When breaking news brings national attention to explosive issues and when riots and demonstrations break out, museums have work to do. But they must be nimble. It’s an opportunity to weigh in that quickly fades with yesterday’s news. We should be mindful that local media do not have historians on staff to educate them about context before they speak. As historians, we can frame the news for our local, regional and national news media, and help others understand the complexity of issues, past decisions, current policies, and their broad effect.
We have heard so much from national, local, and international journalists, but not much from museums offering historical perspective on the unfolding story in Baltimore.
Peter Rosenblatt’s op-ed piece “The Deep Roots of Racial Injustice” is a fine example that contributes to this conversation. We’d love to see (museum) leaders doing similar op-ed pieces on their own turf. Preservation stories can and should include the social issues that linger because of past community planning decisions, red lining, economic isolation,and the resulting disruption of communities. Should we not be pointing to our own communities and referencing history?
Current events are not just for history museums. Art and children’s museums can forge bonds with their communities by offering tools that impact and improve the lives of their patrons and neighbors. It is important to point out that many of the peaceful demonstrators that turned out in Baltimore were from the young artists’ community that have embraced urban living. They love this vibrant city that they have had a big hand in quietly shaping under the radar for a decade now. Art museums can create stronger bonds with these emerging arts communities and become a more official gathering place for artists. Creative professionals are often remarkable about bring innovation and healing into hurting communities.
Children’s museums have brought the thirty million word gap to the attention of the history field. This initiative has underscored the challenges of children who start school at a disadvantage in language skills. The Boston Children’s Museum has a project designed to close that gap and try to interrupt the cycle of poverty that is perpetuated. This is a chance to interact with their community on a personal level and to address immediate and crucial needs. Like history and art museums, children’s museums must engage with current events if they hope to truly serve their patrons.
These issues are so tightly interwoven that they cannot be separated: poverty, education, housing, health, jobs, family structure, and discrimination. What is being described as “American apartheid” is a big umbrella under which we find a host of social conditions that may have nothing or everything to do with race depending on where you live. The volatile situation in Baltimore is just one of the issues that are relevant to society and to museums today.
This is also a time to point to other social issues, like stripping urban school systems of art, music, and the humanities. These are tools of expression that foster creativity, nurture unexpected talent, and offer a way out. The educational challenges faced by urban America should be part of the discussion about under-served places and urban needs. But they won’t be if museums do not also speak up. The under-served areas in our communities need the humanities as much as they need jobs and hope. They also need respected people to bring history into focus.