Talking about difficult topics in the museum

Unknown artist, eighteenth century, Elihu Yale; William Cavendish, the second Duke of Devonshire; Lord James Cavendish; Mr. Tunstal; and an Enslaved Servant, ca. 1708, Oil on canvas, Yale Center for British Art, Gift of Andrew Cavendish, eleventh Duke of Devonshire
cropped to image, recto

Unknown artist, eighteenth century, Elihu Yale; William Cavendish, the second Duke of Devonshire; Lord James Cavendish; Mr. Tunstal; and an Enslaved Servant, ca. 1708, Oil on canvas.
I’ve been spending a lot of time over the last year or so thinking more seriously than ever about race and the museum. I’ve been thinking about what it means to have images of enslaved people in service to white wealthy men in gilded frames on the wall. Does the act of including these paintings in a museum inadvertently / implicitly / unspeakably condone the logic of oppression present in the image? While I believe that these images should be shown (less we pretend that this history never happened), how can the museum signal that we don’t condone the system of slavery while acknowledging that we (Yale) have benefited from it? Is that something a wall label can do? Is that something an intentional curatorial gesture could do?
But it feels like we can’t even start that work — even begin that conversation — if we don’t even have a shared framework of understanding. When we disagree about the purpose of a museum and its responsibility to the public (or even how we define our public(s)). When we’re so subsumed by the day-to-day (and I’m totally guilty of this) and we don’t take the time to zoom out and see the bigger picture.
To help me do that — to give me the skills that I lack — I’ve been seeking models outside of the museum. For me, I’ve found that it’s really helpful to cross-train by attending and participating in social justice-oriented programming. Whether it’s the amazing Undoing Racism training that our beloved NHPS Elm City Montessori School puts on as part of our ongoing Anti-Racist, Anti-Bias (ABAR) work, or attending the Game Changing Intersectional Justice program last week at the Whitneyville Cultural Commons, I’m finding it extremely helpful to enter the museum work with these additional tools.
Now I just need to figure out how to tie some of these ideas together. To use the model of co-creation in developing reciprocal relationships that meet the actual (rather than perceived) needs of audiences. I’m getting better at facilitating conversations around difficult topics, though there are definitely times when I start to feel my cheeks flush or worry that subtle cues, like eye contact or calling on certain people while teaching, reveal my own implicit bias. I feel myself constantly working through the challenge of confronting my own internalized institutionalized racism while at the same time positioning myself as an “ambiguously non-white” person (a term gratefully borrowed from the amazing Tommy Orange.Am trying to embrace my own unique perspective as a half-Japanese / half-White museum educator / scholar / mother, while embracing others as well.
This is all to say that I don’t have all the answers and I certainly know I’m not doing everything “perfectly” (meaning in the most inclusive and socially responsible way possible). But I am taking pride in the small steps towards making the museum more reflective of its beloved community. We had a really wonderful Community Day with Elm City Games, a new community art project with the New Haven Public Library’s Wilson Branch and the Yale School of Art, and I worked hard to co-create a new position for School and Community Engagement. So progress, though incremental, is happening and am very grateful to my mentors and cheerleaders for helping me along the way.