A Call for Transformation: Ending the Myth of Neutrality

A Call for Transformation: Ending the Myth of Neutrality

Following my introductory post, I now describe the first of three parts of my call for transformation in museums and the academic-industrial complex. The first part is to:

(1) end (finally) the narrative that museums and academic institutions are neutral.

Museums and academic institutions are not neutral. Instead, they are often rooted in inequality: the accumulation of material, money, physical space, and knowledge, along with alliances with other institutions that include the state. As Nathan Sentance argues, institutions that receive funds from the state are inherently political. Funding influences a range of aspects of the institution, eventually making its way into the content. Believing in the neutrality of these institutions also helps to preserve the dominant systems. When we do not take sides, we preserve the status quo.

During my tenure in academia and museums, including Dumbarton Oaks Research Library & Collection and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, I have encountered people who believe that such institutions are neutral. I remember one academic who wrote, referring to the colonization of the Americas, that its exploitative systems actually benefited a range of people. This commentary arrived in the form of an email as we were preparing to collaborate on a written piece. According to this academic, colonization created a variety of narratives that all need to be recognized, and we should avoid bias and subscribe to neutral language when we discuss this topic in the upcoming publication.

Let’s imagine spaces for challenging the status quo: Within Our Lifetime shares their work at the Whitney Museum in 2019 to highlight the intersection of Palestinian liberation with the removal of Warren Kanders from the Whitney board.

However, we need to be clear. Colonization creates a power imbalance. The colonization of the Americas—and specifically settler colonialism—fomented inequalities whose effects are still felt today. Today, the over-exploitation and destruction of land and water for industrial agriculture or for oil pipelines is the consequence of colonization. These actions not only disrespect Indigenous relationships with the environment but also inhibit access to food, clean water, and other resources, prioritizing profits over people and other living beings. As Angela Davis and Michelle Alexander have explained, today’s prison-industrial complex and mass incarceration are part of a continuum with the institution of slavery, which was a component of the settler colonial system on which the US was founded. If someone claims neutrality when it comes to discussing colonization, they then ignore the sufferings that people have experienced. They consequently perpetuate the very inequalities that colonization established. We should include the taking of archaeological materials—which for some peoples may be the taking of memories, and the taking of living beings—as part of the inequalities that colonization created.

In another instance, a museum staff member related to me that they gave a presentation that referred to Christopher Columbus. In spite of an admonition by an audience member after their talk, the speaker stood by their desire to portray Columbus in a neutral light. After all, they noted, they are an academic and need to present information that is free from bias. Again, keeping neutral about Columbus perpetuates the oppression that he enacted. The academic could have issued an overt opinion or, at a minimum, shared information about the atrocities Columbus committed and led against Indigenous peoples. Presenting information could also serve a role in creating a more holistic and honest picture of past or present situations. As I will discuss in an upcoming post, I often encountered discouragement from including certain types of information about objects and their histories, and omitting this would have, I believed, de-politicized the objects. I would caution, though, that sensitivity is required here. The person speaking should, of course, be aware of their audience and provide warnings as needed before assuming that people will want to hear or be reminded of these atrocities. There needs to be awareness and balance, but confidence that, even as an academic, you do have an opinion and a responsibility to challenge narratives and to cultivate mindsets. At the same time, I would encourage people to “share the air,” to know when to speak and when to listen, and recognize the expertise of people and communities beyond the museum. As Mike Murawski has written, efforts to share power and to challenge neutrality are parts of disrupting white supremacy. Murawski and La Tanya Autry created the #MuseumsAreNotNeutral Campaign in 2017.

Let’s imagine spaces for gathering, planning, and creating: The Interference Archive hosts a gathering for Sublevarte Colectivo among its collection of print media in 2012. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Of course, there are institutions and people within them that have been challenging hegemonic narratives. On January 20, 2017, the day of the Trump inauguration, the Queens Museum, under its former director Laura Raicovich, shut down to create a space where people could make protest materials. This meant that business did not carry on as usual. The decision by the Queens Museum to create such a space meant that the museum became an (even more) active site for challenging oppressive politics. We need to envision our museums as spaces that take timely action, where we can gather, plan, and create. In some cases, external groups use the site of the museum as a focal point to challenge its practices while also serving as a gathering space and a creative space. This is the case of the “nine weeks of art and action” against the Whitney Museum, where organizers challenged the presence of Warren Kanders on the Whitney’s board. Kanders’ company Safariland produces tear gas used against people worldwide, from Ferguson to Palestine. In other cases, the institution takes on more agency in designing the action and using the space. The Interference Archive in Brooklyn, which hosts exhibitions and maintains a rich archive of zines, also held propaganda parties in 2017, building up to the inauguration. It is especially poignant and inspiring to see institutions that house art and historical materials serving as a locus for creating new art, which is then seen in the streets or among other sites of action and resistance. Especially in cities like New York where space is constricted and heavily commodified, museums can use their space for mobilizing people and even furnishing people with artistic inspiration by sharing the works they house. It is unfortunate, though, that this action among others at the Queens Museum may have led to conflict with the Museum’s board and Raicovich’s departure in early 2018.

Even if an institution is not capable of undertaking a cohesive stance—shutting down in protest—without repercussions for its staff, there is also the daily performance of neutrality that needs to be challenged. This daily performance may be exercised on the level of an informal conversation between colleagues or on the level of a staff meeting. I would encourage staff to ask, how am I using the power or privilege that I have to interrupt dominant narratives and to create a more just society? I would encourage institutional leadership to ask, how am I interrupting these narratives and creating safer spaces where my staff can express their opinions and advocate change without concern over retaliation?

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