Yesterday, the Supreme Court of the United States made history.
No matter where you stand on the issue, June 26, 2013 will be marked as a seminal moment for gay rights in this country. While there were both cheers and jeers, the rulings that were handed down reflect the changing shift in American attitudes regarding marriage and equality. All of this, only one day after a very disappointing, but equally important ruling on the historic (and arguably still necessary) Voting Rights Act. The Supreme Court has been at the head of political and emotional roller coaster this term and has offered opinions whose impacts will be felt for years to come.
And where are museums in the conversation? From what I can tell, mostly non-existent.
I’ve seen endless online opinion pieces and corporate brands participating in equality celebrations – but not much from my museum community.
It is a fact that most museums are non-profits (though not all), and often find it necessary to tow a very thin line on political stances. Most museums are not in a position to “endorse,” however, we should all be in a postion to be a safe space for discussion. And in regards to the particular Supreme Court rulings this week – I want to see museums,and history museums in particular, leading many of these discussions.
At #AAM2013 I attended an excellent pop-up session on “Creating National Brand for History.” This session posed a lot of questions (facilitated by the great Conny Graft and John Durel), inspiring lively (and sometimes challenging) conversations. A few of the key take-aways for me were:
- History museums offer insight in citizenship, critical thinking skills, and self-realization (agreed)
- Elissa Frankle (@museums365) said, “History museums are either looking too far back or too far forward.” (agreed)
- Is history making a difference in people’s lives? YES. (agreed)
- Follow up question: Is it making a difference in A LOT of people’s lives? (hmm)
And the big one that gets kicked around:
- How do we make history relevant?
I think the answer is right in front of our eyes. History is relevant when we connect the past to the present; i.e. when we address CURRENT issues through historical context.
So I challenge my museum colleagues and their institutions: Let’s talk about yesterday’s rulings and the one from the day before. The Voting Rights Act was monumental legislation when it was passed in 1965. Why aren’t history museums talking about the Act then versus the Act now? These rulings provide an excellent opportunity for museums to be visible and relevant in their communities. Again, while we don’t need to take sides – we are the perfect venues to offer context, ask important questions and foster dialogue and discussion. What if the conversation gets out of control? Reasonable question, although in response, I would ask you if you’ve considered “what if it doesn’t?” Give your communities some credit. And while issues may be polarizing, you cannot argue with the fact that everything that is national is local. No matter where you are in the U.S., this week’s rulings have (and will continue to) impact your community. Why not be a relevant part of that action? The time for dialog is now.
Have you seen museums discussing these issues? I saw a number of tweets from the National LGBT Museum (@lgbtmuseum) yesterday, but that’s about it. Have concerns about what that conversation might look like? Let’s talk about them! Have some ideas for how a local museum might effectively engage or foster these kinds of conversations? Share them!