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Reimagining Museums An Ongoing Issue For Institutions Near And Far

The exterior space around moCa in Cleveland. [YUKiO_CLE / Shutterstock]
The exterior space around moCa in Cleveland.

Museums are sometimes seen as places filled with paintings or artifacts cut off from the cares of the world. But these days, many museums find themselves reexamining everything from the ethics of their collections to the diversity of their visitors and staff. For instance, just last month, Cleveland’s museum of contemporary Art, moCa, backed out of a multi-institution exhibit to work on its internal culture. 

Joy Bailey-Bryant advises museums and other cultural organizations on ways to navigate a fast-changing world as president of the U.S. office of Lord Cultural Resources, an international consulting firm. In the past five years, issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) have been top of mind for many institutions looking to decenter their collections and program offerings from a largely white cultural orientation, Bailey-Bryant said, adding that the motivation to make such changes isn’t always altruistic.

Joy Bailey-Bryant [Rog Walker]

“People are just being held accountable,” she said. “Funders are requiring that your DEI plan have a timeline associated with it and then requiring evidence that you have achieved the targets that you want for yourself.”

Issues of equity extend beyond exhibits. In just the past year, two longtime Northeast Ohio museums – moCa Cleveland and the Akron Art Museum – made headlines after allegations of institutional racism by staff members. The Akron museum has implemented what it calls a “transformation plan,” including DEI workshops and virtual townhall meetings. moCa announced on its website last month it was stepping back from a major, three-museum collaboration after public allegations of racist practices made by its first Black curator. While the museum declined interview requests, its website says it stepped away from the exhibition to “continue developing an equity-centered culture at the Museum.”

This museum critique accompanied the moCa exhibition, "Imagine Otherwise," mounted by former curator LaTanya Autry. [David C. Barnett]

One thing that’s been changing at museums is diversifying board representation. The stereotype of deep-pocketed white people dominating museum boards may still be true, but Bailey-Bryant said that will and must change.

“As people are evolving off of boards, this is the time, as we're browning as a country, for those boards to start browning and start to reflect the communities in which they exist,” she said. “There is money of all races, ethnicities and orientations of all types. The evolution of boards is key as we're moving towards this more equitable and welcoming cultural space.”

A number of museums around the world have also been criticized for possessing cultural artifacts from other countries. When pressed, some institutions, like the Cleveland Museum of Art, have returned objects to their country of origin. In other cases, museums have drawn-up agreements with those countries to retain and maintain the artifacts. Bailey-Bryant said it’s a matter of doing the right thing.

“I am a person who believes that collections matter,” she said “I think it's very important, as a person of African descent. I'm a descendant of enslaved people, and I cannot count back more than three generations of my family. And it's so important to me when I'm able to see any artifact of lives of people of African descent, because it helps me to learn more about my people. And, as enslaved people, there was no value placed on those objects because there was no value placed on those people. So for me, objects of those people is giving those people back their value, as a bit of a circular process. So, I very much believe in collections and the right way to collect and holding collections in the right places and spaces and not stealing people's stuff, but holding on and ensuring that there's a legacy for the future to understand the stories of... all of our people.”

In recent years, museum professionals have worked collectively to influence change inside museums. Using social media hashtags such as #MuseumsAreNotNeutral and #DeathToMuseums, these groups argue that the traditional concept of museums is broken and needs to be reimagined. Bailey-Bryant doesn’t advocate for the death of museums, but she said the statement is provocative in a good way.

"I think it's wonderful that people care enough about museums to say, 'Okay, listen, we've got to have these conversations,'" she said. "What are we supposed to be doing at our heart? And are we doing that? How is that happening?"

David C. Barnett was a senior arts & culture reporter for Ideastream Public Media. He retired in October 2022.