An Open Letter to Museums

With the long awaited death of 2016 and the start of the new year, I have some thoughts I want to share regarding the state of our country, especially with the impending inauguration of our next president.

Deep divisions came out into the open during this election. It seems our communities are more insular, and our echo chambers stronger, that we don’t engage with world views we find distasteful, and that we shut out those with whom we disagree.

There can be no doubt that the President-elect’s campaign stirred up resentment that was built during the last 8 years, all of which came to a head in the election and its ongoing aftermath. If we are to heal the gulf that grew between us, if we are to combat the hate that was revealed over the course of this election, if we are ever to live in a peaceful world, we must start to see each other as people, not simply “the other.” We must be able to look into each others’ lives, and we must be able to debate honestly, openly, and constructively. And I believe we have the institutions to do so, if we choose to use them.

There’s one strength that museums have, more than many other institutions, that I think makes them uniquely equipped to help heal our fractured communities. Museums give their communities the ability to think critically about their pasts and about the relationships between the groups that live there. They are narrative centers where we can see the intersections of our lives and they can give us a window into others’ situations that, while different, might mirror our own.

It’s difficult to really, truly, understand what another person’s life is like without actually living it, whether the difference is race, gender, religion, ability, or socioeconomic class. And that, along with a myriad of other reasons, has made the gulf between groups even wider. But there are ways in which we can, and should, share our experiences so that others can better understand what it is like. I plan on highlighting some of the ways this has been done effectively in my next blog post. Progress isn’t made by burying our heads in the sand and ignoring the plight of others. Progress is made when we come to a collective understanding of the experiences of ourselves and the people around us.

So this is a call to museums. Over the next few months, years, or however long it takes, ensure that your exhibits, your classes, your l ectures, your discussion groups and your materials address all of the narratives of your community. Make sure that you aren’t just focused on the one that is most available. How have your communities of color contributed to your towns and states? What is the current relationship between your upper classes and working poor? How do your artifacts and works of art share stories that might not otherwise be heard?

Over the next few months I’m going to take these questions to heart. I am going to look at the ways in which we’ve become divided, I’ll be examining social media’s role in the sharing and exclusion of narratives we find unsavory, and the ways in which we vilify and separate ourselves from each other. And I’ll be looking at what we can do to change that.

What are you going to do?