The Role Of Museums In Unmasking Society’s Inequities
By Maria Madison, ScD
Whether through a painting, artifact or object, thoughtful museums and historic sites share stories that can shape society. Annually, thousands of individuals visit our small historic site, The Robbins House, in a quiet corner of the world in Concord, Massachusetts. The house commemorates the legacy of a previously enslaved Revolutionary War veteran and his descendants. Visitors are surprised to learn that there was slavery in the North. Once that is explained, they believe that the Emancipation Proclamation freed all slaves and everyone became equal citizens. Once that history is explained, visitors then believe that the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments made everyone equal. Once the Reconstruction Era and its demise are explained, visitors believe everyone was made equal by the first Civil Rights Act of 1866, or the modern Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
This theme is aptly captured in Tracy Jan’s 2017 Boston Globe article, “Economic equality gains overestimated.” In her article Jan quotes Jennifer Richeson of Yale University, “So many of us grew up hearing this story about America that basically said there was slavery and then that was fixed. Martin Luther King marched and then that was fixed. And then we had Obama…That’s a nice, clean story that makes everyone feel good even though it’s shockingly inaccurate.”
Based on our visitors’ comments, I believe it is also the story taught through the school system. It’s a nice clean story that supports teachers’ comfort zones. In this way, we can’t necessarily blame the museum visitor, whether they are a PhD from Princeton, or students from urban or suburban public schools. This information isn’t in most curricula.
Thoughtful museums and historic sites can fill the inequity knowledge gap by connecting the past to the present. In her book, “Artifacts and Allegiance, How Museums Put the Nation and the World on Display,” Brandeis University graduate and sociologist Peggy Levitt ’80 reveals how “museums create citizens.” Maybe we can hope that museums create informed caring communities as well.
Sites such as the Robbins House have the unique opportunity to teach audiences about centuries of persistent inequity that either produced or prohibited transgenerational wealth and health. Often museums must inform audiences of what they were not offered in school: that inequities in citizenship, home and land ownership, education, employment and labor, justice and health have persisted by race, ethnicity, gender and lineage, to the present.
Visitors need to hear that the Revolutionary War did not provide independence for the enslaved; the Constitution was not written for all people; the Bill of Rights neither provided nor protected land rights; that voting rights acts did not assure fair and accurate representation in government (with gerrymandering and only 10 black senators to date, for example), and Reconstruction was arguably the nation’s most important experiment in equality, and was subsequently defunded.
Museums and historic sites have the unique opportunity to reveal the vast overestimation of progress toward racial economic equality. They can also demonstrate, as Tracy Jan puts it, that widening “gaps persist between black and white workers when it comes to hourly wages, annual income, and household wealth.”
While connecting the past to the present, museums and historic sites have the unique opportunity to describe the widening gap between the numbers of men and women in the workforce. A 2017 New York Times article shows “Women in Retreat,” noting that there are now 12.7 million more women without paying jobs than in 2000.
Museums and historic sites have the unique opportunity to explain that “Blacks and Hispanics are more underrepresented in this nation’s colleges and universities than 35 years ago.” Yet the gender balance at many of the same universities continues to be equal despite that fact that girls outperform boys on college entrance criteria. The only way to achieve the gender balance is by over-sampling white male applicants, yet no affirmative action court case has ever been raised against white males.
Museums and historic sites have the unique opportunity to tell visitors that black families are seven times more likely to be homeless than white families, though only representing less than 15 percent of the population.
Data suggest that the majority of museum and historic site visitors are the same demographic that overestimate progress made in equality: mid- to upper-income whites. According to Tracy Jan’s article, “research shows whites are the most delusional and overly optimistic about racial economic equality even before the civil rights movement.” The researchers state it is “not surprising that Americans who don’t have much contact with other races and incomes have drawn false conclusions about other people’s economic experiences” (quoting Krauss of Yale). “Wealthy blacks have more racially and economically diverse social networks compared with wealthy whites, who have little understanding of the economic outcomes of most black Americans. The researchers said their study highlights the limitations of economic policies such as graduated income tax and loan forgiveness for college students to address the gaping wealth and income disparities between racial groups.“
In his 2017 New York Times article, “It’s Not Easy to Prove Racism. This Study Does,” Justin Wolfers states “[racism] occurs not only in the labor market and the criminal justice system, but also in countless small frictions every day. The culprit may not be a hate spewing white nationalist, but rather a librarian or a school administrator or a county clerk, unaware that she’s helping some clients more than others.” And they are very likely museum and historic site visitors, with the potential to break the trend of persistent and growing inequities.
Maria Madison, ScD, is the associate dean for diversity, equity and inclusion at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University. She is also the founder and president of the Robbins House, a Concord, Mass.-based historic site and nonprofit organization focused on raising awareness of Concord’s African, African American, and antislavery history from the 17th through the 19th centuries, and its regional and national significance.