museums and racism

Topics: Black people, White people, Race and Ethnicity Pages: 7 (2204 words) Published: November 3, 2013
The Museum as a Racist Institute
Racism, particularly against those of African descent, is a very dark past for the Western world, one that still prevalently haunts and invades the future. As racism is a part of societies’ history, cultural institutions that present said history, such as museums, deal with the idea of racism every day in the exhibits within their walls. Many efforts are made to show how terrible the racism of the past was and is, but the line between the racism of the past and the racism of the present is often too fine to produce correct racial minority celebration. Instead, what starts as a museum’s effort to celebrate ethnic minorities and be inclusive, results in the continuation and resurgence of the bigotry they were attempting to prevent. The museum’s racism comes in the form of White dominant actions and thoughts, producing the marketing and selling of how the museum perceives black culture. Racism within the institution occurs when the museum practices ignorance by presenting only their interpretation of the minority they are trying to represent.

The lack of Black artists in museums is a starting point for examining how the museum is a racist institution. In 2007 it was found in New York Museums that 82 to 100 percent of exhibitions featured only White artists (Cooks 2011). The lack of African American art in museums sends the message that it is not worthy of being shown in a museum. This is proved by the reactions to the 1969 Harlem on my Mind exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, an exhibit that had good intentions of representing Harlem’s Harlem but instead failed and represented the curator Thomas Hoving, a White male’s interpretation of Harlem. Despite Harlem having a rich visual art scene, Hoving decided to exclude artwork by Harlem’s artists and instead only include photographs and video (Cook 2007). This decision was made against the Harlem communities’ wishes and made the Harlem on my Mind exhibit a sociological show, researched by non-Harlem residents. The lack of representation of Black art in museums is reflected through the fact that African Americans are half as likely as White people to visit a museum because they have the perception of the museum as a racist institution (Falk 1993). If there were more African Americans involved in the creation of Harlem on my Mind they would have recognized how this would be offensive, like the Harlem Cultural Council did, and fixed it.

The museum is a predominantly White institution, so without consultation from the minority they are representing it presents racism in history the way a White person would: with ignorance. The Henry Willet pottery collection at the Brighton Museum and Art Galley attempts to trace the history of England with its objects, including many items that represent minority groups of Britain (Kushner 1999). There is no attempt made by the Brighton Museum to try and explain the negative connotations of the figures of racism, causing the racist images to be still active. This lack of explanation regarding racism was further exemplified at the Royal Ontario Museum’s 1989 Intro the Heart of Africa exhibit, where it was expected that African culture would be celebrated. Instead viewer’s found themselves surrounded by the colonization of Africa, put on display ironically with phrases to describe the African’s way of life in quotations like “barbarous custom” (Butler & Shelton 2007). There was no information to suggest how wrong and racist the colonists were, simply that the racism happened and it continued to be felt as it was put on display. A study by the Exhibits Design Division concluded that the ROM did not have enough knowledge about the interests of the black community ((Butler & Shelton 1999). This lack of knowledge is the outcome of not having enough Black staff working on the exhibit or enough people of African decent who were consulted. Instead of the museum showing the negative effects...

Bibliography: A.R. Kushner (1999): Selling Racism: History, Heritage, Gender and the (Re)production of Prejudice, Patterns of Prejudice, 33:4, 67-86

BRONWYN DRAINIE Special to The Globe and Mail. (1990, Mar 24). Black groups protest african show at 'racist ontario museum '. The Globe and Mail (1936-Current). Retrieved from

Cooks, B. R.(2007). Black Artists and Activism: Harlem on My Mind (1969). American Studies 48(1), 5-39. Mid-American Studies Association. Retrieved March 18, 2013, from Project MUSE database.
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