American members of the Emanuel African Methodist church in Charleston, South Carolina.

Many people began calling for the removal of the Confederate flag from Southern statehouses and state flags.  President Obama and others noted that the only place for the flag in our society is in a museum.

It seems that one of the few positive outcomes of the massacre is that these flags will finally be removed from official government involvement.

Violence against African-Americans, racism in our society, and museums.  Once again last week, the #MuseumsrespondtoFerguson discussion that has been taking place over the last few months became even more urgent.

It’s been perplexing to me that some museum professionals have expressed resistance to this conversation.  Some museum professionals hesitate to think that it is the business for their museum to respond to Ferguson.  An art museum is about art—what does that have to do with Ferguson?

Others refused to sign the Joint Statement from Museum Bloggers and Colleagues on Ferguson and Related Events because the statement called on all museums to respond to contemporary issues, “irrespective of collection, focus, or mission.”

I encourage you to read recent blog posts by Gretchen Jennings and the Incluseum for clarification on what #MuseumsrespondtoFerguson is all about.

In addition, I offer the thoughts below to add my voice to the conversation and give clarity to this movement.

It’s not about Ferguson or police violence
Some of the confusion comes from the hashtag #MuseumsrespondtoFerguson, which implies that this is only a response to the police killing of Michael Brown.  Tragically, police killings of African-Americans across the country makes headlines with regularity, including after the hashtag was coined.  But this movement is not about violence.  It’s about the underlying conditions that lead to the violence.

It is about systemic racism
African-Americans are dying at the hands of police officers because there is systemic racism in our police departments.

Systemic racism is when an organization takes discriminatory or prejudicial action against people of a certain race.  The racism is systemized because it becomes part of the working operation of the organization.  In police departments, this means that African-Americans are stopped more frequently than other drivers or are arrested after making eye contact with a police officer and then running away.

The most dangerous part of systemic racism is that it is often not thought about.  Museums can also be places of systemic discrimination.  Examples would be:

  • An art museum that has a collection that is overwhelmingly by artists who are white and male.
  • Guards that follow or intrude upon visitors of a certain race.
  • Natural history museums that present people outside of European traditions as exotic others.

Systemic racism can exist in museums when these types of issues are not considered.

Museums are places of white culture
Many of the museums in our country were created by people of European descent.  Often, what happens in an organizational culture is that people unknowingly seek to work with people that look just like them.  This extends to collections and operations as well, where the objects or point of view is representative of the culture of the museum staff.  Museums created and maintained by European-Americans become places of white culture.  This is part of the reason why there have been so many calls in our field for the diversification of museum professionals.

Museums as peaceful congregant spaces for community health
The United States is about to experience the most radical racial demographic shift in our country’s history.  In a 2010 report titled Demographic Transformation and the Future of Museums the Center for the Future of Museums notes that sometime between 2040 and 2050 the U.S. will shift to a “majority minority” country, meaning that the number of non-Hispanic whites will fall below 50 percent of the population (Center for the Future of Museums, 2010, p. 9).

2040 seems like a long time from now but museums need to help our society prepare for this future today.

Our society is already becoming more multicultural.  The shift to greater diversity could come with tragic implications.  Consider that our government has failed to address our immigration laws and that “illegal” immigrants are still caught in an area of heated political tension.  Roof wanted his massacre in Charleston to start a “race war.”  In announcing his presidential bid, Donald Trump said he wanted to build a wall at the Mexican border and force Mexicans to pay for it.

In her essay A Savings Bank for the Soul, Elaine Heumann Gurian (1996/2006) calls for museums to be places that encourage peaceful congregant behavior in order to sustain our communities through change and catastrophe.  It’s clear from the state of this country that we need museums to perform this function more than ever.

In order for museums to become peaceful congregant places, they need to represent or welcome everyone in the community.  To do so, museums may need to take a hard look in the mirror.  Do the museum’s collections, exhibitions, and programming make everyone feel welcome, or does the museum come across as a place of white culture?

Many of us come to museum work for altruistic reasons.  It can be uncomfortable for us to consider that our museums may be excluding some people in our community, especially when that is not our intent.  But good intentions that cause harm aren’t good enough.  A police officer may think he or she is protecting the community, but if in doing so that officer is engaged in discrimination then the community is actually put at risk.

We cannot allow the same thing to happen in our museums.  We have an important role to play in our society, and our society needs us to encourage peaceful congregant behavior.  We can only do that if we include everyone, and that is what #MuseumsrespondtoFerguson is reminding us to do.

Center for the Future of Museums. (2010). Demographic transformation and the future of museums. Washington, DC: American Alliance of Museums.

Heumann Gurian, E. (1996/2006). A savings bank for the soul: About institutions of memory and congregant behavior. In E. Heumann Gurian (Ed.), Civilizing the museum: The collected writings of Elaine Heumann Gurian (pp. 88-96). London: Routledge.

Image credit:  Protesters gather at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, on Nov. 14, 2014, to protest the grand jury decision not to indite police officer Darren Wilson for the death of Michael Brown.  Photo by Stephen D. Melkisethian (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


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