Darren Walker's OpEd: Reflections for History Museums
Darren Walker is the President of the Ford Foundation. He’s really an amazing guy who’s been speaking out about leadership diversity in museums for a number of years.
Today, he published an OpEd in the New York Times titled Museums Need to Step Into the Future. Following on the heels of Sackler Family ties to museums in light of their Perdue pharma business and the opioid crisis (a good summary of Sackler/Perdue/opioids was published in the Wall Street Journal a few weeks ago), and the withdrawal of artists from the Whitney Biennial over a board member’s business having produced tear gas used at the border, Walker’s OpEd tells readers that museums need to change, to think about their future audiences, and that change must start at the top - with the board.
For us progressives working in the museum field, this piece does not represent new information or a new call to action. The field has been talking about diversity for a few years - not enough, and not in a broad enough cross-section of museums, but diversity among staff and boards isn’t a new initiative for us. I want to apply Walker’s comments about art museums to history museums - I’ve divided my reflections here into three parts.
Part 1: History of Regional and local History Museums
What was striking about this article for me was the opening line: “America’s museums are more than repositories of ancient Greek statues and Renaissance paintings. They are guardians of a fading social and demographic order.” The article goes on to talk about income inequality, under-representation of non-white culture, audiences, objects, staff, and board members in elite institutions as a problem of the present. Another perspective to consider is that this has always been a significant impetus for, and killer of, museums in America. I’m about to make some broad generalizations here - this is a blog post, not an academic article - so if you want citations and examples, let me know and I’ll provide them.
Many American history museums and related organizations were founded by and for white Anglo-Americans who were threatened by increasing immigrant populations at the end of the 19th and early 20th century. The Daughters and Sons of the American Revolution, Colonial Dames, many local history associations, societies, and preservation organizations can trace their roots to periods of American history when the population was changing rapidly. Museums have traditionally been organizations that save things in danger. If our museums are full of white history, it might be because those things were perceived to be in danger, hence a museum was created to “save” them. I use the word “save” here to mean both “rescue” and “keep.”
Part 2: How are we collecting?
In their collecting, history museums have often been simultaneously reactionary and passive. It is only in the last few decades that museums (by which I mean your regional or local history museum) have started collecting both offensively and proactively - even "gasp* collecting objects that are not already “old.” My experience in many of these museums is that until 20 or so years ago, a common requirement in museum policy was that the object had to be at least 50 years old to be considered for acquisition. Further, no active collecting is typically accomplished by museum staff. They don’t go out into the community, find out what is going on, and collect artifacts that would help current and future humans understand that community. Most museums wait for things to show up [passive collecting]. They wait for people who feel comfortable approaching the museum with an object, come to them with something they (the donor) thinks should be part of the collection. Other times, there is community OUTRAGE about the loss of some significant historic building, local business, or other cultural resource and demands are made that the museum rescue and preserve the remnants of this “thing” in perpetuity because it is an EMERGENCY [reactionary collecting].
There are many problems with these methods of collecting as related to the themes of Walkers writing today.
1) We’re relying on people who already see themselves in the collection, or items in the collection like what they want to donate, to approach us.
2) Donors are using the existing collection as an example of what the museum is interested in - so we’re perpetuating the contents of the current collection by not actively seeking other types of artifacts.
3) If some community resource is disappearing might be because the current community does not need that resource - perhaps it is not important or valuable to the current community (the Catholic Church in America is having this problem with their urban churches right now).. If we collect only in this reactionary way, we’re preserving remnants of the past that are not important to our current audiences - they have already voted with their feet and gone somewhere else.
Calm down - I am not saying that we should not collect in these ways - we should - it is our job. But when we collect ONLY in these ways, we’re not helping communities of color engage with us, become the next donor of a “not old” object to the collection, or welcome us into present and future non-white communities to conduct some active collecting.
Part 3: Whoa - those comments.
Take a few minutes to read the comments on the Times article. As of noon on the day of publication there were no Reader Picks or NYT Picks that supported Walker’s assertions about the need for diversity in museums.
Our mountain is high and steep. Today’s elementary school students are tomorrow’s visitors and donors. If we cannot appeal to this group to visit us when they’re adults, we’ll have to close our doors (topic of many future posts) - we’ve got 10-20 years to solve this problem and museums move at the pace of a glacier before before climate change.