June 2020 | Combatting the Pandemic of Racism
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once noted, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Eric Reason, and so many others make clear that racism remains the great disease of American society. Countless Black lives have been lost, many others have been unjustly diminished by racism, and in certain quarters declaring that Black Lives Matter remains a political statement rather than a statement of basic human rights. So let us say it here, simply: Black Lives Matter.
As Benjamin Franklin observed over 200 years ago, “Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are”—to which I would add that justice and injustice affect us all, and we must all therefore be outraged and seek productive ways in which to focus our outrage. This includes cultural and educational institutions. As Princeton University President Chris Eisgruber noted this past weekend, "We all have a responsibility to stand up against racism, wherever and whenever we encounter it." I have long argued that museums have an important role to play in making us better citizens, not least by awakening our empathy and inviting us to be global citizens capable of thinking beyond the parochialism of our individual experiences. Only a month ago, I concluded a lecture on this theme by noting that, in the face of the inequities laid bare yet again by the coronavirus and the current economic crisis, we must renew our commitment to the values of equity, access, and inclusion and to specific strategies to advance these values.
The murder of George Floyd and subsequent protests and eruptions of violence remind us that we must double down on these values and strategies. We must not lose heart, or fear that the battle is lost. In Abraham Lincoln’s words, “The probability that we may fail in the struggle ought not to deter us from the support of a cause we believe to be just.” And so, we in the museum sector must ensure that more voices are platformed in our galleries, that new and more relevant narratives are told, that new conversations are launched, that we fight to overcome the many barriers to participation, that we afford new opportunities to those denied them in the past. We must also position our cultural institutions as places in which people who do not agree can come together safely to talk, and in doing so advance the cause of justice.
As a young boy in April 1968, I saw the smoke rising from downtown Washington, DC, from the riots that ensued in the wake of Dr. King’s assassination. That visual memory, experienced through a child’s eyes—through which I am haunted by memories of pain, despair, and loss—has stayed with me for decades. Fifty-two years later, as we mourn the deaths of so many Black Americans, including George Floyd, we renew our commitment and lift our voices in support of things that matter. We shall bring new artistic and historical voices and perspectives into the public square that a museum affords. We shall make new teaching and learning resources available. And we shall ourselves listen and learn; we shall change ourselves and our institutions. I ask all of you to join us in this important work.
James Christen Steward
Nancy A. Nasher–David J. Haemisegger, Class of 1976, Director