Tuesday 9 June 2020

From silence to a hashtag to taking a stand

The news that the director of the Toledo Museum of Art, Alan Levine, wished to “reemphasize” at this point that the museum does not have a political stand sounded odd and anachronic to me. Not only because I joined a long time ago the group of culture professionals who advocate that culture is not neutral or apolitical, but mainly because in the US context, and elsewhere, things have effectively taken a different turn.

Still, for many colleagues running cultural organisations (and museums) the reason why they do what they do is not clear. And all too often, they are not able to see the larger context in which they operate and how the work of their organisations relates to it. It’s almost painful when someone has to remind the Toledo Museum of Art director that three years ago the museum presented an exhibition by renown African-American Artist Kehinde Wiley, “exploring ideas of race, gender and the politics of representation.” Our programming is not unrelated to our mission and values, it stems from them, it confirms and reinforces them.

In my previous post, I can't breath (followed by an extensive reading list which I have tried to keep updated) I wrote about what I see as a major development between the 2014 US museum silence and the 2020 multiple statements regarding racism and police violence. I believe this is something that deserves acknowledgement, despite the rightful criticism to certain hollow or apparently inconsequential statements. Mike Murawski, one of the co-producers of the #MuseumsAreNotNeutral movement, wrote a very significant post entitled A moment for accountability, transformation and real questions, reminding us that, beyond the statements,  what we need to see is “whether or not they [museums] commit to making the changes needed to dismantle racism, take action, and transform their institutions.” Change starts from within and, in his post, Mike shares Madison Rose’s real questions that we should be asking ourselves (in this sense, the Metropolitan Museum’s public statement and letter to the staff show how these things should combine).

But this is a process and most of us are in the beginning of it. From silence we move on to hashtags and discreet or anodyne statements. It’s a step. But it’s a step we should be held accountable for. This is why we should all keep our critical spirit and expectations at a high level. Moving on from hashtags to taking a stand is what we should be working on next. And it’s something we have to do with a sense of responsibility, with deep knowledge, with sensibility and respect.

The image has been edited in order to present, on the right, the names of the three museums.

A week ago, the Blackout Tuesday collective action reached Portuguese museums too. They were very few (I´ve known of three) and they were limited to a black square and the hashtag #blackouttuesday. Considering the enthusiasm with which some colleagues received this news, this tiny step, I felt that we had to be more cautious and keep our expectations high. It is definitely a step, but they were not really “saying” anything, where they? As Joan Baldwin beautifully put it in her latest post, “some seem to believe that hashtags function as values statements. They don’t.” (read The chickens come home to roost: museum values in times of crises). Thus, regarding these three museums and others, we need to keep vigilant and see what they will do next time there is a case of police violence against a black citizen in Portugal (not only in the US) and whether this moment has also resulted in an introspection.

Another case to which a colleague drew my attention was that of the National Palace of Ajuda. On that same day of Blackout Tuesday, the Palace posted photos of a painting entitled “Portrait of a Black Man”, informing us that this is “the only Géricault [?]” in its collection, that “Acquired and incorporated in the Royal Collections in the 19th century, this is an intimate portrait of, in its day, great humanist character” and that “It can be seen, not coincidentally, hanging side by side with the portrait of Emperor Pedro II of Brazil, scion of the Royal House of Portugal and, in 1888, liberator of the slaves of Brazil.” Hadn’t it been for the hashtags #blacklivesmatter and (the inevitable) #alllivesmatter, I wouldn’t have taken this post as a “statement”.

The discussion that followed was very interesting and informative (read here) and showed how well-prepared, sensitive and respectful we need to be when taking these first steps. The reference to Emperor Pedro II of Brasil as the “liberator of the slaves in Brazil” was controversial. Informed followers helped us navigate through History and its interpretations. But what impressed me the most was how little prepared the Palace was (or the person dealing with its Facebook page) in taking part in this discussion. These are not matters we can approach opportunistically…

There were also the reactions of other followers, reminding us that “This is a page of Culture and History, not Politics” or complaining about how “tiring this modern time [is], of empty people, who look for problems just to argue, to say that there is something interesting. Arf. You can't even read or view a post without a creature creating controversy”. They remind us that cultural organisations have a responsibility in dealing with their own white fragility (the way “even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves”, as Robin Diangelo has defined it) and that of their followers. This also asks for informed decisions, sensibility and respect.

Taking a stand is not easy, it shouldn’t be. We need to invest in it: invest in studying, in discussing, mainly in listening and doing some introspection. Change starts from within.

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