21 March 2020

MUSEUM DETOX PANEL REVIEW: ADDRESSING CHALLENGES IN THE MUSEUM

Weekend Edition | Madison Carmichael & Jaime Meier


The Master of Museum Studies program (MMSt) is overwhelmingly white. This is true whether you’re looking at the students or the syllabuses. We talk about diversity and race in the context of museums often, but not so often do we remark upon the privileged position from which many of us speak, nor the privileged position from which many of us will operate once we move into our careers.

Museum Professionals of Colour (MPOC) was originally a support group for students of colour to talk about being in an all-white program. It started out with about six or seven Indigenous, Black, and People of Colour (IBPOC) who were excited to finally be open about their feelings of underrepresentation and isolation. Upon learning that the MMSt program previously had a diversity group that had dissolved, MPOC decided to become an official student organization to provide a permanent collective for future generations. They are driven by their desire to support People of Colour (POC) within the MMSt program and help facilitate conversations about race with their peers and the wider museum community. MPOC have used multiple platforms to achieve their goal, including social media (InstagramFacebook), online publications, and most recently a panel featuring Wendy Ng, Manager of School Programs at the Ontario Science CentreJ’net Ayay Qwa Yak Sheelth, Indigenous Outreach and Learning Coordinator at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM); and Just John Samuels, Art Curator and Community Organizer at Blank Canvas Gallery

From left to right: Denise Tenio, Megan Sue-Chue-Lam, Wendy Ng, J'net Ayay Qwa Yak Sheelth, Just John Samuels, Dominica Tang, and Chloé Houde. Photo courtesy of Jaime Meier. 
The panel, “Museum Detox: Cleansing Institutions of Unconscious Bias and Developing Anti-Racist Praxis,” was developed by MPOC in partnership with MUSSA. Guided by questions from members of MPOC, panelists discussed the emergent trend of diversity work in cultural institutions and how museums might break that trend-cycle to do “diversity right,” speaking to institutional examples or projects as well as the unexpected and very real challenges in doing this important work. Race is, according to panelist Wendy Ng, a pivotal factor in oppression, and it is critical to recognize the role that race plays in intersectional museum work as well as the oppression that one may experience within these institutions. 

These discussions led us to the idea of risk. Risk and risk-taking is embodied in the work that the panelists and MPOC themselves engage in everyday to decolonize cultural institutions and support their communities in the face of systematic oppression. While various groups work to assist in these efforts, it is critical that we consider and reflect upon how risk differs depending on who undertakes it. 

From left to right: Wendy Ng, J'net Ayay Qwa Yak Sheelth, & Just John Samuels. Photo courtesy of Jaime Meier. 
As panelist J’net Ayay Qwa Yak Sheelth so aptly put it, museums are rooted in systems of white supremacy and the systems that abet it. They are rife with binaries of us and them – or else us vs. them – which is only compounded by the strict hierarchies of power, position, and knowledge hammered into their foundations. And the “us,” those who occupy the highest positions of power, are – much like our program – overwhelmingly white, and so the systems in place actively advantage white folks and disadvantage others. As such, what constitutes risk and what is at stake in taking a risk looks markedly different within a system like that. 

It is not and cannot be up to POC alone to address all institutional issues themselves. White people and allies have an important role to play in challenging institutions that uphold white supremacy, that stem from colonial roots, and to recognize those histories and structures so as to confront them in real terms and meaningful action. MPOC have played a crucial role in beginning this work in the faculty, inspiring peers and others in the museum field to do the same. The panelists brought attention to the fact that we exist in a culture of whiteness that requires us to decenter ourselves in regards to power, culture, and relationships. A starting point for allies and white people is to ask important questions about our relationship to hierarchies and privilege. This may include:
  • What privilege do you have?
  • Who’s missing from the conversation? Who are you talking to?
  • How can we create equilibrium in our (museum) spaces?
  • Who are events for? Is it a performance for non-racialized folks? 
  • What risks are you willing to take? How will you leverage your power to enact change and challenge oppressive structures?

Faculty and students alike consider issues of  doing "diversity right," confronting institutional systems of white supremacy, and the important work that allies can engage in to help with these efforts. Photo courtesy of Jaime Meier. 
Once allies and white people occupying museum spaces begin to consider these things, important work can begin to take place. This does not mean turning to POC exclusively for guidance and support; white people and allies must shoulder the responsibility of educating themselves and talking to other white people and allies about issues that POC face, even when they are not in the room. MPOC have also stressed the importance of allies speaking up in difficult situations and to take the initiative to ask questions and challenge statements. It is a moment of fleeting discomfort as opposed to the compounded lifetime of negative experiences felt by POC, which only increases feelings of isolation. In the words of Wendy Ng, white people need to be willing to sacrifice their comfort, and at times more, in order to be an ally. 

“Museum Detox” was, in the words of MPOC, a single step towards developing anti-racist practice within cultural institutions but not a small or unimportant one. As Just John Samuels so wonderfully put it, we’re in such a beautiful position to begin this work in earnest. Whether as museum professionals or as students of museum studies, we have the power to enact change and pose challenges. And so we must agree with Just John: that position is indeed a beautiful place in which to work. 

And, of course, if you're interested in listening to the panel yourself, please check out the livestream here!

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