The Public Humanities and Progress

Through the course of this semester, we have explored questions surrounding public facing institutions and activism or social justice. I have found myself wanting cultural institutions to take greater political stances but also wary of their capacity to do so. If an institution does not have an inherently activist mission, I wonder who internally (or externally) is tasked with that charge. Who takes up this responsibility? And why? What are their qualifications, their positions, their biases?

Like Erin, I too was struck by Ruth Sergal’s chapter on “Difficult Memory”. In this chapter, Sergal states “Public Humanities projects that promote a fantastical notion of perpetual progress mask the central question of our own complicity.” Often within these projects, the idea that we are doing better than before can blind us to the structural flaws that remain built into our work. This week’s readings reminded me of an article I saw posted up and down my timeline recently. It is titled “The Museum Will Not Be Decolonized” and is written by Sumaya Kassim, a writer and researcher who was invited to the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (BMAG) to help set up an exhibition of works from the permanent collection to bring awareness to the effects of colonialism and imperial oppression.

Kassim starts her article quoting Audre Lorde, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” Kassim recounts the difficulties that arose in this “decolonizing” effort within BMAG. She expresses the weight of the emotional labor performed by her and her fellow co-curators invited in for this project (all women of color) as they engaged with racist works of art, their fear of being tokenized in this project, the challenges of working with staff from the BMAG who, while open to Kassim’s groups’ efforts and insights, found themselves clinging to the “neutral” structures of the museum. In the end Kassim recognized the value in the project stating, “Curating #ThePastIsNow was hard – but I recognise in that difficulty something was changing within us all, that there was the possibility we could work through that difficulty together. The co-curators were learning how institutions work and think, and institutional actors were learning about how institutions can better serve their communities.”

I think the tension this article illuminates is very relevant when thinking about the role and political position of public humanists and public institutions. When are public humanity projects that aim to be progressive effective and meaningful, and when do they co-opt the idea of progress but remain complicit in neutrality?

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