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Point of View: Movements, Moments, and Museums

Category: Museum Magazine
A demonstration in Baltimore, Maryland, after the death of Freddie Gray in 2015. Alejandro Orengo Photograph Collection, Anacostia Community Museum, Smithsonian Institution

How Black Lives Matter can liberate museums.

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2021 issue of Museum magazinea benefit of AAM membership. In an effort to provide the broadest possible access to this critical topic, we are making these articles free and available to the public.

The Movement for Black Lives demands justice, opportunity, access, freedom, and liberation for Black, Brown, queer, and people of other persecuted identities. Recognizing the disproportionate harm experienced by people of color, the movement centers racial equity as a means for collective liberation.

In essence, the movement seeks solutions for a nonviolent, prosperous, and more equitable future. But even early on, the words “Black Lives Matter” have triggered knee-jerk repulsion, suspicion, misunderstanding, cynicism, and opposition.

The media frenzy and politicization around Black Lives Matter (BLM) has confused the spirit of the movement not only for museums but across the culture. But BLM as a theory of change is a powerful tool for visioning a more equitable society and moving toward it. Here we utilize BLM co-founder Patrisse Khan-Cullors’ memoir When They Call You a Terrorist as a primary source for understanding BLM as a theory of change, to discuss how museums can rethink their work to become inherently change-making.

First Internal, then External Work

The politicization of Black Lives Matter as a movement isn’t a partisan issue. In her memoir, Khan-Cullors describes how coordinated resistance to BLM furthers an enduring legacy of disparaging, undermining, and demonizing Black liberation efforts in the US. Demanding justice for Black lives is only as political as the propaganda against it claims. As engaged, critically-thinking, just citizens, we can detect the truth and spirit of the movement as a theory of change for a more equitable future.

BLM asks that the organizations that created and maintained the systems of oppression take public accountability for their actions (and inactions) and act with a sense of urgency toward equitable change. While many people look at organizations and want to point to a few “bad apples,” this placement of blame disregards the system through which those people have been trained and rewarded for their behavior. In order for real change to begin, organizations must recognize the symmetry that must exist between their internal culture and their external-facing work.

To truly begin transforming, museums must be willing to take responsibility for their role in maintaining a culture founded upon the hierarchy of race. They must start looking at not only their founding documents but policies and procedures that create barriers to the inclusive internal culture they strive to create. This internal process should be transparent to staff and community stakeholders to allow for critical examination and shared ownership of the outcomes. Until museums do this work internally, they should not even consider developing external products because they will be viewed as inauthentic and performative.

Many museums understand the need to expand their narratives in order to provide more holistic interpretation and better reflect the experiences of their audiences. This is more than a reimagining; it is a realigning of the source of power that usually rests within the white perspective. Instead of showing the complexity of our democracy, stories in museums have focused on celebration by conquest and unearned meritocracy. The stories of the people who lost their land and those forced to work the land for the benefit of others were excluded.

The expansion of the narrative is not a nod toward “political correctness,” but an acknowledgment of an incomplete story. By providing interpretation through multiple lenses, museums can begin to challenge the US educational system, which arguably is designed to maintain, not upend, the status quo.

“The seemingly simple phrase ‘Black Lives Matter’ has disrupted undisputed assumptions about the logic of equality, justice, and human freedom in the United States and all over the world.”

—Angela Davis

Dismantling the Status Quo

BLM’s change theory demonstrates that external reform must be met with internal shifts against the status quo. It embraces social justice as an ongoing journey of responsibility rather than a fixed destination. BLM teaches us that museums should always be actively working to change the culture of their work.

Access to museum careers is riddled with rigid and unnecessary barriers. From the criteria we consider mandatory in staff—professional degrees, decades of experience in a field with limited job opportunity and mobility—to the costly price tag of postgraduate studies, the field is designed for privilege. Rethinking our principles to reflect a field committed to dismantling systems of oppression opens new opportunities to engage in greater relevance.

Where outdated models value expertise focused on the narrowest of content, new models value the needs of audience and community as prominent areas of focus. Embracing liberation principles brings us closer to the communities we aim to serve. If we can move past the fear of change, we can begin to reorient our institutions to liberation and justice.

As organizations within the public trust, we are accountable, not separate, in creating the future. Khan-Cullors discusses an early action in the Movement for Black Lives when she organized a peaceful disruption of a Beverly Hills brunch and asked bystanders to pause their diversion for a moment of silence for the killing of Trayvon Martin, which they willingly obliged.

BLM’s theory of change asks us to stop falsely compartmentalizing lived experiences. Museums are not detached from the brutal realities of systemic racism in our country. BLM gives us a framework to understand that continuing with the way things perpetuates the status quo, which is at the very least comfortable with the expendability of Black lives. Only in changing our practices so that we are purposefully dismantling the status quo can we transform our violent and discriminating social structures into ones that promote liberation and equity.

The bottom line is this: museums are complicit in the status quo, reaping benefits from discriminatory social structures. Therefore, museums have a responsibility to actively dismantle oppression.

Becoming a BLM Museum

BLM theorizes other worlds, other ways of being in community and in society, and invites us to contribute to these other worlds in thought and action. Holding space to recognize injustice is the first step in fighting for justice. A BLM museum cherishes humanity and devotion to community because they are keys to liberated worlds. This is a future built with intention and in collaboration, especially with those whose identities are most often met with harm in our current oppressive systems.

Recognizing the harm of enduring patriarchal models of leadership and community building, BLM is intentional about developing communities of power within marginalized identity groups. Rather than diversifying existing circles of power, BLM originates among people of color, queer people, women, and disenfranchised groups. Community power then becomes liberation for those most affected by the status quo.

BLM is more than a moment; it is a movement. Museums need to recognize that the fight for equality that is taking place on our streets continues a historical movement centuries in the making. Instead of looking for quick solutions to solve deeply systemic problems, museums should take the time to live within and work through their discomfort and not search for shortcuts around it.

In a post-pandemic world, museums must do their work through an equity lens or risk becoming irrelevant to the communities they claim to serve. This includes taking a hard look at who our funders are, whose collections we accept, and what role privilege plays in access to the field.

For change to be sustained, there must be an organizational commitment beyond a few passionate staff and a consultant. The change must take place at the very core of the organization. Museums must eliminate white supremacy culture in order to rebuild a culture centered on racial equity.

Self-Education on Race and Inequality

The country continues to struggle with how to address social justice issues through sustained and meaningful action. The books listed below are not meant to be an endpoint, but the start of a journey toward recognizing and reconciling the racial issues that perpetuate inequality and injustice for all.

  • When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bandele
  • Emergent Strategy by adrienne maree brown
  • Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine
  • Kindred by Octavia Butler
  • The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
  • What Truth Sounds Like by Michael Eric Dyson
  • Eloquent Rage by Brittney Cooper

Melanie Adams, PhD, is the director of the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum in Washington, DC. Kayleigh Bryant-Greenwell is a temporary project manager with the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum and the head of public programs with the Smithsonian American Art Museum and Renwick Gallery in Washington, DC.

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