Yesterday I watched the rush to perform solidarity from the UK GLAM sector stemming, in part, from the Museum Detox call for GLAM organisations to show solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and from a discussion with colleagues about how to do this. There is so much to address right now and arguably critiquing the social media accounts of big UK museums is not the place to start, but it is a tangible example of how wrong the sector gets things in relation to racism and social activism.
It became very obvious that there is little in the way of coherent or properly engaged anti-racist response or embedded understanding from major mainstream arts organisations. Social media panic ensued and played out with a variety of public statements on Twitter and Instagram: denials, deletions, defensiveness, misjudged but all well meant, same old same old, really. Black square, hashtag, “we stand with you”, we aren’t racist, honest and a bit of “we must do better” as the day went on.
You/we do have to do better and work harder. The you/we here is the predominantly white-run UK cultural heritage institutions, I am part of it and not, and like many, struggling with my own role within the sector, whiteness, the world.
Here are a few questions to ask before posting, both as individuals and as corporate bodies. It has all been said before, repeatedly – but here we still are.
Can you/we try to express solidarity without exploiting the few examples of black art and artists you/we have accepted as tokens of our wokeness? It’s the museum equivalent of saying “…but I have a black friend”. Look at the statistics – what proportion of your collections, exhibitions, staff and events are black and black focussed? Not very impressive is it?
Can you/we avoid patting y/ourselves on the back for the inconsistent and infrequent work you/we have managed to do and admit that nothing much has really changed? Your exhibition three years ago and your community engagement session in 2018 were fine, ground-breaking even, but did they result in embedded social and institutional change in behaviour, attitudes or practice? The fact that you have done it once, or twelve times , is not an end point and does not give you absolution. Stop mentioning them for good-person points. I would bet that a large proportion of the staff of colour that created, contributed and pushed for these things to happen at all, are no longer in post. Your institutional exploitation of this work is performative and disingenuous if there is no demonstrable, consistent change within the institution.
Can you/we try not to use the hashtags of anti-racism and black solidarity as a marketing moment? This is not the time to promote brands and products. And listen when people ask you not to occupy their digital space.
Can you/we accept the valid and angry criticism that comes in response to our empty public avowals and reflect on why? Yes, you/we must show solidarity, but at the same time we have to listen when the response is overwhelmingly accusations of hypocrisy, lateness, mealy mouthed opportunism – because these charges are true. Our only position must be humility and transparency – we have to own that we are complicit and museums more than that are perpetrators of colonialism and white cultural hegemony.
Can we put the white fragility aside and step up without centring ourselves? Yes, people will respond angrily, yes you/we will take mis-steps and make mistakes and yes you/we have to keep changing and learning – anti-racism is not a single action, but a continuous process of educating and challenging ourselves.
Can you/we commit to doing the work and move towards anti-racism as the starting point for all the things you/we do, every time? Not as an afterthought, an add on, an audience grabber, or to whitewash y/our guilty consciences? Is there an anti-racism position statement in your policies? Do you/we publicly own your complicity, history and whiteness?
The arguments I hear are of the “damned if we do, damned if we don’t” variety – but we are damned and responsible and the responses are late and misjudged and pretty pointless. The fear of saying the wrong thing and staying silent isn’t good enough either. To stay silent is to condone racism and white supremacy and that is not option. There is no getting it “right”, but there is a great deal of getting it wrong.
Do the work.
The two toolkits/documents that I think are very useful when considering organisational change at the moment are these (both US, but I am not seeing any equivalents in UK atm).
MASS action project https://www.museumaction.org/
Readiness assessment here: https://museumdatalaundry.files.wordpress.com/2020/06/b4272-massactionreadinessassessment_oct1728129.pdf
and Toolkit here: https://museumdatalaundry.files.wordpress.com/2020/06/9236f-toolkit_10_2017.pdf