“Natural Allies”: In a difficult time, museum professionals are reimagining the future of identity-based institutions

Gordon Haber

In the current environment of toxic bigotry and political polarization, how should cultural institutions respond? How might they use culture to counter intolerance while building bridges between targeted communities? These questions are particularly acute for identity-based museums, which have the function of preserving and presenting the histories of marginalized groups.
One answer is through narrative. “It can be tough to change people’s minds,” said Jennifer Scott, Executive Director of the Urban Civil Rights Museum, which is currently under construction in New York City. “But stories that counter racist, sexist, homophobic, and transphobic power structures can start to do this.”
Dr. Scott’s remarks came during a panel called Confronting Bigotry and Racism, one of many illuminating programs in Re/Imagining: The Future of Culturally Specific Museums, last week’s conference for museum professionals in New York City presented jointly by The Council of American Jewish Museums (CAJM) and The Association of African American Museums (AAAM).
AAAM connects dozens of institutions and individuals devoted to the preservation and interpretation of African and African American history, art, and culture. CAJM, a CANVAS network grantee, connects institutions and individuals in the field of Jewish museums who regularly interact, collaborate, and share ideas.
The conference was not the first time that CAJM worked to strengthen ties between ostensibly disparate groups. Last year’s conference, Upheaval: A Global Conference for Jewish Museums was developed in partnership with the Association of European Jewish Museums. Its 2019 conference, The Creative Challenge: Museums for the Next Generation invited artists, designers, dancers, and writers to explore new possibilities.
Re/Imagining, however, was groundbreaking both for reaching beyond Jewish institutions and for “the weight and proportion of the collaboration,” said Melissa Yaverbaum, Executive Director of CAJM.
“We are natural partners and allies,” she told CANVAS Compendium. “Every aspect of the program was approached through a form of shared ownership of the issues facing culturally specific museums.”
Over three days in New York City—at The Museum of Jewish Heritage, The New-York Historical Society, and The Jewish Museum—over 200 professionals from identity-based museums had the opportunity to learn from each other and share ideas. (The full program is available here.) As you might imagine from some of the session titles, the issues are knotty, challenging, and deeply interesting, including:

• Complexities of Representation
• Identity Museums and the Myth of Neutrality
• Strategic Futures: Igniting the Collective Power of Identity Museums

Commonalities of identity-based museums

One of the more powerful aspects of the conference was in learning what institutions and people have in common regardless of identity. Many administrators evinced a deep sense of responsibility and mission in their work. At the same time, they acknowledged staffing and funding shortages, and the difficulty of navigating boards or donors with a different vision for an institution.
Origins, Evolutions, and Directionality, a session on the history of identity-based museums, was particularly informative about a shared impetus behind their founding: while today it’s increasingly common for institutions to present the stories of historically marginalized groups while welcoming visitors of every background, many were founded with an eye toward a predominately White, Christian public.
Tara White of the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, described how early 20th century African American exhibitions were, in part, attempts to mitigate racism. Similarly, Zachary Levine of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum spoke of late 19-century attempts to “counter antisemitism with museums.”
The history of identity-based museums also evinces similarities in the tensions they reveal within communities: Dr. White spoke of the “competing ideas about what it means to be Black in America” that emerged in the 1960s. Nancy Bulalacao alluded to how the founding of her institution, The Filipino American Museum, was inspired by a lack of Filipino representation within existing Asian American institutions.

Serving the community

Although museums by definition look to the past, one session powerfully expressed how they can be heavily involved in the present and future. Truth, Healing, and Reconciliation was a session on how museums are serving their local communities right now.
Jerome Loach, Supervisor of Education and Partnerships at Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site, spoke with passion about the painful history of the prison, and how, through its Preservation Trades Center, the museum helps returning citizens (people recently released from incarceration) achieve stable, well-paid preservation careers with job training at the site.
Ahmad Ward, Executive Director of Mitchelville Freedom Park on South Carolina’s Hilton Head Island, related the story of the first self-governed town of formerly enslaved people in the United States. There was a valuable lesson in how Ward spoke of his effort to gain the trust of the Gullah, or native islander community: “I showed up to every church, every picnic. I left a donation, and I didn’t ask anything of them.”
Finally, Jakub Nowakowski of Kraków’s Galicia Jewish Museum discussed navigating internal Polish politics and the expectations of the international Jewish community. He also spoke about the hard fact of living perhaps 100 miles from the Ukrainian border.
“If we are supposed to serve the community,” he said, “you have to ask yourself, ‘What does the community need?’”
The museum found some answers by listening to Ukrainian refugees. It converted its education spaces to serve as a daycare center for children and a center for senior citizens, it runs clothing drives, and it provides refugees with temporary museum jobs to offer stability and income.
In addition to these enlightening panels, CAJM and AAAM arranged tours of the host museums as well as the Asia Society, MOMA, El Museo del Barrio, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. There were also networking opportunities for emerging professionals, including a happy hour and scholarships.
“I wouldn’t have been able to attend otherwise,” said Mia Rubin, in reference to the scholarship. Rubin expressed both her love of the profession and the difficulty of making a living at it: she mentioned an internship at “a major New York institution” that paid $32,000 a year before taxes—in a city where the average rent is over $36,000 a year.

What’s next?

Overall, one gained the sense that there is a lot of work to be done, but a dedicated group of museum professionals is pushing ahead anyway. In Confronting Bigotry and Racism, Dr. Scott struck a note of pragmatic optimism.
“There are always obstacles,” she said. “There’s not enough money, we’re understaffed, conservative board members. But people don’t realize how much they can do. It’s so easy to talk ourselves out of things. Talk yourself into things. What can you do despite the obstacles? Because often the biggest obstacle is our own commitment.”
Ahmad Ward is also Secretary of AAAM. When asked his thoughts on the conference, he was enthusiastic about it being a “catalyst” for further cooperation between culturally specific museums.
“I want to see words put into actions,” he said. “Get your hands dirty when you get back home.”
There are of course many ways to get your hands dirty. The Mitchelville Freedom Park, through Ward, is building trust with the local community. The Galicia Jewish Museum is easing the pressing needs of refugees in its home city. The conference itself created a forum where professionals from different backgrounds could meet in an atmosphere of collegiality.
The conference, in fact, could provide a model for Jewish institutions, in that it offered opportunities for collaboration between Jewish organizations while emphasizing partnership with other communities and groups.
After all, as Melissa Yaverbaum put it, “We’re all facing the same issues.”

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