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As Protests Across America Continue, Museums Walk an Awkward Line

As protests across the United States continue following the killing of African-American George Floyd by a police officer, some museums seem unsure how to respond.

The country is experiencing the most widespread protests and civil unrest in generations as demonstrators march over the death of another African American at the hands of the police, as well as inequality and discrimination.

The Oakland Museum of California was amongst the first to make statements about the killing of George Floyd in police custody.

Museum professionals working in US museums debated in one forum whether their institutions making such statements would be seen as ‘paying lip service’. But as the protests continued more museums started to post on social media in support of #BlackLivesMatter.

But some have been challenged about what these statements of solidarity mean.

‘Posting a picture on your social media is nice, but we need to see institutions such as the Hammer Museum who have benefited from black culture, spending, intellect put their money where their mouth is’, commented one person in response to the museum posting #BlackLivesMatter on Instagram.

While another individual responded to a post from the Getty stating that they stand for ‘Equality and fairness’ voicing concern that, ‘This is the equivalent of a “thought and prayers” post. Curious to know how members of your staff are engaging in meaningful dialogue with regard to building an actively anti-racist institution from the inside out.’

 

In Philadelphia the Barnes Foundation shared a post on Instagram about their at home activities after several nights of protests in the city and was almost instantly criticised with a comment stating ‘You have a whole collection of African artifacts and you can’t even post solidarity to the community you stole from?’

Later in the day the Barnes shared a new post stating that ‘It is imperative that we make clear the Barnes continues to stand in solidarity with communities of color’.

The uncomfortable truth is that museums do have a race problem, they are the product of a white supremacist and colonial culture. And despite much talk about inclusivity, progress has been slow.

But it is important that museums show support for #BlackLivesMatter and those in their communities suffering racism and economic inequality.

The protests in the United States should challenge all of us to renew our work to push museums forward and to use this moment to make change happen.

Do you have something to say about how museums have responded to the George Floyd protests? MuseumNext exists as a platform for the museum sector to share views and opinions. 

About the author – Jim Richardson

Jim Richardson is the founder of MuseumNext. He has worked with the museum sector on innovation projects for more than twenty years and now splits his time between delivering consultancy, innovation workshops and keynote presentations.

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