The Nation We Make Together (Part II)

For our two-part series “The Nation We Make Together,” Ravon and I are taking a longer look at issues that inspired us to start Brown Girls Museum Blog in the first place: questions of patriotism, marginal perspectives, and radical vulnerability all under the museum field umbrella. Our goal has always been to find our space in this industry, in these institutions, but that work cannot be done until we have made clear our positions relative to culture at large. If we don’t make it clear what we believe in, and how we struggle to reconcile our differences, the task of creating space will be impossible.

The first piece in this series began with a quote:

“I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” —James Baldwin

 

With it, Ravon argued rightly that criticism is an act of love, and that to be critical of the nation is to make yourself be a citizen of it. In the tradition of Baldwin, and in agreement with my co-blogger, I also insist on my right to critique. I would add that in addition to being an act of love and belonging, critique is an act of creation. Although it’s easy to think of criticism as a negation, simply tearing down something made by someone else, in its best form, critique creates new possibilities and offers a different view of the world and the object it’s aimed at.

When we think about criticism — of an artwork, of an institution, of a nation — as a kind of making, we open ourselves up to the opportunities of new perspectives. Instead of fearing criticism and its ability to destroy, we start to think about the mindset behind it, and what it might be like to live inside that perspective. For museums that silo the creations of artists, historians, and culture workers, making and criticism are deeply intertwined, and being aware of that connection will make the work we do all the more compassionate.

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ICYMI: Ravon Ruffin and Lanae Spruce in The Lily!

It’s been a week — actually, it’s been a year. And in the spirit of celebrating when we can, I wanted to make sure to re-share an article that was all over my twitter feed last week, for good reason.

For their amazing work strategizing social media for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Lanae Spruce and BGMB’s own Ravon Ruffin were profiled in The Lily! Check out the article (including Ravon shouting out one of my all-time favorite books The Sovereignty of Quiet) here.

The Nation We Make Together (Part I)

It has taken me two years to write this post. It is the reason this blog was created, but it wasn’t until recently that I found the words and the courage to write it, unapologetically. We’ve had a lot to contemplate, here at the blog, and we’re excited to finally share the conversations we’ve been having to hopefully, as always, inspire thoughtful consideration and critique of the field. In a two-part post (because we know how much you love those), Amanda and I explore what it means or what it could look like when we bring our vulnerabilities into “the institution.”

For me, it all begins with American history, the National Museum of American History (NMAH) to be exact. It is what made it so difficult to finally find the words. NMAH was the first museum to welcome me here in D.C. as an intern, to embrace me, and I learned so much in my time there. So this piece is written from place of love, gratitude and appreciation to the many who continue to guide me, and does not take aim to destroy but in hopes to rebuild, together.

“I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” —James Baldwin

 

I am writing this after another verdict, during our country’s Independence Day celebrations, amidst our current political landscape. I am writing because until we come to terms with the psychological and emotional impacts of institutionalized racism on all of us, none of us are free.

Building Houses on National Memory

On a recent trip to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, I noticed their advertising for the now newly opened exhibition, “The Nation We Build Together.” I have not seen the exhibition since it’s opening June 28th, however I was struck by a few things during this last visit, that culminated in a number of anxieties exemplary of how whiteness constitutes national memory, and undergirds our institutions. On a banner above the south entrance, a collage of faces can be seen—across various ages, races, and eras. It is an obvious attempt at American patriotism, one that says despite our differences we’re all in this together. Among those faces was Emmett Till’s, a story that even in typing his name, it evokes imagery of his face that brings me to tears. See, the problem with national memory—that is fueled by nationalism in its very origins—is that not all of us can exist in it, not in our full humanity at least. Not everyone’s story will make it, in favor of a primary singular narrative.

I moved to Washington, D.C. to attend grad school, sure that my work would best be served in a museum-setting but as many young professionals not exactly sure how and in what ways. I was fortunate that a course my first semester granted me access to NMAH, as it was taught by a curator and held in the Museum once a week. It was my first real exposure to a museum on a national scale. One particular assignment from that course always stayed with me—we were tasked with observing an exhibit: What was the context for the exhibit? Who stopped at the exhibit? How were they discussing the exhibit? I chose the exhibit located on the main lobby floor of NMAH. I had never had the “National Museum” experience being from Chicago, and was fascinated to learn what the experience was like for audiences. It’s a small exhibit along the wall, that pays homage to 1960’s America through popular culture. I observed quickly, in a span of a few hours, that this case was overwhelmingly frequented by older white visitors and in a twist, white families. It was a moment of nostalgia for them to remember JFK, the Beatles, and a few major headlines. It was a moment that caused me to look around, and for the first time ask “where are we?,” as visitors and within the narrative.

The following spring, I interned at NMAH with a curator, who I continue to be grateful to today. She was sure to point my attention to the work that she did to secure certain stories existed within the Museum. It was also during this period that the blog was born.

 

“If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” —Zora Neale Hurston

 

Decolonize This Place

For people of color, it is at this intersection of feeling and reality, that we repeatedly learn that we are in an overwhelmingly white space. It is at these moments that we come to understand our existence through the prism of whiteness. In a book I am reading,—which I’m sure my Instagram followers are tired of seeing me post—The Sovereignty of Quiet: Beyond Resistance in Black Culture by Kevin Quashie, I am challenged to consider the capaciousness of black humanity that exists beyond equating black life with resistance. For Quashie, and I agree, “These assumptions are noticeable in the ways that blackness serves as an emblem of social ailment and progress.” (Quashie, p. 3) Although, Quashie specifically examines black being, I think aspects of his argument do apply to the collapsable nature of marginalized cultures, accessible only in the ways that they fold into and/or propel white narratives forward.

In NMAH, blackness is legible as a resource and marker of market capitalism that upholds progress in American life and history; a phantom of entrepreneurship and innovation.  In this way, we are left to understand blackness as a problem in either instance. Objects centralize the story, so things are made but we are never truly revealed as to by whom and how these things came to be; without these intersections objects are born out of a function not from people, not from labor, and are condensed into a singular narrative. The National Museum of African American History and Culture has a presence in the museum, an exhibition space there as a preview for its coming arrival in 2016, that now stands in for the existence of black life and resiliency secluded from American history despite its clear proximity.

The basis of Quashie’s argument is that blackness or “to be black” is defined through acts of resistance, as a result black subjectivity is restricted to the ways it contributes to public discourse through its expressions. Blackness is expected to and limited by what it can tell us about about race and racism, which is also evident in its absence in the museum. Quashie, therefore, argues for a reexamination of black existence that is attentive to black interiority, that is present as well alongside public acts of resistance. Quashie borrows this definition of interiority from Hortense Spillers (as he should), it is “the inner reservoir of thoughts, feelings of desires, fears, ambitions that shape a human self; it is both a space of wild selffullness, a kind of self-indulgence, and the ‘the locus at which self interrogation takes place.'” (Black, White, and in Color, p. 383 in Quashie, p. 21)

To consistently see ourselves as enslaved or as historical markers of segregation, for example, perpetuates our existence as only knowable in opposition to whiteness. However, Spillers’ point in regards to self interrogation is not only toward the institution but is also applicable to ourselves—the marginalized folk. Our presence has been obscured and erased from our cultural institutions for so long, and through years of trauma, that we’ve similarly come to understand ourselves in this opposition to whiteness. We don’t always recognize the toll this work of representation takes, or the ways by which we stop seeing ourselves for our full humanity in the process. Quashie pushes this argument further in a critique of Du Bois’ concept of “Double Consciousness”:

“In double consciousness, the twoness of black subjectivity does not represent another consciousness,  that is free and wild; instead, the twoness is a kind of pathology, a fractured consciousness that is overdetermined by a public language of black inferiority…In this characterization, agency is limited to resisting public discourse, and the black subject seems to possess no interior worth speaking of.”—Kevin Quashie

 

It is not enough that we find agency in our oppression. To decolonize the museum we must leave home. And for the institution, how then can museums offer pathways to selfhood for their visitors?

Leaving Home

Conceptualizing this post has been a slow realization for myself. I have stakes in keeping things the way they are, because this feels familiar—this feels normal. However, I’ve been challenged with confronting my own vulnerabilities, which until recent contemplation I was unaware of just how much I feel encouraged to protect the institution despite my work of inclusion. For communities of color, this work looks like us seeing each other and acknowledging the possibilities for social justice and equity in collaborative solidarity work. To do that, I’d have to accept the full range of your humanity that exists in the way that I would like for you to see me. For cultural institutions this looks like abandoning linear progress narratives that arc so as to always have a “happy ending,” or the inclusion of marginalized groups beyond that one particular holiday or specialized program. This self interrogation relieves whiteness, and therefore our institutions, of its perceived neutrality. Whiteness is not the basis of my existence.

This may seem simple or even obvious, but we underestimate the veil of security that nationalism and national memory affords us. Nationalism presents a clarity of self, whereas vulnerability is considered a liability to our survival. (Quashie, p. 77) But how do the stories we tell change the narrative when we consider the potential of our relationships to ourselves and one another in acknowledging our vulnerabilities? Could you see the expansiveness of my humanity? Seeing Emmett Till’s smiling face on a banner amidst other figures in history, knowing the ways in which the horrific events surrounding his life mobilized the Civil Rights Movement, was traumatic, and falls short of the thoughtfulness it’s meant to inspire when the institution fails to provide space for our humanity alongside these stories. In that brief encounter, we are meant to understand him as one destination in our nation’s story. As I mentioned, I have not seen the new exhibition since it opened and to be honest I don’t know if I will. I don’t know if my psyche can handle being jolted between slavery and civil rights narratives. However, here’s to hoping that we also exist somewhere in between.

Leaving home requires that we forego what we think we know—a sense of security wrapped into a tidy narrative. Our trauma is too great for that.

 

 

*All views expressed here are my own, and not the opinion of anyone else or institution.

BGMB 2 Year Party!

Recently, BGMB celebrated our two-year anniversary — two years of focusing on emerging professionals and people of color in museums and the art world. We couldn’t have made it this far without the support of our DC community and so we opened the doors to the Anacostia Arts Center for a night of connecting, discussing, and celebrating the work we are all doing together.

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Image Making: Interview with Michael Platt

This Friday, March 25, “image-maker” Michael Platt will give a talk at the Honfleur Gallery in Anacostia about his most recent exhibition, titled Pathfinders. In support of this upcoming talk, the Anacostia Arts Center, and local DC art in general, we talked to the artist to get a preview of what he’ll be covering at the event, including the difference between image-making and artistry, the goals of Pathfinders, and how art speaks back.

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Future of Museums II

Not long ago, Ravon weighed in on what she saw for the future of museums based on the activist and academic perspectives we have always brought to our work through this site. What she wrote about the need for museums to take on the role of coordinating and centering the wide-ranging activist efforts of their communities through the important work of making and providing space is something I completely agree with. This is exactly the kind of work we encourage institutions to do, and try to perform ourselves as well. Today I want to talk about this same work in a different direction: not just activism, museums should also be vector points for academic efforts too.

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Beyond the Walls: Building the Capacity for Community

Last week we had the pleasure of being the keynote speakers for the 2017 Small Museum Association Annual Conference. Needless to say, we were honored to have the opportunity and were excited to share in the importance of small museum institutions to the future of museums. Below is a brief––very brief––overview of our keynote presentation. As always connect with us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to continue the discussion.

If what we want for the future of museums is community-oriented public service, small museums should be our major model. Small museums have expansive ecosystems, the ideal location, and the richness of specificity that make up the new direction of the field.

 

When we say ecosystem, what we mean is the way an institution functions as a whole unit, thanks to the individual contributions of the people who work there. Ecosystem does not describe the building’s four walls or the items in the collection. Descriptions like “fast-moving, heavily bureaucratic, or community-run,” speak to the working environment of the organization. We are describing the work done by the people at those institutions, their goals and the ways in which they are enabled to or prevented from achieving them.

Some aspects of an ecosystem will always be specific to a single museum, but there are trends that occur across similar organizations. The question is not how to make small museum ecosystems more closely resemble the practices of large institutions; the question is: how can we make this ecosystem scalable at every size?

Black art incubator and the National Museum of Women in the Arts are perfect examples of what we think the ideal small museum ecosystem can look like.

The Black Art Incubator was a project created by four black women––Kim Drew (Black Contemporary Art Tumblr blog) , Jessica Lynne and Taylor Aldridge (creators of arts.black) and art historian and writer, Jessica Bell Brown  that took place over the course of the summer of 2016.

The Black Art Incubator so beautifully exemplified the boundless opportunities for collaboration when we tap into a multitude of resources toward a holistic goal and aim to be accessible. They took advantage of an intimate approach to create a community that could interact on an individual level toward a goal: to improve the arts and culture ecosystem for underrepresented and marginalized folks.

So what if we all were an active intervention in our spaces?

The National Museum for Women in the Art is such an example of an intervention being made by a museum. The museum launched a program, Women, Arts, and Social Change.

Through a host of panel and audience curated dialogue, the museum acts as a catalyst for their community of women on gender parity. Similarly, this project brings the community in but the planning of this program highlights the importance of each member of the museum working towards bettering the ecosystem.

One part of what makes the small museum ecosystem so able to be community-focused is the physical location of these institutions. Small museums are often located very close to, if not located within, the neighborhoods that make up their major audiences. Proximity is a powerful tool for organizations that seek to serve a local community rather than a national audience. Instead of representing global culture in a local location, small museums have the opportunity to represent their local communities and demonstrate their global significance.

Spatial proximity is a huge advantage when it comes to earning the trust of local communities, who may have never felt like a museum, large or small, can belong to them. After all, threshold fear, as Nina Simon calls it, is easier to overcome when it involves your neighbor’s door.

Workshops we put on at the Fralin Museum of Art at the University of Virginia, and the community engagement of the Anacostia Community Museum demonstrate the power of this kind of local access.

We recently had an opportunity to work with the Fralin Museum of Art at the University of Virginia, in conducting workshops with the museum’s visitors. Read about that full experience here

This particular workshop had spurred participants into a conversation about their own awareness of others in their communities that extended beyond their day-to-day, and were part of a larger geography. Here is where small museums can be empowered! You play a large role as an entryway for a new population into the rich history and culture of your communities and while also uplifting the narratives of those local to your areas.

The Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum does this well––being a direct line to their community and bridging those stories for the masses. They are also the inspiration for the context for us being here today. It was during the American Alliance for Museums Conference, on a panel titled around “Community Museums,” and we couldn’t help but think but aren’t all museums community museums?

The museum remains closely identified with its community through exhibition and programming initiatives to address the concerns of their changing neighborhoods, and being a direct line for opportunities for students and young adults.

The specificity of small museums is a direct result of their close proximity to the communities they serve, but on the national and international scale, these local stories often seem like niche interests.

This specificity is often talked about as a limitation, something for smaller organizations to overcome so that they too can play on the same international stage — but what needs to change in this framework is not the reach of the museums, but rather the way that we understand specificity. The mission of small museums is to demonstrate that specificity can be generative rather than limiting.

Rather than feeling the need to broadly represent history, art, or culture within their walls, these organizations can instead hone in on the unique details of materials in their collections, and exhibit them in their local neighborhoods.

Crosslines, put on by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, did just that.

The Asian Pacific American Center is another entity within the umbrella of the Smithsonian Institution, and like the Anacostia Community Museum specificity to their neighborhood, they have their own specific cultural mission. Additionally, the center does not actually have a physical location. However, they experiment a lot in ways to let specificity be generative rather than limiting––by including and creating new archives.

CrossLines demonstrated that specific viewpoints do not need to be discarded, but can instead showcase the fact that every identity has unique aspects that must be encouraged to be shared. By understanding and empathizing with the performance of specific ways of being in the world, environments, atmospheres, geographies, and even institutions can become safer places for people with unique experiences of their own. By being interested in and supportive of the full depth of viewpoints outside of the merely visual display of diversity, intersectionality is prioritized over inclusion.

Conclusion

Small museums have many advantages when it comes to representing public arts, history, culture, and the sciences. Their ecosystems, geographic proximity, and ability to delve into specifics put them in the prime position to be the future of museum work — community-focused, employee proving grounds that don’t sacrifice their unique positions in the attempt to appeal to all possible audiences and points of view.

It is not that small museums have an equally small reach, impact, or scope — it is that these organizations have become the test-labs for the new direction of the field as a whole. The work being done by these institutions proves that small museums do big work, and this framework must be extended to all museums, of all sizes.

An Artist Perspective: Interview with Adriana Corral

Let’s face it: museum professionals have a certain nearsightedness for the field. Don’t get me wrong, I think this intense focus on the details of our work is great. Curatorial practice, exhibition design, visitor experience — all of these things require great attention to detail, especially if your mission is to use these tools to educate people and hold space for the underserved populations in your community. But this practice of education and space-making depends on objects to ground the conversations, art and artifacts that bring to light something about our culture that should be discussed.

The art world and the museum field have a close relationship, but we don’t often hear the artist’s perspective on the collection and exhibition of their work. Artists are often politically aware, and politically active — what do they have to say about the growing trend of community-building and space-making that is happening in museums? What lessons can museums take from the world of public art?

To find out, we sat down with artist Adriana Corral to get the artist’s perspective on what museums do best, what it was like to move from grad school to the art world, and why geography is always present in her work.

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Future of Museums I

The recent election. A new year. A blog two years in the making.

These are all the things that have us thinking about where to go next. We chose to write “Future of Museums” as a two-part post, to give insight from our individual perspectives as they are shaped by academia and museums, and so I look forward to Amanda’s post to follow. Year one was as much about you learning who we are in this field, as it was about us learning about ourselves. We established our voice as an invitation to our audiences to take space in their institutions and we continue to seek ways in which we can hold space for one another.

I remember when we began, what a shock it was for me to realize how many of us were actually in the trenches doing the work. So much of this became visible via Twitter, and later, Instagram. The digital has been a large part of our foundation and activism. The geography of who we are and what we can do has evolved to reflect the digital landscape. Part of our mission early on, was in how our platform can aid in being a bridge, lessening the excuse by institutions that we are “hard to find” and increasing the visibility of our collective missions.

In 2016, my inbox would indicate that our community of activists were amped and ready to do something to push the work of intersectionality and inclusion forward. However, as I was getting invited to do a number of things, I realized there was no synergy among these groups. Everyone was starting a new collective of this thing or another but again, we weren’t talking to each other. Much like my frustration with institutions, we were scrambling at threads rather than looking at the whole tapestry. Just as our approach to institutions entails an understanding of racism and oppression that is critical of white hegemony and colonialism; our activism too must be critical of the local and the global encroachment of anti-blackness. Otherwise we are digging a hole in the sand without the proper tools or foresight.

We must be more prudent and adamant in the coming years as the humanities and arts grow under threat. So this post is not only a call to action but a request. We want to work with you, collaborate with you, and brainstorm collectively. Let’s call on each other from this side of the pond to the other, to bridge our visions of community and intersectionality.

I envision a future of museums that is global in its pursuits for social justice.

 

 

(photo credit: @thebazaarbohemian via Instagram)

 

BGMB Highlights of 2016

Happy New Year! Somehow we all managed to survive 2016 — although it certainly wasn’t easy. It was a year that just would not give up, but thankfully neither did we, and BGMB had some great achievements last year that we feel very proud of. We couldn’t have done it without the support of many people both within the museum field and outside of it, including everyone who has been following us here at the blog. Whether you found us in the beginning of our journey or are just now coming to this space, your interest in what we have to say has been amazing. Thank you!

BGMB turns two years old in just a few months, and we have so much exciting news to share about our anniversary as well as new plans and projects coming up, but before we get too far into 2017, we wanted to take some time to reflect on all the accomplishments that we worked for in 2016.

  • We started 2016 strong by getting involved in the fight against DC gentrification by asking city officials to save artist space on New York Avenue. Unfortunately, it was a hard fought battle that did not succeed in preserving the Union Arts DC space––but the spirits of DC artists never die, and we look forward to continuing our show of support.
  • In April, we celebrated our one-year anniversary! Our first year was all about finding our space in white institutions, and in our second year we have started turning a critical eye to practices that often go overlooked and finding resources to help us make change.
  • In May, Ravon and I graduated from George Washington University with our MAs! It felt great to be done and have our academic work recognized. BGMB has always taken a critical humanities perspective on museums and the art world, and we’ll keep up that point of view in everything we write. Ravon summed up the post-grad experience in one of our most popular posts about finding your space in the “real” world.
  • As if we weren’t busy enough dealing with graduation, in May we also spoke at the Association of Art Museum Directors annual meeting about breaking down barriers for minority populations, and attended our first Alliance of American Museums national conference!
  • I moved to Boston in June to start my PhD program at Harvard University, which got me thinking immediately about institutional privilege and the power of access.
  • We partnered with the Fralin Museum of Art in September during the NEH #HumanTies celebration to lead workshop tours of the museum designed around rethinking otherness in museums. Thanks for having us, Fralin staff!
  • The National Museum of African American History and Culture also opened in September, and Ravon was on the ground doing social media work to document the historic moment.
  • In October, Ravon gave a truly radical presentation at the Maryland Institute for Technology and the Humanities about the importance of digital archives.
  • That same month, we also attended State of Art 3, hosted by ArtTable DC, to put in the last words in old conversations about people of color in the art world.
  • Finally, in November, we just couldn’t resist and debuted our new site design early! Just in time for our annual winter hiatus and a fresh start for 2017.

Thanks for everything, 2016 — can’t wait to keep moving forward in the new year as we continue to find our space. #BGMBfindyourspace