Across the country, history museums and historical societies have issued statements in response to the recent police killing of George Floyd and protests against racism—but it’s a mixed bag. I’ve examined more than fifty history organizations and found that while there are some common values in the field, there’s a wide disparity of thought.
Who is Concerned?
About twenty percent of the history organizations in this study made no statement but it is likely lower because statements were posted on websites, as news releases, sent as emails to members, or shared on Twitter or Facebook (and rarely on more than one channel), which makes it difficult to easily collect statements. Where you make a statement is just as important as what you say. Listing a “Statement from the CEO” in the “Press” section of a website is different from a banner on the home page is different from an email sent to a few hundred members is different from a single tweet.
Typically, the CEO or executive director issued the statement and very few included the board chair. Did the CEO take a personal risk to issue a statement? Are boards unwilling to get involved or unable to achieve consensus? Will current events force organizations to rethink their mission, vision, or values?
Without conducting interviews, it’s unclear why this pattern exists. It could be uncertainty about what to say, fear of offending donors or their community, a lack of consensus among staff and board, a policy on statements, or an effort to avoid conflict or current events. Nevertheless, the patterns are revealing and suggest that history organizations have a long way to go in their efforts to be a relevant and meaningful part of their entire community. I strongly encourage all history organizations who are making statements to include them on their websites—unless there’s an important reason to avoid it.
History organizations issued their statements as early as May 30 and most during the first week of June, about a week after George Floyd’s murder on May 25 and when the protests had spread nationally. These statements are more challenging to write and I know some went through extensive review processes to gain consensus and approval, which can take days to accomplish. I also sense that Floyd’s death was a tipping point for many organizations because African Americans had been senselessly killed for decades but rarely had historical societies responded. About half of the statements mentioned George Floyd by name and about a quarter also included Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, so recent events seem to have been the greatest influence on these statements. About ten percent named other victims as far back as the beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles in 1991, but some looked back centuries to put recent events in historical context, such as the American Historical Association, Historic Germantown, Maine Preservation, and Minnesota Historical Society. I recommend that history organizations clearly connect their statements to their mission or vision to ensure this is not merely a token effort; connect your concerns to the history of the region or period you interpret because, well, you’re a history organization; and include individual names whenever possible to move from the abstract to the personal.
What are the Issues or Concerns?
About half of the statements were vaguely titled, “A Statement From”, “A Message From,” “Prepared Remarks by,” or “From the Desk of” with little indication of the subject. But the other half were much more direct about their position or concerns, using titles such as:
- In Solidarity
- We Stand with Black Communities
- Museums Are Not Neutral
- Silence is Not an Option
- Our Commitment to Racial Justice and Equity
- Calling for Justice for George Floyd
- Black Lives Matter
A further analysis of the statements showed that racism (which could have also been referred to as “systemic racism” or “White supremacy”) was the dominant issue, with more than half mentioning issues of equality/inequality/inequity, justice/injustice, and violence (either against African Americans, protesters, or minorities), either individually or together. The police or Black Lives Matter were mentioned in about twenty percent of the statements. This suggests that the history organizations who issued a statement recognize and are opposed to the unfair and unjust situations that are forced upon African Americans through racism, but are hesitant to explore the causes or consequences or align themselves with advocacy groups—at least publicly. My sense is that there is a general belief that races exist, despite scientific evidence to the contrary, because no one mentioned that race is socially constructed (yes, it is strange that racism exists but races don’t; can history organizations help explain how this happened?).
What are the Solutions?
All of the statements from history organizations and museum associations include solutions or a call to action, although they varied significantly. History museums, historical societies, historic sites, and preservation organizations often declared the goal of history to tell more complete stories about the past, including those that are difficult or uncomfortable, in the quest for truth and recognition. Otherwise, the range of actions is wide. Below is a long, long list of phrases excerpted from the statements but they’re out of context and anonymized to keep the focus on the proposed actions:
- Now is our time to not speak; now it is incumbent on us to listen.
- We will not only listen but also to uplift and amplify the history and voices of Black people locally, nationally, and globally in the struggle for freedom.
- We use history to build community.
- We will teach lessons of the past to move the needle forward.
- We will educate future generations so that we might stop this senseless violence.
- We are committed to fighting historical illiteracy, among K-12 school children as well as the general public.
- We will build a widely inclusive history of our state that enables us to better understand the many layers of our collective yet richly diverse story.
- We will redouble our efforts to share the stories of all residents to cultivate not only knowledge but empathy and understanding.
- We document and disseminate information that celebrates the remarkable accomplishments of Black residents.
- We dedicated ourselves to celebrating African and African American lives, and the lives of all of our nation’s people, and to appreciate their contributions to the rise of our city as the world’s great metropolis.
- We will highlight stories of Black activism and protest in the weeks to come.
- We will help through full, open, and honest civil discourse.
- We will make our community a safe and equitable home for all.
- We will create constructive spaces where justice and peace can flourish.
- We will provide safe spaces for social activism.
- We will offer civic spaces, where people come together for conversations that can help overcome local and national divisions.
- We are committed to being a safe space for difficult, but vital, conversations about race, history, culture, class, gender and current events
- We are committed to being the voice that informs and hopes to inspire those toward peace and justice.
- We support the struggle for justice and a more equitable and united future.
- We must challenge our own preconceptions.
- We will denounce racism and racist ideas.
- We will be better allies in the effort to dismantle systemic racism
- We call on other museums to engage in antiracist and decolonizing practices.
- White people have a special responsibility right now to demand justice – to make clear these killers do not represent us or our values.
- We stand with the Black community against racism and the killing of unarmed Black citizens.
- We call for an end to violence against Black Americans, and the dismantling of anti-Black systemic racism.
- Recognize the racism in the people associated with our historic site to acknowledge that racism persists and festers unseen and unnoticed in our history, institutions, and ourselves.
- We will re-examine our exhibitions and programs to ensure they continue to address the art and experiences of people of color, especially Black communities.
- We will offer articles and educational resources to help our community reflect on our past and how it continues, unrelentingly, to inform the present.
- We will hold a series of programs that ask the question, ‘what is it going to take to commit to real change?’
- We will work with contemporary artists, musicians, and makers-in-residence who bring diverse cultural perspectives.
- We will begin a process of reflection within our organization about the role we have played in establishing these systems of inequity.
- We will participate in training on diversity, equity, and inclusion.
- We will diversify our all-white staff and board.
- We will review our staff, our organizational structures, and our culture through a lens of racial equity and will commit to additional anti-racism and unconscious bias training.
- We will continue to use social media to contribute to the national conversation, and we hope to respond to these issues thoughtfully in our blogs and other online programming in the coming weeks.
- We are rewriting our mission and vision statements and our core values to reflect our commitment to serve our community.
- We have created an African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund.
- We will advocate at all levels of civic and public life to effect change in law and policy.
- We call on those in positions of authority to rise to this moment and enact lasting positive change rather than harmful short-term exertions of power.
- We will create the world envisioned in the Declaration of Independence through education, outreach, and constant examination of our nation’s past.
- Support each other.
- Be kind to each other.
- Check-in on our colleagues.
- Practice empathy during this difficult time.
- We encourage you to pass along your ideas and suggestions.
- We ask that you join us by offering your guidance and vision.
- Please bookmark this page and check back for programming and events that contribute to sustainable, positive change.
Anything you’d support? Add or change? What’s missing? Please mention them in the comments so we can continue to expand our thinking.
All of us need to regularly re-examine our work to assess how we’re doing and confirm where we’re going, Sometimes that’s done on a regular schedule, sometimes the world around us lets us know it’s time. I suspect this is a good time for history organizations. The past may not change, and yet change continually happens and we cannot rest upon past successes. History organizations are composed of people with heads and hearts, and as the nation is changing, so do they. But are they leading, following, or avoiding?
A few years ago, I published, Interpreting African American History and Culture at History Museums and Historic Sites, a result of my work as the director of interpretation and education at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. I was so proud to assemble a book that reinforced the expectation that African American history is much more than slavery; dismissed the assumption that African American history can’t be interpreted because there’s no information; and confirmed there are many ways to share this history with the public. And yet soon after, I realized I had not adequately addressed race, gender, or systems. I’m expanding my thinking by making them a major focus of my research and teaching. I thought that book concluded my work in interpreting African American history in museums, but it’s only a beginning.
So use the current time to reconsider the mission, visions, and values of your organization. You may welcome everyone in your community, but would you be welcomed in their homes and businesses? Does the community expect you to say something about its needs, interests, fears, and concerns, or did they expect you to ignore it? Before you ask again for their support, list the ways you are supporting them (and it can’t be tours, exhibits, and school programs unless they specifically asked for them).
What’s possible at your historical society with your resources, constraints, and position is probably very different for another elsewhere. Some of the phrases above may seem trite and simplistic, others inspiring and progressive, but remember, every organization is at a different place in the thinking about these issues (and we can’t even agree on the issues). There will be things “none must, all may, and some should,” as George McDaniel suggests. Don’t be constrained by your imagination—it’s probably too limited so get creative by considering other perspectives. My analysis shows that the size, type, or mission of the organization does not predict what they said or were willing to do. If we could turn this into a game, if I asked you to match the phrases with the organizations, I’d bet you’d get most of them wrong.
If your organization has been hesitant to issue a statement or even discuss it, use this list to start a conversation for what’s appropriate or possible. Whatever you do, don’t ignore it. It’ll confirm your community’s suspicions that you’re stuck in the past and don’t want to get involved in life today. Is forgetting the present a different type of amnesia?
My findings and analysis are not based on a random or scientific sample, but of 56 history organizations, of which thirteen had no statements. Along with those I received directly via email, I specifically looked at the websites of history organizations that I expected would have a public statement, such as civil rights museums, law enforcement museums, state historical societies, and nationally significant historic sites, particularly those in states where the violent deaths of Black people or protests were national news in the last six months. This blog post is intended to continue to conversation and the topic deserves further study through a more comprehensive sample and analysis.