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Building an Equitable Future: Museums and Reparations

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog
The Point of Pines Plantation Slave Cabin, displayed here in the National Museum of African American History and Culture, was built as one of nine identical cabins on a South Carolina plantation in 1853. Credit: Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of The Edisto Island Historic Preservation Society. Photography by Eric Long.
The Point of Pines Plantation Slave Cabin, displayed here in the National Museum of African American History and Culture, was built as one of nine identical cabins on a South Carolina plantation in 1853. Credit: Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of The Edisto Island Historic Preservation Society. Photography by Eric Long.

Today is Juneteenth, commemorating the emancipation of enslaved black people in America. This holiday is a big deal here in my home town of Washington D.C. Not coincidentally, today the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates will trek up Capitol Hill to testify before a House panel on reparations for slavery. This testimony is just the latest step in a decades-long effort to pass a bill to create a commission to study the possibility of reparations.

I’ve spent a lot of time in the past few years thinking about reparations from the point of view of a citizen, voter, and taxpayer. This latest story on our slow national progress towards reparative justice prompts me to share some thoughts from my perspective as museum futurist. I beg your attention for a somewhat long read to make the case that museums can contribute to meaningful reparations for the enduring damage of slavery. I hope you put aside ten minutes or so to read this essay, and that you follow up with your own thoughts in comments on this post or via social media (please tag @futureofmuseums #reparations).

Precis. Museums can contribute to enduring, meaningful reparations for slavery in three ways: culturally, through the narratives they tell; economically, through how they manage their money; and systemically, through how they share their power.

Preamble. In the US, reparations for the damage inflicted by slavery (and more generally by colonial theft and oppression) have long been treated as a fringe issue, a crazy and impractical idea. But when Coates published a seminal article in The Atlantic in 2014, making a powerful case for reparations, he effectively moved the terms of the debate from “why” to “why not,” and from “whether” to “how.” Now nine of the major Democratic presidential candidates are on record as supporting reparations in some form (even Bernie Sanders, who in the past has dismissed reparations as impractical). Nor are reparations a purely partisan issue. Conservative political commenter David Brooks recently wrote an opinion piece acknowledging that slavery created a “collective debt” that will have to be paid by society

Case. David Remnick recently interviewed Coates for the The New Yorker Radio Hour, inviting him to reflect on the Atlantic article, after a half decade of reaction and debate. When invited to clarify what’s being asked for, when we discuss reparations, Coates replied:

“First you need the actual crime documented. You [have] to actually teach people about what happened.”

The most obvious role museums can play in reparations is using their status as trusted sources of information to help America remember and understand how much of our current prosperity is built on theft and exploitation. Several museums have been founded in recent years to tell that specific story, for example, the Legacy Museum that opened in Montgomery, Alabama, last year, documenting how exploitation via slavery was replaced by exploitation via mass incarceration. In 2021, the International African American Museum will open in Charleston, SC, on the site of Gadsden’s Wharf, which received nearly half of the Africans brought to America as slaves, illuminating the role of human trafficking in building the US economy and helping individual Americans trace their ancestry.

And many established museums are correcting traditional narratives to tell blunt truths about the past. Just two examples: The Oakland Museum of California now uses the word genocide in reference to the early settlement of the state. The Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center recently opened “Purchased Lives”—an exhibit created by the Historic New Orleans Collection that takes an unvarnished look at the experiences of people who were bought and sold in the American slave trade. I believe this truth telling, on the part of trusted public institutions, constitutes a powerful form of cultural reparation.

Documenting the crime is only a first step towards reparation. The “collective debt” to which Brookes referred to is real and quantifiable. As of 2016, the average white family had 10 times as much wealth as the average black family in America, in large part due to regulations and practices that systematically excluded racial minorities from owning property—the most significant class of assets when it comes to building wealth. There have been some efforts to start paying off this financial debt in specific, targeted ways. You may have read about the vote by Georgetown University students, earlier this spring, to create a fund to help the descendants of the enslaved people sold by the Jesuits, in the 19th century, to finance the school.

I think the Georgetown story received so much attention because it draws a direct line between a particular wrong, people who are currently benefiting from that wrong, and restitution to specific descendants of enslaved individuals. This is notable because the conversation about reparations often founders on the specifics of who will pay, to whom, and how much. Asked “would you support or oppose policies designed to reduce racial wealth gaps caused by slavery and Jim Crow, such as offering compensation or tax benefits to the descendants of slaves?” only 26 percent of the general public participating in a recent poll by Data for Progress supported such specific financial reparations, while 47 percent opposed. The survey results hint at a generational shift in public opinion, as there is net positive support for among voters under the age of 45, but there seems to be little chance of national legislation for reparative payments in the near future. However, per the Georgetown example, there are nongovernmental ways make economic reparations as well.

For one thing, organizations of many kinds can use the financial power of their endowments to support reparative practice. Ten years ago the Rockefeller Foundation coined the term “impact investing” to refer to the practice of investing endowments in a way that creates positive social or environmental change. Now impact investing is a $250 billion market. It encompasses socially responsible investing (screening out investments that do active harm); mission-related investing (which both advances the mission and yields a competitive, reliable financial return), and program-related investing (which foregrounds mission-related impact and can accept a higher level of financial risk). We are beginning to see a push for “restorative investing” specifically focused on dismantling existing wealth structures, democratizing capital, strengthening local businesses, and benefiting communities of color.

Museums can engage in impact investing as well. The cumulative value of just nine of the largest endowments in US museums is ~$7.7 billion. Not a shabby sum to invest in social change. And for those concerned about the duty of endowment managers is to support their museums—note that well-managed impact investing yields financial returns just as robust as traditional investment portfolios.

True, most museums do not have large endowments, (the median endowment, as of the 2009 Museum Financial Information Survey, being ~$2.8M), and many small museums have few or no endowed funds. However, all museums shape the world in some way through the money they spend on day-to-day operations, and can engage in reparative practice through thoughtful attention to how it spreads this operational wealth. A museum can choose to give preference to local, minority or women-owned firms for contracting, or design its food service around values of health or environmental impact. It can partner with businesses and community organizations in ways that support their growth and amplify their impact. And because these daily operational impacts are often hyper-local, even a small museum can have a significant influence on their local community.

Coates’ remarks in The New Yorker interview also point to another role museums can play in the national process of reparations. When invited to outline what he wants to see as the result of a conversation around reparations, Coates suggests we need “a policy for repair,” going on to explain:

“you need to figure out what the exact axes of white supremacy are, and have been, and find out a policy to repair each of those. In other words, this is not just a mass payment… maybe you can design some sort of investment through resources. Maybe you can have something at the individual level, maybe you can have something at the neighborhood level, and then you would go down the line. You would look at education. You would look at our criminal-justice policy. You would go down the line and address these specifically and directly.”

This systemic approach is especially critical because money can’t magically level the playing field. For proof of that, look no further than a recent paper by researchers from Princeton, UCal Davis, and the University of Southern Denmark. The Intergenerational Effects of a Large Wealth Shock: White Southerners After the Civil War reports on how the authors they mined linked open census data to study how slaveholding families fared economically during Reconstruction.

As you might expect, Southern slaveholders lost much of their wealth when enslaved people were freed, and some lost considerable property to confiscation or destruction of their land and property. But the researchers found that within one generation, these families had rebuilt their wealth, while former slaves were struggling to get by on the (largely unfulfilled) promise of “forty acres and a mule.”

The Wealth Shock researchers conclude that the primary force driving the economic recovery of slave holding families were non-financial assets, principally social networks that provided access to jobs, advantageous marriages, and other economic opportunities. Slave holding families rebounded, in other words, because redistribution of wealth does not in and of itself alter the structural inequalities that give rise to wealth inequality. As the Institute for the Future’s Marina Gorbis points out, wealth is built on a complex web of assets that includes social connections, access to capital, knowledge, education and political power.

To create enduring change we need to create equitable access to all the assets that make up this web, and here lies the third opportunity for museums and reparative practice. Museums are repositories of societal wealth, not just in the form of collections and endowments, but also knowledge, authority, reputational power, social networks, and influence—the kinds of intangible wealth that rebuilt the fortunes of former slave-holding families after the war. In a sense, museums are social banks, stewarding all kinds of intangible wealth that have, to a large extent, been created by the privileged elite. But unlike banks, museums have the authority and, I would argue, the obligation to redistribute this wealth to the people on whose labor it was built. And the beautiful thing is, unlike money, intangible assets like power, authority, and social networks, can grow when they are shared.

Consider the very seat of power and social influence in any nonprofit—the board of trustees. The 2017 Museum Board Leadership Report issued by the Alliance and Boardsource found that forty-six percent of museum boards are all white. And the report goes on to note that:

“[the] lack of diversity in board composition may be a network problem. Ninety-one percent (91%) of white Americans’ social networks are other white Americans, which is the racial group that dominates nonprofit board and chief executive positions. Board members tend to be older and from wealthier populations, and their social networks also tend to be majority white. These factors both explain and perpetuate the problem of board diversity”

This “network problem” can be turned into an opportunity. Drawing on existing social networks is a form of hoarding and consolidating power. Diversifying social networks can reverse the flow of social assets—sharing it with historically disempowered individuals and communities. Diversifying a museum’s board isn’t just a way of helping the museum do a better job of understanding & serving its community (though that is important). It is also a way of sharing the wealth of social connections the museum has developed, enabling individuals to build their own personal assets of status & prestige.

Back in 1989, Representative John Conyers introduced H.R.40, proposing to form a commission to study and develop reparation proposals for African-Americans. The bill was reintroduced this year by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee [D-Texas], a member of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, which will hear Coates’s testimony today. Thirty years and counting on a legislative effort to simply create a committee to consider a national apology for slavery and study the issue of reparations. Government and the nonprofit sector both exist to pursue public good rather than private wealth. But one of the great strengths of our sector is our organizations don’t have to wait for political consensus to act. We can, instead, lead the way, using all the resources entrusted to us to build a better, more just, and equitable future.

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  1. At the American Association for State and Local History 2019 Annual Meeting, there will be a session on envisioning a museums reparations movement. It’s Friday, August 30 at 4 PM. The conference in general has a lot of great thinking built into the sessions about museums and social justice under this year’s theme: What Are We Waiting For?

    Imagining a Reparations Movement for Racial Justice in Museums and Historic Sites creates an inclusive space to unleash radical imaginations about a reparations movement in historic sites, as part of a process of truth and reconciliation and best
    practices in our field. Learn about past movements, hear new ideas, and collectively brainstorm innovative solutions to redress histories of racial inequity.
    Chair: Lisa Yun Lee, National Public Housing Museum, Chicago, IL; Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko, Abbe Museum, Bar Harbor, ME; LaTanya Autry, Tougaloo College & the Mississippi Museum of Art, Tougaloo, MS; Lisa Junkin Lopez, Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace—Girl Scouts of the USA, Savannah, GA; Omar Eaton-Martinez, Historical Resources for Prince George’s County Parks & Recreation at M-NCPPC, Riverdale, MD

  2. As always, your observations and insights discerning reparative practices in your essay are clearly organized, well researched, accessible, and easy to put into practice. Count me in.

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