Black Lives Matter: Museums, Online Courses, and More

Although regular readers can probably easily guess where I stand politically, the aim of my blog is mainly to talk about museums and travel in a (hopefully) humorous way, so I don’t talk that much about politics or current events, except as an occasional aside. However, I don’t think basic human rights and equality is something that should be a political issue! I don’t live under a rock, and have been very conscious of recent events in America, the UK, and around the world as they have unfolded the past few weeks, and I think the time has come when I need to use my platform (small though it is) to speak up and say that Black lives matter! I like to think that I’m the kind of person who will speak up when I see injustice, and whilst I don’t hesitate to call out sexist behaviour, for example, because it is something that directly affects me, I acknowledge that I haven’t been anywhere near as proactive about calling out racism because I’m privileged enough for it not to affect me directly. Like a lot of people, I’ve been recently re-examining myself and my actions (or lack thereof) and have wanted to do a post on this topic for the past few weeks, but since blogging about museums is normally my raison d’etre, I didn’t want to rush something out half-assed but actually take the time to put something thoughtful together that ties into the theme of my blog.

I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, which, like a lot of Rust Belt cities, is still pretty segregated (not officially, mind, but it might as well be), and unfortunately, casual racism is rife, at least in my experience. I grew up hearing the n-word just thrown into casual conversation by members of my family, went to a high school that had a group of redneck kids who were allowed to drive their Confederate flag covered pick-up trucks to school, and encountered similar attitudes in the punk scene as a teenager (there were various gangs of skinheads that would pop up from time to time and start fights, but I’m talking the normal, supposedly progressive punks), which is even more appalling when you think about what that scene is supposed to stand for (though I always found the Cleveland scene to be incredibly sexist and homophobic, so it’s not really surprising it was racist as well). Although I didn’t really have that much meaningful contact with people of colour, as there were only ever a handful of non-White kids at my schools until I got to the university level, I always read extensively and understand enough to know why these kinds of attitudes were wrong, and I wanted to be better than that. And of course, moving to London in my early 20s, and living in a much more diverse big city also helped open my eyes to the wider world (though London is obviously not without its own problems, including police brutality). And frankly, for many years, I thought that since I came from where I did, and managed to grow up and not be actively racist, I was doing well enough, and didn’t put any more thought into it. But, you know what? It’s not good enough! Being anti-racist is hard, especially when it means confronting friends and family, but I know it’s nothing compared to what some PoC have been through every day of their lives, and it’s what I’d like to strive for.

To that effect, I’ve started taking a free online anti-racism module, and it’s been really interesting so far, so I’d definitely recommend it (I’m honestly really disturbed by all the things I didn’t know about, especially considering how much I like medical history. I knew about the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, and had even written a paper on them in university, but I had no idea about the awful Dr. Sims and his horrible experimentation on African-American women, and if a history major like me didn’t know, I’m betting most people don’t). You can find it here if you’re interested! (You have to list the state you live in to register, but they don’t actually check, so you can put whatever if you live outside the US.) I’ve also found one on British Imperialism that looks really interesting, and I’m planning on starting it after I finish the anti-racism module (though since I haven’t taken it yet, I’m not sure if it has any bias).

Of course, being a museum person, I think museums can be a great educational resource when done well, and I’m sorry to say that I’ve definitely been guilty in the past of skipping museums on serious topics for ones that look more fun, like when I decided to visit the American Sign Museum in Cincinnati instead of the National Underground Railroad Museum. I don’t know when I’ll next find myself in the US (coronavirus aside, I’m not particularly keen to give the US government much tourism money at the moment), but here’s a list of museums on civil rights, etc that I would like to eventually visit:

The National Underground Railroad Museum, Cincinnati, Ohio

National Civil Rights Museum, Memphis, Tennessee

Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, Big Rapids, Michigan (I found this one through the anti-racism module, and it looks like it would lead to some really important discussions, but will also make for very uncomfortable viewing.)

National Museum of the American Indian, Washington D.C. and New York, New York

Rosa Parks Museum, Troy, Alabama

The King Center, Atlanta, Georgia

Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, Detroit, Michigan

National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington D.C.

The Historic Mitchelville Freedom Park, Hilton Head Island, South Carolina

Northwest African American Museum, Seattle, Washington

The NPS has helpfully made a list of their sites related to civil rights, though I think the NPS probably has more to offer on this topic than just the places in this list, as there are certainly some sites related to abolition etc, like the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, that aren’t included here.

The above is by no means meant to be a comprehensive list, just some places I found that looked interesting and relevant. I’ve tried to see if someone else has done a more complete list, and haven’t come across anything, so if anyone has found something more in-depth, please let me know!

I’ve visited a hell of a lot of museums in Britain over the years, and whilst some of them do make an effort to tell the story of slavery or colonialism (I’ve noticed maritime museums in particular, like the National Maritime Museum and the Museum of London Docklands, tend to have galleries on slavery because it is so closely tied into our maritime past), many other ones just ignore the topic entirely, and don’t even seem to make an effort to include anything from a non-White (or male) perspective in their collections. You can see proof of this in the way some British museums just haven’t mentioned #BLM at all on social media – frankly, I think they’re embarrassed that their collections don’t do more to reflect the experience of people of colour. I say this because that’s exactly what seems to be happening with the museum I work for – for years, myself and a few of my colleagues have bemoaned the fact that the content of our museum is overwhelmingly White and male, but every time we have a chance to acquire more objects, there never seems to be any effort to make them more diverse. Our borough contains the largest population of Korean people in Europe, but there is absolutely nothing about them or any other minority group in the museum, which I think is appalling, and though I’ve done what I can to try to redress that balance by featuring more displays that actually reflect the makeup of our community in our community case (which I manage) and giving talks on more diverse topics (when I’m allowed), it isn’t nearly enough. I hope what’s happening in the world now will be a much-needed kick up the arse to museums like mine, but somehow I highly doubt it. I have looked very hard to try to find some UK museums that address colonialism and other civil rights issues, and the following is all I could find:

The Museum of British Colonialism: I had never heard of this until researching this post, but apparently they hosted their first physical temporary exhibition last year in South London. They appear to be largely online otherwise.

The Migration Museum, London: I have visited this one, and I really enjoyed it! Since my visit, they have moved to a different location in Lewisham, and I definitely plan on going back when museums reopen!

International Slavery Museum, Liverpool: I suspect this might be part of the Merseyside Maritime Museum, in which case I did visit it quite a few years back, but I can’t quite tell from their website.

Black Cultural Archives, London: Again, I only discovered this when researching this post, although I’ve been to Brixton many times. Clearly these places are not getting the publicity that other, even relatively obscure museums, enjoy.

Museum of Colour: This is solely an online project at the moment.

And sadly, that’s it, and most of these were founded in the very recent past, so there probably would have been next to nothing a decade ago. I hope there are more that I’m missing, and like I said, I do know there are other museums that have exhibitions on slavery, but these are the only ones I could find dedicated mainly to issues around racism and colonialism. If you know of any more, please comment below, as I’d love to include them! I’m focusing solely on US and UK museums for this post since those are the countries I know best, but I also welcome suggestions of museums in other countries around the world. Most of the museums listed here are currently closed to the public because of COVID-19, and I know museums in general are really struggling at this time, so if you’re in the position to make a donation to any museums covering these issues, I’m sure it would be appreciated!

I’ve felt like things has been changing for the worse in the past few years, with the terrifying rise of far-right populism and fascism throughout the western world, and I’m definitely not the sort of person that has much faith in humanity, but I do hope this is one time that we can all do the right thing and carry the momentum of the BLM movement forward to make some positive changes! I know that I personally have some ways to go, but am making an effort to educate myself, even if it makes me uncomfortable at times (I admit, the historian in me did struggle with some of the statue removals at first because it initially felt to me like erasing history when what I thought we should be doing is digging even deeper into our history to uncover all the racial injustice that so many people in power have tried to gloss over, but I have to admit that keeping up a statue that glorifies someone who was a prominent slaver isn’t doing anyone any favours, and that the newsworthy manner in which it was disposed of is bringing that history to the forefront in a way that leaving the statue up never could). I would hate to be one of those people that becomes so set in my ways that I can’t accept change or grow mentally to become a better person.

I will continue with my EuroTrip posts next week, I just thought this was far more important to post about this week, and I do hope it can be of use!

 

13 comments

  1. Terrific, well thought out, and well written post. You are so right- (attempting to) being not-racist is definitely not the same as being anti-racist. Lots to think about and learn. I, too, am struggling with how to look at history and museums in this context. How to preserve and study history (and historical artifacts) in a way that doesn’t gloss over or ignore the negative, but doesn’t ignore the positive either. But, how to acknowledge the positive without glorifying it? I think you are right that part of the solution is in acquiring artifacts and telling stories of under-represented groups. But, this is definitely a long term proposition, not something that can easily happen now, especially with the very survival of nonprofits so at risk from covid. Sigh. Hard to find a positive spin for this one…

    1. Thank you, that’s really nice to hear! I did struggle a lot with writing this – I normally do about 5-10 drafts of a post before publishing, and I did about 30 on this one – but in the end, I thought it was more important to speak up, even if it was difficult to talk about, than to be so afraid of saying the wrong thing that I said nothing.
      I think museums are really going to have to make some changes going forward, and think about new ways to talk about things, but I completely agree that it’s not going to be easy, especially as many of them may not even be able to stay afloat. It’s a difficult situation all around.

  2. Wise words and extremely well written. So many difficult and sensitive subjects covered with so many different emotions connected to each one. It’s a tough subject to write about objectively as only the extremists seem to get heard, I think that’s part of the problem. Museums do need to up their game with fair and diverse coverage though. Hopefully that will change.

    1. Thank you! It is a difficult subject to talk about, and that’s why so many of us, myself included, shy away from it, but if more of us spoke up, it wouldn’t be so difficult or taboo-feeling. As my anti-racism module just put it, “we need to get comfortable with feeling uncomfortable.”

  3. I feel like things have gotten worse in the last few years also. I remember when Obama was first elected as one of the few times when I was truly proud to be American. But now I feel like that election brought out a level of racism in the U.S. that I had thought was behind us. Then came Trump and racists, xenophobes, misogynists and various crackpots ranging from flat-earthers to evolution deniers seemed to crawl out of the woodwork from every direction. Maybe it’s just that the Internet and social networks have given these people a platform, but I think it is also because the political environment has empowered them. But the revived and expanded Black Lives Matter movement of the last month feels different this time. I hope it’s a turning point. Maybe if it is you can come back and visit.

    1. I moved to the UK right before Obama was elected, and Bush was president for most of my teens and early 20s, which was when I first started to develop an interest in politics (though antipathy towards politics would probably be more accurate), so being a proud American in America is not really something I’m familiar with! Sadly, these awful people must have always existed, but I think you’re absolutely right that they now feel empowered to air their ugly views by our racist president (and PM – Boris is no better).

      I definitely will come back and visit at some point when it’s safe to do so, because I very much want to meet the dog my brother just adopted (and see my brother, of course), but if I do anything other than visit friends or family, I will be very careful about where my tourism money is going!

  4. A very thoughtful essay. I like that you’re seeking ways to grow and change. As you said, it’s not enough to be non-racist. Plus we whites really don’t know the lived experience of PoCs.

    I saw a FB post by a conservative I know that made the claim about “erasing history“ that you brought up. My conclusion, like yours, is that renaming bases and buildings and removing statues is not erasing history at all. It’s just a refusal to glorify people who did bad things. I thought of writing a post along those lines. Maybe I will, since my blog is about learning from history, but it won’t be an off-the-cuff piece.

    Here’s a Cleveland tale for you: My dad bought a house in Cleveland Heights in 1980, I think from a black family. My brother did his senior year at the high school, which was about 50% black. When my dad bought the house, the city had no objection, but when he sold it several years later, the city told him he had to make thousands of dollars of improvements (repair cracked sidewalks and driveway sort of things). Because this had previously been a majority white upper-middle class neighborhood, the city government was using this tactic to try to slow the “white flight.”

    1. Thank you! It’s not always easy to change when certain ways of thinking are so ingrained, but I think it’s such an important thing to try to do. I think I struggle the most when it comes to confronting others – it’s all very well and good trying to change my own thinking, but I’m actually not a very confrontational person, especially when it comes to certain family members that I know are never going to change, and it just makes me dread talking to them when I know every conversation turns into a battleground.
      I’d be very interested to read your post, if and/or when you decide to write one!
      And your Cleveland story doesn’t surprise me even a little bit, sadly. That’s the sort of thing I witnessed firsthand – I think the ’70s and ’80s were the time when the racial makeup of a lot of the traditionally “white neighbourhoods” started to change (I was born in the mid-’80s, so I only lived through the latter part of this, but I’ve had to hear about it my entire life), including the areas where my parents grew up, and they were very vocally not happy about this.

  5. All very well said! Glasgow’s wealth came from slavery: all those tobacco and sugar plantations created our beautiful city buildings. I have read suggestions for many years that there should be a museum of slavery along the lines of the Liverpool one. This time, the suggestion is attached to a specific building, so maybe something will come of it? Not holding my breath though. In my opinion, statues have a shelf life, there’s no reason why they should be there for ever, and most have now passed it. They’d be better in a museum. On a positive note, Glasgow Uni has been quite good about owning up to how much it benefited from slavery and trying to make amends, see https://www.gla.ac.uk/news/headline_667960_en.html

    1. Thanks! So many British cities have been built on the backs of enslaved people, and yet there’s so little said about it in so many museums. It would be great if Glasgow did get one, but in the current museum climate it might be a struggle to build something new with so many existing institutions barely staying afloat. Good to hear about Glasgow Uni trying to make amends!

  6. The Civil Rights Museum in Memphis is really eye-opening – it’s pretty experiential, which I think you’d like. Memphis itself is fascinating, because at one point blacks and whites pretty much had equal power in running the city and worked together – and then the whites decided to take over. Ugly. Really ugly. Memphis has never really recovered, but it’s such a culturally rich city.

    1. It sounds really interesting! I’ve never really properly been to Tennessee – I drove through with my family on a road trip when I was a teenager, but we didn’t stop anywhere or see anything, so I’d like to actually visit someday!

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