Stop being accomplices to society's racism - Museums Association

Stop being accomplices to society’s racism

Museums have maintained status quo, says Carlos Tortolero
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Carlos Tortelero

Every so often, the funding community and the powers that be start talking about diversity and inclusion in the museum and cultural world. What happens is that these funding initiatives fizzle out or the funds to address equity go to the large, white cultural institutions to tell the story about people of colour.

We are now in a new wave of equity, but two new things have happened. The first is that we are finally addressing, or at least contemplating, the real problem – racism. More than 20 years ago, I used the word “racism” in an article I wrote for the American Alliance of Museums magazine and I have talked about racism in the museum world at many conferences.

Through those years, my observations on racism and museums have been greeted with scepticism, denial or even anger by many museum professionals.

The only way to eliminate racism is to confront it. Alcoholics Anonymous isn’t called “I think I might have a problem anonymous”. That organisation correctly identifies the real problem and deals with it head on.

I would talk about social justice, and museum folk would say that social justice does not involve museums, as if the sector  is above talking about these issues. This super-elitism that exists in so many museums has to change.

The second new thing is that large grants are being earmarked for museums of colour. Finally, funding inequities are being addressed by funders.


Museums are, by nature, conservative institutions. When it comes to issues of social justice and racism, they have never been catalysts for change. Instead, many have been cultural ostriches, with their heads in the sand, maintaining the status quo. In doing so, they have been responsible for contributing to racism and social injustice. They are accomplices to the racism that exists in our society.

Let me be clear – I love museums. I wouldn’t have created one if I didn’t. The preservation and presentation of arts and culture are truly one of our species’ great accomplishments. But museums need to be more than that. When it comes to societal issues, museums need to change. Not tomorrow – but now.

In terms of problems such as racism, museums run by people of colour understand this issue. The eurocentric museums could learn a lot from them. But most large museums can’t admit that smaller museums can be better than them in anything. If the large museums would acknowledge that they can learn from smaller institutions, they would have to admit that these museums are not only colleagues, but their cultural peers. 

So, the question is what happens now? What is ironic is that the many museums that have ignored or belittled the magnitude of racism in our society are now becoming the experts on dealing with issues of equity. It’s the Columbus syndrome. They are the discoverers of how to deal with the problem that they have helped maintain.

A few years ago, large museums would never use terms such as “social justice”. Now you read their mission statements and you would think that they should be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Will this current focus on racism and injustice lead to a permanent change in museums? Will funders continue on a path of funding equity or will they once again assume a policy that focuses overwhelmingly on supporting predominantly white museums?


Can museums really change? Not just in words, but in actions and deeds? I think we will see a little change, but overwhelmingly, it will just be lip service. 

Having said that, there are individuals in the large museums who will continue to strive to make museums more socially responsible and relevant. I thank them. We need more of them.

Carlos Tortelero is the president and founder of the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago

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