Many might think that an African art exhibition would be one of the last places racism would exist.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the case with the Smithsonian Institute, a group of the US’ most prominent and important museums in DC.
Concerned employees published an unsigned open letter via Twitter to call out issues related to the Smithsonian’s racism, and to create a call for change.
The Smithsonian isn’t the first place getting called out for racist practices. What makes this situation ironic and especially troubling though is that there’s a lack of Black representation…in an art exhibit devoted to Black culture.
Let’s dive into this revealing open letter and this case of the Smithsonian’s racism.
A letter to the Secretary of the Smithsonian @SmithsonianSec and @Smithsonian addressing systemic racism at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art @NMAfA. The time for action is NOW. @forculture2020 #changenmafa #blackinthearts #BlackLivesMatter #blackartists pic.twitter.com/r8bTADEb5p
— ChangeNMAFA (@changenmafa) July 15, 2020
There are no Black curators…in a museum about Black art?
One would think that an entire museum devoted to Black art would have a diverse group of art curators on their staff. According to these former employees’ open letter, however…
“There are no Black curators in a museum solely dedicated to the arts and culture of Africa. For over 10 years, NMAfA’s curatorial team has been exclusively White despite demonstrated interest amongst Black arts professionals and scholars in joining the institution.”
This isn’t just a matter of white people just “happening” to be more qualified for the position somehow, not when they make up the entirety of the museum’s curators.
There’s a deeper undercurrent of racism here. What makes it even more of an affront to Black culture is that it’s all happening in a museum focused on the culture.
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Online Exhibition: Sailors and Daughters: Early Photography and Indian Ocean Ongoing Exhibition Sailors and Daughters reveals the expansive maritime societies of Zanzibar, the east African coast, and beyond. From the 1840s, cameras traced the international migrations of traders, sailors, sons, and daughters through Indian Ocean ports, continuing trade that dates back over five millennia. East African cities flourished as hubs of both land and sea trade routes, which extended to the central African interior, Horn of Africa, Persian Gulf, Indian Ocean islands, western India and the Far East. The region’s intercultural ethos generated a multitude of encounters between subjects, photographers, and the global audiences who viewed the resulting images. By gathering images from scarce and little-known collections of early photographs, lithographs, postcards, and private albums, this exhibition focuses attention on a diverse cross-section of the region’s people and their cosmopolitan cities by the sea. It serves as a starting point for a larger photographic and creative visual history of the prosperous and diverse communities of the Indian Ocean world. #AfricanArtInspires #NMAFA #Smithsonian #OnlineExhibition
Complaints of racism and mismanagement are abound
The open letter doesn’t just cite a lack of Black curators for the museum. It also mentions disparities in the museum’s workforce, as well as institutional policies that discriminate against people of color.
“Persistent racial disparities at NMAfA are apparent in the application of institutional policies. On several occasions, managers at NMAfA have attempted to promote White employees into vacant roles, while disregarding the institutional policy regarding a competitive application process.”
In 2020, there are only five full-time Black employees that comprise the museum’s staff of over 40 people. This discrimination doesn’t just stop at the hiring process.
The letter also describes examples of the termination of Black employees, seemingly without good reason. It also shows a disparity in the support systems for white workers as opposed to people of color.
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MARK YOUR CALENDARS: Reinventing African Art Museums for Changing Times Wednesday July 8th, 2020. 1:00 p.m. EST Join us Wednesday July 8th for a 1:54 webinar with our very own Senior Curator, Karen E. Milbourne alongside Koyo Jouoh, Zeitz MOCAA; Sonia Lawson, Palais de Lomé and Claude Grunitzky, TRUE Africa. Register with the link in our bio! #AfricanArtMuseums #NMAFA #Smithisonian #154ArtFair
“From 2019 to 2020, two senior Black employees in key roles were suddenly dismissed without any evidence of under-performance or unethical behavior; however, white employees at NMAfA with sub-par performance have previously been offered special counseling, expanded job opportunities, or redeployment to new positions.”
Despite being a museum dedicated to Black culture, it seems the place hypocritically enough is not the most inclusive towards its Black employees.
“In the past five years, over ten former and current Black employees have reported or experienced incidents of racial bias, hostile verbal attacks, retaliation, terminations, microaggressions, and degrading comments.”
These offenses taking place in a space for Black art and culture makes them even more severe.
The letter raises issues in particular against the National Museum of African Art’s Lead Curator and Deputy Director Christine Mullen Kreamer.
Kreamer has had multiple complaints filed against her, and the open letter cites these including “abuse of hiring and promotion authority… and her consistent bullying and hostility directed towards Black colleagues.”
These complaints and issues surrounding the culture of racism in the National Museum of Art have been previously ignored by the Smithsonian’s leadership. The concerned employees who penned the letter even criticized the former director for the NMAfA, Gus Casely-Hayford, in a tweet.
Your record shows you did nothing to address racism @NMAfA. It’s also time to take a deep look at yourself. @smithsonian @forculture2020 #changenmafa #fortheculture #BlackLivesMatter #blackinthearts https://t.co/Z83abjjvz6
— ChangeNMAFA (@changenmafa) July 16, 2020
What’s really good with the Smithsonian Institute?
What’s even more baffling is that there’s evidence that the Smithsonian can do better. The National Museum of African American History and Culture is a prime example of the diversity museums can have, as well as how they can properly respect Black culture.
The museum’s curators for example include Michelle Wilkinson, Spencer Crew, Dwandalyn Reese, and many other people of color as staff. The National Museum of African American History and Culture has been open since 2016 and is the newest member of the Smithsonian Institution.
The National Museum of African Art however has been a member of the Smithsonian however since 1979, and it was significant in being the first museum in the US to adopt a focus on modern African art.
This makes it a wonder in promoting diversity in the world of African art. So with all the time it’s been around, why can’t it have diversity in its workforce?
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On this day, in 1964, our museum was founded on the principle that African art could promote cross-cultural understanding for a divided community. We share this resource ‘Talking about Race’ from our colleagues at @NMAAHC with the hope that it may help continue these critical conversations for all of us. #OnThisDay #ANationsStory #APeoplesJourney #SmithsonianEdu #NMAFA To learn more, please visit the link in bio or visit @nmaahc ‘s website.
Fortunately, these complaints about a lack of diversity and inclusion in the museum may soon be addressed.
The Smithsonian’s secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III recently announced he will be looking into the claims brought up by the former employees in their open letter.
This is a huge step in addressing the lack of diversity in the National Museum of African Art, and hopefully, it can set a good example for other members of the Smithsonian Institute for the future.