This year has brought two major world crises: a deadly pandemic that has profoundly, and disproportionally, impacted people of colour, and civil unrest that erupted as a result of the brutal murder of George Floyd in the hands of police in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Floyd’s death has resurfaced the unresolved issues of institutional racism and white supremacy in American society.
As museums continue their ongoing efforts to determine how to deal with these two crises, digital has been brought to the forefront of museum work – presenting great opportunities and pressing challenges. Overall, it seems that now is the time for the museum sector to accelerate the hard work of decolonisation, diversification and inclusion.
In response to emergency closures due to the pandemic, nearly every museum has called on its digital team to expand its digital footprint, stream public programmes online, engage audiences on social media platforms, present virtual exhibition tours and meet the digital needs of its staff while working from home. Even the most sceptical about the role of digital in museums have shown greater interest in adopting digital tools in their daily work. Overnight, digital has become the centre of most museum activities, making a museum’s ability to carry out its mission dependent on its digital capacity and competence.
This significant moment for digital in the museum sector has been challenged by another crisis – the murder of Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, by a white police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on 25 May. The eruption of civil unrest in many American cities was followed by demonstrations worldwide. The Black Lives Matter movement has gained momentum, demanding the dismantling of the white supremacy structures and institutional racism that prevail in American society.
While some museums have taken to social media to condemn the despicable murder (see this Twitter post by the Arab American National Museum), most museums have remained silent or issued sluggish statements. The same social media platforms that museums depended on to carry out their missions during the pandemic are the same platforms through which the public held them accountable for their white supremacy legacy.
Museums such as the Getty Museum and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art issued apologies for their social media posts. Jim Cuno, Getty president, wrote on Instagram: “We heard your feedback on our social media posts yesterday. Thank you. We learned that we can do much better expressing our Getty values, and we apologise.”
Dismantling white supremacy structures and institutional racism in museums is crucial to maintaining the integrity of museums as public institutions. This responsibility lies with all of us – the public to hold museums accountable, the government to make sure that funding is made available to those museums that are making fundamental changes, and, most importantly, those museum professionals who are part of white supremacy structures in the sector.
It is no longer acceptable for museum professionals to claim tolerance and good character (on a personal level) while participating in the same oppressive system that discriminates against and dehumanises people of color. White supremacy structures and racist attitudes maintain their existence because of internal disengagement and complacency by many 'good' museum colleagues.
Everyone in the museum profession can help construct a more diverse, inclusive and tolerant environment. This is the time for museum directors, curators, board members, educators, registrars, technologists, and everyone involved in museums to accelerate the hard work of decolonisation, diversification and inclusion. Shying away from this responsibility is an inexcusable act of complacency that leads to preserving white supremacy structures.
Haitham Eid is associate professor and director of the Master’s of Arts in Museum Studies Program, Southern University at New Orleans, and the author of Museum Innovation and Social Entrepreneurship