The “Museums are not neutral” movement emboldens museums to take a stand, choose a side, and take action. For most museums, this means choosing to stand for something in their communities, usually a social issue, and taking action to be part of the conversation for change. In 2016, the Rochester Preservation Board voted unanimously to remove an offensive painted panel from the historic Dentzel Carousel at Ontario Beach Park and entrust its stewardship to the Rochester Museum & Science Center (RMSC). The City of Rochester selected RMSC as a partner in the process based on the organization’s long-term commitment to preserve, study, and interpret regional history objects and the staff’s technical expertise in exhibit development and fabrication. But the Preservation Board meeting was also the first time that RMSC staff heard African American community members express concern that a European-led institution was ill-equipped to deliver anti-racist education.
Since its opening in 1912 as the Rochester Municipal Museum, the RMSC has been a community museum. Part of RMSC’s future and vision is to “create opportunities for community conservations around difficult issues.” Difficult conversations, around objects like this racist carousel panel, are important bridges between museums and their communities in the continued efforts to remain relevant and connect to current events in society. The Take It Down Planning Committee struggled to remove this offensive panel for nine months, revealing underlying racial tensions in the Rochester community. When the same activists who agitated for the panel’s removal called out the RMSC’s lack of leadership diversty as a barrier to creating honest exhibits and programs around racism, the RMSC vowed to develop a more authentic model for community collaboration and curation. This work in partnership with the Take It Down Planning Committee and City of Rochester transformed a racist caricature into an anti-racist teaching tool, created important opportunities for dialogue around issues of racism in Rochester, urged RMSC to examine its own policies and practices, and earned the RMSC a 2019 MANY Engaging Communities Award of Merit.
Collaboration with the Take It Down Planning Committee—and especially the leadership of Howard Eagle, Andria Bryant, and Minister Clifford Florence—was critical to the project’s success. Their dedication was integral in bringing the exhibit to life and challenging the Rochester community to examine the ways in which structural racism influence and inform institutional norms and individual behaviors. Together, community activists and the RMSC tackled a difficult and highly relevant topic, used an historic object to help illustrate the issues that modern Rochester society is facing, and developed a process to create and host conversations among community members, across class, and across race. The group ensured that Take It Down traveled to locations throughout the city so that the community had opportunities to not only see the panel but also to take ownership of the conversations it was creating.
This traveling exhibition has visited six locations—from churches to the Phillis Wheatley Community Library—to date and averages four exhibition sites per year. It is currently back on display at the RMSC. There are usually two programs at each exhibit site totaling about 25 programs thus far that have engaged an estimated 300-500 people. Each program is led by Take It Down Planning Committee members in partnership with RMSC and is offered for free to the public at each venue. “Since every audience is unique in its composition, I would say that the conversation has organically led to discussion of many different racism-related issues and potential (baby step) solutions. I have noticed many faith communities taking the initiative to open these conversations and there has been a lot of interest in the museum community,” said Kathryn Murano Santos, Senior Director of Collections and Exhibitions at RMSC. She notes that the project team has given presentations to area docent groups, students and educators in the Cooperstown Graduate Program, and MANY 2018 Conference Capstone participants. In conjunction with the Take It Down Planning Committee, RMSC has also been able to offer the program as a credited professional development opportunity for teachers in the Rochester City School District and is currently working with the Rochester City School District to engage middle school and high school students in the program.
In an era defined by widespread political unrest, factionalism, and increased racial tension (based largely on continued racist abuse and atrocities), this project is extremely topical. Structural, institutional and individual racism continue to reduce opportunities for a large portion of the population, create barriers between community members, and serve as antagonists to racial progress and a feeling of community pride. Take It Down works to further racial equity and by engaging the community in real conversations about race, and what individuals and organizations can do to combat racism, with community activists who have worked toward social justice for decades. RMSC’s role in fostering positive change has focused on providing technical expertise to further a community-based vision for anti-racist education. Importantly, this work has moved the RMSC toward a model for more authentic community collaboration, including shared authority and decision-making. The RMSC is embracing these changes to be more socially engaged, relevant, and responsive to the community it serves. As more museums talk about what their roles should be in their communities as they work to remain relevant, asking questions about neutrality surrounding difficult conversations can challenge museums to ask what it means to not be neutral.
Further Reading / Resources
Take It Down! Organizing Against Racism
“Take It Down! Organizing Against Racism” Traveling Exhibit Brochure
Controversy behind Dentzel Carousel panel comes to an end
Museums Are Not Neutral