Skip to content

Racism, Unrest, and the Role of the Museum Field

Category: Virtual Annual Meeting
Screenshot of a Zoom conversation between Lori Fogarty, Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole, and Lonnie G. Bunch III
In a special session of the AAM Virtual Annual Meeting and MuseumExpo, museum leaders Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole, Lonnie G. Bunch III, and Lori Fogarty came together to reflect on a moment of racial reckoning and what role the museum field can play in it.

On June 3, attendees of the AAM Virtual Annual Meeting & MuseumExpo came together to hear from Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole, Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III, and Lori Fogarty on the museum field’s role in combating racism. In the heat of the country’s reckoning with police killings of Black people, the conversation was an opportunity to come together as a community and listen to these powerful voices discuss how we can rebuild our field and our society for the better.

We are now making this conversation available to all, in recognition of its urgent value to museum institutions and professionals. Watch the full video or read a transcript below.

Generously supported by:

Logo reading "Blackbaud / Power your passion"


Disclaimer: This video is being made available for free public viewing but cannot be reproduced in any way without the explicit permission of AAM. Contact media@aam-us.org with inquiries.

Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole: My AAM sisters, brothers, siblings all, good afternoon. There’s an African proverb that says, “It does no harm to be grateful.” It’s in that spirit that I want to express my gratitude to Secretary Lonnie Bunch. I want to express my secretary—secretary, that won’t do—express my gratitude to Director sister Lori Fogarty for being in a conversation with me this afternoon, a difficult conversation. It’s in that same spirit of gratitude that I want to reach out to our sister President Laura Lott, and to her amazing colleagues at AAM for knowing that you don’t just go by the program; you have to sense what is needed. And so they’ve arranged for us to have this conversation in a general session, that of course was not on the original program.

So why are we doing this? Well, in my view—and I bet you I can get an amen from the Secretary, and an awomen too, from sister Lori—we’re doing this first of all so that as museum professionals we can collectively grieve, mourn, the recent murders of David McAtee, and George Floyd, of Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, and Breonna Taylor.

We’ve come together this afternoon so that we can own that these deaths and countless others continue a horrific practice that began during the enslavement of Black women, men, and children. And we’ve come together to own that so many Black women, men, and even children were brutally murdered in racial terror lynchings. The last of these, the last report, took place in Mobile, Alabama, on March 21, 1981, when the Klu Klux Klan beat and killed 19-year-old Michael Donald, and then hung his body from a tree.

Across our country and our world, defying social distancing that is called for by the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of people have taken to the streets to protest the police brutality that took the life, in such a merciless way, took the life of George Floyd. In shouts of “Black lives matter,” demonstrators connect that murder with a long-standing pattern of Black men being slain by police.

Now, as you know, the worst pandemic of this century, with the associated economic consequences, did not decide to take a time out while these racially charged incidents were taking place. And so let us also acknowledge that all of this disproportionately affects Black people and other people of color. I mean the pandemic and the economic consequences.

So the questions we are here to discuss are, as museum directors: How should we respond to these crises that are haunting our country, and indeed our world, and what could and should be our role as museum professionals in the struggle against systemic racism?

So now let me turn in conversation with my colleagues. Brother Secretary, please look through your eyes as a historian to help us put this moment that we are in, in some context. That is this moment in time of racism, of civil rights protest, of protestors clashing with the police, all going on while we are in a pandemic and a financial crisis.

Lonnie G. Bunch III: Thank you. I’m so honored to be with Lori and Johnnetta to talk with you about these issues that are at the heart of all of our careers and all of our lives. I wish I could say to you this was a unique moment. On the one hand, it is because we have a dual pandemic: we’ve got illness and we’ve got racism. But on the other hand, the notion of the kinds of deaths that we’re seeing and the protest we’re seeing is not new. I am struck by the words of Ella Baker, who was crucially important in creating the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee during the civil rights movement, and when she said, “Until this country views the death of a Black mother’s son as important as the death of a white mother’s son, we who believe in freedom shall not rest.”

Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole: Not rest.

Lonnie G. Bunch III: For me, that is really what this is about. It’s recognizing that this is about a long story that, as Johnnetta said, starts with slavery, but looks at lynching, the hundreds of people that were lynched from 1880 to 1919, but it looks at the people who were destroyed when they destroyed Tulsa almost one hundred years ago. It really says that, in some ways, the history of racial violence is the history of the United States. And that you can’t understand this country without understanding that this has been something that has happened with—God, I hate to say it this way—with monotonous regularity.

In essence, the challenge is not just to say their names, because it’s important to remember Amadou Diallo and remember Freddie Gray, and remember Breonna Taylor, remember George Floyd. Crucially important to remember and say their names. But that’s not enough. It seems to me that what we’re really struggling with is to recognize that at some point a country needs to confront itself. Not a people, but a country, and that in essence, what I think this tells us more than anything else is that this is a national dilemma and I want to see all Americans realize that they are only going to be made better when we grapple effectively with issues of race and racial violence.

I guess the way I’d end thinking about this is that I wonder candidly, how long? How long do we continue to do this? And as a Black man, I’ve said it, I’ve said that I’m lucky I’m still breathing, but being Black in America, I don’t know for how long.

Skip over related stories to continue reading article

Lori Fogarty: Thank you.

Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole: Over these last couple of weeks, I have noticed that more people are using the language of white power and privilege. And in fact, I’m struck by two very different expressions of that. In each case, by a white woman. I’m remembering Amy Cooper, who took full advantage of her white skin privilege to call the police on a Black man. A bird watcher, who asked her to put her dog on a leash to follow the law in Central Park. Full use of her power. Can you imagine if a Black woman did that? If a woman of color of another community?

But I’m also lifting up before I come to you, Lori, because I want you to weigh in on this, I’m also thinking about somebody I’m willing to call a shero. A woman who at that moment, when that policeman had his knee in George Floyd’s neck for, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, almost nine minutes, she used her power and privilege to say, “Take his pulse! Stop it!” Look at these two examples.

Lori Fogarty: That’s right.

Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole: Lori, come in on this.

Lori Fogarty: Well, first of all, I’m so honored to be with the two of you today and part of this conversation. And yeah, I think that it is a national conversation and this is absolutely disproportionately, this moment in every way, impacting people of color and Black people in a way that white people cannot even begin to understand.

And I think it begins with our internal work. It begins with our personal work to truly understand what the Secretary said, which is that the entire system and structure of this country has been built on racism. And that is what systemic racism is. It is the laws, the structures, the roles, the government, property ownership, every facet of our life. Museums have been built on that power of white people over people of color and particularly Black people.

And I think we just begin with that deep understanding that’s very difficult for white people to absorb. And I think our role, as I will say, as a middle-aged white woman, but running a museum, is that balance between, one, listening and listening and listening, and not necessarily being either the bullhorn or the bully pulpit at this moment. And also recognizing that we do have power as museums and as museum leaders. And we have to think in very deep and thoughtful and strategic ways, how to utilize that platform for public good. And that’s what I think I’m here to learn from you all today and participate in that conversation.

Lonnie G. Bunch III: If I may jump in.

Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole: Please, it’s a conversation.

Lonnie G. Bunch III: Lori, I really appreciate what you say, because in some ways I’ve lived my whole career banging on the door of museums, asking museums to do better. And by that I mean helping museums understand that we need to be excellent in the traditional ways—wonderful exhibitions, build those collections, make sure we think creatively about what education really means—but we also have to be excellent in ways that matter, that changes a mindset to say, it’s not enough to be a good museum. What’s key is that you have to be an institution who recognizes in everything you do that the goal is, yes, I want to do good exhibitions. Yes, I want to do good scientific research. Yes, I want the kids to come to the zoo. But the reality is what you really want is you want to change and make your community, make your region, make your country better.

In other words, what I want to hear from museums in their vision statements is about the greater good and that greater good is more than serving audiences, it’s about helping a country find truth, find insight, find nuance, and in many ways, what I hope that cultural institutions like this can do is that they’re better suited than most to define reality and to give hope.

Lori Fogarty: That’s right.

Lonnie G. Bunch III: That’s what I’d like to think.

Lori Fogarty: Yup. We need to think of our jobs in very different ways right now.

Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole: The brother Secretary’s comment moves me to read something that our sister Stephanie Johnson-Cunningham has written, and we all know her, of course, from Museum Hue, listen to this: “Culturally specific museums are literally a part of the community. They provide an incredible model that centers people, and they are able to be more culturally responsive because community care,” as opposed to collections, had to add that, “is at the center of their practice.”

Now Lonnie Bunch, Lonnie G. Bunch III, you with your amazing and grace-filled colleagues brought into our lives a culturally specific institution that, as you say, tells the story of America through the experiences of African Americans. I’d like to hear each of you talk about this, what can all museums learn from so-called culturally specific museums and what can all of our museums learn perhaps from institutions that are not museums? By the way, before I let you in, our brother Andrew says, “Careful how you use the term culturally specific, because over centuries museums have been culturally specific for white folks.”

Lonnie G. Bunch III: Mm-hmm, yep. Lori?

Lori Fogarty: Sure, I’ll take a crack at that. Well, I think at the Oakland Museum of California some of our great models for the way we engage with community have been museums that are culturally specific to cultures other than the white culture. I think of the Wing Luke Museum in Seattle, I think of the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, and of course I think of the great Smithsonian Institutions. And I think what we learned from them is, as you say, Johnnetta, there is a mission that is based in service to the community. They’re based in stories, and objects, and heritage, and history, but first and foremost for being places for people, and as you said, Lonnie, places whose missions are about imagining a better future. And I think that’s what we learn from these kinds of institutions.

And then I think they’ve developed very specific practices around bringing community in for dialogue and conversation and having community members, Lonnie, the great work that you did assembling a collection from scratch basically and reaching out to that broad community, where the treasures that came to the museum were the treasures that people had in their attics and their basements and in their grandmother’s closets. So I think there is both purpose and practice that museums that are rooted in much more of the white culture can learn from our sister and brother and sibling institutions.

Lonnie G. Bunch III: I think that Lori’s got it exactly right and I would sort of… The way I frame it is just a little different and that is, we know that museums cannot be community centers, they’re just not built to be community centers, but they sure could be at the center of their community, and that is really the way to think about this. And I also think that part of this I’ve learned from the Wing Luke, the Japanese American, the African American Museum in Detroit and Chicago, and what I’ve learned is that, first and foremost, they put community, they put education, and they put conversation and collaboration at the center.

So it’s not the sense of we’re up here and, “Oh, we’re inviting you in.” It’s at an essence, “We only exist because we’re part of this community and this collaboration.” But I’m also struck candidly by some of the sort of smart museum directors of the early 20th century, [such as John Cotton Dana], right? I mean, I think his notion of being very explicit saying, “What a good museum does is understand what the community needs and fits the museum to the community needs.” So in some ways we’ve got a lot of models, but I think the key to this is to not forget that we are of the community, of the people, and that our job is service first and foremost. And if we do that, then all things are possible.

Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm. I was sharing a little earlier, before we came online, that I had quite a treat, quite an honor last night of being with colleagues at the Smithsonian, women directors. And Lonnie, there was such open and honest concern that these sister directors expressed about their colleagues and I’m hearing it all over the country. If you are not in the majority group, and that won’t be the case by numbers much longer, but if you are a person of color and we can acknowledge other marginalized groups, if you’re in the LGBTQ community, if you happen to have a disability, if you are not of a Christian faith, it’s not easy working in our museums. And so I’m looking to you and to Lori to say, “What do you say now to colleagues who are really, really hurting?” They are putting up the exhibitions, at least before they had to close down. They are doing the community outreach, but the recent events, they just created such anguish. What do you say to our colleagues?

Lonnie G. Bunch III: Well, I think, first and foremost, it’s a realization that our job as leaders is to protect our colleagues, is to work closely with our colleagues to keep our colleagues safe. But also it really means that we need to take seriously the opportunities to make sure that people who feel marginalized in our institutions, that we recognize that and take concerted efforts to change that. I think that, for me, it is—I mean, I hate to say it—it’s second nature, because I’ve always been on the outside.

And so the real challenge is to say, “What are the ways…” I would argue, the real challenge for museums writ large is, if you want to respond to this moment, there are many ways to respond, but one way is to get your own house in order…is to make sure that your house reflects the world that we think we serve. To make sure your house listens carefully to the needs of those who you may not even see as marginalized, but who think they’re marginalized. Get your house in order so that you are modeling the America you expect. Don’t model the America that looks like every other museum, model the America that you care about and respect. And I think that’s one of the first steps to take.

Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole: Mm-hmm, come in Lori.

Lori Fogarty: Yeah, no, what I have been trying to do during this time is actually just watch with admiration and humility, the conversation that is happening within our staff. And what I have seen is amazing support and generosity and resources being shared and ways for folks to come together and take action. And just one, giving people space to have this moment of absolute grief and exhaustion. I think as museum professionals, we…well, I can speak for myself, we often expect ourselves and our staff to be professional at this point and I think there’s a moment here for just to let people be angry and exhausted and not try to rush too quickly into our next to-do list, and, “How is this all going to move to a new strategy and a new initiative?” So I would say, and I’m learning this as well because it’s my natural inclination to say, “What are we going to do? What are we going to do?”

So some of it is, to let people breathe for the people who haven’t been able to breathe, right? And then I think it’s listening, I think it’s exactly what Lonnie said. We look inward and we look outward at the same time. And again, so much of what we’re trying to do now is to hold the both and it’s not one or the other. I mean, it’s kind of what you were saying where you… I get asked sometimes, “Are we a museum or a community center?” And I say, “Yes.” We have to be both, and we have to think about equity and inclusion in all dimensions. So for us, it’s looking inward and trusting the conversations within our own staff. And then what we are working on is, how do we listen to our community and respond to community needs in ways that we may never have imagined a museum would need to respond to community needs right now.

Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.

Lonnie G. Bunch III: And then I think building on that is, as leaders, we have to give our colleagues, our staff, the opportunity and the encouragement to share their emotions.

Lori Fogarty: That’s right.

Lonnie G. Bunch III: We have to be able to cry together. When Johnnetta started by talking about, we mourn. Mourning together is really about sharing one’s emotions and creating opportunities to do that, and to do it in a personal way, right? To share your own story, to make those connections. I have been moved like you of people coming up with ways to share and talk about it. And can I say something that’s personal that happened this morning?

Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole: Please.

Lori Fogarty: Sure.

Lonnie G. Bunch III: Two things happened that just made me cry all day. First at eight o’clock this morning, a white bicyclist peddled up to the National Museum of African American History and Culture with a bouquet of flowers and just sat down and then he kneeled because he wanted to say, “I want this museum to help me find myself in this difficult time.” I’m already crying. Then I get an email from somebody I went to high school with that I haven’t seen in I don’t know how many years, who remembered a moment when in my little town—there were very few African Americans—he talked about how at our graduation, he and I went to a party. And when the mother came home, the white mother came home, she threw me out. I had forgotten about that and he talked about that as an example of how he learned and how he changed. And so in a way, part of what this is, is allowing us to be human. Allowing us to cry, allowing us to learn, allowing us to be angry, but recognizing that it’s all about ultimately the greater good of a nation.

Lori Fogarty: That’s right, that’s right.

Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole: Oh Lonnie, thank you. Many of us are having such moments. They’re difficult, but they also bring a certain degree of relief because to get through this, we have got to believe that it, as hard as it is, it is possible for change to come. Now I know Lonnie, because I read everything you write, in that great book. I know that you like to quote James Baldwin, here’s my most favorite James Baldwin quote: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed that is not faced.” And so I’m reaching out to the two of you to ask you, do I dare think that this particular period of such horrific expressions of systemic racism has us on the edge of making some changes we haven’t seen before?

I barely open my contraption before I see another statement by another corporation, by another museum, by another individual. I mean, it’s like, “Did these folks just find their voice? Have they never had anything to say before this?” But they’re speaking now. I am hearing language that I used to only hear in the Black community. We had no trouble with “racist” and “anti-racism” blowing off of our tongues. Stop me because you both know me well and you know my tendency to be hopeful, is this a different time? And if it is, what’s the role of our museums in hastening this different time?

Lonnie G. Bunch III: Well, I mean, I think that you know me well enough to know that I’m always optimistic. I’m not sure I’m optimistic, but I’m hopeful. And I’m hopeful because I see several things. First of all, I see a multiracial group of people in cities around the world saying, “Enough’s enough.” Having that kind of groundswell of support, crucially important. I see this as a moment like 1954, ’55, you’ve got Brown vs. Board, you’ve got the murder of Emmett Till. That reinvigorates the civil rights movement. So I see this as the potential of that moment. I’m really made hopeful by some of the things I’ve heard police chiefs say and police officers do, that I’ve never seen before that, give me hope that change is possible.

But I also think that what we’ve got to realize is two things. Marching in the streets is an expression of pain and an expression of need, but it’s not necessarily a strategic vision to move a country forward. So one of the challenges is how does that happen? In the ’60s it was SNCC. But I think one of the other things that keeps me grounded is that yesterday, primary day in the District of Columbia, the lines of people voting for an off-seat primary, I’ve never seen. If this inspires people to use their vote, if this inspires people to say, “We have to change on a street level, we have to change on an educational level. We have to change on a political level.” And if that happens, then I can believe that, not that we’ll get to the promised land, but that we’ll make a good step towards that. Because this is, as you’ve said to me, many times, we think it’s a sprint, but it’s a long marathon.

Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole: Sister Lori.

Lori Fogarty: Well, I heard Senator Cory Booker last evening say that this moment is like the Spanish flu, the Great Depression, and the 60s, and 1968, all wrapped up into one moment. And I thought, “Wow.” I also have an 18-year-old daughter who is graduating at this time. And I said to her last night, “This will be the defining moment of our time, of our lives.” And I think this will be the defining moment for museums. I really do. I am hopeful too, because we have to be, we have to be. And the only way we’re going to get through this is to move, as you say, Johnnetta, beyond the statements of solidarity, which are important. And I’m glad to see them too, from places that I would have not ever imagined could put out a statement like that, like they’re doing, even a few months ago or weeks ago. But it is now moving to, Lonnie, what you said, to strategy, to real action, to real substantive change. And I do think if there’s ever a moment where that reimagination needs to happen, it is now.

Lonnie G. Bunch III: And I think that’s the right word. I’ve been arguing that this is the time for the museums to reimagine their role. This is the time for political leadership to reimagine their role. This is a time for us as museums to realize we are integral and integrated to this moment. We’re not on the hill looking down, we’re in the middle of this. And the future is really, are you going to take advantage and recognize that you want people to look back and say, “Your museum in Dubuque–” or, “Your museum in Newark matters.” That you helped the public find tools to live their lives, find tools to understand this. I really do believe more than anything else that good museums really do define reality and give hope. And I think what we want to do is figure out how do we make sure this is something done throughout the organizations, throughout all our museums?

Because I have to be honest. I’m optimistic, but I’m cynical about museums in a way, because I have begged, I have fought, I have written, I have pleaded, I have challenged.

Lori Fogarty: You have, you both have.

Lonnie G. Bunch III: And there’s no doubt the museums have changed. We all have. But the question becomes, how do you believe that that change is in your soul? That that change is something that won’t disappear with a change in leadership or change in a curator? But that in essence, that this is the chorus we’re all hearing, that we recognize that we’ve got different voices and different priorities and different ways to get at it, but we should be singing in a museum context, “We shall overcome.”

Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole: We’re going to open up and hear from our colleagues shortly. But before we do, I’m actually going to switch a wee bit of the tone, not totally, that we’re all using. I want to talk with the two of you for just a moment about financial matters. Lori, how in the world do you think that museums can center equity in their practice as they make very tough decisions during this pandemic and coming out of it? The good is one thing, but when times ain’t so good, that’s where we see our values.

Lori Fogarty: Well, I appreciate it. It is of course, one of the most challenging things we’re going to be faced with right now. And I do appreciate Lonnie’s keynote yesterday about one, and both of you, I mean, your remarks convey this as well Johnnetta, is this is not the time to back away from equity and inclusion. In fact, this is the moment to lean in with more commitment than ever. And I also appreciated, Lonnie your comments about actually rethinking structure.

And we at the Oakland Museum of California had a plan and an approach when this all came down in April, before we received a loan and were able to keep our staff on for eight weeks. We had an approach that was around shared sacrifice and collective response. And rather than furloughing anyone fully, and rather than disproportionately impacting our lower-paid staff, who tend to be in the frontline positions, we kept all of our temporary staff on the payroll and had all full-time staff reduce hours. And that was the approach we felt we could take.

That was an approach that was one for that two-or-three-month period that we all had in mind at that point. And now we actually have to rethink our structure from the ground up and reimagine the structure of our institution and our staff in response. Not to what’s going to be a few weeks until we reopen, but what is going to be at least the next couple of years. And the way I see it is that our commitment to equity and building our mission, as we’ve talked about, about being in service to community, responding to community need, that is how we’re going to structure our staff. And it may inevitably mean further furloughs and some layoffs and a great deal of pain for some folks. But I also believe we’re going to be bringing in new skill sets where the commitment to equity and the capacity around intercultural understanding and community activism will actually be skillsets we’ll be looking for.

Lonnie G. Bunch III: And I also think that as I reach out and talk to the corporate community, the foundation community, this is the moment where they’ll step up to support these kinds of initiatives. Because what they’re asking is, “Show me that this matters. Show me that this is transformative. Show me that this is helping us move as a nation.” So I think this is a horrible time financially. We’re all struggling. We’re all trying to find right models. But I do believe that as we reimagine and restate our commitment to fairness, there’s resources out there that will support us.

Lori Fogarty: I think so too. And we’ve seen that too already. So I think you’re right.

Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole: Last question. Before we open up to our colleagues.

Lonnie G. Bunch III: I’ll get a haircut eventually.

Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole: Don’t go there, because if you go there, I’m going to have to tell you that this [points to hair] is JD’s work. All right?

[Laughs]

Could we actually even begin to imagine that our museums could be of special importance coming out of this pandemic, we hope, soon, and at this moment when our nation is so torn apart? I’ve heard each of you speak of this sort of as an ongoing theme throughout this conversation. And I’m really begging for it. I’m asking, is this a time? And Lonnie, you talked about this yesterday in your keynote, but I want you to talk about it some more. Is this really an unusual time for museums? What are we not just called to do, but really capable of doing, right now?

Lonnie G. Bunch III: Well, one of the things I’m proudest of is what the museum field is capable of. When I think about how education became a vision for museums, we changed. When we talked about the centrality of scholarship, we changed. When we talked about [portals for] Nazi-looted art, we changed. So part of it is the will to change. And so what I want to see is, is there the will to change. I do think because we’re at this kind of perfect storm of financial issues and racial issues that I think institutions are going to have to change. The question becomes, is it like a substitute teacher, and you’re going to be gone in a few days? Or is it really something that is permanent; that really shapes the way we expect, not just ourselves, but future generations of museum people to live and to lead?

Some days I’m pleased because I know what this profession can do. But other days I worry that we are so slow that sometimes, by the time we solve a problem it’s no longer a problem. And so for me, this is this, I believe though, this is a moment of choice and a moment of necessity because of the financial issues we’re going to have to think differently. And because of a country crying out in pain in a way that we haven’t heard in a long time, these are going to force us, or let me say, encourage us, to be better, to be changed.

Lori Fogarty: I think that will be true of individual museums. And I think it absolutely has to be true for the field. Although museums are in a wide spectrum of where they are on this journey, I think many of them at least are on their way and some of them a little farther. And it has been described about the protests happening and them being much more multicultural than they were in past moments. I am hearing it from my colleagues in conversation, that they are personally understanding this and the need for change in a much deeper and more profound way than they ever have.

And I also am seeing, in this moment, the creation or amplification of networks. Whether that’s our local cultural institutions, whether it’s different kinds of community partners within a city, whether it’s regional or national. People are reaching out to their colleagues and connecting with other institutions in a way I’ve never seen before. So I think if I share some of the skepticism and certainly the slowness for all of us who have been in the museum field for so long, it’s kind of amazing we’re still having some of these conversations that began thirty-plus years ago. But I also believe that collective action, as well as individual action, may be more possible than we have ever hoped to imagine.

Lonnie G. Bunch III:  I think that you’re right to be optimistic in that regard, because I think what’s key is that we, as a profession, are recognizing that we don’t have broad enough shoulders to do everything. And that key is a kind of network collaborative way of a vision of doing things. And I think that should be really one of the models. Because I think the question really is, what is the new model for us? What are the new models? And so I think that this is a time to ask those questions and to come up with some of those and to see. We don’t expect all museums to fit through one mold. But I do think that we can really, by being more collaborative, we can make some of the changes that I’d love us to see, even a little quicker.

Lori Fogarty: That’s right. And be part of an ecology and landscape with others, other organizations that are sort of an ecology and landscape with others, other organizations that are looking to do the same collective action.

Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole: Well, my colleagues, you have listened and I’m speaking now to my AAM sisters and brothers, my siblings, all you listen, but now if I can use the small amount of Spanish I command, ustedes tienen la palabra?

Lonnie G. Bunch III:  [Laughs] I’m sorry. Está bien.

Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole: Ta bién? So I am going to ask if my brother Andrew is ready, fired up to go.

Andrew Plumley: I’m here. Fired up. Thank you, you three, for what has really turned out to be, as expected, a very powerful conversation this afternoon. We’ve had some really good questions come in; we’re not going to be able to get to all of them, but we’ll do our best to get to the spectrum of questions.

A lot of the questions that we’ve been getting are around museums putting out statements in support of Black Lives Matter, and many are wondering if these statements are empty messages when we know that many museums have 100 percent white executive teams and boards, and are keeping working-class staff at poverty wages.

How do we become better museums? How do we continue the work necessary when the teams who are poised to drive the conversation are the very people that are being furloughed and laid-off at this moment?

Lonnie G. Bunch III: Well, let me answer that. First of all, I really do believe that the profession’s got to model the America it believes in, and that really means making hard choices, driving folks. It’s not enough to be good, it’s crucial to be smart. And by being smart, I mean it’s important to really practice what you preach. And so the challenge for us is to make sure we hear those voices.

And they don’t all have to be directors, but they all have to be heard, and they all have to feel that they’ve got a way to influence the work that we do. So I agree that it’s a real challenge when you look at the profession, but I think that again, as part of my notion of reimagining, these issues are at the heart of reimagining how you can be the institution that can best serve.

Lori Fogarty: I would say, I think that these organizations of working people, staff, people within our organizations, and entities and collectives like Museum Hue, and the Incluseum, and some of the organizations that are galvanizing unions within museums, their voices there are powerful and they are being heard. And I can say among my colleagues who are directors, I think that these voices are being heard. And yes, the statements may feel a little too late and a dollar short, literally, but I do think that this is a first step, and we are going to see change within museums that comes from the grassroots, just as we see it in society at large.

Lonnie G. Bunch III: I think it’s important to realize that words do matter. And that in a way, at the very least, it allows you to hold places accountable for what they’ve said. I really believe strongly… When I was a kid, my father used to say this all the time and I hated it, but he was absolutely right. He said, “Only a fool thinks they have a monopoly on wisdom.”

And I think that the goal is for us to recognize wisdom flows from every corner of our organizations, from the security to the maintenance, to the educator, to the curator. It’s not just academics, it’s not just degrees, and I think this moment of re-imagining will allow us to dip into the full reservoir of who we are, rather than just segments of that reservoir.

Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole: Andrew.

Andrew Plumley: Thank you. Secretary Bunch, you just mentioned accountability, and a lot of questions that are coming up are around how we hold museums, administrations, directors accountable to do the actual work needed to get our own houses in order. Language is one way that you mentioned, but are there other ways that all three of you have seen and would like to see the field be more accountable to the work around DEAI, racial equity, racial justice?

Lonnie G. Bunch III: I’ll defer to Lori and Johnnetta.

Lori Fogarty: Johnnetta, you can take the question first.

Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole: That one of our colleagues asked the question tells me we already have the proper response. You had the voice to ask that question. Now I know you asked it through Andrew, but if you’ve got that voice to ask that question of Secretary Bunch, of my sister Director, Lori, and to ask it of me, then you’ve got to have the courage to ask that question in your own museum.

But we all know that being that single voice is not only sometimes very scary; it can get you in trouble. That’s why we lean on that African proverb that is circulating now so much on the internet: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” And so when you are moved to ask that question in your museum, surely you can find others who are prepared to ask that same question.

Lori Fogarty: I will just absolutely, echoing Johnnetta’s comments, I saw a very interesting article yesterday about these empty… The appearance or the performance of solidarity and what actual action looks like, and it named some categories of what action looks like. It’s strategic, it’s focused, and it’s goal-oriented.

And I think what we need to do now with our museums is to actually articulate action plans and say, this is what we’re going to do, this is what success looks like, this is what the outcomes look like. And I appreciated, Lonnie, your comment yesterday around the importance of listening to audience and evaluation, and having real mechanisms to do that. And we can only be accountable if we actually say what we’re going to do and have a strategy and outcomes around it.

And I know now I sound like the old-fashioned museum director, but I think that we need to see real action plans with real goals and real strategies, and that’s when our boards, and our staffs, and the community can hold us really accountable.

Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole:  I think we’ve got time to at least respond to another, brother Andrew.

Andrew: Absolutely. This is from museum professionals that are in non-leadership roles. And oftentimes we see a lot of conversation around DEAI and racial justice, really in non-leadership roles within museums. And so, for people in those roles, they’re usually talking to leadership about why this is important and educating them on how to have conversations. Do you have any advice for those museum professionals who are really struggling to have that conversation and keep it on the table with their leadership teams? Strategies–

Lori Fogarty: Can I start that one? Because I really want to give a shout out to my colleagues at the Oakland Museum of California. The statement that I made on Friday came completely out of a conversation that was happening at the staff level. And we have an email thread and chain that is not the official OMCA all-staff email; it’s called OMCA Together.

And I was just blown away by the expressions of support and resources and calls for action on that, and I was just observing this as somebody who was on that email thread. And that is, my watchword right now is it is not about me again, there are such voices of wisdom and commitment and action in our staff, and if we can find ways to make sure not only that they’re lifting up their voices to leadership, but also to each other.

Some of the collective action we will take will not be under the banner of the Oakland Museum of California; it will be individuals in our community who are taking action with their fellow colleagues as human beings.

So, it is so important to note that this is not just an effort that is led by the giants of this field, who are on my Zoom screen on either side of me, but it will be led by this next generation of museum professionals, and by every level of staff and volunteers within our organizations.

Lonnie G. Bunch III: I think it’s just important to realize that most of us were low-level staff at some point-

Lori Fogarty:  Yes, indeed.

Lonnie G. Bunch III: Had to figure out how to work a system. Had to figure out how to build allies. And so part of what I also say is, yes, you challenge your leadership, but you also figure out within your organization, what are the best steps that’ll allow us to move forward? What are the allies I need to put together? What are the funding sources that I haven’t thought about that can allow me to do things differently? So I really do believe that you learn the work a system, work it well, and then you can have my job so I can sit in the rocking chair.

Lori Fogarty:  Amen. Amen on that.

Not you, me. Don’t go to the rocking chair, either of you.

Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole: We unfortunately really do have no more time, but there’s time enough for each of you just to say ever, ever so crisply, whatever is in your heart at this moment. Lori.

Lori Fogarty: I said it before, I think this is the defining time, the defining moment of our lives as a country, as individuals and as museum professionals, let us not miss this moment. Let us not miss this moment.

Lonnie G. Bunch III: This is the profession I love. This is the profession that has given me everything, and it’s a profession that taught me about giving. So what I hope is that we will realize that this is our moment to be that place that matters, to be that place of value, and to recognize that it’s not easy, there’s not one simple path, but if we are all committed to using our resources, our colleagues, our collections for the greater good, then this country is going to be in better shape than it is now.

Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole: And as the senior among you—unfortunately, I’m in that position no matter what the group is—I am going to, from my heart, remember the ’60s, when we so repeatedly said, “Let us keep the faith.” But now more than ever, we’ve got to add another phrase: “Let us keep the faith as museum professionals, but while we do the work.”

Lori Fogarty: Do the work. Shed the tears, and then let’s do the work.

Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole: Let’s do the work. A virtual hug for each of you.

Lonnie G. Bunch III: You guys are great.

Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole: And for all of our colleagues.

Lonnie G. Bunch III: Thank you.

Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole: All right.

AAM Member-Only Content

AAM Members get exclusive access to premium digital content including:

  • Featured articles from Museum magazine
  • Access to more than 1,500 resource listings from the Resource Center
  • Tools, reports, and templates for equipping your work in museums
Log In

We're Sorry

Your current membership level does not allow you to access this content.

Upgrade Your Membership

Comments

6 Comments

  1. Heartfelt thanks to all three of you for your time, perspective, and wisdom. I too believe our profession can help lead us to a better future — with much hard work we can get there.

  2. I valued hearing how we need to center our work around people first. Thank you to everyone who made this conversation possible.

    Lonnie Bunch III: “I think that Lori’s got it exactly right and I would sort of… The way I frame it is just a little different and that is, we know that museums cannot be community centers, they’re just not built to be community centers, but they sure could be at the center of their community, and that is really the way to think about this. And I also think that part of this I’ve learned from the Wing Luke, the Japanese American, the African American Museum in Detroit and Chicago, and what I’ve learned is that, first and foremost, they put community, they put education, and they put conversation and collaboration at the center.”

    Lori Fogarty: “Sure, I’ll take a crack at that. Well, I think at the Oakland Museum of California some of our great models for the way we engage with community have been museums that are culturally specific to cultures other than the white culture. I think of the Wing Luke Museum in Seattle, I think of the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, and of course I think of the great Smithsonian Institutions. And I think what we learned from them is, as you say, Johnnetta, there is a mission that is based in service to the community. They’re based in stories, and objects, and heritage, and history, but first and foremost for being places for people, and as you said, Lonnie, places whose missions are about imagining a better future. And I think that’s what we learn from these kinds of institutions.”

  3. Thank you so much for making this available to view at no cost. It was a phenomenal and inspiring discussion, and urgently needed. May all museums heed the call to action and accountability.

  4. Thank you so much, that was wonderful and lovely to see Dr. Cole and Dr. Bunch again, virtually anyway.
    There is so much museums can and should do to engage all members of society and I hope this is a chance to move things forward.

Leave a Reply to Peter Lacovara Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to Field Notes!

Packed with stories and insights for museum people, Field Notes is delivered to your inbox every Monday. Once you've completed the form below, confirm your subscription in the email sent to you.

If you are a current AAM member, please sign-up using the email address associated with your account.

Are you a museum professional?

Are you a current AAM member?

Success! Now check your email to confirm your subscription, and please add communications@aam-us.org to your safe sender list.