MASS Action meeting

How MASS Action could transform museums like Mia

This week, Mia hosts a convening of museums. Some will come from across the river, others from across the ocean. It will be the third meeting of an initiative called MASS Action (Museums as Site for Social Action), a movement that intends to reshape the model of what a 21st-century museum can be. But what does that mean exactly? What is MASS Action and where did it come from? Why does it matter and where is it going? 

The catalyst was the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, in Ferguson, Missouri, by a white police officer. Brown’s death sparked months of protest, though it was not the first—nor would it be the last—incident of its kind and was indicative of a larger issue, a legacy of inequality, racial injustice, and white supremacy. Like the deaths of Eric Garner and Ezell Ford that same summer, Brown’s death incited an urgency for answers. An urgency for accountability and justice. If legacies of racial injustice and white supremacy were to be confronted, silence could no longer be tolerated. It was in December that year that a group of museum bloggers issued a joint statement, calling on museums to respond. 

“The recent series of events, from Ferguson to Cleveland and New York, have created a watershed moment,” the statement begins. “Things must change. New laws and policies will help, but any movement toward greater cultural and racial understanding and communication must be supported by our country’s cultural and educational infrastructure. Museums are a part of this educational and cultural network. Join with your community in addressing these issues.” 

Museum workers meet at Mia for a MASS Action convening in October 2016.

Museums are Not Neutral

The bloggers highlighted an important point: Museums are not neutral. In fact, as Mia’s director, Kaywin Feldman, recently wrote in an article for Apollo magazine, “Art museums are intensely political organizations—political with a small ‘p.’ Art is political because it is an expression of lived human experience.” These human experiences—wrapped in larger narratives, histories, and contexts—are stories for which the museum is responsible to tell. 

So, in the wake of the Ferguson, the joint statement, and a social media outcry, the question was no longer should museums respond, but how? Mia was by no means the first organization to ask this question. The Incluseum, Twitter movements #museumsrespondtoferguson, and #museumsarenotnuetral are just some of the organizing efforts that have made commitments to pursuing this work. Rather, the idea was to aggregate these voices, create the tools, make a plan, and together enact change. 

The first convening of MASS Action took place in the fall of 2016, gathering 50 museum workers, educators, interpreters, researchers, activists, and others involved in preserving the relevance of museums. And, as the name implies, the goal was to create a plan of action. Over the course of three days, the museum practitioners discussed some of the most pressing issues in the field: inclusion, equity, and justice. Then, over the subsequent year, the group worked to develop this plan, resulting in the MASS Action toolkit.

A Guide to Change

The eight-chapter toolkit investigates everything from inclusive staffing practices to more critical object interpretation. It signifies a network committed to changing the museum field and, by proxy, the country. The toolkit was shared during a second convening in the fall of 2017, with a group of 32 museums committed to embedding its practices in their institutions. At this year’s convening, more than 60 have joined the movement to build on the commitments made in the MASS Action toolkit, to strive for greater equity and social justice within our organizations.

At Mia, this work has showed up in projects like Art and Healing: In the Moment, an exhibition showcasing the work of local artists—work made in response to the death of Philando Castile, another young black person shot and killed by a white officer. Among portraits of Castile, a statement from his mother, and a wall of visitor comments, the tragedy of his death was palpable. It’s not an easy subject to engage, but it’s even less easy to ignore. Indeed, for the 21st-century museum it seems there’s a responsibility to engage with these issues, to provide a safe space for difficult conversations, and to teach empathy through art. 

This work is imperative, but for it to continue, museums must hold each other accountable—accountable for the objects in their collections, the stories they tell about these objects, the communities they tell these stories about, and the communities they tell these stories to. This is the hope over the next few days, that conversations will be had and commitments will be made (the takeaways of which we’ll share here). It will be the third and final convening of MASS Action at Mia, but neither the movement nor the work will end here.  

Top image: MASS Action meets at Mia in 2017.