Red Doors: Museums as Sanctuaries During Civil Unrest

November 2, 2020 Thoughts

Over the past year, protests have erupted in cities across the nation. Demands have ranged from calls for greater social justice to the lifting of pandemic restrictions. In several instances, protests have led to property damage and/or the intimidation of people with opposing views. As we head into a major election, more and more businesses in urban areas are contemplating measures to protect their assets, namely buildings, from further civic unrest. In fact, a recent NY Times article described how many retail brands were boarding up store windows as one safety precaution. I’ve heard several museum directors contemplate similar actions. While I appreciate the magnitude of these decisions, I’m concerned that boarding up museums may be a disservice to the public. If museums are to serve as relevant anchor organizations in their host communities, especially during a time of shrinking public spaces, then institutions should be opening doors and engaging with their communities during the most urgent times.

Historically, museums served as places for understanding the past; often in a neutralmanner that sought to avoid controversy. However, in recent years, museums have also become important spaces for examining pressing, contemporary issues. For example, as collecting institutions, museums have begun accessioning stories, objects, and ephemera from protests and political/social movements in real time (see Museums Collect Protest Signs to Preserve History in Real Time). Additionally, museums have also begun creating rapid-response exhibitions to explore a variety of timely issues (see How Rapid-Response Exhibits Are Changing the Way Museums Engage Their Communities). This shift requires a deep commitment to community engagement and an understanding that neutrality is a passive position that may cause more harm than good.

In 2016, I heard Reverend Starsky D. Wilson, president and CEO of Deaconess Foundation and co-chair of the Ferguson Commission, deliver the keynote presentation at the IMLS Catalyst Town Hall Meeting in Philadelphia. Drawing upon recollections of the uprisings following the death of Michael Brown, Reverend Wilson implored those in attendance to contemplate museums as places of sanctuary. He went on to describe that safe spaces are not necessarily neutral spaces. And, in light of shrinking public spaces, museums must re-evaluate their critical roles as important social infrastructure.

This idea was made evident earlier this summer in major cities including New York and Washington, D.C. Following mass action in the days after the murder of George Floyd, protestors called upon cultural institutions to open their lobbies as places for respite (see Cultural Institutions Heed Calls to #OpenYourLobby to Black Lives Matter Protesters). This call to action required very little of institutions: merely making restrooms available to the public, as well as providing water and other basic amenities. However, it exemplified how cultural institutions can serve the public during urgent times and demonstrated an alternative to placing physical barriers between the institution and the public.

I understand these situations are never easy to navigate. Several years ago, when I was director of the Arab American National Museum, a radical right-wing extremist and his followers staged controversial protests on the municipal property directly in front of our institution. As one might expect, hundreds of counter-protestors took to the streets to demonstrate, often on the sidewalk in front of our museum. I vividly remember the phone calls from our insurance provider pleading with me to immediately lock the doors to protect the building. We resisted and decided it would stand against our values as an institution to segregate our staff and building from the community we served. After all, we believed the museum was ultimately a trust of the community.

In the coming days, weeks, and months, we may witness protests and civil unrest following the election and the lead into the inauguration. If museums are in fact a trust of the community, museum leaders will need to decide how their staff will respond to these challenges. Some museums might engage the public through collections initiatives or rapid-response exhibitions. Others might leverage their assets, such as buildings, as places of dialogue and/or respite. What is most important is the museum should actively engage community and provide physical and mental sanctuary during these turbulent times.