by Anna Holshouser-Belden
What is your museum love story? Dr. Porchia Moore, museum theorist and self-proclaimed activist-scholar, opened her lecture “Examining the Buttermilk: A Biomythology of Anti-Blackness and Liberatory Praxis in the Museum,” with this question on Wednesday night. The lecture itself was an overview of Dr. Moore’s life’s work in the worldbuilding of anti-racist museums, during which she delved into several theories on how to repair the problematic pasts of our nation’s cultural institutions. Said theories were inspired by Black visionaries of the afro-futurist genre like bell hooks, Audre Lorde, and Octavia Butler. Dr. Moore specifically cites Octavia Butler’s “Rules for Predicting the Future,” bell hooks’ “Writing Beyond Race,” and Audre Lorde’s “Zami: A New Spelling of My Name.” The title of the event is drawn from a 2000 essay by Lonnie G. Bunch III, current secretary of the Smithsonian museum: “Flies in the Buttermilk: Museums, Diversity, and the Will to Change,” along with Audre Lorde’s concept of a “biomythography,” a combination of biography, myth, and history. Dye Lecture Hall was surprisingly packed for an event on museum studies, and prior to the asking of the above question, completely silent – save for a few names spoken aloud by people from the audience – as part of “holding space” for those who came before.
Soon afterward, Dr. Moore launched into her own “museum love story,” still focusing on both remembering and chronicling the past. As the child of an elementary school teacher, Moore traveled with her mother to different museums around the area of South Carolina where she grew up, scoping out potential sites for school field trips. After these fundamental experiences with her mother, there was no question about it, Porchia Moore had fallen in love with museums. She described how she would venture to museums alone throughout middle school and high school when her mother was busy, since none of her friends would go with her (all while laughing from the podium). After getting her bachelor’s degree and spending a few years in Japan teaching English as a second language, Dr. Moore returned to the U.S. to get her doctorate in museum and library studies from the University of South Carolina. Moore got her degree with the help of the Cultural Heritage Informatics Leadership Librarian Fellowship, and decided to dedicate her career to conducting research that positively affects communities, more specifically the community of museum-going people of color.
A large portion of the lecture concentrated on Dr. Moore’s research for her dissertation on the phenomenon of plantation tourism that has appeared throughout the southeastern U.S. She specifically sites McLeod Plantation in Charleston, SC, which includes a collection of cottages named “freedom row,” an ironic name given their history of being home to slaves pre-abolition, and to the descendants of slaves until the 1990s, when the plantation was transformed into a museum. This plantation, along with several other cultural institutions that Dr. Moore studied, were all stops along the tour of historical sites visited by Dylan Roof, before he massacred nine Black churchgoers at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. Given the knowledge that McLeod Plantation, along with several other historic sites such as Sullivan’s Island (where almost all people captured from Africa during the slave trade passed through) were stops along Roof’s trip, Dr. Moore researched ways in which these institutions contributed to ideas which drove the Charleston massacre.
In her lecture, Dr. Moore mentioned an interesting statistic that stuck with me, and relates to the reason she found herself alone in museums for much of her teenage life; over 60% of adult museum-goers were introduced to museums as children by a family member. Additionally, just about 75% of adult museum-goers are white. Dr. Moore describes that, starting in her childhood, she was constantly aware of being either the only person of color in museums or one of very few. There is a distinct link in these statistics of museums being associated with whiteness on a generational scale – with white parents taking their kids to museums, who in turn take their kids to museums, and so on – and the way museums are structured towards white ways of thinking. Museum professionals and academics like Dr. Moore are now asking questions about why racial demographics of museum-goers are so skewed, and how to repair a relationship between museums and people of color.
My “museum love story” corresponds with the above statistics. I am white, and both of my parents, along with their parents, are college educated – I hold a vast amount of privilege because of these facets of my identity, and museums along with other cultural institutions are marketed toward me and people like me. Growing up as an only child (parents of only children are also proven to take their kids to museums more) in Brooklyn, my family frequented museums on the weekends. For a large portion of my childhood, we went to a museum at least once a month, and I have fond memories of running around giant metal Richard Serra sculptures at the MoMA, circling up and down the galleries of the Guggenheim, and taking the A train up to the Cloisters at the tip of Manhattan. My mother’s father was an amateur painter in his spare time, and made sure his four kids had exposure to museums even though their hometown of Corning, NY, only had two – a number dwarfed by the amount of museums I grew up around in New York. Like Dr. Moore, my mother played a large role in introducing me to museums; unlike Dr. Moore, I do not have to feel alienated by the cultural institutions that I love.
I have the racial and financial privilege to be interested enough in museums that I can study them here at Oberlin. In part, it is my privilege that has landed me a seat at this school and a job at the Allen Memorial Art Museum as a gallery guide, or a paid docent. Every Friday morning I sit at the front desk, welcoming people and selling the very occasional postcard. Though I don’t have a super influential position, I of course found myself thinking about the Allen during Dr. Moore’s lecture. My kind-of-insider knowledge has made me aware that there is not a single person of color on the museum’s higher-level staff, including a white curator of Asian art and no curator of African art at all. The museum’s African art, in fact, takes up a modest two display cases in the back of the building’s ambulatory, while European art has permanent residence in two entire galleries. Oberlin’s long history of having a theology school which sent white missionaries to Asia, to essentially indoctrinate people into being Christians, is the source of a lot of the art from Asia. The museum is in possession of a Benin bronze, looted from Nigeria by the British when they burned much of the city to the ground, and other items from Africa that are centered in arguments for repatriation and were never intended to be kept in pedestals behind glass cases.
I’m not bringing up the Allen’s faults to condemn its validity as an institution or to say that all museums are bad, merely acknowledging more reasons for Dr. Moore’s work that we can find at our home institution. During the audience question portion of the lecture, a student asked whether the possibility of a radical museum space exists. Dr. Moore responded with the statement that the only way to rewrite museums’ history of plundering and centering white ways of knowing is to rebuild from the ground up – as an Oberlin student and someone who works for the Allen, in my opinion the first step of “rebuilding from the ground up” the harmful history which our own museum has is acknowledging it. Some more of Dr. Moore’s advice about holding our museums accountable is to stop perpetuating mythologies around figures who have caused harm, and having the willingness to tell multiple truths through collections. Here she uses the example of the North Carolina museum of art creating an exhibit using several depictions of Christopher Columbus from their collection to address the problematic history surrounding him as a figure. Moore additionally urges museums to be trauma-informed, and to acknowledge objects in their collections that have a history of trauma, so that work doesn’t become the responsibility of the visitor. Several more of her ideas about transforming museums into radical spaces are included in her project called Incluseum. Dr. Moore emphasized again and again in her lecture her love of museums, something that is important to take hand in hand with her acknowledgements of the faults that many museums and cultural institutions share; this is what stuck with me the most from her lecture–as Oberlin students we can love the Allen while simultaneously hoping to repair its faults.