Smithsonian’s Leader Says ‘Museums Have a Social Justice Role to Play’

The notion of simply pulling down statues means that you’re not really bringing historical insight. What you really want to do is use the statues as teachable moments. Some of these need to go. But others need to be taken into a park, into a museum, into a warehouse, and interpreted for people, because they’re part of our history. What is crucially important about this is that removing statues is not about erasing history. Removing statues in many ways is about finding a more accurate history, a history that is more keeping with the best scholarship that we have out there. So for me, it is about making sure we don’t forget what those statues symbolize. It’s about pruning them, removing some, contextualizing others and recognizing that there is nothing wrong with a country recognizing that its identity is evolving over time. And as this identity evolves, so does what it remembers. So it does what it celebrates.

So much of our history isn’t memorialized in that way. How many statues around this country deal with women? How many statues deal with African-American women who have changed this country?

For years there was a view that museums were sort of temples, places where artifacts could be collected and preserved and perhaps interpreted in a scholarly way, and that was about it. That has changed over the years, and many now argue that museums are really places for public gathering, for dialogue and that it is appropriate for museums to really engage in the issues of the day and perhaps even take a point of view. Where do you fall on that?

I believe very strongly that museums have a social justice role to play, that museums have an opportunity to not become community centers, but to be at the center of their community, to help the community grapple with the challenges they face, to use history, to use science, to use education, to give the public tools to grapple with this. Museums always take a point of view by what they choose to exhibit and what they decide not to exhibit.

I’m not expecting museums to engage in partisan politics. What I’m expecting museums to be is driven by scholarship and the community. I want museums to be a place that gives the public not just what it wants, but what it needs. And if that means that museums have to take a little more risk, if museums have to recognize that they’ve got to do a better job of explaining to government officials, funders, why they do the work they do, then so be it. I would rather the museum be a place that takes a little risk to make the country better than a place where history and science go to die.

Who becomes the arbiter of what is appropriate to display in a museum? How are they making those decisions about how to present history?

It’s crucially important to recognize that in museums, you need to have people who care about a variety of subjects in positions of influence, like curatorial positions. That means that it’s crucially important to have a diversity, not just of race or ethnicity, but of ideas, to be able to sort of make sure that cultural institution is grappling with interesting questions that help the public. But I want to be candid. Twenty years ago, I wrote an article about the lack of diversity at museums. Today there is more diversity than ever before, but it’s still lagging behind corporate America, for example, which I never thought I’d say. So the challenge is for museums to live up to what they say they are, which are places that should model and reflect the best of what they expect from other Americans.