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Why 2021 will be momentous for social justice in museums

If 2020 was a year that put social justice issues in the spotlight, 2021 will be a year for some landmark changes to remedy these issues – not least in museums. The Black Lives Matter movement in particular drew attention to pressing social problems that will require many years of work to ameliorate, but are already being worked on by both individuals and institutions. Here, then, are some lighthouses on a very stormy sea: may 2021 see them shine and multiply.

New Jobs, New Names

New positions were created at several museums to address the inequality and, in one very public case, downright racism that their visitors can face. Just over two months after a case of racism targeting a school group at the MFA Boston emerged, the museum announced the appointment of Rosa Rodriguez-Williams as Senior Director of Belonging and Inclusion. Perhaps they were taking a page from the Bronx Museum’s playbook, whose Social Justice Curator Jasmie Wahi has detailed her vision and methods in a powerful address. 2021 will hopefully see the end of the pandemic restrictions and the start of what these trailblazers can do.

Museum of Us branding

How museums position themselves with respect to their communities is also being rethought. The erstwhile San Diego Museum of Man has recently changed rebranded to the Museum of Us as a sign of greater inclusivity. And on Jan. 27, 2021, the Dutch museum once bearing the name of colonial figure Witte de With will be known as Kunstinstitut Melly.

Exhibitions

Special exhibitions on social justice topics are planned around the globe for 2021. The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam will present the exhibition “Slavery,” a refreshingly self-critical look at the Dutch colonial period (which, relatedly, the museum now calls as such instead of the Dutch Golden Age). Importantly, the show puts people – rather than anonymous historical movements – at the center, focusing on “ten true stories from people who were involved in slavery in one way or the other.”

A different kind of captivity is the focus of an exhibition in California, Barring Freedom. The United States criminal justice system is critically examined in this project at the University of California Santa Cruz. One artwork, Solitary Garden, was carried out by project participants following instructions by Tim Young, who is on death row in San Quentin State Prison.

RESIST! The Art of Resistance will appear at the Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum in Cologne, Germany. This remarkably multifarious exhibition commemorates the people who have fought against colonialism in the global south. Guest curators from around the world present subsections of their own design, while the exhibition as a whole contains both objects from the museum’s collections and artworks by contemporary artists, including sound and music installations.

Nor are these projects limited to museum buildings. Art Works for Change features online exhibitions on social and environmental issues. Te Papa Tongarewa/Museum of New Zealand has set up an Antiracism and Activism page on their website that includes objects from the collection and articles on the topic. Activist artworks will surely continue to turn public space into social justice-minded exhibitions, such as the Exhibits of Humanity by artist Emma Thorne-Christy.

Organizations

While these organizations are not new, their work in 2021 will be something to watch closely. Particularly the Art for Justice Fund – entering year four of its five-year plan – should get a major boost from raised public awareness this year, not least through the recent video paean to its founder, AggieMuseum iDSocial Justice Alliance for Museums, and of course MuseumNext offer museum professionals valuable resources to address these crucial topics in their institutions. Articles on Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion are also hosted by the American Alliance for Museums.

This short and subjective roundup is just the tip of the iceberg. There is a lot of great work being done, especially by individuals, which hasn’t made it onto my radar yet (here is a glimpse of my own contribution). Dialogue and lots of work are the key. Let’s make 2021 a landmark year for social justice in museums.

About the author – Stephanie Pearson

Stephanie founded museums.love as a way to tell museum stories as inclusively and vivaciously as possible. The website features videos, articles, and interviews that draw on Stephanie’s Ph.D. in art history, her university teaching, and her experience as a guide in the ancient art collections of Berlin, Germany.

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