Director and CEO,
Oakland Museum of California
It’s 1969. The Oakland Museum of California, which was heralded at its opening as the museum of the people is opening to the public, and right across the street protests were under way at the Alameda county courthouse to free Huey Newton, the founder of Black Panther Party, who was on trial for murder. The Black Panther Party was founded in Oakland and its creation in 1966 was linked with the very origins of [OMCA].
About three years ago, as the 50th of the anniversary of Panthers was approaching, museum decided we were well poised to tell this history and to share this history. We had the collections to tell the story, we had relationships with former Party Panther leaders, and we had a focus in our programme increasingly on talking about the urgent issues facing Oakland that have national impact and relevance.
So where did we begin? We began as we do many of our projects with reaching out to our community. We reached out to get the first [unintelligible 00:01:12] voices of the revolution itself, as well as current cultural activists and social justice leaders today. We asked ourselves, how would our museum take on a revolution? Who needs to be included? How do we tell the story authentically? We began a process of listening. We convened Black Panther Party leaders, artists, scholars and museum staff, as we did here, and we conducted listening circles with community members, potential visitors and even our board.
We began many of our listening circles with actually reading out loud the points of the ten-point platform, which was essentially the Black Panther Party’s road map for revolutionary change. Hopefully, you can see some of these points here. We quickly learned that reciting these words created a sense of connection, urgency and action that were as fresh today as when Huey Newton and Bobby Seale wrote this document in 1966.
The Black Panther Party came to the fore in Oakland and on the national scene with the declaration that black men had the right to self-defence. What the general public often associated with the Black Panthers were young black men wearing black leather jackets and berets and carrying guns. So the gun was a powerful and necessary artefact to include. What we quickly realised is that this show would mean we would grapple with objects that could make many visitors and even some of our own staff pretty uncomfortable.
As we researched the origin of the party and heard from long-standing community members, it became very clear that the Black Panthers were a direct outgrowth of systemic racism and conditions in Oakland, which was surprising to many people because we think of Oakland as a city with a long history of deep African American roots.
This is an object from our collection that had never been shown before. It’s a Ku Klux Klan robe from a Klan chapter that was active in the bar area in the 1930s and ‘40s. And we realised this to be a powerful object to tell to story. This is perhaps an under-known or under-told story, and it was, of course, highly charged. Our staff thought we absolutely could not put this on view, and our advisers and collaborators told us we absolutely had to.
As the show got closer to the opening last October, the country erupted with the shootings of black men and the protests in dozens of American cities by the Black Lives Matter movement, including protests on an almost daily basis right outside the museum in Oakland. So we were obviously confronted by the [unintelligible 00:03:52] of linking the Black Panther history to events today. So by then, it was very clear that this exhibition at the Oakland Museum of California was taking a stand. It was no longer a question of taking a neutral position or presenting, as I was often asked, whether we were telling both sides of the story. We were taking a stand that this history mattered, that the impact and the innovations of the Black Panther Party were stories that needed to be shared, and that the issues against which the Panthers were fighting were as relevant today as they were 50 years ago.
We really didn’t know what to expect in the reaction that was shown. I, as a director, anticipated potential backlash from donors; we prepared for push-back from the media, and we wondered in our heart of hearts if people of colour believed this mainstream museum would really tell the hard truth. I believe our bold choices paid off, particularly as people saw a place of convening, inspiration and understanding following the November election. We had record attendance for this exhibition. 85,000 people came during four months. Of the run of the show, we had 700 members join in the last five days. Over 60% of the audience were people of colour. But what we were most proud of us was the trust that we have won from our community, a trust we have worked hard to develop, not only with leadership with the Black Panther Party, but with our supporters, our elected officials and our visitors.
So this show has called a question for OMCA. What are we willing to take a stand for, and what are we willing to take a stand for as a field? Whenever your organisations make a choice of inclusion, it means responding to the needs of your community and active listening, even when it’s risky for the organisation itself. We have the opportunity for culture to move the message forward. So what’s our next revolution?