The phrase “Museums Are Not Neutral” is both a hashtag and the rallying words of a movement. This mantra has already changed the way museums around the world are visited, curated, and protested. Amplified by our guests Art Worker La Tanya S. Autry and Museum Educator Mike Murawski, the hashtag #MuseumsAreNotNeutral has been engaged more than a million times online by museum curators and educators, and by colleagues in related fields like libraries and archives.
As Autry, who is employed at MOCA Cleveland as the Gund Curatorial Fellow, notes, “I love the expression because it's simple. It's right to the point. I'm actually wearing one of my Museums Are Not Neutral shirts right now and I'm really proud to wear it. I do feel like it's in a way a type of armor. It's like this is going to protect me today when I go out there and it lets people know I'm about no nonsense. I'm wearing this message right across my heart and I really mean it.”
Across America and overseas, Museums are Not Neutral is changing the way we think about museums, with tactics that build community and question the traditional role of the museum and museum educators.
Murawski, who is an Independent museum Consultant based in Portland, adds, “Just like La Tanya said, as soon as I see someone with a T-shirt or now with the mug and they're posting online or I come across them at a gathering or event it just feels good because you're connected with at least thousands of people all over the world that are really dedicated to pushing and advocating for change and transformation across museums.”
We speak to Autry and Murawski about the roots of their Museums Are Not Neutral campaign, how they collaborate and build across social media, and how museums can and should transform as spaces of connection.
Paul Farber: La Tanya S. Autry and Mike Murawski welcome to Monument Lab.
La Tanya S. Autry: Hi, there. Thank you.
Mike Murawski: It's great to be here.
Farber: Glad to have you both here. I want to start and ask you how you met and how you started working together.
Autry: That's actually hard to remember exactly about when we met. I don't know exactly but I think it was through Twitter years ago. We both just been following each other's work, a lot of people I've met through Twitter and a lot of times I would not have met them in person. The first time we talked in person was in 2016 and I think it was related to MASS Action, which is an organization stands for Museums As Site of Social Action, that was started working with a bunch of different folks in museums, working in the museum world and it was through Minneapolis Institute of The Arts had a grant and they basically were bringing together a bunch of folks who are doing social justice work and Mike was one of those people and he reached out to me, I think, actually before ... I think, Mike, you probably are the one who maybe put my name forward to the people at MASS Action. I can't remember but I for some reason think that that's the case.
Murawski: Yeah, I think so. We definitely, I don't know what it means to meet on Twitter but we definitely connected because of the work we were both interested in doing definitely by 2016. And yeah, that MASS Action original convening was just an amazing way for a bunch of people that were doing good work around social justice in museums to get together. So yeah, I don't know if I was involved with them reaching out to you or not but that was awesome. And then meeting in Minneapolis for that first convening which was a really small group of museum professionals, consultants, and activists to get together and start that thing was awesome. And I remember having some really good conversations in Minneapolis at that gathering.
Autry: Yeah. That was exciting because for me it was a lot of times you're connecting with people online but you don't meet them in person, and that was actually a draw for me to go to that event was because I was like, "Whoa. Look at all these awesome people and they're all going to be in one place and I get to meet them in person." I know that's where we met and that's where I met a lot of other really great people who do social justice work in museums.
Farber: Where did the phrase, "Museums Are Not Neutral" come out, was it part of those conversations? What is its origin story?
Murawski: So I think one of the really important things to always be noting about, a phrase or an idea or a concept like "Museums Are Not Neutral," it isn't something
that La Tanya and I created or started. It's really good to know that there's a deeper history and deeper thinking around this and there have been activists. I mean, just look back to the Civil Rights Movement and some of the things that were happening in museums in the '60s and '70s and since really pushing back against this idea that museums were representing just colonialism, and white supremacy, and only certain cultural narratives, and then treating that as universal as art and culture for everyone. This comes across in all kinds of different types of museums, history museums and science museums and everything.
I think a lot of museum professionals and leading voices in activism and museums have been important to people that I think are extremely important to note are Adrian Russell and Aliyah Brown who started the Museum's Respond to Ferguson Twitter chat and Twitter conversations and hashtag. For me, that was a moment after Mike Brown's murder in Ferguson, Missouri. That was right after me moving from St. Louis to Portland. But just really seeing that call and that demand, that call to action for museums to respond and for museums to take action regarding these issues in our local communities that matter. That was before La Tanya and I had connected around this sort of phrase.
It has a deeper history and certainly a lot of individuals have been using that kind of phrase and that kind of language. But I really do feel like now it's kind of pulled a lot of people together into collective action around the world through some of the campaigns and efforts that La Tanya and I've been working on to just bring people together form communities and really make change happen.
Autry: Yeah, definitely. Definitely what you're saying is so vital because in 2014 that Museum's Respond to Ferguson Initiative kind of kicked off, I think it was in December of that year. The history is there and then the history from farther back from 50 years ago and even before that. But for me a lot of the real energy was especially starting around 2014 and forward with the museum's respond to Ferguson call and just feeling like myself and my own position wondering my job in the museum, wondering why we weren't really responding to a lot of the things going on either. That's just been rolling actually through these various initiatives that we were talking about a little bit earlier about MASS Action from 2016.
There's been a real tide of activities that have been happening and Mike and I, by having this expression and what we did is kind of coming together and thinking, "Let's put it on a T-shirt. Let's make a real statement out of it." That started in 2017, but it has such a longer... it has like roots all over the place really. So the campaign, yes, started in 2017 and has been rolling forward, but the roots are actually very deep and tied to so many people's practice and activism.
Farber: Speaking of roots, before you were working in museums and experiencing some of the dynamics that inspired Museums Are Not Neutral, what were museum spaces for you? Did you grow up spending time in museums and what do you remember from before you were in the field itself?
Autry: I did grow up going to museums from like at least probably age five or six. I lived in this little town in Michigan, this near Detroit and my mom used to take us to Detroit Institute of Art. So I grew up going to a lot of things like plays, and puppet shows, and dance, and all of these kinds of things. I love going to Detroit Institute of Art. I remember that a lot as a kid. I also felt like it was a really cold place, cold in terms of like empty and not a place—this is years ago of course and I'm seeing it's how it is now or anything, but it felt like a place where people were almost an anomaly in it. It was a cold kind of environment to me and very quiet and strange, almost like it was a church or something, like you had to behave a certain kind of way in there and I enjoy going, but I also thought it was a strange kind of space. Also, that at the time when I was there, a lot of the art seemed like it would reflect it mostly kind of a white European kind of culture. It felt very disconnected in a lot of ways from my own life with my family and stuff. It was this place we went to that seemed very foreign. It was kind of interesting experience, but it was very foreign. It didn't have a welcoming kind of feeling at the time. But I did grow up going to museums ongoing later, other types of institutions as well, history museums, and all kinds of stuff.
But I did feel often that they were places that were just not about anybody like me basically. I don't think I ever went to any kind of black history museums and my family took us to things about black history, but at the time, I don't think there were any museums about that so much where I was at. It might be like a historical site that would have a particular thing, but it wasn't like I was going and really seeing art by black people and it was a regular thing to see black people working in these spaces and so forth. That always felt very cut off. It just didn't connect to my life in really deep ways and to lives, a lot of people that I knew too, we were pretty much very working class people. The museum, we all just seem very separate.
Murawski: Yeah, from my perspective and my background yeah, I've been thinking about just what's my first memory at all of museums? So was born and raised in St. Louis, but then lived part of my childhood in New Jersey in Newark and then outside of Philadelphia and then back to St. Louis. I remember going to the St. Louis Art Museum when I was maybe an eighth grade. So that was my first visit. It was a school field trip visit. I really don't remember anything about it except for that it was just a lot of portraits of fancy rich people from history that I didn't connect with, I think it was more of like a social visit than like a learning visit because I was with my friends and my class.
Then honestly, I have to say probably not visiting museums until college. Then I became an art history major pretty fast after being a history major. Then was just visiting museums and kind of feeling like I was seeing them for the first time and sort of engaging with them through learning about the art that was presented to them but certainly never had. When you're studying art history and you've got the certain textbooks that you have and then you go to a museum like in St. Louis or Kansas City or Chicago, or you have some of these collections that are "encyclopedic" and you see examples of things you see in your textbooks at all kind of then connects into that grand narrative of art history that's been constructed.
I definitely didn't question that throughout that time period until going into grad school and thinking more about some of these things. Before I got a job in museums, I hadn't been thinking about them a great deal and then found myself in museum education, which I never even knew was a career. We never talked about that you could teach in museums throughout all of my college and schooling. I was just kind of thrown into it, which was... it was awesome, but it was certainly not something I ever thought I would do.
Autry: Yeah, it's so interesting as museums to me seem like they often feel like mysteries to people like what they're about, what kind of jobs are in them, and so on. Like I said, I grew up going regularly and those early experiences as a kid, but then also with school groups and always being like... It was almost like we were being trained that this is high culture and this... So it just felt very distinct and like a very distinctive kind of experience where in one way I felt weird using the word "comfortable," but I did feel comfortable going but also not comfortable at the same time because the stuff in them and it felt like I was being always a visitor and I was being trained like to fall in line or to respect and to honor the certain great things, which I felt like most of the time were pretty much about white culture, going along with a lot of my training that I was getting in school, but it was things at the same time that I was with my family being told like, "Hey, that's great you're learning that. But always know that that's a certain lens that the world is giving you and that's actually not the only type of culture in the world." So I was always kind of operating an oppositional kind of stance I would say, and especially knowing that people like me aren't represented in these kinds of places. Our narratives aren't there. It doesn't seem like we're necessarily welcome there and actually going to school later— I didn't go to school originally for art history or anything. It just happened after multiple attempts at various majors— but later kind of deciding being in art history and having assignments, so I was always going to a museum and looking at different things and still I wasn't actually really loving it.
I would like certain things and like certain artwork, but I wouldn't necessarily be liking that thing, that institutional structure, that thing of a museum. Although I was in some ways very fluent with it because I haven't grown up with it regularly, but always at the same time being an outsider in it all along. So, it's an interesting thing. For me, in graduate school, I got in, I started doing museum studies, I started graduate school with idea that I wanted to change museums. It's been something in me from the beginning that I felt there's something wrong in them and I want to change it. I want to break that structure.
Farber: Where did you first encounter the work of black artists and artists of color? If it wasn't in museums, where did you find that representation?
Autry: I think for me it was in our home. My mom collected and like I said, we're working class family. My father at the time worked in factory and then later was a soldier. He was a Sergeant in the Army. We don't have money when we don't come from families of wealth, other people who have money or anything. We don't come from that kind of background. I believe art is everything and it's everywhere in many ways. My mom collected a lot of African art in the '70s and stuff and sometimes she was probably buying these sculptures on the street like in Detroit. She worked at a telephone company and she would be buying black art on the streets and stuff. It was really cool because it was a time that the Black Power Movement was still like a feeling that was pretty strong. Many African American folks were really kind of rediscovering and becoming really proud of their roots and things like that. I would say that's where I probably experienced black art from. It was coming from things she brought in the home, books, and stuff that she was buying, probably some TV shows we were watching. It definitely didn't come from my school, definitely not my school. My schools are very white oriented all the time. I was learning about black history and black culture at home.
Murawski: I think for me, just reflecting back on kind of when — growing up in a family in St. Louis, I grew up in the suburbs of St. Louis, super segregated city and my parents were part of white flight. They were a part of fleeing inner city, St. Louis where they had grown up. So, growing up in an environment where racism had so much to play with, what we were thinking about and what we were exposed to. But I do remember in high school, it wasn't through any art classes that I had, but it was through sort of advanced literature classes where we were reading Harlem Renaissance authors and poetry.
And then the teacher, who was more kind of counterculture teacher, really wanted to make sure that we engaged with jazz and visual arts. These were things that I don't think I probably reconnected with again until may be a little in undergraduate art history classes where you get to the section on "black art or African American art history" and they cram it into like a two page pullout section or something like that. Because again, it's not part of the sort of main narrative except for a very few number of artists. I don't remember engaging with it too much until working for museums and then being able to really understand how much was either in storage or was not on view or not part of collections in museums that I was working for and museums that I was visiting. But yeah, so definitely not a lot of exposure growing up to black artists and culture.
Farber: I want to get back to your work together, but I do want to ask a follow up, which from your perspective having worked in museums and also with the life experiences that you shared, what is the impact on museums that lack in them spotlighting perspectives that are not just white and European and male?
Autry: Well, it's complicated. I mean, I would say in general, because I've worked at like eight different museums now. It's quite a bit of experience and some for very short amounts of time like a few months as a student in the summer and some for longer for years. I've gotten to see a real range in different size institutions and ones with lots of money and ones with not such big endowments or fundraising opportunities. What I would say, all of them actually have had the same issue of hardly any people who aren't white are shaping any of the decisions in the institutions, like at eight different museums I've been at. That's always been the case. It's sad but true.
One place did have a collection of African American art, a university museum, University of Delaware, where I'm working on my PhD. So that's really exceptional and great in itself. Now, it's interesting to see, I would say, the last few years, probably since about 2016 or so there've been more of these... I just call them white museums. I mean, let's be honest, that's what they are. If it's the case that most of everybody who is shaping the content is a white person and the institution is centered around European culture for the most part, I just call them white museums. Other institutions, they call it black museums and things like that.
These other ones that are supposedly mainstream, but in reality, whatever mainstream is, it's just a way to avoid calling it for what it is. So, these white institutions, what it is, is just a replication of whiteness. In the last few years, there's been this people patting themselves on the back that they have started to buy art of more black artists that they finally started recognizing, "Hey, there's all of these other folks that exist. Of course, there's a lot of other artists to other people." It's interesting, and pathetic, in a way to see so many people getting credit and people lauding them when in reality, it's like you've been actually missing out. Certain institutions have been trying to claim that they are encyclopedic or that they are these bastions of modernism and so forth and yet been completely disavowing various groups of people.
So, of course, it was never all that in the first place. While I think it's great that certain artists are having more opportunities to see their work, it's actually the institutions really haven't changed too much. So, they've been bringing in different people, maybe some different artists, and it's still kind of a narrow range, but the staffing hasn't changed really. By doing this kind of exclusionary kind of racist crap, it means that the way these things fold out in terms of the narratives, the knowledge is still pretty segmented. It's still pretty segregated. A lot of really more interesting experiences don't happen, aren't happening because there's still a lot of racial exclusion in the institutions. So, there's some good stuff. Obviously, there's some places that have started. It's sad. We got the first black curator at X institution, really big wealthy institutions. It's like in 2019, 2020 that they're finally getting one black person as a curator.
Those people, of course, are extremely qualified and it's really wonderful, but also just lets you know a lot about these institutions and it's really sad that almost always it's present in a lot of these quote mainstream publications as, "Wow, isn't this great that this institution is having a curator of color?" Why isn't the attention on... Look, at this association that for how many years it's been an existence. It's finally getting this one amazing person when all along they haven't been incorporating various perspectives and things like that. So, I feel a lot of times it's a compilation of issues that's happening, the media in terms of the attention the institutions get often have a very single lens where they're not looking at these issues from actually all of the aspects to it. There's so much celebration about having the first black person to do X, Y, Z when in reality that's actually something to be embarrassed about.
Murawski: That was great. For me, I mean, it kind of goes back to this whole idea of Museums Are Not Neutral. A lot of what La Tanya talked about in terms of white museums being white museums and naming that just relates to how much that sort of perspective of white supremacy, oppression, racism, colonialism, sexism, and ableism has just been normalized to be elevated. This is just what good art is. This is high quality. This is professionalism. These things are neutral and objective. I think then when museums do a side project and they start doing inclusion or equity work or they start hiring diversity fellows, which they need extra funding for. The museums, they might have a $4 billion endowment and an operating budget of over $100 million.
They need a $50,000 grant so they can hire a person of color to be a curator or assistant or an educator. I mean, these things are ridiculous. They're examples of this type of work happening all across these institutions. I think like at the core of some of this activism work is to just highlight that and name that which has been so provocative for so many institutions, right? I mean, it still sounds so ridiculous to say that there are so many museums, so many of these white institutions that really do rely on, as Angela Davis refers to it, the "tyranny of the universal," this idea that this neutral, apolitical "fair and balanced" perspective is kind of the truth and the main narrative, the mainstream narrative and all these other things on the outside are kind of radical attempts to revise history or make changes to it.
I think so much of the work that we've been trying to do is just getting especially museum professionals at whatever level they are and people writing about arts and culture to recognize our roles in questioning that interrupting that and trying to replace that. That's been the work, I think a lot of the work.
Farber: When you started sharing the phrase, Museums Are Not Neutral, how did that impact your work and what did you sense from other people sharing that in person or online?
Autry: For me, I mean, I love the expression because it's simple. It's right to the point. I'm actually wearing one of my, Museums Are Not Neutral shirts right now and I'm really proud to wear it. I do feel like it's in a way a type of armor. It's like, this is going to protect me today when I go out there and it lets people know I'm about no nonsense. I'm wearing this message right across my heart and I really mean it and it's been great to be... Sometimes people ask questions about, "What does it mean?" Then I'm in conversation with them and sometimes it gets really deep actually. It gets really deep.
Yeah, what's been really exciting to me is to see through the hashtag, Museums Are Not Neutral, people all across the world sharing and having this conversation and really building energy and mobilizing. People are supporting each other through this through the hashtag. It's created a conversation point that lets people get in contact. I have often felt alone a lot of times where I've been working, different things that I would be pushing against. It seemed like other people are afraid to speak, maybe they believe the same thing, but they're afraid to speak up.
And having the hashtag it's like a way of coming together with other people. I'm hearing about something happening to someone wherever, in England and I'm like, "Whoa, that's awesome." Then we start talking and we're in dialogue. People start building collaborations and a lot of times that's happening even just through the hashtag. So, to me, it's been really exciting and it's a great way to build a network, to build a coalition.
Murawski: I would agree so much with that sort of idea of these words of this phrase, when this started to be on T-shirts and started to live in the world. Yeah, I mean, I think prior to that it did feel a little alone to be pushing back and asking questions and trying to make change and then getting so much resistance. Then you felt like, "Well, if I'm the only one in my institution or if I'm the only one in my community or when I go to a conference, am I the only one I just don't know?" Because a lot of the larger professional associations, because a lot of the big institutions just haven't been supportive of these types of conversations, it was hard to bring a community together.
Just like La Tanya said, as soon as I see someone with a T-shirt or now with the mug and they're posting online or I come across them at a gathering or event it just feels good because you're connected with at least thousands of people all over the world that are really dedicated to pushing and advocating for change and transformation across museums. Then the hashtag on, especially Twitter, which is the platform that I primarily use around this work. There are literally millions of people who have engaged with the #MuseumsAreNotNeutral hastag. That's an expansive community of support and advocacy and action. That is so much more powerful than one person trying to do work.
I think it's really incredible to see people in some cases just asking questions or sharing something happening to a local history museum in Ireland or in South Africa or in Australia and they're sharing it. Then people all over the world are connecting and saying like, "Yeah, you should push back against that." Then it just becomes this growing community and collective support network, which is really powerful. So I think that those words have just meant so much in terms of recognizing the power that exists amongst so many museum professionals and people in our communities around the world.
Farber: When you began, did the two of you sit down and make a plan and say, "This is how we're going to deploy this phrase?" Was it more organic? What tools did you think you needed and what tools did you have or not have to begin the movement?
Autry: That's funny. It's like a good question in a way. I was like shaking my head just when you were talking, Paul. No, we didn't actually sit down and talk about it. Not deeply I would say. I mean, there was a moment I saw Mike wrote an expression on Twitter and he said something, "Museums Are Not Neutral." I was like, "Oh, that should be on a T-shirt." We did have a conversation a bit about it, but it's evolved and neither of us had the idea that it would go on and on. Originally, I think we both thought this would just be for a couple of months or something. I was like, "Oh, that'd be a great T-shirt. I'd like to have it." It ended up being a bigger thing and I didn't realize how important it would be and I'm really proud of it, but it's really because other people took it on.
We've been growing with it. It's been something that's grown. I think that it's also flexible and while we are producing it in some way in helping it along and shaping it, we also don't control it for real. It's a lot of things. It's what people want it to be. So, a lot of its power is that it is really lateral and people, they find resonance in it. Sometimes people who are in libraries or archives are like, "Hey, can we do that? We should have archives are not neutral, or libraries are not." I'm like, "Yes, libraries are not neutral and archives are not neutral." But we don't need to be the ones to press to say that in produce that you should build that kind of energy in your field and people have done it. That's what also is really cool is while we're talking about Museums Are Not Neutral, is that this is something that actually has touched on other areas too, other sectors. It's really a lovely thing to watch and be a part of.``
Murawski: Yeah, I had a laugh too when you asked about whether we were sort of strategically planning this out in the beginning because I love the back and forth of, "That would be a great teacher." I just was like, "Seriously, it would be, what if I made it?" We just found that neither of us ever wanted to be in the business of screen printing T-shirts in our basement so we found Bonfire, which has been able to kind of manage all of the elements of this entire campaign. But the other thing that I think is really important to mention too is from the beginning, we wanted to make sure that... So, let's say you are someone and you just don't know what you can do.
People always ask like, "What can I do? How can I get involved?" In my own community, maybe I don't feel safe getting involved in social justice, activism. From the beginning, simply just getting involved with this campaign has meant you're doing something. All of the profits from all the T-shirts sales and other things now have those words on it are going to social justice charities and causes and supporting communities. We started with the Southern Poverty Law Center. Now, the organization for quite a while now has been the community foundation of Greater Flint.
So, one of these nonprofits that's raising money to help the health and wellbeing of children in Flint, Michigan way after this has left the headlines. That there's still just so much longterm health and development needs in that community. So, people are being part of this campaign are doing something. And that was something that was strategic for both
La Tanya and I is just making sure that as this thing has grown to understanding that it can make a difference in this world and making sure that that's still a really core part of everything that we're doing.
Farber: Where has the hashtag shown up that's surprised you or who has uttered it or shared it that's taken you aback?
Autry: Oh, yeah. Well, a couple of things. One, sometimes I don't actually check the Twitter feed all the time with the #MuseumsAreNotNeutral, but sometimes I'll go on there and check it and it'd be people talking in Argentina or Japan and I'm like, "Wow, this is great." France, the hashtag came up with the group that was meeting to talk about the definition of museums.
Murawski: ICOM. Yeah, the International Council of Museums.
Autry: Yeah. Like the hashtag came up in that conversation. It's popped up in different places and then there's been some amazing people like, Oh, what's her name? Johnnetta Betsch Cole. I think she's no longer, but she was the Director of the Smithsonian African Art Museum. She's one of these amazing powerful people who's brilliant. Anyway, at some point, someone sent me a note and I don't remember who it is, but they said that there's a picture of her wearing one of the hoodies, the sweatshirt hoodies of Museums Are Not Neutral. I was like, "Oh my God, can you get me a copy?"
I don't think I ever got it unfortunately, but that was really cool to hear. So, the campaign has just gone all over the world and all kinds of people engage with it. I love it that sometimes it's undergraduate students, sometimes it's former directors of the Smithsonian. It's just really all over.
Murawski: I don't know if it's surprising, but one of my favorite people who's wearing the Museums Are Not Neutral T-shirts all the time is a community organizer and activist here in Portland, Oregon, Teressa Raiford. She's worn these T-shirts. She's a mayoral candidate right now and she's wearing these T-shirts at campaign events and all kinds of different protest events and activist events that she's been working on here in the community and has been such an incredible supporter of this movement. I think I've loved when I've seen people who aren't part of the sort of museum field and museum community wear the T-shirt or use the hashtag or be a part of this because to me that really resonates. That means that this message is sort of getting out into a broader group of people.
I think that's where so much of this accountability lies. It's one thing for museum professionals to all get together and call for change and demand change in institutions, but there's so much power in community accountability and the work that individuals like Teressa and others can do to really push for change. So, that's been really awesome to see things like that pop up. I remember, I think on NBC News, someone wearing one of the T-shirts was at a museum protest in New York. There was a photograph from Associated Press, and that was one of those like moments where I was like, "Whoa, we're on the national news." [Laughs]
Autry: That's amazing.
Farber: I think it's been such a profound gesture. It's been so generative to just hold up a mirror to art, to history, to museums of various kinds and to use the word "neutral." For both of you, what are the dangers and the pitfalls of trying to find neutrality in a place like a museum?
Autry: I guess for me, the neutral thing is never been something I actually have ever really valued or wanted to be a part of. So, I always found it to be bizarre that people would have that expression and it seemed like they would say it as if it was something good. I was like, "Well, it's just obviously isn't neutral, right? None of this is neutral." I've always felt like I didn't need to have a PhD to understand that nothing about a museum is neutral. I already knew that early on as a kid, I knew that none of this was neutral. It always has been bizarre to me to see people who have college degrees and you've been in the field for a long time saying that and I was like, that neutral claim to me has always been a rhetorical stance. It's a way to cover up something it's a position to take and which is obviously in itself, not neutral.
To me, I've always just felt like the neutral thing when I would encounter it with people, I just realized that that was them wanting to shut something down a way to try to quiet any kind of discussion about something and basically a way to say that this is the status quo. This is what people who are in certain positions of power, often economic kind of power have decided. We're calling it neutral. I felt like I knew that all along.
I was always stunned by whenever I have people who are colleagues in the museum world, it seemed like mostly because I don't think I've met too many people who would not be in the museum world, who would be saying that the museum was neutral. It was always some people on the inside going through like graduate school or something certain kind of training and art history, who will be presenting this stuff and actually using words like neutral and objective in ways that make it seem like those things are fine and those are what we should be working towards something you would want to be. The reality of people that I would be talking to you normally did not like in my own family wouldn't be thinking that a museum is some neutral objective place. We always knew that that was a lie.
Murawski: I agree with all of that. I think this idea of neutrality – so much time, energy, resources, goes into propping that up. I mean, that's just part of the system of sort of white supremacy and patriarchy is to support this lie exactly as La Tanya said, and I think there's so much harm happening because of that. It's just dangerous for so many institutions to be supporting this false constructionist idea, which really is just supporting wealth, and ableism, and racism, and sexism, and all these different perspectives that get normalized by just being neutral.
For museums, I think one of the reasons why someone the other day, had said that a lot of this activism is a negative approach to museums, that someone had said, you must not like museums very much because you're always so critical of them. I turned around and said, "That's not the case." I know, museums, I know the potential they have, and they're not living up to it. I know the changes that need to happen. Most museum started colonial institutions, but I believe they can shed that and do some serious transformations internally and externally. That there is a potential for a very different type of institution. So, I think it's worth asking the questions, bringing up these things, and just totally exposing any erasing and replacing this idea of neutrality, and these ideas of white supremacy that are systemic and are, again, part of how these institutions in many cases were formed.
It's really, really hard to make those changes. But more and more people are really committing to having these conversations and asking these questions. Yeah, I mean, one of the biggest fears that I have right now is that this pandemic is causing a lot of pressures on museums in terms of resources and staff and their staff cuts, that it's going to really deprioritize a lot of these conversations because it was hard to get anyone to have these conversations to challenge these ideas, and it wasn't easy, and now I think those are going to be the first thing so and we've seen it already. Those are some of the first things to go in some institutions.
Well, let's just pause all that stuff. Let's go back to normal, let's go back to the way things were and maybe when we restabilize, we can start addressing these kind of fringe issues, again, these sort of cute ideas of inclusion. It just pains me to see what I think might be a little bit more of a return to neutrality as museums try to return to normal throughout this crisis.
Autry: Which is, of course, that return is a return to violence basically, using the idea of neutrality or something and saying, "Well, we have to..." The whole idea of the normal... To me, I'm not actually interested in the normal. I mean, of course, I don't want there to be a pandemic that we have right now. But I'm not interested in returning to the same kind of systems. The systems are violent that we have. The fact that people think, "Well..." Just what has already happened, right that this is a fringe activity that this is this diversity activities, these inclusion activities is equity things are things on the side, which in reality, they should have always been at the fundamental core of the whole institutional project in the first place.
And then we would see things rolling out differently if equity was always centered in a regular part of the institution for museums, we would see things rolling out very differently. So, of course, what this virus has done is shut down things in a certain way. But the virus isn't the thing that's causing the layoffs. It's how management is working, how many places of the management is working through and against actually because they never did really embrace these ideas of diversity, the real practices of equity. They never really embodied that. That's always been on the side. So right now, the attitude at many institutions has been to kind of hack away at areas like education departments. And a lot of times they education departments of various institutions have a lot of part time artists and other folks that are working in there. That's usually the only areas that really have any diversity in them, typically, besides for the facilities and security staff. It is really devastating and atrocious to see so many colleagues of color being just kind of thrown out of the field. So, what's happening isn't because of the virus, what's happening is because institutions are racist.
What we're seeing in the field and museums right now, at this time with the pandemic, is so many people being laid off and losing their jobs. In many ways, people are saying it's because of this COVID-19 virus and because it's shut things down, and there will be less money coming into institutions, but some of these places, not everywhere, but some of these places have huge endowments, and are still holding on to certain kind of old fashioned thinking about protecting the endowment no matter what, and will cut staff first. What this is about the idea that we will one day return to normal is that normal in itself is violent. We shouldn't be trying to return to normal. If anything, this is actually a great time to really be pushing towards what diversity, inclusion, and equity really are supposed to be about institutions. If the places that embody those principles that many of them have been at least saying them as words, and putting them in statements and slapping them on brochures and stuff.
But if they really were embodying that, we would see something very different happening. And so to see these institutions hacking away at education departments, that is just atrocious, it's really violent. It's devastating to see, it's not surprising, sadly. It's not surprising, but it is violence in itself. That's because they never embodied those principles of equity, diversity, inclusion in the first place. It's not the fault of the virus. A lot of times, management at various institutions are writing these statements about, it's the virus and what it's done is shutting down things and the lack of funding and so forth.
It's not about that though, really, it's about how things are managed. It's really the poor management choices that are happening. It's the racism of our institutions that's created this condition that's happening right now with museums. That's what I think on that.
Farber: You're pointing out these connections between claims of neutrality and this goal of "getting back to normal" as acts of violence, and trying to disrupt that. In this moment when you look around your colleagues, especially those engaged in the Museums Are Not Neutral Movement, what are you seeing as ways that museum educators, people in engagement, people working in curatorial departments are pushing back against that idea of return to normal as the right mindset and instead organizing or envisioning other kinds of work that matches the spirit of your movement?
Murawski: I think some of the things that I'm at least noticing across the field is... Well, I think one big thing is transparency, especially around a lot of the things that are happening with Museum, museum workers, and sort of some of the ways the Labor Movement can connect and unions can connect them with this. So, salary transparency, layoff transparency. The ideas of having these Google documents that are crowd sourced and getting as much information out there as possible, is a really important form of activism. That information is extremely important. So, this transparency, I think, is an important part of it.
Another thing that I'm seeing that I think is really important in how we could potentially reimagine going forward and how institutions or how individuals move forward are ways that we can focus and center healing and community care, and taking care of each other in these moments like institutions that are really thinking about people first, being very human centered throughout this.
I've spoken to a few directors of smaller institutions and they're struggling way more than the big institutions are. They don't have endowments. They don't have big donors as much as these large institutions do. But they are the ones in so many cases who are bringing their teams together and saying, "Look, we care about each other and that's what matters most." And we know that's what our community cares about because we're reflective of our community. There are institutions out there that are thinking about that first.
I think if we can center and really build practices around healing, and accountability, and care, especially the study of community care and collective care, I really think that's when we can start changing what institutions look like. We start to reimagine an extremely positive way, how we can start to change some of these really harmful and violent practices and start to make a difference. So, I see that happening, where institutions are really trying to make those connections. But I do think it's in a lot of institutions that are having trouble getting support. They're not getting the big payroll loans from the federal government, they're not getting big grants from the NEH, because there are so many barriers in place for smaller institutions, especially those that are POC led to get those resources. It's just not happening. The big institutions are really sucking up a lot of those resources, even though they already have huge endowment. So, it's been a real struggle, but there are people out there that care so much, and they're going to push forward through this.
Autry: I love how you're talking about the care kind of focus. I've seen that definitely with smaller institutions do probably more so. I like hearing about MASS Action like we mentioned earlier is this group of people from different places. I mean, some are museum educators all across the board, consultants, all kinds of areas. It's interesting and important that they came up with this MASS Action equity statement— basically calling on institutions and highlighting what equity means at this time, and encouraging people to think about instead of just cutting off departments or taking away all part time educators, doing something like making an equitable pay reduction based on salaries. It's a really important statement. I think that's a really great type of organizing that came about and is out there and seeing people sharing that is really good.
Of course, if people are actualizing that, that's even better. Seeing groups on social media like Art and Museum Transparency, they put out really wonderful information that they've been sharing. It's basically organizing that's really happening. One thing to think of this is just information and who knows what people are doing with it? We see people actually organizing start to build things. There was a discussion yesterday with the Organization of Museums and Race, put together a Twitter. They put together a talk on Twitter and people from all over jumped in and it basically came about that I think it was Hannah Heller, who suggested there be a organization that focuses on museum workers, because the focus is often on institutions.
When people ask me, "Where's the real exciting kind of work happening?" I would say, it's important to really look at individuals versus thinking about things that come out under an institutional directive. I often don't think that's where the important, deepest, most authentic work is happening. It's coming from individuals who may work at various institutions, who are really passionate people, but it's them coming together and making the things happen. So, through this conversation that was happening. it was actually something on thinking about what does radical mean in relationship to the museum.
A lot of energy and excitement got generated through that. Who knows? Maybe we were going to do something. We're really building and we're starting to talk about it and it's only like two days old. So, that's hot on the presses. But I think various people have had these thoughts over years that there should be some kind of more umbrella organization. Of course, there's AAM ( American Alliance of Museums) that focuses is on museums, but it's still kind of has more of an institutional focus. We are talking about something that isn't exactly maybe a Workers' Union, although I kind of like that idea.
We're interested in some kind of body—it's still early to say. I've seen these various forms of mutual aid organizing that tie to this thing that Mike, what you're talking about, of collective care. I guess, in some ways, it's devastating to see the field being chopped away as it is right now. We know there's probably another wave coming.
But at the same time, it's like this real love that's happening of people caring for one another and developing fundraisers and stuff to help out colleagues who need to be able to pay their rent, they need to, whatever, get groceries, pick up prescriptions, things like that. So, there is energy that we're seeing across all over Philadelphia. I saw one I think someone in LA, museum workers developing fundraising, and these might feel like short term things, but I think there's a range of stuff going on, there's short term, and there's longer term kind of organizing that's happening. All of it, it's really powerful and exciting. A lot of that work, as I said, isn't coming from institutions, it's coming from individuals who are creating collectives because they want to and need to, but it's not a museum telling them or organizing. It's individuals doing that and creating their own collectives.
Farber: To close out, as you point out, we're in a moment where we need a lot of care, a lot of healing, a lot of urgent action. Museums are part of the question of what public space is and will be. If you have a wish or an intention for museums in this moment, what is it? What do you envision is important, sustaining for museums today?
Murawski: I can try to respond to that. I think just like we were talking about things like neutrality, colonialism, and violence have been really institutionalized as part of museums. I feel like the opposite, these ideas of healing, and care, and humanness can also be institutionalized to respond to that, that we can build institutions and structures that really start to center equity, community, and care and really start to replace some of these old things. So, at the core of all of this, I feel like really is this re centering and re imagining project to really bring institutions all across this country in the world to become more human centered, and connect more with these human values of relationship building and community.
I use the word love more now than I have before. I think people need to look more into what that really means in the work that we're doing and what that could really mean as institutions connect with communities instead of hiding behind their walls at a moment like this. So, I think there is so much potential and possibility and opportunity. There just needs to be this moment of risk taking to lean towards these ideas of care and healing, and not necessarily just towards the bottom line, and endowments.
Autry: Yeah, definitely I was going to say too what I would love to see is more of that focus on caring about humans, caring about beings, and realizing that we are all interdependent. I think about a lot of times the idea of the word curator, it comes from a Latin and it means to care. I think many curators think of their job very much as caring for objects, and maybe some and it's not all of them, but some think of it as caring for artists, if they work maybe in a more contemporary art. Yet, there is this kind of not an idea of caring for just people, in general. I like to think of my work as a curator trying to center care as a praxis, like, "This is my practice. And this is how I'm hopefully making the world better through my work."
Thinking of curating is caring for our communities. I would love to see museums really embody that and mean it. That would be wonderful if museums really became these spaces that cared about community, that cared about people at least as much as they care about the objects in their collection, if they have collections. That would be really wonderful to see more of a turn towards caring about people, and that would include their staff and that would include, of course, the communities that surround them, as well as everyone else. Some museums get a lot of tourist traffic, and don't care about the people who are right in their own backyard. I would love to see a real caring for all people.
Farber: La Tanya S. Autry and Mike Murawski, thank you so much for this conversation and for all your work.
Autry: Oh, thank you, Paul, thank you so much for this invitation. It was lovely to talk with all of you. Hey, thank you, Mike. It was good talking with you too.
Murawski: Yeah. This was so great. I really appreciate it, to have this time to talk through these ideas.
You can learn more about Museums are Not Neutral at https://www.museumsarenotneutral.com/. You can support them by buying t-shirts, mugs, and gear and all proceeds go to the Museum Workers Relief Fund.
La Tanya S. Autry has organized exhibitions and programming at the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland, Yale University Art Gallery, Artspace New Haven, Mississippi Museum of Art, and other institutions. Through her graduate studies at the University of Delaware, where she is completing her Ph.D. in art history, La Tanya has developed expertise in the art of the United States, photography, and museums. Her dissertation The Crossroads of Commemoration: Lynching Landscapes in America, which analyzes how individuals and communities memorialize lynching violence in the built environment, concentrates on the interplay of race, representation, memory, and public space.
Mike Murawski is an independent consultant, change leader, author, and nature lover living in Portland, Oregon. Mike is passionate about transforming museums and non-profits to become more equitable and community-centered. After more than 20 years of work in education and museums, he brings his personal core values of deep listening, collective care, and healing practice into the work that he leads within organizations and communities. Mike is co-producer of #MuseumsAreNotNeutral, a global advocacy campaign aimed at exposing the myth of museum neutrality and calling for equity-based transformation across museums. Since 2011, he has also served as Founding Editor of ArtMuseumTeaching.com, a collaborative online forum reflecting on critical issues in museums. In 2016, he co-founded Super Nature Adventures LLC, a creative design and education project based in the Pacific Northwest that partners with parks, businesses, and non-profits to design maps and interpretive resources aimed at expanding access and learning in the outdoors. Mike is currently finishing his first book entitled Museums As Agents of Change. When he’s not writing, drawing, or thinking about museums, you can find Mike on long trail runs in the forests and mountains of the Pacific Northwest. Twitter and Instagram @murawski27