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How Have Museums Responded to the Black Lives Matter Protests?

When the video of the killing of George Floyd emerged in late May, it sparked mass protests in his home city of Minneapolis, spreading throughout the United States and the rest of the world. To many who were already engaged in the wider Black Lives Matter campaign, Mr Floyd’s death was just another in a long line of such incidents involving black and ethnic minority citizens at the hands of police officers. And yet, this incident more than many others in recent times has led to sustained public protests which have been felt far and wide. Washington DC, Los Angeles, Paris, London, Bristol and New York City – home to some of the world’s greatest museums and art galleries – have also seen large numbers of people taking to the streets to demonstrate against perceived police brutality and systematic injustice.

It is important to note that the most recent series of global protests have come in the context of a worldwide pandemic which has made mass gatherings even harder to achieve safely. What’s more, museums and galleries have been shut to the public during this period even though some are planning to open up within the coming weeks and months. Despite this, the museum sector has continued to operate in a virtual sense, at least. Therefore, how institutions have responded to the demonstrations has continued to be of interest to protestors and the general public at large. Many public institutions have come under even greater scrutiny over issues like racial diversity and representation since Mr Floyd died. How have museums gone about reacting to the mass protests around the world and the wider issues they throw up?

Walker Art Center, Minneapolis

As a contemporary art gallery in Minneapolis, the Walker Art Center has been close to the heart of the protests in the city and of the wider demonstrations around the globe. Following widespread criticism of the Minneapolis Police Department’s overzealous response to protests in the area, the management team at the gallery decided to cut all ties it had with the city’s police.

The museum said it would no longer cooperate with the police in the city until it had implemented long-lasting and meaningful changes. It said that individual officers needed to be held accountable for their violent actions where appropriate. In a statement, it went on to add that demilitarisation training should be issued to serving officers. The Walker Art Center had contracted some of its security arrangements to the city police department and it said that this situation would cease with immediate effect. In a social media post, the gallery was unequivocal. “Enough is enough. George Floyd should still be alive. Black lives matter,” it read.

The Getty, Los Angeles

In marked contrast to the Walker Art Center, the Getty found that its social media posts were less welcomed by protestors and their supporters. Indeed, the institution’s president, Jim Cuno, felt he needed to issue an apology following widespread criticism of his institution on social media. In posts that failed to acknowledge the Black Lives Matter campaign directly, many people took the time to respond negatively about the gallery’s watered-down stance. Essentially, the gallery’s public pronouncements were seen by many critics as being too vague, for example by not even referring to Mr Floyd despite attempting to express racial solidarity. Cuno ended up stating that his institution had heard the criticism and had “learned that we can do much better expressing our Getty values” to try and bring the controversy to an end.

SFMOMA, San Francisco

A similar situation affected SFMOMA in San Francisco following its social media posts on the subject of race and art. According to some campaigners, a critical comment concerning one of its posts was covered up by the gallery’s social media team. The original post had shown a Glenn Ligon work of art, a silkscreen print, and included a quotation by him. Many thought a more direct reference to the ongoing protests would have been preferable. One former employee of the gallery said that using Ligon’s work was a “cop out” and that the institution needed to speak for itself. Some went even further, suggesting the gallery had acted in a tokenistic manner. Like the Getty, SFMoMA ended up apologising for any offence it had caused, saying “we can do better.”

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The Met has also come under fire for its apparent silence on the issue of ongoing protests around the world. The museum had posted a couple of images from its collection that highlighted racial issues but only issued a written statement about the killing of black individuals by serving police officers much later. This, again, led to some criticism of the institution. Kimberly Drew, who was once the Met’s social media manager, said that she found it telling how many museums that display work about Black subjectivity have remained too silent during the protests.

The British Museum, London

Hartwig Fischer, the director of the British Museum issued a statement about his institution in early June. It referenced both the Black Lives Matter campaign as well as Mr Floyd’s death. “[We]… stand in solidarity with the British Black community,” his statement read, before going on to mention the wider African-American community and black people “throughout the world.” Touching on the “spirit and soul of Black Lives Matter”, Fischer went on to say that the museum should seek the “right ways” to reflect societies and their blended histories better.

The statement went down well in some quarters but was heavily criticised by others, notably the historian Geoffrey Robertson, who responded that the majority of the museum’s collection remained “loot”.

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City

This gallery, which has a wide-ranging collection that is drawn from all over the globe, received a large number of complaints about its stance during the protests. A privately run institution, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art took the decision to allow police officers to use its facilities while they were patrolling the downtown area of Kansas City. Many cultural commentators and activists saw the move as one that was exactly what a museum should not be doing while demonstrations against so many police services were ongoing around the world. The gallery’s director, Julián Zugazagoitia, confirmed that the police had used the museum building after contacting private security officers there. He went on to add that he had then asked the police to relocate, something they did over the following two days.

Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, Bristol

Bristol has been one of the centres of the Black Lives Matter protests in the UK, largely due to its high racial diversity and historic connections with the slave trade. Bristolians even took the law into their own hands by forcibly removing a statue erected to celebrate a 17th-century slave trader, Edward Colston. The Bristol Museum and Art Gallery has long attempted to contextualise the city’s wealth within its exhibitions as one that is built on the economics of slavery.

Furthermore, on June 2nd, the museum turned its lights purple in an act of solidarity with the people of Minneapolis. Nevertheless, the museum has yet to make a public announcement about the statue or where it might be rehoused if it is recovered from Bristol’s harbour.

Musée du Quai Branly, Paris

Emmanuel Kasarhérou, who is the recently appointed director of the Branly Museum in Paris, said that he would like to update the colonial-era museum so that it is more in keeping with the cultural values of today. In an announcement referencing the current protests about race and inequality, he said that the colonial context by which many of the institution’s artefacts were acquired should be made clearer to visitors. In an interview, he said that he wanted to restore at least some of the cultural heritage the museum has to sub-Saharan Africa. Mr Kasarhérou said he would not make any sweeping decisions about restitutions but would consider artefacts on a case-by-case basis.

International Slavery Museum, Liverpool

Opened in 2007, the International Slavery Museum is run by Liverpool City Council. Like Bristol, Liverpool was a major slave port and much of its wealth was built on the transatlantic slave trade. The museum used the Black Lives Matter hashtag in its social media posts following the removal of the Edward Colston statue in Bristol. Many had seen the Liverpool museum as a place where the statue might be better off being on display because of the wider context offered. Nevertheless, even such measures did not mean the museum escaped controversy. At least one Liverpudlian historian, Laurence Westgaph, complained that the council and the museum had not done enough to educate the public on the issue of slavery or its ongoing legacy, citing many streets around the port area that are still named after slave traders. Responding to the museum’s critics, Liverpool’s mayor, Joe Anderson, publicly acknowledged that the council could to more and said it wanted to be proactive about achieving real change.

Interested in how museums can decolonise? You might find this article interesting.

About the author – Manuel Charr

Manuel Charr is a journalist working in the arts and cultural sectors. With a background in marketing, Manuel is drawn to arts organizations which are prepared to try inventive ways to reach new audiences.

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