Beyond Gallery Walls and Performance Halls
We can commend mainstream museums and much of the arts world in their current efforts to exhibit and showcase much more talents than in past years that highlight women, artists of color, and social issues. However, the collecting and displaying of objects uphold a historical practice regarding the ongoing acculturating of visual expressions, especially those belonging to people of color. Leaders in cultural institutions must go beyond their gallery walls and performance halls to begin to focus on people and communities and to cultivate effective societal change. In order to shift their practice, they must push past their brick and mortars to change cultural esthetic reflected in the general public. A deep dive into cultural entities past and present must take place before they can truthfully move forward into honest realms of representation, access, use of the space, racial and gender equity, etc. For now, it is mostly a cover up, a distraction from the actual problem at hand – their most formative years of creation and the institutional framework. This piece will share five actionable approaches for an effective structural intervention for museums and other cultural institutions.
Institutions must reckon with their problematic history
Cultural institutions play a fundamental role in creating national values, reproducing historical, political, and social relationships through their narratives. How they are construed, who uses them, and how they use them, are also defined within this web of relationships. These Western institutions have formed a problematic color-coded narrative of European “progress” regarding the ongoing colonialist project of “civilizing” and “acculturating” people of color’s tangible and intangible heritage. These objects in museums can be interpreted as prize possessions or trophies on the cultural shrines of the West, a display of con- quest within galleries. The traditional ceremonies often treated purely as performances and entertainment. The complicated relationship between these enclaves and audiences affected by colonialism was highlighted in the recent Hollywood film Black Panther. “The museum is presented as an illegal mechanism of colonialism, and along with that, a space which does not even welcome those whose culture it displays” (Haughin, 2018). We covered the real-world implications of the scene in Museum Hue’s #Huesday tweetchat in February, which was covered in artnet news (Cascade, 2018). Cultural entities should actively engage in this topic of uncomfortable truths or else they will not evolve past dis- comfort. National Geographic recently released “The Race Issue,” which tackles their history head on. The Editor in Chief, Susan Goldberg, the first woman and the first Jewish person to run the magazine – a member of two groups that also once faced discrimination by the magazine – writes, “It hurts to share the appalling stories from the magazine’s past. But when we decided to devote our magazine topic to race, we thought we should examine our own history before turning our reportorial gaze to others” (Goldberg, 2018). They asked preeminent historian, John Edwin Mason, University of Virginia professor specializing in the history of photography and the history of Africa, a frequent crossroads of their story- telling, to investigate their coverage.