Tuesday 2 June 2020

I can't breath

Photo: Joe Raedle / Getty Images, taken from NPR

The year of 2014 was marked in the USA by the death of unarmed black people in the hands of police officers in the cities of Ferguson, Cleveland and New York. It was the year Eric Garner died, repeating “I can’t breath”…

That same year, in their joint statement on Ferguson and related events (which became known as “Museums Respond to Ferguson”), museum professionals took a stand regarding the role of museums in the face of those tragic deaths. There are three points from that statement that I highlighted in a post I wrote at the time.

First, the signatories reminded everyone that “New laws and policies will help, but any movement toward greater cultural and racial understanding and communication must be supported by our country’s cultural and educational infrastructure. Museums are a part of this educational and cultural network.”

Second, that “As mediators of culture, all museums should commit to identifying how they can connect to relevant contemporary issues”, irrespective of their collections.

Thirdly, and most importantly for the moment the USA are going through right now, they stated the following: “As of now, only the Association of African American Museums has issued a formal statement about the larger issues related to Ferguson, Cleveland and Staten Island. We believe that the silence of other museum organizations sends a message that these issues are the concern only of African Americans and African American Museums. We know that this is not the case.”

We knew it then and we know it now. As another unarmed black man, George Floyd, died last week under the knee of a policeman, repeating “I can’t breath” - the latest in a series of deaths of unarmed black people in the hands of the police – the scenario in the American museum field, and beyond, seems rather different. Almost six years after the “Museums Respond to Ferguson” statement, there seems to be a higher conscience among museums regarding their responsibilities towards their communities – members of staff, artists, neighbours, visitors, donors and supporters.

(Click on the images to enlarge them or on the link to view them on Facebook)

Oakland Museum of California on Facebook
Metropolitan Museum of Art on Facebook

Whitney Museum of American Art on Facebook

High Museum of Art on Facebook

The Phillips Collection on Facebook

Tate Gallery on Facebook

So, perhaps at this point the question to ask might be “Are these issues the concern only of American museums?”. They certainly aren’t, no matter how much we try to convince our “not a racist, but” selves of the opposite. The progress made in the USA - perhaps also because the current presidency has made some cultural organisations more aware of their role and responsibilities in society, as well as of their past failures – is significant, it brings hope. Hope that, for instance, a day will come when most people in Portugal will instantly recognise names such as Cláudia Simões or Flávio Almada and that will be also thanks to the country’s museums and other cultural organisations. This is about our cultural relations, about living together in society, about politics in the best of the senses. This will happen when museums realise their political role. But also when citizens will expect and demand that they do so.

Alex Greenberger and Teresa Solomon, Major US museums criticized for responses to ongoing George Floyd protests

Alex Greenberger, Longtime MOCA Cleveland director Jill Snyder resigns, urges museum to diversify leadership

Alex Greenberger, Alleging ‘Plantation-Like Culture,’ Former Workers Accuse New Orleans Museum of Art of Racism and Hypocrisy

Alexandre Antonelli, Director of Science at Kew: it's time to decolonise botanical collections

American Alliance of Museums, Racial equity and inclusion plan primer

ArtNews, Statements from major US museums about the George Floyd protests

Benjamin Lee, 'This ends today': over 300 stage figures call out 'anti-blackness' of US theatre

Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) Theatremakers, We see you, White American Theater

Catherine Hickley, 'Time to give back the swag, guys!' British Museum unleashes Twitter storm with statement on Black Lives Matter

Charles McNulty, Playwrights are calling out racism in theater. Their art lights a path to justice

Gus Casely-Hayford, There is a moment

Holland Cotter, Museums Are Finally Taking a Stand. But Can They Find Their Footing?

Holliday Phillips, Performative allyship is deadly (here's what to do instead)

Jessica Gelt, The spreadsheet that shook the theater world: Marie Cisco’s ‘Not Speaking Out’ list

Joan Baldwin, The chickens come home to roost: museum values in times of crisis

Joi-Marie Mckenzie, Guggenheim's first black curator calls museum out for institutional racism and hypocrisy

Kelvin Dinkins, Jr. and Al Heartley, We don't want your statements, American Theater

Killer Mike’s emotional plea to Atlanta protesters (video) - Note: Killer Mike became a member of the Board of High Museum of Art in Atlanta in 2018 (read more)

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