This is a recorded session from the 2021 AAM Virtual Annual Meeting and MuseumExpo.
When it comes to structural racism, museums must be honest about their past mistakes, including how they will address them and what they believe in now. Sites of Conscience members will discuss their museums’ statements in response to the Black Lives Matter movement. The statements speak to the vital role of allyship in advocacy movements and can assist museum leaders in supporting justice.
Linda Norris, Senior Specialist, Methodology and Practice, International Coalition of Sites of Conscience
Diana Abouali, Director, Arab American National Museum
Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko, Museum Director/IDNR DEAI Coordinator, Illinois State Museum
Chris Newell, Executive Director & Senior Partner to Wabanaki Nations, Abbe Museum
Speaker 1: Welcome to our elevate stage session, more than words, solidarity statements and action. First, we would like to recognize the great fundraising efforts and work of our Chicago local host committee and its co-chairs Susan Abrams, CEO of the Illinois Holocaust Museum, Bridget Coughlin, president and CEO of the Shedd Aquarium, and Carlos Tortolero, founder and president of the National Museum of Mexican Art. We are so grateful for their partnership throughout the planning of this conference. Before moving on to our elevate stage, please enjoy this sneak peek of the Obama Presidential Center, in honor of this year’s host city.
President Barack Obama: There’s history to reflect on and history to be made, that’s what the Obama Presidential Center is all about, honoring the stories of those who’ve brought us to where we are today and bringing people together to chart an even brighter future. Here on Chicago, South Side, the Obama Presidential Center will offer old friends and new visitors, the chance to explore a world class museum and gather together for celebrations of all kinds. It will add to the vitality of Jackson Park. Adding new gardens, a larger playground, and scenic paths for an early morning jog or an afternoon stroll. And it will do all that while creating jobs and driving the economic opportunity here in Chicago and enriching the landscape of the South Side, that Michelle and I have called home for so long.
I like to think of the Obama Presidential Center Museum as a tribute to what happens when ordinary people come together to do extraordinary things. Inside, exhibits will explore the fullness of the American store, from the promise of our founding documents, to the movements that challenged us to live up to them. We’ll tell the story of the volunteers who powered our campaign toward history, and we’ll examine the eight years of progress, setback, and hope that followed. You’ll be able to walk through a full scale replica of the Oval Office, relive the moments that defined my presidency, experience the impact of our history making first lady and check out a few of her dresses too.
And at top the museum, you’ll be able to take in some stunning panoramic views of the city we love. We designed the forum with a focus on the creativity and imagination that’s always defined this city. Here, we’ll host programs and leadership trainings who will support and connect the next generation of change makers here in Chicago, to those from all around the world. And we’ll open the newest branch of the Chicago Public Library and on the roof, a garden similar to the one that Michelle planted at the white house and will even have a few beehives for honey.
At the center of it all, a public plaza will welcome visitors for live performances and community festivals. A huge green lawn will be open to throw a Frisbee or spread out a blanket. And once it turns cold, we’ll open up the best sledding hill in the neighborhood. Of course, there wouldn’t be the Obama Presidential Center without a place to play some ball. At the program, athletic and activity center, you’ll be able join a pickup game or a dance class. That’s the Obama Presidential Center, a place to not only come together to get active, but to take action. It couldn’t be more important to us that it’s happening right here on the South Side. This is the place Michelle was born and raised. It’s where I got my start as a community organizer. It’s where we bought our first house, built our family, and took the first steps on a journey that’s still taking shape today. It’s the place we found our purpose. Now we hope to give something back because you never know where something that starts on the South Side might lead.
Speaker 1: And to now, I’m pleased to introduce today’s panel. Linda Norris, International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, Diana Abouali from the Arab American National Museum, Cinnamon Caitlin-Legutko from the Illinois State Museum, and Chris Newell from the Abbe Museum. Welcome.
Linda Norris: Hi, everyone. Welcome. I have to say, I don’t know about the rest of you three, I’m a little intimidated by having to follow Barack Obama as a presenter, we’ll do our best. We’re so pleased to have all of you join us. I’m Linda Norris from the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience. We’d love it, if you would introduce yourself in the chat room as well. As we begin, I want to acknowledge that today, I’m speaking to you from upstate New York, the traditional lands of the Lenape people. In doing this acknowledgement and not only say the words, but commit my actions, my own, and my institution’s actions to work as an ally for justice, so that in a way frames all of our discussion today. We’ll be talking about allyship action and more than words with three museum directors, as you just heard from very different institutions. But all three are members of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience.
So I wanted to share a little bit about Sites of Conscience first very little bit and then we’ll dive right in. Sites of Conscience, the coalition is the only worldwide network dedicated to the idea that we can use the past to create a more just future. We are more than 300 members in 66 countries around the world who use history, memory, art, all kinds of things to using the lessons of history to ensure that there’s a more just future for everyone wherever struggles for human rights have occurred. This session came about because as everyone knows, just about a year ago, many museums and many other kinds of organizations, corporations, and everything else issued statements in support of the Black Lives Matter Movement.
And actually a year ago today, John Fraser editor of The Journal, Curator, which I found when I was looking for it, reached out to us at the coalition, asking us if we might be interested in compiling some statements from our members about the Black Lives Matter, the public statements in a special issue. You’ll can find that in the handouts that article. Our three presenters today were of those to reflect on the creation of these statements about accountability and progress and how museums can be of real service to communities.
These public statements matter, not least because it puts us board and staff in a place of public vulnerability, and that vulnerability, that transparency can foster transformation in our organizations and in society. So we’re going to dig in. This is a conversation, please feel free to put questions in the chatroom or the Q and A, and we’ll do our best to get to all of them. But we’re going to start with some questions we’ve had, that the three may have questions for each other as well. But to begin with Chris, can you talk about your organization’s mission and about the process of writing your statement?
Chris Newell: Absolutely. So welcome everybody. I am coming to you from, Man-es-ayd’ik known today as Bar Harbor, Maine on Mount Desert Island. Executive director for the Abbe Museum. And when it came to our statement, the Abbe Museum has been going under a transformation in and of itself, which began with one of our panelists here, Cinnamon, who is my predecessor here at the Abbe Museum, who began the decolonization initiative, what a novel concept of allowing native people to have the center voice in our own narratives within museum spaces. And Cinnamon was the pioneer at the Abbe for getting that done and opened the space up for me to come here. I don’t have high level museum degrees, I have a lot of lived experience working with the museum world and in decolonization work.
And when it comes to this movement that the Abbe has been going through it really showed itself up in the statement of solidarity that we created. So when these events were going on in the world, the staff here, the team at the Abbe, we all looked at each other and said that we as a cultural institution, especially as a small one that actually has a national voice in some respects should not stay silent in this moment. And the way I ended-up framing it is as movement towards decolonization, one of the things I try to do is normalize the idea that English is a foreign language to this land. And so when it comes to the creation, the social constructs of race those are things that are contained in the English language, but not contained in Passamaquoddy language, my language that I grew up with.
So I decided to frame it around our language, which is something that I got from my father. He always is the first thing he asked me whenever I create something, “Is our language included to make sure that people know?” And so it was framed around a term [foreign language 00:10:53]. Sorry. And that translates to take good care of each other. It’s a lesson of community, it’s an imperative, it’s basically a command that says that as human beings, as [inaudible 00:11:07], that we all must take care of each other if we’re going to exist as a community.
And if we, as the United States of America that currently exist here now are going to exist as a community in and of ourselves, then we must adopt these ancient teachings of what community is, and that taking good care of each other it has to be the relevant point that we structure our statement around which is something that the rest of the team here at the Abbe with all the decolonization work they were doing with Cinnamon over the years and really connected with the Wabanaki communities here, they were all ready to rally around.
And so this was something that was a group effort, and I wanted it to be the voice of all of the team members here in the Abbe as well. And so that’s, we all co-wrote it together centered on that linguistical term.
Linda Norris: Sorry. I should know better than to mute myself. Cinnamon, talk about how your organization’s mission and how your statement came to be.
Cinnamon Caitlin-Legutko: Thank you. And thank you, Chris, for those kind words I am in incredibly delighted every day, knowing that you’re at the Abbe, so onward. So I joined the Illinois State Museum where I am now the director in September of 2019. Illinois State Museum is located in Springfield, Illinois, the ancestral lands of the Kickapoo, Peoria, and Kaskaskias nations. And I always want to acknowledge the more than a hundred thousand indigenous people who live in Illinois today and call it home. People are familiar with Illinois, but they may not know the whole story of Illinois. And that’s our job at the ISM, to tell the story of Illinois past and present the people of Illinois who live here, who have lived here and the land they walked on and we do that with a really broad focus of art history and science to tell those stories.
So, yes, we’re a state museum, as you might imagine, but we’re a state museum committed to moving forward in a new inclusive way. And that’s why I came to Illinois State Museum with the invitation to lead with an inclusive mind-set. Interesting timing, I arrive in September, six months later, George Floyd is murdered and I am without a pathway for making statements. It’s very unclear what I can do in state government. It’s very unclear what cohesion I had on the team around running solidarity statements, because it wasn’t a practice. They had had very new learnings for this organization. So I had to take a pause and know in myself that something had to be said and I believe in leading inclusively and living inclusively, they can’t be separated. So my opportunity was very clear once I centered her on that and took the pathway of writing an op-ed and that became the form of our solidarity statement.
It was published locally. It had to be approved by the governor’s office, everything around communications, around COVID, and anything that might incite big conversations has to go through the governor’s office. So my op-ed had went through that process. It was very interesting place to be in. I didn’t have the freedom to work together, write something, post it. It’s not the pathway we had. But I found that when I chose that pathway of writing an op-ed, I had the support I needed. So I wrote it and then worked with one of the members of our leadership team to make sure where it landed, where it needed to land and then out it went and then we shared it through social media platforms. And from that moment, it became very clear that the pathway was a little more defined than I realized, and we could move into this space more readily, but that first step was a doozy, but here we are.
Linda Norris: Great. Thanks. And Diana, tell us about your organization and the writing of your statement.
Diana Abouali: Hi, thanks Linda and happy to be here with Chris and Cinnamon as well and everybody else at the conference. So I’m the director of the Arab American National Museum. And we are located in Dearborn, Michigan in Metro Detroit, which is also ancestral lands of Anishinaabe. Our mission is to document present, preserve the history, culture and contributions of Arab Americans. We’re the only institution or cultural institution museum that does what we do. And we have we’re part of a larger institution called ACCESS, which is the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services. So it’s a strange model for museum and that we’re part of this larger nonprofit. You can think of it as sort of university and museums being part of a larger university system. So the museum’s been around for 16 years. I started in 2019 as well, [inaudible 00:16:11] so then I started in April.
And so I know that the museum has been doing a lot of equity and justice work in the year or two before I started. So things have been sort of shifting a little bit in the museum. And I should also say that ACCESS, our parent organization has a kind of has its own origins and it originated as a grassroots organization. A lot of its founders were involved in the civil rights in ’60s. ACCESS was founded in 1971, also many early members and leaders were part of the labor movement here because Gibbons’ also the center for the Ford motor company, so a long history of sort of activism at ACCESS. Come last May, June when George Floyd was killed and then Breonna Taylor and then Ahmaud Arbery, it became incumbent upon us to sort of make a statement, partly because ACCESS has other programs that are much more about advocacy and sort of civic rights than we are.
But even regardless, we felt that as a museum that has very strong ties to the various communities in Southeast Michigan, we ourselves, there was always talk about the museum and ACCESS, it used to be arts program, but the events of 9/11 in 2001 really pushed the leaders in ACCESS to create the museum to address the stereotypes and maligning of the Arab American, the Muslim American population, so it was addressed these kind of injustices as well. So we come out of that, I think ethos, and we felt that something had to be done. We’re part of this nation, we understand the interconnectedness of these sort of struggles and we knew we had to say something. So there was a statement that was crafted by ACCESS for a few programs.
And so we took the statement and we tweaked it a little bit to sort of customize it for the museum because we do have a history of sort of talking about issues that like racism, structural violence, those things. We talk about some of these more difficult topics in the museum, so we just sort of tweak it a bit and released it. And yeah, I’m very happy and I felt it was the least that we could do. And we also just posted another sort of anniversary post to sort of commemorate the passing of the year, the killing of these three people.
Linda Norris: Great. So interesting to hear about the intersectionality of all of the way the work threads together. When you look back at your statement after a year… and Cinnamon, I’m going to start with you… is there a part you’re really proud of that you said that just really mattered in your statement.
Cinnamon Caitlin-Legutko: Thanks for that question, because it’s an important exercise to always review what you write so you get better.
Linda Norris: [crosstalk 00:19:22].
Cinnamon Caitlin-Legutko: In this set up really helped me spend the time to think about the words I chose. And when I think back at the statement… And for those of you, I appreciate you for sharing my op-ed that I wrote and somebody shared that in the link, but also it’s in our handouts, I believe to all of our statements that you’ll see attached. But in the language, I think what I’m pleased with the most is the invitation to join the work. It followed the pathways that we know now are more prescribed of saying the words that you mean and say them clearly, which I did accomplish. Honesty was paramount in the statement, I feel good about that. And a call to action and a demonstration of what we’re doing, which we have followed through all and I’m happy to share more as we go along.
But for me, the biggest part of it was the invitation and I continue to live with invitation to this work. I want to make change happen that everyone has a space to step into. I don’t want to just change for change’ sake or just because I say it’s better, I want to inclusively change. And I feel that came through in the statement and I feel good about that.
Linda Norris: Great. Diana, I’m going to go to you. I’m not sure what the problem with handouts is, but we’re working on it and we’ll get them there to all of you. Diana, what are you particularly proud of in your statement?
Diana Abouali: I think, what I like about the statement, let’s see, is that we also we address the fact that say the Arab American community is not just target of racism and sexual violence, but we’re also perpetrators of it. And that it’s incumbent upon the [inaudible 00:21:13], the community to also take stock of their role, their complicity in this, and to sort of start thinking about ways to be better allies, better neighbors, better community members, and play a role in dismantling the systems of injustice. So I think sort of a lot of these statements do it, we really sort of didn’t just, I think say, “Okay. We condemn these actions?” No. I think it’s very clear that we want to sort of better ourselves and play a role in making this a better world.
And I think we also said at the end that enough is enough. I think if thinking back on when we wrote it, this was in late May, early June 2021, COVID was out of control and especially in Metro Detroit, where it was really spreading badly and the impact on the African American was especially dire. So I think there were all these ways in which the African American community was being targeted, whether because they don’t have access to healthcare or they are the victims of state and police violence. So I think it was just sort of desperation that we’re like, “Enough is enough.” And I think sometimes you just have to insist on change and I felt that sort of expressed our frustration with the way the world was. And yeah, so I think those two things are, I’m happy, we’re included.
Linda Norris: Great. And Chris, you talked a little bit about the importance of using your language. Is there something else you’re particular proud of in terms of that statement?
Chris Newell: Yeah. Absolutely. I totally forgot to mention the mission of the Abbe, which is inspiring new learning about Wabanaki nations with every visit. And so of course using linguistical terms from one of the Wabanaki languages fits within the mission, but in it as the team and I looked to put this statement together, we didn’t shy away from active words, we didn’t say, “The death of George Floyd.” We said, “The killing of George Floyd.” Those things we wanted to be very clear about when we spoke because that action did happen as a result of somebody else’s action, he didn’t just die. But also to speak to the systemic issues that are happening in this country and also there was in a way a call to action to our fellow cultural institutions in that we put the words in there, which are so repeated on social media, museums are not neutral.
As much as we may try to be objective oftentimes especially colonial institutions, especially the way they tell a history about native peoples it is very biased. And so the idea that museums are neutral spaces where you can absorb well vetted information, it’s well vetted, of course, but no matter what human beings are involved with it. And so as cultural institutions, we need to speak to our humanity. And as institutions, we are leaders of some of the things, the awareness of people have about America, about our status as a country and as people just in general. And I was hoping and we as a team and also our governance structure here at the board, very much behind the idea of call to action to other museums to make sure that when you know talk about content in your museum, that you understand that you can have a force in may making good in this world and to bring other institutions along with us and be inclusive of that in that as well.
Linda Norris: Great. So I see some questions coming in, feel free to keep adding them, because we’ll have some time for that. But now and Diana, I’m going to start with you. A one year checkup, how do you think your institution has done in terms of having it be more than just a statement? Sorry. You got the hardest question to go first.
Diana Abouali: It’s hard for me to say. I think, there’s so much we can do and I think the statement was maybe the most basic thing we can do. And I think sort of, it has really shaped… After that statement, we focused our programming, which was all online at that time and remained so until this fall and we reopened, really centered around issues of racism in this country including racism within the Arab American community, not just to the larger African community, but at the African Arabs as well. So that’s something that we need to address and come to terms with and try to fight.
The programming was informed by those issues and continues to be. And I think that those events and the steps we took emboldened us in a particular way where this past May, again a year later there was a war against the Israeli aggression against Palestinians, the war against Palestinians, the injustices, the oppressions that are happening to them. We made a statement as well, sort of calling on the end of Israeli aggression against the Palestinian people, the end of their displacement, and that they deserve justice. And I think this is something… Palestine is the big issue that is very much a blind spot and many progressive people and organizations.
And I think I felt that we can’t talk about Black Lives Matter and not talk about Palestine and Palestine, of course we are an Arab American organization. A lot of our community members are Palestinian, I, myself I’m Palestinian. And this is the cause that has politicized many young Arab Americans and it’s an important, and that we acknowledge. I agree with Chris this idea of museums being neutral is nonsense, if you don’t say something that doesn’t mean you’re neutral, that means you agree with the status quo. And so I think it’s incumbent upon us to say these difficult things and I feel that we’ve succeeded and that we’re a little bolder in the words that we… what we say. Again, we’re not a standalone museum, so we have to be careful sometimes. But I think I’m proud to be, or I’m happy to be part of a change that maybe be happy, just playing a very tiny part in it.
Linda Norris: Great. Chris, so how do you look back after a year and you think, “How did I do? How do we hold ourselves accountable?”
Chris Newell: Yeah. That’s always such a tough question because we’ve been dealing with a pandemic and we haven’t been open all of this time. And I’ll equate the question you gave me to, the question that we get at the Abbe lot is on land acknowledgements. We get inquired a lot, “Can you help us write a land acknowledgement?” And in the process, what we always tell institutions is that, “We won’t write it for you, we’ll give you some guides on how you can do it for yourself because there’s really something in the power of your institution writing those words for yourself.” And in the writing of those words for ourselves as an institution the Abbe staff members are non Wabanaki. I only have one other native staff member currently here, but they’re very much engaged with the Wabanaki communities and they were able to take that linguistical term in and of themselves and bring it to their own lives.
And we absorb it basically as a way of how we’re structuring future programming, because when it comes to the colonization work, we have to talk about hard histories like genocide. But what’s the reason for that? And one of the pushbacks you often get is that it’s a weapon of guilt. And that’s sometimes when you hear something like Black Lives Matter, people will push back and say, “That’s just a weapon of guilt you’re using against me.” And the end result of what we’re trying to do is not to make people feel guilty, is to learn as human beings where we’re going wrong, so that we can do better as human beings altogether going forward and it’s really a benefit to all of us.
And that’s something that we have really, as a team absorbed into our mindset of the multi-generational thinking of what the Abbe Museum is hopefully going to be able to do in the future is take that into account, so really absorbing that terminology from the Passamaquoddy language, into the team here who don’t speak that language and absorb it in and of themselves and take it with them everywhere they go, that they see other human beings. And when they see things that are wrong, that they say something about it, because the by stand is as Diana said to accept the status quo and basically say, “It’s okay.” And that is the culture we’re seeing which is already present definitely amongst the staff members here, but we’re starting to really see an action-oriented focus around not just as individuals, but our institution itself.
How do we create and talk about these hard histories as a way to create better futures for all of us? And that’s really, it’s all about and that’s probably the biggest thing is that was a drawing. I was new here at the time, so in a way, us writing this together… As I said, the process of writing it together as an institution, there’s something to be learned from that. And that brought me into the fold with the team here and really galvanized us together around what our shared vision for our institution is going forward.
Linda Norris: Great. I’m going to come back to the writing because there’s some questions about it. But Cinnamon, a year on, how are you thinking?
Cinnamon Caitlin-Legutko: I have a lot of thoughts about one thing for sure is I am so grateful that state government got busy when we got busy. So as an institution, as a museum, we could have been working inclusively, doing what we needed to do to learn, and change, and shape a new future. But if state government was running in an opposite direction, we were going to be hampered pretty dramatically. And fortunately the governor of the state pretty quickly after the murder of George Floyd and all of the summer protests, and unrest, and pain quickly issued a statement to all state staff saying, “Change is here. We’re going to invest. We’re making commitments. We’ve engaged a consultancy group. We’re serious.” And they were, so resources have been coming for state employees, which is so critical when more than 90% of the staff in state government are union staff, how do you make that come together and make change? You have to have it at the very top level.
But I will say, as we were entering the stay at home order, we had started an inclusion audit it process, which I am so grateful for to have had that document to look back on and build from. But as we moved into the summer, it catalyzed an interest, a willingness from all staff to come together and talk in formal ways and so we continued with the consultant we had hired to lead these structured conversations around a variety of issues. And to me that felt like the most urgent thing is that we have to be able to talk about this in the workplace, we have to be able to talk about diversity, equity, accessibility, inclusion with each other, and then we began to build programs, build exhibits, build other things. So last summer was about that and what came is beyond everything I ever dreamed and hoped. Most significantly two weeks ago, we opened three exhibitions that were community curated, fully community curated around black history and creativity. And I was in bits, I was in tears because it all rose up, and it was the anniversary week of George Floyd’s murder.
And my impatience had been ruling my days and I realized, “Simmer down, Cinnamon,” everybody’s coming in their own way. And they fell all of their opportunities to think I conclusively work, I conclusively and build something meaningful. So I am incredibly energized by this past year. I have been transformed as well in ways that I didn’t expect and I know my colleagues here have as well.
Linda Norris: So lots of questions, which is great. Let’s see if we can get to them. A couple of questions about who actually writes it and how do you do that process? The coalition also issued a statement and I know on our end, maybe six people had hands in it at different points. But talk, each of you, anyone can start, talk about how, what the process was, did somebody write a draft and people commented? Did everybody write drafts? How did it work?
Chris Newell: I can start because we’re the smallest institution, so for us, it was a little simplified. I did draft up something as a framework using that term to introduce it to the rest of the team. But truly we went into a Google Doc and we all spent a good hour editing together and until we found language that we were all comfortable with and we were all willing to sign off on. So the process was truly inclusive, but it began I wanted to frame it around Passamaquoddy linguistical terminology and the worldview that our culture has, which I felt was of value in the creation of this statement. And then, we collectively did it, and we’re a small institution, we were at the time six, we’re now seven. So for us it was truly a institution-wide.
However, I know most institutions are much larger than that. It was such a small team, I really wanted everybody to be behind it and I didn’t want it to be something that I just wrote and they were forced to cosign on. I wanted it to be something that they felt in and of themselves as human beings as well in inputting it outwards. And so with a small team in a small museum that worked that construct, but I’m sure there were in other institutions there’s other constructs that have work.
Linda Norris: Yeah. Diana or Cinnamon?
Diana Abouali: Yeah. We are, I think slightly larger than Chris’s museum, but like I said, we’re part of ACCESS, this larger nonprofit and different members of the staff and the communication staff got together with ACCESS leadership and I was involved and we just collectively wrote the statement and then sudden kind of wordsmithed it to work for each program as they saw fit. So it was a collective effort for sure.
Cinnamon Caitlin-Legutko: And our examples, probably the least collaborative collective. I wrote it and had somebody look at it.
Linda Norris: [crosstalk 00:36:30].
Cinnamon Caitlin-Legutko: I’ll tell you why though. It was very specific because I was not as new as Chris, but I was brand new and I was with an organization who really hadn’t had these conversations before. I didn’t know where I was to turn quite frankly. So I relied on our director of advancement who had just joined us two weeks prior to going home with COVID, who had been working in Memphis, Civil Rights Museum. So she had chops, she knew how to make statements and how it would land and so she was my guide, quite frankly. I wrote it and then she reviewed and we made a few tweaks and then on it went up our formal channels, communications and state government are very formal.
I was pleased though that when it came back from the governor’s office, it only had a tiny tweak. I was waiting for full paragraphs to get lifted out and they weren’t. So in many ways it was collaborative as diplomacy can allow in that regard. And I know that in the future, it’ll be very different because the conversations have developed here.
Linda Norris: Great. So a couple questions around leadership. Somebody said, “Oh, this looks like it’s three leaders who actually led,” which I would say is true and big chops to all three of you. What is it you do when you work at an institution where leaders do not have this interest from your perspective as directors and does everyone in an institution also have to sign on in a way? Those are kind of two parts of the same thing, I think.
Cinnamon Caitlin-Legutko: I’ll say a few words about that. So I think there was and there’s still a lot of consternation around solidarity statements, whether you should issue them or not. So if you issued one and that’s a mark of an inclusive leadership, I find that problematic, it’s more about the action, it’s always going to be about the action. And so if you have a leader who refuses to talk about race or work in an anti-racist way, if you have a leader who isn’t leaning into their own personal learning, you have larger institutional problems than any of us can solve in this conversation.
So, my council to folks who are working at different levels of their institutions is to always lead from where you sit and do your own personal work and know that as you connect with others around thinking inclusively, working inclusively, living inclusively, it will build. We don’t have the freedom as we always want to move jobs, but when leaders are working in harmful ways, you have to take care of yourself, and it’s really about the action and the work that needs to happen. So the mark for me is not, did they write a statement? It’s a matter of, how does that leader lead on a daily basis and how do I connect with them?
You can always bring conversations in. One of the tactics I have used is when we need to have a big conversation, why can’t it be a public program and do the public program for everyone? So if you sit in education, what are the programs you can start leading that have these public conversations? So in hopes that leader listen, in hopes that dialogues start, there’s ways you have power wherever you sit and to exercise that is critical.
Linda Norris: Great. Chris or Diana, thoughts on that?
Diana Abouali: Yeah. I think it’s hard. It’s hard to lead in these situations when you might be coming against different ideas about how things should be addressed. And one of the ways that we at the museum try to sort of do that is not to be… sometimes we can’t be as sort of blunt as we would like to be, but there are ways to address the issues that are important to us, that we feel are important to society, and important to be talked about in different ways. So we’re a museum, we might have an exhibition or some event around immigrants, let’s say and through those discussions, through those events, the discussions around that event or during the event, we can bring up issues like immigration laws, bias against certain… like the Muslim ban for instance.
So there are ways of sort of talking about these more sensitive issues that might not maybe hurt the sensitivities of leadership, but still you were able to kind of provide information, a space for people to come together and to talk about these harder topics. And I think it’s a way of… it’s how life is right now. And I think that’s just one way that we yeah, when you’re limited you have to find ways to do what you need to do and sometimes you need to be a little more creative. But there are ways around it. And I feel most people have a sense of [inaudible 00:41:57] and want to do the right thing. There’s always these other variables you have to weigh in and that can be overwhelming sometimes, but I think there’s trying to be creative is how I try to go about it and my staff as well.
Linda Norris: So I want to acknowledge a couple of things at chat, is there’s a lot going on in the chat. I really want to acknowledge museums are not neutral, Mike Murawski and La Tanya Autry, the mass action amazing group that’s doing incredible work. And even a little bit further back in time, museums respond to Ferguson and Aleia Brown, and Adrianne Russell, all people who have totally moved these conversations forward, which gets to Adam’s question is like, “Why did it take the last year for us to be paying enough attention?” So Chris, you want that one?
Chris Newell: Yeah. I can probably mold it into the last question even. I worked at a tribal museum for a lot of years and I meandered my way into the museum field. And when I did, what I realized is that museums can actually do something in this world. And so that’s where my heart and soul went into this work 100%. And that’s one of the things that I’ve realized about myself is that I’m never going to fully succeed as something, unless my heart and soul is fully in it. However, the institution previously was going under leadership changes, things like that. And so I was doing a lot of the work that I felt in my heart needed to be done, but outside of my job. And so my job because of the structured leadership was struggling with that and it sucked the soul out of me a little bit to put all that effort in and not have the institution backing what we were doing, because it seemed to make sense.
And so, coming into my first directorship here at the Abbe Museum, I wanted to make sure that it would be a different story, that we would not do that to each other as team members. And also I’m member of one of the communities whose histories, cultures and arts are represented here, so I have accountability to my own communities, and I’m part of my job to a senior partner to Wabanaki nations. I have a duty to speak in certain aspects to the public about things like that. So when it came to this, it was really a natural thing. I don’t really see it as leadership, I just really see it as the duty that has to be performed as part of the way the Abbe Museum, as partners to the living Wabanaki communities needs to operate.
Linda Norris: Great. Cinnamon, all of you are new directors which is so interesting, but in a way for the field, why did it take us so long?
Cinnamon Caitlin-Legutko: Why did it take us so long? Simply put racism for me. Come on, right? So a lot of us have been doing this work for a long time and a lot of us have been in interesting learning spaces for a long time. I know that I’m a completely different person now based on my experiences at the Abbe Museum and working my way into this job at the ISM, I have been transformed, but not everybody else has spent that time to do the work. And we have oppressive systems operating in the United States that have not created spaces for these conversations, we don’t know how to talk about race. The horror of last year and the horrors that continue, I think found a moment for change, in my opinion, when we all found ourselves physically vulnerable because of COVID, physically bereft because of losses, so all of us were in an emotional space.
No matter where you are, there are a few sectors that didn’t feel it, I know that, but most of us were in pain just because we were sent home. I was in terror in March and April and ultimately lost people in my life just like all of us did last year to COVID and saw those who should help us not help us. So then you find the moments of George Floyd’s murder and it feels like an absolute no more moment that many of us could hold onto and if it had happened at another time and we weren’t in COVID, I don’t know if the same things, the same momentum would’ve happened, but I think the joining of those emergency experiences in our lives [inaudible 00:46:48] large, as well as right in our lap, made it unavoidable and something you couldn’t ignore.
Linda Norris: Great. Diana, why do you think it took us so long?
Diana Abouali: I agree with what Cinnamon said, 100%. I think it was. Yeah. I think it’s sort of the nature of the museum sector is not a very diverse one. There is sort of systems of racism that have not allowed for spaces, for us to talk about these things. And I think the sort of coming together of the pandemic and the sense of panic and the changes in society that were happening, everybody was very, I think felt very vulnerable, felt very uncertain. And I think that these sort of public health crisis that was happening to communities of color in this nation, and then on top of that, these sort of killings that were happening, and they were getting a lot of publicity I think people reached a breaking point. But I don’t think it just happened in 2021, people just woke up and… I think the stuff had been building up.
It had been happening for a while and I think that the coming together, the COVID and the COVID situation with the killings of these three people, pretty much very close to each other, really just pushed things over the edge, so to speak. So I’m glad it happened, I just hope we continue along this momentum, this trajectory.
Linda Norris: I feel like there’s so much more conversation. But Diana, I’m going to go back to you for an ending question. Sorry, there’s so much great conversation in the chat and in the questions and we get through as many as we could. But Diana, I’m going to start with you. After Christie’s comment about legislation in 30 states about restricting these conversations, I actually want to know from each of you, what makes you hopeful about this work? So, Diana, I’m going to start with you, but probably what makes you hopeful here?
Diana Abouali: About the work that we’re doing, this kind of work?
Linda Norris: Well about the work of change, about fighting systemic racism? Yeah.
Diana Abouali: I’m hopeful that, I mean, I really feel there’s a shift in attitude. Look, I think museums have a role to play. Cultural institutions that are well regarded by the community, by the society have a role to play. People listen to what museums say and do and I think we have an obligation to make these statements and also put our money where our mouth is and act upon it. So that with that sort of realization and the realization that I think things are… there’s a cultural shift happening now in the United States and that’s what makes me sort of hopeful.
I think the two, the cultural organizations as a whole working together, taking stands, not being afraid of getting penalized, losing funding, being sort of keeping to their principles, I think with that, with the sort of cultural shift that’s happening, I think, I’m optimistic that things are going to change for the better.
Linda Norris: Great, Chris, what makes you hopeful?
Chris Newell: So for me, just my own life story. As far as I know, I’m the only native executive director of a Smithsonian Affiliate Institution and that needs to change. We’ve still got a lot of work to do there, but the fact that we got to this point where museums have been such extractive places for native peoples for so long, there’s a reason why my father’s generation wouldn’t even walk into a colonial museum, much less work for one because of the structure of them. And Cinnamon, laid it out very well just a minute ago. But what gives me hope is that there are people like, Cinnamon, out there that do make moves and shake things up. And the Abbe went through some uncomfortable moments and had to go through some growing pains.
But as we come out of the other side of it, the potential of a small island institution like us to affect change in the world is actually there, it takes groundwork, it takes framework, it takes being uncomfortable, it takes doing all of those types of things. But when you do the work, then it all of a sudden you come out of it in a much better and stronger place to use your voice for the good of all humanity. And so I find myself actually pinching myself at times because I’m in a dream position, I’m doing what I would be doing for free in my life yet I have a place where I can make a living wage at it but also I have the power of an institution here that has a large voice in this work.
And I see the voice that we have affecting change to other institutions and that’s probably the most beautiful thing is that this wave of change, which has been needed for so long has a lot of momentum right now. And we got a long ways to go, and this is going to be multi-generational and I want to make sure expectations are real there. But because I see movement where 10 years ago, I didn’t see any at all, that’s what makes me the most hopeful and it shows up in the position that I’m currently at right now.
Linda Norris: Great, Cinnamon, what makes you hopeful?
Cinnamon Caitlin-Legutko: I am hopeful for so many reasons, but the biggest one is that we’re not going backwards anymore, it’s very clear. Change is here, it’s roosted, it’s growing. I’m hopeful because I don’t have to explain myself as much to be honest, I’m pretty tired of explaining myself. I’m sure all of you are too about why you want to work conclusively and bring people in to the conversation. I’m hopeful, because I know and I know my colleagues here know what it looks when you work conclusively and it’s joyful. I use that word a lot. It is heart bursting joy. I was full of joy a couple weeks ago with these shows opening in ways that you feel through your whole body and carry you forward. So I get to see more of those moments now because I have readied myself and I can see now the reactions on others when they come into those spaces and I want to make more of that.
So, I am hopeful every day, because this is the work I’m here for. And if the museum field wasn’t in this space, I had some tough decisions to make, I’m all about inclusion. I need to work in an industry that works and thinks inclusively and the museum field while it has a lot of work to do, and it’s behind, as I’ve said before, as well as at this conference, is now there. And I think there’s a ripeness where all museums can come into this conversation and that also makes me helpful.
Linda Norris: Great. Thanks all three of you for an incredible session. I do want to remind people that all three of these amazing leaders, organizations are members of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience. And they join with our other more than 300 organizations around the world who are all doing this work in different ways. Some of you maybe had a chance this morning to hear some of our members from Haiti, Turkey, and Russia talk about their work. So I want to encourage you all to check out Sites of Conscience in the work we do sitesofconscience.org, it’s an easy place to find. Cinnamon, the joyful part I think is so important, this is really hard work and the joy… And Chris, you too, right? All of us, the joy of real change can be sustaining even through the hard parts.
So I think we’ll we have one minute more. I feel, I was supposed to be done at 25 after and I’m done one minute more. Thank you everyone for such great questions and thoughts. I’m sorry, we couldn’t get to them all. You should also feel free to reach out to all four of us if you have questions. A couple people had some specific questions and things like that. Everybody should feel free to reach out to us, right? You three great speakers, amazing, so we were so happy to have you all. And I think that something happens at 25 after. I know it’s like, “Yes. Does it happen in-
Speaker 1: [crosstalk 00:55:48].
Linda Norris: … 25 after [crosstalk 00:55:48]?”
Speaker 1: Thank you, Linda, Cinnamon, Diana and Chris, for that in depth presentation. The Nancy Hanks Memorial Award for Professional Excellence, honors a museum professional with less than 10 years experience in the field. This year, we are thrilled to present this distinguished honor to Brandy McDonald. Brandy’s extraordinary work is helping museums apply decolonized theory, practice, and methodology to create a more equitable, inclusive and racially just present and future. To say a few words, here’s Brandy.
Brandy McDonald: [foreign language 00:56:34]. My name is Brandy McDonald [crosstalk 00:56:37]. [crosstalk 00:56:38] nation. I’m the director of decolonizing initiatives at the Museum of Oz. The museum sits on the unseated ancestral homeland of the Kumeyaay nation in San Diego, California, USA. I am honored to receive the 2020, Nancy Hanks Memorial Award for Professional Excellence. The decolonial work and practice that I do in the field would not be possible without the diligence, tenacity, strength, and love of the indigenous peoples who came in before me and the indigenous peoples who work in the field alongside me. Transformative decolonial change is a collective endeavor. Thank you to all of the indigenous and non-indigenous peoples who are dedicated to these practices and who show up every day in solidarity and practice radical love to create a better present and future for black indigenous and peoples color working in the museum field and beyond.
Brandy McDonald: I am so grateful to the Museum of Oz team, the leadership, and the board of trustees for ensuring that decolonial practices is an organizational priority and for believing in the process and also for trusting me. It is a privilege to work alongside you. I also want to thank and so say a huge thank you to the AAM Board of Trustees and the AAM team for all you do in the field and beyond. Thank you for dedicating your physical and emotional labor to create positive change in this world. It has been and continues to be a heartbreaking years for so many of us all over the world. I would like to take this opportunity to honor and extend my respects to our relatives that are continuing to navigate these difficult times. My hope for the museum field is that we will continue to work towards building a more culturally just and equitable field for present and future generations. One that will support the whole person, not just a person’s deliverables. I believe in us and look forward to the years ahead. Thank you again.
Speaker 1: Thank you, Brandy, for your exceptional work. That concludes our elevate stage today. Thank you for joining us. We will now have a one hour break during which we encourage you to visit our exhibitors in the Virtual Exhibit Expo Hall. Attend our solutions and tech talks and explore the poster hall. Concurrent sessions will begin at 2:00 PM Central Standard Time. Please refer to the full program for more information about today’s schedule. And we will see you again tomorrow at 12:30 PM Central Standard Time, for our next elevate stage session.