Black History Month in Museums - What Can We Learn?

Pamm Prebil, Gallery Guide, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art (February 2020)

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February marks Black History Month, an opportunity to celebrate and pay tribute to the many African American men and women who have made significant contributions to the world in all fields of study, work and culture. Exhibits during Black History Month have become an opportunity for museums to not only celebrate the artistic achievements of black culture but to raise awareness of diversity, spotlight social issues and provide a means for conversation on these subjects.

Black History earned a month-long dedication in 1976, but the celebration actually began ninety-five years ago. Carter G. Wilson the founder of the Association of the Study of Negro Life and History, hoped to raise awareness of African American contributions by conceiving Negro History Week in 1925. Wilson chose the week in February that included the birthdays of President Abraham Lincoln and Fredrick Douglas for the first celebration in 1926. The response was a resounding positive and it continued to grow until it was expanded during the United Stated Bicentennial Celebration. President Gerald Ford urged Americans to “seize the opportunity to honor the too often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”

Crystal Bridges is dedicated to diversity and inclusion; it is a statement our visitors will see immediately in the museum. The museum is also dedicated to providing tools for the Guides so that they may always feel comfortable having a gallery discussion that never offends, welcomes respectful comments with our guests and makes everyone feel valued. But we are human and many times the obstacle we discover as Guides is that we are not experienced enough or even educated enough to feel comfortable discussing themes such as race, slavery, discrimination and oppression.

Two years ago, in February of 2018, Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power opened at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art where I am a Gallery Guide. This special exhibition, curated by the Tate Modern, showcases twenty years of art made by Black artists beginning at the time of the civil rights movement. There were many sensitive issues and subjects that we as Guides were immediately aware of and looked to our museum for guidance.

This exhibition highlighted some of the more difficult conversations Guides could encounter in the gallery. It was also a reminder of the need to maintain respect and sensitivity of the subject. Crystal Bridges brought in faculty from the University of Arkansas to provide museum Guides and educators lectures and valuable information to answer our questions. Guides also spent time discussing hypothetical and personal obstacles with fellow Guides, as well as with educators from the school tours program. By the time this special exhibition moved on, we had grown personally and increased our awareness of the issues posed by such challenging exhibits.

This February one of the Black History Programs at Crystal Bridges is an extraordinary exhibit by Hank Willis Thomas titled, All Things Being Equal . . . . Thomas is a conceptual artist whose work demonstrates the imbalances in our society. He asks viewers to actively reexamine representations dictated by advertising, media and sports. To prepare for the opening tours Gallery Guides were again provided with training and education so that we can confidently provide a tour that will discuss the goal of the artist which is to make us all look at something familiar in a new way.

How are difficult subjects addressed and what can we do as guides and docents to make everyone comfortable? Here are a few suggestions from the trainings at Crystal Bridges.

The three R’s; Respect, Reflect and Resign. All of us are trained to respect our guests but nowhere does respect go further than with subjects that are delicate. Reflect - gives us a chance to make sure we have heard responses correctly without any interpretation. Resign - embrace the discomfort of not knowing. We don’t know what we don’t know. It’s okay to admit it.

As we have continued to learn and grow, we have learned that there are even more R’s:
Research and relearn, then reset. How quickly new information is bombarding us! Research can help sort the important facts that will aid us in tour conversations. For many contemporary artists there is real time information on their methods and inspiration, leaving no doubt about what influences affect them and their artwork. To reset, commit yourself to change.

Finally, recognize we all have our own stories. Just like the artist in the gallery, our personal histories affect our personal beliefs and prejudices, which are significant parts of us that contribute to making a great guide or docent. Acknowledging these characteristics and recognizing our personal history may need to be appropriately managed.

What is your museum doing for Black History Month?