Race in Museums

Museums are embracing race as an importance aspect of their pasts and the histories they present, as well as a lens for envisioning their futures. Sometimes deemed controversial or harmful, discussions about race into museums are now essential to responsible stewardship. Moreover, it enriches museums and their relationships with surrounding communities of various races. The resources below shares resources, news and models for how to engage race in museums, including in hiring, outreach, programming, object interpretation and living histories.

Joining the Discussion on Museums and Race

The Danger of the ‘D’ Word: Museums and Diversity by Porchia Moore of the Incluseum Blog problematizes the idea of institutional diversity initiatives to expose its limited focus on final products that seem diverse only to the dominant culture of museum-goers or exhibitors. This think-piece can help museums reflect on their approaches to community engagement and marketing, and shift goals to instead reach for Moore’s notion of racial “completion” in representation, attendance/ membership, and cultural heritage.

Museums and Race came out of a 2015 meeting of the American Alliance of Museums, and produced this reading list in the spirit of the #syllabus movement following calls for museums to become involved in the Ferguson protests. The reading list has something to offer for all needs and approaches, including bestselling books on race. Scroll down to the section called “Institutional Legacies” for articles from leading journals discussing current events in museums.

Museums are increasingly called on to “decolonize” their collections and exhibitions, meaning that museums should collaborate with communities to grapple with the legacies of colonialism that their objects and exhibits present. This TED-Talk by Cinnamon Caitlin-Legutko, “We Must Decolonize Our Museums,” is a primer for understanding the movement to decolonize museums, and offers a basic framework for implementing changes at your home institution.

The Visitors of Color Tumblr page is a resource for museum professionals who wish to engage with communities of color in their museums and to improve their visitor experiences. It is especially focused on engaging social justice work by local activists of color, which deepens the connection between museum and community. The blog provides insight into how visitors view the cultural competency of exhibitions, identifies issues that communities need museums to take public stances on. and stories of positive and negative visitor experiences. 


Tools, Resources, and Models for Implementing Change

The Museum As Site for Social Action project began when a cohort of 50 American museum practitioners met in 2016 to produce a toolkit for achieving greater equity and inclusion of communities of color through actionable practice. In addition to using the site to track the cohort’s discussions and activities from inception through to their 2018 meeting, this page offers

  • A link to the MASS Action blog
  • Downloadable Readiness Assessment guide for determining the areas your institution could improve in
  • A downloadable Toolkit that outlines practices and plans for achieving equity
  • Lists of links to twitter feeds, blogs, museum websites, and projects about race and museums

In “Dismantling Diversity in Museums,” Adriel Luis, curator of the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center shares his work in shifting his institution’s perception that diversity is about difference and static modes of representation. His experimental, short-term, and sometimes digital “culture labs” offer an alternative method for curation that is co-curated with community members and artists. This very rich article includes:

  • a Soundcloud file of Adriel Luis’ talk about diversity at the Rockwell Museum
  • a transcription of the speech, including tweets and images about diversity as referenced in the speech
  • a video trailer of the first culture lab called Crosslines
  • a time-stamped outline of Luis’ discussion of previous culture labs, with photos and videos from some of the labs
  • a transcription of the Q&A section of Luis’ speech at Rockwell Museum

“A Roundup of Decolonization News” by the Center for the Future of Museums blog reviews six museums across the world to share their efforts to decolonize their institution. These models for decolonizing museums span a range of types of collections and exhibitions, from art to cultural heritage to natural history museums. They also demonstrate how museums efforts can be successful when they address the particular histories and communities connected to their locations and collections, from Native Americans to descendants of the enslaved.

Communities of color are deeply impacted by mass incarceration, and the erasure and marginalization of incarcerated friends and family from institutions like museums. The Chrysler Museum’s exhibition Beyond the Block: Empowering Incarcerated Artists showcases the art of Virginian incarcerated people, and models one way to give a platform to this community’s contributions while using museum spaces for reconnecting and healing. Hopefully this article inspires you to research mass incarceration in your state; for example, African Americans are 22% of Delaware’s population but are 51% of incarcerated populations in the state.

Visit our page on African American First-Person Interpretation and Slavery to explore morea bout living history and first-person interpretations by actors/cultural historians who represent African American life prior to Emancipation.