Hope and activism in St Louis

Sharon Heal, 17.05.2017
We need to understand our history to bring about change
America is broken and its people are broken too. That isn’t my observation, although after recent events even a casual onlooker could be forgiven for thinking that the cracks are beginning to show. It is the view of Bryan Stevenson, writer, death row lawyer, human rights activist and museum maker.

Stevenson was speaking in St Louis last week at the American Alliance of Museums conference. His keynote address was an inspirational wake up call for museums and those that work in them on both sides of the Atlantic.

His observation comes on the back of facts such as the lifetime likelihood of imprisonment of US residents born in 2001 being one in three for black men and that the incarceration of this section of society in particular has reached endemic proportions.

The theme of the conference was diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion and Stevenson didn’t mince his words when he told the assembled delegates that in his view America is a post-genocide society and that the ideology to justify genocide and slavery will continue unless it is recognised and challenged.

This is one reason he is leading the campaign to open a national memorial to the victims of lynching alongside a museum that explores what he describes as the African American journey from enslavement to incarceration.

Stevenson was also unambiguous about the need to campaign for social justice and the idea that we need to get closer to the people on the margins of society in order to understand what changes need to be made.

In UK museums we have shied away from the idea of social justice in recent years, perhaps fearing it is too “political”, but I think we should re-examine the concept. In my mind all it actually means is treating people equally, without prejudice, and respecting everyone’s human rights, especially those on the margins.

Ethically we should be treating all our audiences in this way as a matter of course. The Museums Association’s Code of Ethics states that everyone who works in and with museums should actively engage and work in partnership with existing audiences, reach out to new and diverse audiences, and treat everyone equally, with honesty and respect.

But maybe we should be going further than that and campaigning for equality and rights alongside those that are marginalised and excluded, in the way that organisations such as the Museum of Homelessness does for example.

Stevenson made a powerful case for campaigning, activism and social justice. But he also made the case for hope too. Hope can be a powerful force for change, and understanding our history, the mistakes and the victories, can reinforce the will to bring about that change. And that’s definitely where museums come in.