On June 19, 2020, almost every major museum in the United States issued a social media post addressing Juneteenth, the holiday marking the emancipation of enslaved men and women in Texas. Despite the faithful celebration of the holiday among Black communities since 1865, prior to this moment, few, if any, mainstream museums had acknowledged the holiday. In the weeks leading up to Juneteenth, we anticipated that, for the first time in our decade-long careers as Black museum professionals, museums would recognize their responsibility in acknowledging this seminal moment in Black liberation.
George Floyd was murdered on Memorial Day 2020, and in the aftermath of Black Lives Matter (BLM) demonstrations to seek justice for him and other high-profile victims of racial violence, the significance of Juneteenth suddenly shifted in the national consciousness and spilled into the ever-white museum landscape. There is a horrifying and heartbreaking poetics to the interconnections between George Floyd’s murder on a day of remembrance; the subsequent public (re)dedication to BLM, abolition, and liberation projects in his name and those of many others; the way BLM protests folded in critiques of museums and monuments; new interest in a holiday recognizing Black freedom; and the superficiality with which museums, institutions dedicated to memory preservation, attempted to allay protesters through tepid diversity commitments.
Many of these museums, in some capacity, begrudgingly began to consider their complicity and active participation in Black oppression and death. For while these institutions claim neutrality and promise progressive advancement, it is the fallacy of these claims that led them to believe Juneteenth posts had not been their responsibility prior to 2020, and then suddenly were their sole responsibility in summer 2020. Though the bulk of museum statements in support of BLM were released in summer 2020, and despite the subsequent influx of articles and virtual events exploring the racial problems of museums, we made a conscious choice to write this article now, in these events’ aftermath. Our timing illustrates the need for a pause, a real moment to recalibrate, reconsider, and bear witness to the inaction that succeeded those statements. So here, let us sit with the violence embedded in museums—institutions that were founded as champions of whiteness and repositories for European colonization (how else to describe institutions like the Louvre and British Museum?). We, as Black museum professionals, critique this history, but that is not enough. How do we envision changes that truly make room for the Black individuals whose lives and imaginings inform our work?
In the early twentieth century, museums helped shape definitions of citizenship, which were heavily influenced by eugenicist pseudoscience. When we write that museums participate in Black death, we’re describing a reality produced by these institutions’ unfailing commitment to the preservation of whiteness through countless means: the looting of artifacts; trade in human remains; conservation practices that metaphorically and physically freeze said objects in time; curation practices that define the worth and purported brilliance of these objects according to preestablished, Western sensibilities of worth; and arts funding that functions as a means of money laundering for the wealthiest among us.
But we know that Black folks have always resisted, actively countered, and reshaped these structures to fight Black oppression. By the 1940s, Black librarians and archivists had already started collecting materials relating to African American life and artistic practice. Historically Black colleges and universities housed notable collections at libraries and galleries like the Fisk University John Hope and Aurelia E. Franklin Library and the Hampton University Museum. Black activists in the 1960s and ’70s turned to museums as as loci for self-determination. Small Black history, art, and neighborhood museums were established throughout the country, some of the most prominent of which include the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit (formerly the Detroit Afro-American Museum), the DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago, the Museum of African American Art in Los Angeles, and the Studio Museum in Harlem. Artist-run galleries like LA’s Brockman Gallery and Gallery 32 and New York’s Just Above Midtown also emerged to showcase Black aesthetics. Spaces such as the California African American Museum in Los Angeles and the George Washington Carver Museum and Cultural Center in Austin, Texas, catered to the interests of local Black audiences, established collection plans that prioritized everyday objects of the Black experience, and supported artists throughout the Black Diaspora. We offer this (by no means comprehensive) list as evidence that such work is not only possible but has already been embedded in many institutions. What would it look like for museums who declare Black Lives Matter to similarly embody the practice of Black community, celebration, and care?
In tandem with the rise of local Black institutions, Black artists and cultural workers made themselves vulnerable both physically and professionally through protests against mainstream art spaces. Perhaps best known are the protests against the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s ill-fated 1969 exhibit Harlem on My Mind: The Cultural Capital of Black America, 1900–1968, which treated Black life in the manner of an anthropological study. The Black Emergency Cultural Coalition emerged in response, protesting the content of the exhibition, its lack of representation of Black artists, and the manner in which the museum either ignored recommendations from Harlem residents or failed to consult them. The coalition also outlined concrete ways to prevent such a misstep from occurring again. Similar artist-led activism also included AfriCOBRA, the Black Arts Council, Where We At: Black Women Artists, the Spiral Group, and multicultural collectives such as the Art Workers’ Coalition and the Ad Hoc Women’s Art Committee, which critiqued museums through art and protest campaigns. Artist Howardena Pindell demanded better with her 1979 campaign to cancel the exhibition of a white artist’s offensively titled The Nigger Drawings (yes, that happened) at a New York City gallery and in 1987 she offered an extensive report exposing the dismal demographics for Black artists and workers represented in major New York art spaces. Finally, her fellow artist and philosopher Adrian Piper wrote and performed painfully accurate descriptions of the experience of women of color in mainstream art institutions.
In addition to these artists’ offerings, in 1989 the historian Spencer Crew (who would go on to direct the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center and later the National Museum of American History) cowrote an essay with James Oliver Horton in which they outlined concrete steps toward better incorporation of Blackness in museums: expanding collections, establishing connections with local Black communities, reframing existing collection material to pull out Black narratives, and hiring more Black staff members. These steps are some of the same prescriptions we have recently gestured toward—a bewildering statement, given the thirty years between the publication of their essay and our own.
In response to past and ongoing waves of interest in Black folks’ voices, many mainstream museums have made some progress in diversifying their collections, exhibitions, and staff. In some cases they’ve even committed more obviously to honoring Blackness (perhaps most promisingly at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, the Hammer Museum, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Institute of Contemporary Art Philadelphia). However, ongoing concerns stemming from the embers of the culture wars—including anxiety about alienating predominantly white donors and board members, shrinking arts funding, and heightened scrutiny from conservatives—have made museums reluctant to fully incorporate Blackness as a political project. Instead, they have continued to be places where Black people experience intense psychic trauma. Many artists have processed painful memories of microaggressions and gaslighting suffered in museum spaces, but until recently there have not been consistent platforms for Black cultural workers to detail such experiences. Museums might exhibit art that offers institutional critiques, but there are few meeting points between potential bureaucratic care for Black employees and critical art. This refusal to account for issues continuously highlighted by Black professionals throughout the twentieth century, then, is what led in part to the mass denunciation of mainstream museums that occurred in summer 2020.
Before Juneteenth, various museums’ social media sites were inundated with comments demanding that they declare their support for Black Lives Matter and address their role in perpetuating racial inequality. This outpouring was reinforced by accounts of the mistreatment of Black employees, visitors, and artists, testimonies that exposed the disconnect between stating that Black Lives Matter and the intricate webbing of projects those words encompass. Simultaneously, the combination of pandemic-related economic instability and unequal job hierarchies led to huge layoffs of BIPOC museum staff. Instagram accounts like @ChangetheMuseum gathered anonymous evidence of incidents across the country, while others, like @ABetterGuggenheim and @DismantleNOMA, targeted specific institutions for their failures to achieve racial equity. These were efforts to explore anew what it would look like to develop a more equitable museum practice.
In response to increased public scrutiny, museums issued statements affirming their commitment to diversity. Some, poorly worded and verging on racist, were immediately denigrated and then followed by rounds of apologies. Others were vague and neglected to offer concrete pathways to racial equity. (We recognize the small numbers of Black museum employees who were called upon to hastily produce these statements, who were not always permitted to write what needed to be said, and who once again became spokespeople for their entire communities.) Finally, some included real critiques and promised actionable items for increasing diversity, but it was clear that conceptualizing Blackness at the center was largely unimaginable.
We are here to say that those statements were not enough and surely did not outline how these institutions would actively care for Black life. We did not come across a statement that quoted Black feminists, for example, in a manner that demonstrated real familiarity with Black interventions into the museum space. While we entered the museum field via diversifying efforts, born from the labor and thought of the aforementioned Black folk, we know that piecemeal diversity projects cannot and will not change the roots of museums.
The historic museums we’ve outlined here—along with recently established small spaces like the Underground Museum and Art + Practice in LA, the Art Galleries at Black Studies housed at UT Austin, and the (enormous) National Museum of African American History and Culture—have provided blueprints for how to cherish, historicize, and present Blackness in all of its complexities. Now, in this forced intermission brought on by the pandemic, we insist that mainstream museums relearn museum practice via Black institutions to dream up a wholesale overhaul of what they consider valuable, whose stories they think are worth telling, and how they treat the Black folk that enter their doors. We call for a transformation of museums, rooted in decades of work by the Black activists, artists, and museum professionals outlined here, and informed by the Black arts spaces and activism that have shown what is possible when cultural institutions believe in and honor Blackness and Black people at their core. What are museums willing to sacrifice? What are they willing to learn from a Black museum tradition? If mainstream museums hope to sustain their longevity, they must reciprocate such love and care beyond whiteness. It is only through rewriting their systems in tandem with confronting and reckoning with institutional racism that there might be hope that Blackness can be nurtured and protected in and on their walls.