by Armando Perla
Soon after the killing of George Floyd on 25 May 2020, museums joined institutions around the world making public statements of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. Most of the statements from museums were not backed up by a track record of anti-racist work; many were, in fact, covering up a culture of human rights abuses and discrimination that has plagued these institutions for far too long. Current and former museum employees, artists, and communities called out institutions for creating an environment where racism, homophobia, transphobia, sexism, and other forms of oppression did harm.
In Canada, several organizations have been exposed for their abuses and lack of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour) representation: the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR), the Art Gallery of Mississauga (AGM), the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), the Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG), Contemporary Calgary (CC), the Royal Alberta Museum (RAM), the Gardiner Museum (GM), and Lakeshore Arts (LSA).
Parallel to the public fall of the CMHR for its abuses against BIPOC, LGBTTQI+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Two Spirit, Queer, and Intersex), and women, former AGM employees also tried to hold the gallery accountable. They received an outpouring of support on Instagram when the institution tried to label their activism a “smear campaign.” In support of BLM, a group of seven Asian American women artists publicly cancelled an event at the VAG due to the lack of Black representation at its board and executive levels. The event was rescheduled to take place at Contemporary Calgary, but the women pulled out days later after citing similar issues there. In Québec, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA) is embroiled in controversy surrounding the firing of its former director and chief curator Nathalie Bondil. Almost a month after her departure, an open letter signed by almost 100 current and former employees affirmed that she created a toxic environment rife with intimidation and psychological harassment. This is the only case in which institutional racism or a lack of diversity have not been brought up. Considering the harrowing absence of people of colour demonstrated by Sean O’Neill’s analysis of the four largest art museums in Canada including the MMFA, this is not surprising. Programs like the University of Toronto’s Master in Museum Studies have been called out for privileging “emphatically white and Eurocentric”curricula, faculty, and student admissions.
An overwhelming white representation is a problem because white people have a specific white frame of reference and a white worldview. Whiteness is not a universal human experience. Robin DiAngelo argues that whiteness represents one particular type of experience and one framework of reference in a society where race matters profoundly because it is deeply separate and unequal by race. This privileging of a dominant way of knowing within societal structures leads to institutional racism—a concept that Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) defined as a form of racism that is subtler and less identifiable than overt racism.
The BLM movement’s impact goes beyond Canadian arts and heritage institutions; it has galvanized museum workers worldwide. South of the border, at least 17 institutions have been exposed by the mainstream media regarding their harmful treatment of historically marginalized groups. This includes the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA). Its director, Alexander Nyerges, recently came to Bondil’s defense, denying that her dismissal from the MMFA related to her creating a toxic work environment. This is an especially audacious remark for Nyerges to make, as current and former employees have alleged that the VMFA dismissed and mishandled multiple complaints of racial and sexual harassment with him at the helm.
The Instagram account @changethemuseum seeks to amplify these experiences of discrimination in cultural institutions. It has provided a platform for hundreds of cultural workers exposing harmful behaviours in almost every major art museum in the United States to nearly 30,000 followers. Other remarkable mobilizations led by BIPOC museum workers in the United States include the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET), the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA), the Guggenheim Museum, the Getty Museum, the Smithsonian African Museum of Art, and the Museum of Contemporary Art of Detroit (MOCAD).
In the United Kingdom, the Tate Modern, the British Museum, and the Southbank Centre have been criticized for their performative anti-racist public statements. The posting of a solidarity statement by the British Museum prompted thousands of Twitter users to bring up the hollowness of this gesture in light of the museum’s past refusal to address its colonial past and its lack of diversity. Visual artist and activist Bayryam Mustafa Bayryamali also blamed the museum for promoting racist and colonial stereotypes for decades. In an open letter by the employees of the Southbank Centre, they accused it of allowing “disturbing instances of racism” including active resistance against the formation of a network of Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic (BAME) staff in 2019. The Centre tried to disband the network and a board member affirmed that she did not believe in “victimhood.”
In a recent piece focused on the International Council of Museums (ICOM), The New York Times stated that “museums are having an identity crisis.” Headquartered in Paris, ICOM represents museums around the world. It works to protect their interests, including the development of a museum definition and a code of ethics that member institutions must follow. The current definition has not been significantly updated in almost 50 years. It serves as an ode to the status quo and a tool of unchallenged preservation. This has enabled the overwhelmingly white leadership of museums in the “West” to erroneously assert that institutions must remain neutral and apolitical. It has also disregarded the voices of the historically marginalized while also creating toxic and unsafe environments for those who dare challenge this fallacy.
The growing number of museums being held accountable is a testament to the inefficiency of a definition that does not challenge injustice when it stares it in the face. This inefficiency does a great disservice to the museum sector. Last fall’s ICOM meeting in Kyoto, Japan was meant to culminate in a vote to redefine the museum as an institution more receptive to our heterogeneous realities. Instead, a long parade of predominantly white European countries asked for more time to analyze and discuss the proposed redefinition before holding the vote. Some non-European countries also argued more time was needed. Canada’s own commitment to diverse representation and its ability to adapt to a field in flux were challenged when Canadian delegates pointed fingers at Danish curator Jette Sandahl, the chair of the standing committee on the Museum Definition, Prospects and Potentials (MDPP). They shamefully accused her of creating a false division between ICOM members. But this proposed new definition did not create division; it only exacerbated already-existing issues.
What suggestions could possibly require so much consideration and incite such tension among members?
The new proposed definition actively calls on institutions to democratize museums, including having critical dialogues about the past and addressing the conflicts and challenges of the present. It also talks about equal rights, equal access, and contributing to human dignity, social justice, and global equality.
But in Kyoto, delegate after delegate from the prominent and powerful nations affirmed how they did not need a new definition to continue doing what they were already doing.
Still, the accounts by BIPOC, LGBTTQI, and other historically marginalized people working in museums are getting louder. Their harrowing testimonies this summer have further proven how equal rights, respect for human dignity, social justice, and equality are still a distant reality for many museums. And people like Lonnie Bunch—the first African American and first historian to hold the position of Secretary General of the Smithsonian Institute—are tired of waiting. “The time is now,” he said during the plenary session “The Museum Definition – The Backbone of ICOM.” Indeed, it is only easy to keep waiting when you are the one benefitting from the status quo.
Many in Kyoto referred to the public consultations on the museum definition as the most democratic and open process ICOM had ever embarked on. The MDPP met with 850 ICOM members and other museum professionals worldwide asking them what a more relevant museum definition for the 21st century would look like. Yet in Kyoto, the organization refused to hold the vote to make progressive values and equal rights for all a priority. Those delegates who are urgently striving to steer museums in a new direction and supported voting for the new definition were outnumbered in an ICOM heavily dominated by white European states set on maintaining the status quo.
In the aftermath, former president Suay Aksoy’s—a Turkish woman—suddenly resigned from her position. Other high-profile departures followed. Many cited disagreements over the proposed new definition as the main reason behind these resignations. Her replacement by a white European man, however, not only reflects a Eurocentric organization that refuses to include different frames of reference and embrace a more progressive approach to the museum sector; it is also a symptom of deeper structural and organizational issues. This prompted demands from national and international ICOM committees requesting that the organization release Aksoy’s letter of resignation as well as give more transparency into the events that led to her leaving the institution and the designation of a new president.
The refusal to cast a vote on a more progressive definition and the events surrounding Aksoy’s resignation are especially disconcerting considering the abuses being recently exposed by museum workers who belong to historically marginalized communities in different parts of the world. These workers attempted time and again to create a dialogue with all levels of an overwhelmingly white, hetero, cisgender, able-bodied leadership only to have their claims constantly dismissed. People who dared to speak were chastised, vilified, and pushed out of institutions. Frustrated by the small gains coming from the inside, many grew tired of waiting. Some chose open letters to expose these abuses. Others used social media campaigns in their mobilizations. Airing museums’ dirty laundry in public was not a first choice, but it has proven to be the most effective strategy in a long history of resistance and activism within the field. Speaking publicly brings the transparency that many in the sector have historically avoided, allowing for toxic abuse to become ingrained in institutions.
But how can museums account for their past and move forward?
ICOM could lead the way not only by updating the museum definition, but also by amending its own code of ethics. The latter is an instrument that remains silent about institutions’ responsibilities towards workers and stakeholders who belong to historically marginalized communities as well as several other relevant and pressing issues. Museums must also be open to experimenting with more inclusive and democratic methodologies as well as non-traditional ways of thinking and doing. Outside the museum field, countries have dealt with large-scale human rights violations through truth and reconciliation processes. Perhaps some of these methods could be adapted to help museums deal with their own records of human rights abuses. Institutions have the responsibility to face and recognize the harm inflicted on their past and present employees, to set the record straight in a public and transparent manner, and to provide restitution for the survivors.
Going forward, museums could also benefit from implementing more participatory and accountable ways of working by applying a human rights-based approach (HRBA) to museum practice. This would prioritize the participation of historically marginalized voices in all decision-making processes to permeate every level of museum governance. “HRBA is not about making human rights one element or dimension in mainstream processes,” John Packer and Slava Balan insist. “It is about making them the foundational framework and basis for the entire process of socio-political organisation and development.” Critical frameworks such as anti-racism and anti-oppression can add focus on implicit bias and privilege as well as liberation and agency to the empowerment and participation of historically marginalized voices advanced by a HRBA.
This type of work is not easy; it is demanding and emotionally taxing. It cannot be rushed. It requires mending, cultivating, nurturing, and maintaining relations as well as trust building and sustainability. For this to be effective, museums must devote time, effort, and resources; they must commit to structural change.
Performative statements of support are not enough anymore. The time for talking about doing the work has passed; the time for doing the work is now.
Armando Perla is Head of Human Rights at the Montreal Holocaust Museum. He was a founding team member for the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg and the Swedish Museum of Migration and Democracy in Malmo. Armando is also a board member of ICOM’s International Committee on Ethical Dilemmas. He is pursuing his doctorate on Museology, Mediation, and Heritage at the Université du Québec à Montréal.