27 March 2018




Earlier this month the National Portrait Gallery announced it was moving the portrait of First Lady Michelle Obama to another location in order to provide a “more spacious viewing experience.” The response to Amy Sherald’s portrait of the First Lady has been overwhelming, far exceeding the institution’s expectations for visitor numbers. Commentary about the impact of this portrait has beautifully illustrated the importance of representation in museum spaces. I’m glad this museum mishap had a happy ending and that museum publics will have increased opportunities for representation. However, I am left wondering if this situation is indicative of a larger gap in museum thinking. Namely, why are museums surprised by audience responses? As audience needs, interests, and expectations change, museums appear at best, unprepared, and at worst, unaware or uncaring.

Amy Sherald's Portrait of First Lady Michelle Obama at the National Portrait Gallery. Source.
I had the distinct pleasure of writing for Musings for the last two years. During that time I was able to cover a sliver of the shifting politics of display, expanding communities of practice and emerging socially-engaged approaches. All of these converge to positively transform the ways that African-Canadian history and Black history more broadly are interpreted. At the same time I have also observed the maintenance and reproduction of anti-Black, colonial mentalities that threaten this progress. Particularly in areas of African Canadian history, there is an immediate need of enhanced strategic foresight that allows for new possibilities. Now on my final post for this column, my only offering to museum colleagues is to get ready.

Get ready for a new canon of African Canadian Black history that is independent from and incomparable to Western worldviews. Get ready for Black history narratives that are decidedly desire-centered, not damage-centered. Get ready to listen to publics who neither look nor live like you do. Get ready to compensate your partners, collaborators, and co-conspirators fairly. Get ready to be called into a critical discourse with your staff that may make you uncomfortable. Get ready to be challenged both professionally and personally about your work as it relates to the role of museums in society. Get ready to think and work differently.

What must you do to not only respond to visitor needs, but to anticipate them?

Get ready.

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