On Ferguson and Related Events: How Should Historic Sites Respond?

Storefronts that were covered with plywood during the protests in Ferguson were painted by local artists and collected by the Missouri History Museum.

Ferguson and related events are sparking broad protests over the treatment of African Americans by the police and the courts.  Should museums and historic sites be involved?  Should they be collecting, preserving, or interpreting these present-day events? Should they provide a place for protest or response?  Or are these beyond their roles and responsibilities?  There are no easy answers because every site and every community is different, but ultimately, people engage with historic places because there’s a personal connection–historic sites are collecting, preserving, or interpreting topics that are relevant and meaningful to the visitor.

Identifying what is relevant and meaningful isn’t always easy but contemporary events offer a glimpse.  People discuss, explore, study, question, react to, and protest about issues that matter to them, and the more people that are involved around the same issue, the more significant it is.

Museums and historic sites inhabit a special “third space” in society that allows us to do things that can’t happen at home or work. They allow diverse people to discuss, explore, study, question, react to, and protest about issues in a safe place.  As Presence of the Past has shown, we are trusted by the public because we consider all perspectives and we rely on authentic sources.

Several museum bloggers have been moved by Ferguson and related events to develop a joint statement to the staff and boards of museums and museum associations about the role of museums in society.  If Ferguson isn’t relevant to your historic site or your community, I urge you to develop some programs and activities around another contemporary event that is important and meaningful to your community so that are you become increasingly engaging and relevant.  It isn’t always easy and requires taking risks, but as we’ve seen at places such as Cliveden and the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, the investment can result in greater dividends.

Joint Statement from Museum Bloggers and Colleagues on Ferguson and Related Events

The recent series of events, from Ferguson to Cleveland and New York, have created a watershed moment. Things must change. New laws and policies will help, but any movement toward greater cultural and racial understanding and communication must be supported by our country’s cultural and educational infrastructure. Museums are a part of this educational and cultural network. What should be our role(s)?

Schools and other arts organizations are rising to the challenge. University law schools are hosting seminars on Ferguson. Colleges are addressing greater cultural and racial understanding in various courses. National education organizations and individual teachers are developing relevant curriculum resources, including the #FergusonSyllabus project initiated by Dr. Marcia Chatelain. Artists and arts organizations are contributing their spaces and their creative energies. And pop culture icons, from basketball players to rock stars, are making highly visible commentary with their clothes and voices.

Where do museums fit in? Some might say that only museums with specific African American collections have a role, or perhaps only museums situated in the communities where these events have occurred. As mediators of culture, all museums should commit to identifying how they can connect to relevant contemporary issues irrespective of collection, focus, or mission.

We are a community of museum bloggers who write from a variety of perspectives and museum disciplines.  Yet our posts contain similar phrases such as  “21st century museums,” “changing museum paradigms,” “inclusiveness,” “co-curation,” “participatory” and “the museum as forum.”  We believe that strong connections should exist between museums and their communities. Forging those connections means listening and responding to those we serve and those we wish to serve.

There is hardly a community in the U.S. that is untouched by the reverberations emanating from Ferguson and its aftermath. Therefore we believe that museums everywhere should get involved. What should be our role—as institutions that claim to conduct their activities for the public benefit—in the face of ongoing struggles for greater social justice both at the local and national level?

We urge museums to consider these questions by first looking within. Is there equity and diversity in your policy and practice regarding staff, volunteers, and board members? Are staff members talking about Ferguson and the deeper issues it raises? How do these issues relate to the mission and audience of your museum?  Do you have volunteers? What are they thinking and saying? How can the museum help volunteers and partners address their own questions about race, violence, and community?

We urge museums to look to their communities. Are there civic organizations in your area that are hosting conversations? Could you offer your auditorium as a meeting place? Could your director or other senior staff join local initiatives on this topic? If your museum has not until now been involved in community discussions, you may be met at first with suspicion as to your intentions. But now is a great time to start being involved.

Join with your community in addressing these issues. Museums may offer a unique range of resources and support to civic groups that are hoping to organize workshops or public conversations. Museums may want to use this moment not only to “respond” but also to “invest” in conversations and partnerships that call out inequity and racism and commit to positive change.

We invite you to join us in amplifying this statement. As of now, only the Association of African American Museums has issued a formal statement about the larger issues related to Ferguson, Cleveland, and Staten Island. We believe that the silence of other museum organizations sends a message that these issues are the concern only of African Americans and African American Museums. We know that this is not the case. We are seeing in a variety of media—blogs, public statements, and conversations on Twitter and Facebook—that colleagues of all racial and ethnic backgrounds are concerned and are seeking guidance and dialogue in understanding the role of museums regarding these troubling events. We hope that organizations such as the American Alliance of Museums; the Association of Science-Technology Centers; the Association of Children’s Museums; the American Association for State and Local History and others, will join us in acknowledging the connections between our institutions and the social justice issues highlighted by Ferguson and related events.

You can join us by…

  • Posting and sharing this statement on your organization’s website or social media
  • Contributing to and following the Twitter tag #MuseumsRespondToFerguson which is growing daily
  • Checking out Art Museum Teaching which has a regularly updated resource, Teaching #Ferguson:  Connecting with Resources
  • Sharing additional resources in the comments
  • Asking your professional organization to respond
  • Checking out the programs at The Missouri History Museum. It has held programs related to Ferguson since August and is planning more for 2015.
  • Looking at the website for International Coalition of Sites of Conscience. They are developing information on how to conduct community conversations on race.

Participating Bloggers and Colleagues

7 thoughts on “On Ferguson and Related Events: How Should Historic Sites Respond?

  1. Richard Layman

    I don’t necessarily see the relevance to house museums, but all local history museums should be actively collecting materials relating to local protest. One of the problems in not having a full blown local history museum in DC is that there is not systematic collection of materials relating to protest in Washington.

    Note that right now at the Museum of the City of New York there is an incredible long term exhibit on protest that I think is an exemplary model of presenting an exhibit on protest covering both historical and contemporary issues. I am not sure what kinds of programs are organized around the exhibit, if there are any, which could be an incredibly rich programming opportunity.

    I blogged about it here: http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com/2014/10/local-history-museums-and-critical.html

    Dealing with contemporary problems from a historical perspective ought to be on the agenda of all local history museums. Of course, that creates problems, especially if funders include local governments. E.g.,

    And I think (I haven’t been to it since it reopened) that the Richmond Valentine History Center does a great job of presenting the historical timeline/thematic approach to Richmond’s history that creates a context for addressing contemporary problems.

    This piece is cited within my more recent entry and is worth reading too:


      1. Richard Layman

        It’s mentioned in the second cited piece, but one of the most amazing “public art” installations I’ve ever seen put on by a government in the US is the art treatment that it is part of the Exposition Center transit station in Portland. Japanese gates are used to honor the Japanese-Americans interned there during WWII. Within the gate columns are plate imprints of front pages of the local newspapers of the times, and their virulently racist headlines.

        It still shocks me that the local transit agency is that gutsy to take on such an issue. Sure you can say, it was 60+ years ago (at the time the art was first exhibited), but I can’t think of an example of another local govt. agency in the US being willing to take on such a wrenching issue within “art.”

        This is another example of agencies creatively addressing social issues with contemporary relevance.


      2. Richard Layman

        One more thing. I was thinking of this past post for different reasons, and it’s really two entries in one, but the last half of the post is about public space, contestation, and promoting engagement on local issues. One of the photos shows a portable exhibit (that we saw at a local farmers market) by the Montreal Eco Museum (about sustainability).


  2. Max van Balgooy Post author

    Readers may be interested in the upcoming Twitter chat on the topic: Should museums engage in social justice? How should museums advocate?

    #museumsrespondtoferguson chat Wednesday, December 17, 1-2PM CST.


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