Our museums have a big role to play in fighting racism

A walk through historical archives is an opportunity to ask questions about centuries of power and privilege

'The Distant Gaze: Return of A Departure' (2017) by Aida Muluneh, who will have an exhibition at The Africa Institute as part of the research centre's inaugural cultural season. Courtesy of Aida Mulunehand The Africa Institute 
Powered by automated translation

It has been nearly three weeks since an unarmed African-American George Floyd was killed by a policeman in Minneapolis and protests all over the US began, giving great impetus to the 'Black Lives Matter' movement.

As a result, racism is on everyone’s minds and not just in America. Every social media platform or news outlet is discussing systematic racism in the US that has plagued generations of African-Americans. The issue has developed into a global discussion on the ‘pandemic’ of racism, the clear need for anti-racism education and a valid uproar for justice.

Racism continues to be a frightening reality for those at the receiving end. For many privileged people, it is proving difficult to comprehend, empathise and speak up about this elephant in the room.

However, if we believe that we stand for human rights we must all work towards positive change. We must fight to transform ourselves and our societies into anti-racist communities and countries. We must categorically reject any kind of intolerance or hate on the basis of colour, class, ethnicity, religious affiliation, etc.

As I was reading endless articles on this topic, I began to think about the role of institutions, be it schools, universities, places of worship or museums and asked myself: how have institutions historically addressed issues of racism? And how, today, can they address racist notions and dismantle them?

Not all of us that have suffered because of the colour of our skin, but we must listen and understand the issues people are facing

As someone who enjoys a career in the cultural sector, I believe museums are effective vehicles for social change and have a duty to engage with social agendas of their communities and not remain silent. The museum experience today can create spaces for people unlike what they have been in the past.

Focusing on only providing didactic information – which, unfortunately some museums around the world continue to do – is a mistake and a lost opportunity. There is enormous responsibility in curating museum exhibitions and programmes. Museums should be spaces in which critical thinking is encouraged and meaning is delivered through experience.

These experiences must involve the questioning and exploration of ideas, even those which can make a visitor intellectually uncomfortable. This is not a bad thing. It is important to be uncomfortablefor that is indicative of a mind being challenged to break out of older and often outdated ways of thinking. It can signal a need to change, to rethink, and to unlearn biases, those that we know to be wrong.

Museum leaders also have greater power than they may recognise. It is important that through their selection of artists, collections and choice of exhibitions, they try to help communities make sense of troubled times and through dialogue help people heal together.

If we do not stretch ourselves this way, what do we really offer? If at museums all we provide is information and things to look at then we can be easily be substituted for a subject-related book or the internet.

I have personally noticed with friends – both, from the black community and those who are white – the unspoken divide in the current discourse. It is visible, the uncomfortable vacuum of showing superficial solidarity or preferring to remain, as I have heard said, ‘out of it’. But complexities aside, the truth is that these conversations have to happen, whether or not one feels awkward or scared to broach them.

Not all of us have suffered because of the colour of our skin but we must listen and understand the issues people are facing. If we as friends cannot talk about this then how will a community of strangers attempt to? This will take time but as Maya Angelou said: “Tell the truth to yourself, and to the children”.

The truth is where I ask museums to focus their attention, posing the question: How can we nurture young people so they will not grow into the adults we are today, skirting intense topics and avoiding acknowledging positions of privilege – be it skin colour, material wealth, gender, or any other topic?

Museums are fundamentally places of learning and we must understand that people in museums can and do learn about themselves, the world and its complex social and political concepts. They provide an excellent environment for people to attempt to resolve their cognitive dissonances.

As a frequent visitor to museums, and in my role as a museums director, I have experienced the many ways a museum can chip away barriers and provide a safe space for questions.

I also know that exhibitions and collections should be utilised to prompt people to ask more questions, even if they don't necessarily find the answers.

I have often walked around galleries with friends and family conversing and reflecting on what we were seeing, questioning the meaning of the art work in front of us, and reacting with surprise, wonder and sometimes pain.

The benefits of physical visits often last well after such a trip and tend to have a ripple effect, flowing into our conversations with others. I recently virtually visited the powerful exhibition of Ethiopian photographer and artist Aida Muluneh organised by The Africa Institute and on show at the Sharjah Art Museum, which I urge you to view online. The artist reflects on a number of themes, including the perception of African women, gender and identity. Perhaps this exhibition might inspire thinking and discussion at your dinner table tonight.

Questioning our assumptions and acknowledging our gaps in understanding, however wide they may be, is undoubtedly better than ignorance and not making the effort to intellectually evolve. I have never been an eternal optimist but I am hopeful about the power of discourse and that of museums, in this instance, to provide spaces for awareness, dialogue and introspection on matters of race and identity.

Manal Ataya is the director general of Sharjah Museums Authority