« Portrait of a biracial man in armor » (c.1680-1730), Entourage of François de Troie Sold at Christie’s in 2010.

Demand Antiracist Education

Demand antiracist education — The reaction of French museums to Black Lives Matter”​ is the translation of the open letter​ “Cher musée… — La réaction des institutions muséales au mouvement Black Lives Matter, written and published in French on June 11th.

Dear museums,

Educate me about racism. What purpose do you serve if you’re not speaking with me? Why these empty black facades and extended silences?

Portrait of Madeleine (detail), Marie-Guillemine Benoist (1800) – musée du Louvre.

One can’t help but notice there has been a certain institutional timidness to speak out in these times of social crisis. Dear museum, young people, your embattled intermediaries and supporters are fighting every day to prove your social utility within their own circles. We bring our friends, our families, our loved ones within your walls. Dear museum, you’re not saying anything. Without you, the fights of the past will die and those of the present will stumble. In this fight against ignorance, where are the pillars of science and history?

It is improper — for whatever reason given — to hold back on widely sharing well-sourced, historical and scientific content, capable of both demonstrating and reaffirming our common humanity. We should not let aberrations seep into our minds. We should not leave any space for foul content on social media. Everyday, we should reassert, with ever greater force, that humanity is one and indivisible. Dear museums, endow the youth with torches of knowledge — we are burning for justice, for truth and for peace.

Museums are far from neutral. In France, they are bastions of the République — conquests of the people. So why this inability to express a pluralistic France to your prime funders, the whole of French citizens? To citizens worldwide who often come through the gates of our country and our museums? Are we now running amusement parks? By saying nothing or publishing a black square — occasionally accompanied by platitudes — what distinguishes you from brands like l’Oréal in your handling of public debates and potential social impact?

Tourism is one of France’s major industries. The Louvre Museum is an open window onto the world, the symbol of the universal museum. Public actions from the museum will necessarily have a worldwide exposure. You, symbol of France who calls itself the Country of Human Rights, why don’t you reassert your positions today?

Together let’s build the foundations for the whole of French society, mainly for the people to whom you fail to speak. For the attentive youth listening — and the youth that will hear your message — give them access to cultural content that is historically and scientifically reliable. Let’s not build this future on illusions. We collectively need resources for intellectual self-defense, to fight against racism, misinformation, hate, conspiracy and fake news.

“Portrait of a biracial man in armor” (c.1680-1730), Entourage of François de Troie
Sold at Christie’s in 2010.

Dear museums, sharing your content with the masses will make us collectively resilient! We cultivate the desire for truth by spreading it.

Our trust in science, history and arts lays in your walls. You have the responsibility to speak out the truth: the theory of Evolution invalidates all “human races.” Let’s pause your artificial social media plans and massively share your educational material. It is necessary to make space for new practices, for a new paradigm. “We shouldn’t post anything too intelligent, too complex, too heavy. We will scare people away.” When on the contrary we know that intellectual challenge, contemporary open-mindedness and personal reinvention are what open the doors to museums. We demand some sustainable, deep-rooted and layered change, especially with regards to institutional communication on social media. Physically entering the museum is the last step of a process.

Portrait of Maria d’Orange, with Hendrik van Zuijlestein (d. 1673) and a page (detail), 1665
Johannes Mytens – Mauritshuis, The Hague.

Dear museums, what kind of audience (individuals and groups) do you target for your children’s collages activities, which have been a major part of your content creation during these past few months?

To which very particular audience do you address this content? You are well-known and massively followed, you are influential. Online platforms grant you the tools to redirect your respective subscribers to each of your websites, allowing them access to even more resources. Why use this to promote your creative workshops, rather than redirect us toward more artistic, scientific, educational, informative, reliable and current content? Social media certainly is not just an accessory to speak to the younger generation. Social media is at the heart of our societies, it is our global and globalized agora.

Without Covid-19, we would be in the middle of ​Saison Africa 2020​What are the participating institutions currently doing? The event might be postponed to December, but why is the pedagogic content sleeping in drawers? Sharing content with useful information for the public isn’t going to ​spoil ​an upcoming exhibition. On the contrary, the more content is informative and dense, the more it opens a window into the museum. Let’s dig deeper together. Let’s nuance together. Let’s think together about which words, images and concepts will deracinate hatred. Let’s bring archives and history into the public space, once again through social media. Dear museums, we are one click away ​from being able to open the public’s eyes to the truth.​ Today, it’s first and foremost​ w​hat you project ​outside y​our walls that matters.

Black Lives Matter doesn’t want merely solidarity, but active engagement, with content — content made widely available inside a single social media platform to widen its volatility, its social impact. On Instagram, historical content is a living, circulating and resurrecting archive. Position yourself as interlocutors of choice, teachers that we go consult again and again after our lessons. Dear museum, your target audience will finally push open your doors, first online, and tomorrow they will walk on your marble floors — we firmly believe it.

Caravans-of-Gold-Seated-Figure-artskop
Ife Seated Figure (Late 13th-14th century), Tada, Nigeria,
National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Abuja, Nigeria.

How do you interest the youth, capture their attention?

By teaching them to live in this particular month of June 2020, armed with scientific, historical and artistic knowledge gathered by humanity throughout its existence. By instilling your audience that no one person or group owns the future, that the future and the past belong to each one of us, individually and together. If you want to interest all parties, be the voice of all. We will write: “ Incredible! It’s me! This is my life. My human path. Merchants, princes, warriors, slaves, rowers, bandits, heroes… They are me. I am all of them.” Nurture curious hunger — show them that they can no longer just observe but must embark in search for your riches — even if those are just fragments of a mosaic.

Dear museums, your first reflex on social media — especially if you are a small structure with limited time or don’t have a full-time or half-time community manager — should be to ask for help and to engage in the dialogue around your collections with your audience. Your post could go something like this: “Dear followers. We stand together against racism. Is there any antiracist content concerning our collections and our exhibits that you would like to share? Tag us. We would be thrilled to relay them on our account and continue the dialogue.” Very often, “ready-to-be-posted” content already exists, created by dozens of serious and well-sourced “historical accounts with an informative goal.” Amplify their passion and content.

The entirety of your exhibitions’ scientific and pedagogic content must be available to everyone, always and forever — thus ensuring the lasting quality of an exhibition’s message even after it closes. This includes image archives, artworks analyses, interviews, historical documents, pedagogical tools, detailed records of intra-institutional actions, condensed talks and round-tables…

The Moorish King Caspar, Hendrik Heerschop (1654)
Gemäldegalerie Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.

There is no “museum neutrality,” especially when it comes to racism.

In order to deconstruct our shared beliefs for the benefit of historical facts, observations and realties, we — and museums first — must:

– Spread and rethink afro-diasporic representations throughout time and the historical manifestations of their presence well before the 16th century. Reevaluate the history of all African territories by emphasizing their plurality, diversity and evolution throughout time.

– Cast a stronger light on contemporary social sciences produced by the researchers in our universities and develop the instinct to constantly adapt to ever evolving conversations — especially those having to do with pedagogical content. We don’t want a piecemeal museum that excludes the realities of its area of expertise.

– Rethink the representation of African arts’ aesthetics by emphasizing their plurality and evolution through time. Dear architecture museums, highlight their architectural diversity, in ancient and modern times.

– Refute the recurrent themes of primitivism, savagery and exotism. If needed, retitle artworks, renew and densify museum labels.

Tête d’Ife, XIIème siècle, Musée d’Ife
Tête d’Ife, XIIème siècle, Musée d’Ife

– Place colonialism as being at the center of the formation of the world we live in today. One cannot pretend to know the history of Europe if one doesn’t acknowledge its colonial history.

It is imperative to understand what happened in the last four centuries to understand who we are and how we interact as a whole, as communities and as individuals. Promote initiatives, notably in the context of cultural cooperation, of documentaries, docu-fictions of African peoples, kingdoms, empires and diasporic historical figures.

-Systematize the conceptualization of cultural eras as being porous and of travelers being numerous — especially in the Antiquity and the Middle Ages — thus counter striking discourses of “national narrative” polluted by antediluvian ethnic homogeneity. Let’s rethink the history of cultural exchanges: it isn’t a conspiracy theory — men and ideas have always crossed borders.

Archeological museums, publicly deconstruct the co-opting of your resources by historians of the past and storytellers of the present, who use you to validate their discriminatory behaviors and racist “national narrative.” Roman archeology museums, tell us about Roman expeditions in Subsaharan Africa; explain why antique slavery or the eventual annexion to the Roman Empire is in no way comparable to modern slavery and its religious and pseudo-scientific content. Anti-black racism is a datable construct.

G. Bruno - Le Tour de la France par deux enfants, 1904
Excerpt from a 1904 school textbook – “Le Tour de la France par deux enfants”.

To finish, theories about “human races” among ​Homo Sapiens​ are an aberration. Anthropologic museums: spam us with your content, especially by shining a light on the Evolution theory, whose reaffirmation is very much needed.

We’ve compiled, at this time, the reactions of eight French cultural institutions towards the Black Lives Matter movement in the US (while its French “equivalents” — notably JUSTICE POUR ADAMA demonstrations — are never quoted explicitly). Five of them were short declarations of empathy. One was also tagged with #alllivesmatter. None resemble a massive sharing of content directly on social media.

Black lives matter is a call to action, not solidarity.

Jean-Michel Basquiat  Defacement (The Death of Michael Stewart) 1983
Collection of Nina Clemente
The Death of Michael Stewart, informally known as Defacement, (1983)
Jean-Michel Basquiat – Collection of Nina Clemente

“The senseless murder of George Floyd, the last of a harrowing list, reminds us that there is a long way to achieve racial equality — and the time to act is now. Museums are not neutral. They are not separate from their social context, the structures of power and the struggles of their communities. And when it does seem like they are separate, that is a choice — the wrong choice.

As highly trusted institutions in our societies, museums have the responsibility and duty to fight racial injustice and anti-black racism at all levels, from the stories they tell to the diversity of their personnel. Behind every museum there are people. Each and every one of us must choose to hold ourselves accountable for our own prejudices and check our own privileges. We must choose to address racism in our own circles, and be open to learn how to better ourselves. We must choose to amplify the voices and achievements of Black communities around the world.

Behind every museum there are people. Each and every one of us must choose to hold ourselves accountable for our own prejudices and check our own privileges. We must choose to address racism in our own circles, and be open to learn how to better ourselves.”

Statement from Lonnie G. Bunch, secretary of the Smithsonian and co-chair of ICOM US (3 June 2020).

Demand antiracist education — The reaction of French museums to Black Lives Matter”​ is the translation of the Open letter​ “Cher musée… — La réaction des institutions muséales au mouvement Black Lives Matter ​by​ Louise Thurin​, student at Ecole du Louvre — with the help of ​Zélie Caillol​, student at ICART Paris.

This translation was made possible with the much needed help of ​Mona Varichon​, ​Sandie Ngoyi ​and ​Wilson Tarbox​.

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About the author

Louise Thurin

I'm an art history and art market student based in Paris. My work and activism focus mainly on decolonizing knowledge. I journal my everyday experience in the French art world on my Instagram (@louise.paris2020) while writing condensed articles and open letters that regards the issues of French cultural policies and diplomacy.

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