A Call for Transformation: Framing the Situation

A Call for Transformation: Framing the Situation

By Bryan Cockrell

At the end of January 2018, I quit a fellowship at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. As a cis-gendered white man who was able to find other work, I want to recognize that I had enormous privilege in having the choice to leave, something not everyone is able to do despite their wishes. While in the Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas at the Met, my role was to research metal objects from Central and South America and write descriptions for these objects for the Museum’s website. In the process, I witnessed a number of my anticipated fears come to fruition, particularly: numerous attempts to de-politicize the production of knowledge and the histories of museum objects; subservience to collectors, donors, and corporations in the process of studying and curating exhibitions; and a dramatic distancing between the people producing knowledge and the people whose heritage is represented among the objects in the Museum’s collections. None of these was a surprise. These elements also were clear to me during prior experiences in education and museum work but I did not expect how heightened they were at the Met, and how they often passed by without critique. During my year, I experienced pressure particularly around recognizing that knowledge production in museums is highly political. I decided to quit because of the mental and emotional drain of this pressure and a desire to no longer give my labor to projects that seemed centered on satisfying predominantly white, financially affluent audiences.

Earth, Art and Culture are Not for Sale, installation for staff art exhibition at the Met (2017), as part of the group anti-extractivistas. One goal of the installation was to call attention to the appropriation of mochilas made by Wayúu women.

For me, the academic-industrial complex had become too overwhelming and dehumanizing to continue. This complex consists of institutions like colleges, universities, and museums that participate in academia and, in my view, function like a factory or industry where the focus is the output and productivity of workers. This focus may exist even when such institutions promise to serve the public or increase knowledge in their mission statements. Which publics do they serve and whose knowledge gets increased?

In this series of posts, I propose three transformations that I would like to see take place within this complex. The call for such transformation is not new, but it must continue and expand, and the transformation must actually be realized through meaningful action. This is not something to be given mere lip service in journals or conferences. I join the call that other people, like Sumaya Kassim, have made. Kassim has written about the need for actors inside and outside of the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery to participate in decolonizing exhibitions. As Kassim notes, decolonization does not have finality but is an ongoing process. The transformations I propose also bear some overlap with the demands of the organizers of the Anti-Columbus Day Tour at the American Museum of Natural History—to rename the day, remove the statue in front of the museum, and respect the ancestors. Naming and language are a crucial part of the change I propose, and so is a questioning of who is involved in the process of storytelling. I also find some similarity with the beliefs of the artist Liv Wynter, who offered a powerful, personal explanation for her decision to quit the Tate. While we are two different people with different experiences, I agree that institutions like the Tate and the Met need a transformation from their core, something in addition to and beyond the diversification of their staffs. Since my departure from the Met, I reached out to the Mellon Foundation, which funded the fellowship. My goal in contacting the Foundation was to share my experience at the Met with them in the hopes that there could be some transformation for future fellows. After several conversations with the administration at Mellon, I was notified they would conduct a survey of institutions that receive fellowships with an emphasis on how these institutions recruit and mentor fellows. However, I am unclear what substantive changes will arise as a result of that institutional survey. I also wonder if the Mellon Foundation is interested in preserving the system or transforming it.

So, in order to make substantive changes, I propose more concrete action, namely:

(1) End (finally) the narrative that museums and academic institutions are neutral.
(2) Terminate partnerships with agencies and corporations that exploit people and the earth.
(3) Change the stories that are being told and who is telling them.

Each of my next three posts will focus on one of these demands. I look forward to hearing from you with questions, ideas, and challenges, and working together to shape and enact transformation.

Bryan Cockrell is an English as a New Language Teacher at KAPPA International High School in the Bronx, NY. He is a settler living on Lenape territories. His prior work was in the metallurgy of Central and South America and archaeometry.

4 Replies to “A Call for Transformation: Framing the Situation”

  1. In your bio it’s noted that you’re now an “English as a New Language Teacher”. How is this role less colonial that your previous one? Thanks, R.

    1. Hi Rich: teaching English can be viewed as a colonial practice, but what are the alternatives if learning English is also a tool for survival? There are many projects happening that work towards greater justice in English instruction, promoting translanguaging along with bi-/multi-lingualism. I’d encourage you to look at the work of people like Ofelia García if you haven’t already.

  2. I will be anticipating your upcoming posts Bryan. You have embarked on an incredibly brave transition. I see you and support you.

    1. Hi Celeste: thank you for your supportive response. I look forward to hearing more about your ideas for making change happen!