October 23, 2020

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Review of racism within museum unsurprising

John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press Files</p><p>The Canadian Museum for Human Rights tops the list of tourism highlights in Manitoba.</p>

John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press Files

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights tops the list of tourism highlights in Manitoba.

Opinion

There are many reasons to be concerned about Winnipeg lawyer Laurelle Harris' damning external review of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. But hardly anyone, and that includes the museum's leadership, should be shocked.

Pauline Rafferty, the CMHR board chair who is serving as interim president and CEO, called the findings of the Harris report "troubling," "concerning" and "disturbing." She did not use the word shocked, but she certainly intimated that as a long-time member of the senior management of the museum, she was somewhat taken aback.

Given her tenure with the museum, that is hard to reconcile. The Harris report indicated that concerns about systemic racism and other forms of discrimination had been logged by employees for many years. Rafferty's comments strongly suggest that middle and senior management were deliberately keeping those concerns from the prying eyes of the museum's board. Or, that the board did know but took the same posture as management, and dismissed them out of hand.

But either way, Rafferty and other directors have no excuse for being unaware that institutions all over the world dedicated to history, anthropology, sociology and art in all its different forms suffer from the same concerns raised in the CMHR review.

Pauline Rafferty and other directors have no excuse for being unaware that institutions all over the world dedicated to history, anthropology, sociology and art in all its different forms suffer from the same concerns raised in the CMHR review.

Last month, a group of current and former employees of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art in Washington, DC, accused the institution's management of promoting a culture of racism and ignoring complaints about racial bias and attacks.

The month before that, the famed Metropolitan Museum of Art was accused of "fostering a culture of systemic racism" after one of the museum's department heads posted a comment on social media accusing the Black Lives Matter movement of overreacting in its desire to remove monuments that evoke pro-slavery historical figures and events.

The entire curator department at the Guggenheim Museum, also in New York City, added to the narrative the same month, alleging "an inequitable work environment that enables racism, white supremacy and other discriminatory practices."

And that's just this year. For some time now professionals in the curatorial and museological worlds -- and the institutions in which they toil -- have been under siege for failing to address their failure to embrace diversity and inclusion in their ranks and collections.

Even at a time when there is more sensitivity around cultural appropriation and racial bias, the people who build, design, curate and program galleries and museums around the world are overwhelmingly white. Even when the stories they are telling deal with minorities.

Pauline Rafferty, the CMHR board chair who is serving as interim president and CEO, called the findings of the Harris report "troubling," "concerning" and "disturbing."

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Pauline Rafferty, the CMHR board chair who is serving as interim president and CEO, called the findings of the Harris report "troubling," "concerning" and "disturbing."

A 2017 study by the American Alliance of Museums found that 93 per cent of directors, 92.6 per cent of board chairs and 89.3 per cent of board members at major cultural institutions were white.

The situation is not all that different in Canada. A Canadian Art magazine article published in June 2020 looked at the diversity of management at four major art museums (The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, the Art Gallery of Ontario, the National Gallery of Canada and the Vancouver Art Gallery). It found that all four museums had white directors and board presidents. Of 24 senior executives, 96 per cent were white, and 75 per cent of board members were white.

What view of art and history does an all-white cast of directors, executives and managers produce? A 2019 study published in Plos One, a peer-reviewed scientific journal, found that 85 per cent of all artists featured in permanent collections of 18 major U.S. museums are white, and 87 per cent were men.

In this context, it seems to be a gross act of negligence for the board and senior management of the CMHR to think that it did not have the same problems percolating within its confines along with a range of other concerns that were perhaps more unique for a museum trying to study the issue of human rights.

For example, it was clear in the Harris report that the museum failed to anticipate the sometimes hostile reaction of some museum visitors who had no real idea what they were getting when they walked through the front door and were genuinely surprised at what they found.

It seems to be a gross act of negligence for the board and senior management of the CMHR to think that it did not have the same problems percolating within its confines along with a range of other concerns that were perhaps more unique for a museum trying to study the issue of human rights.

A human rights museum is an amorphous concept, and relatively unique within the global community of historical and sociological museums. In interviews, current and former museum staff acknowledged that for most of its first year in operation, there were few ugly moments because early visitors were largely attuned to the content.

However, as those "early adopters" began to wane, the next wave of visitors included many who perhaps did not know the museum featured content on LGBTQ issues, or that it included a Holocaust exhibit that detailed Canada's failure to help welcome Jewish refugees from Europe, or that there is a detailed timeline examining the complex evolution of Canada's abortion laws, or lack thereof.

The failure to anticipate the reaction of late-edition visitors to the museum definitely put "front-facing" staff in harm's way. Many were subjected to racist comments that, at times, became threatening.

Exacerbating this situation was a middle management that appeared to be genuinely disinterested in the trials and tribulations of the people closest to the visitors. Or the concerns that were raised about the way white managers were treating racialized staff.

"Very early on, the hope that this organization's operations would somehow be a model of the human rights mandate was quickly dispelled," said one former, long-time employee of the museum. "All the issues in the (Harris report) were raised internally. People were talking about all these things. It just wasn't prioritized."

"There were 126 students prevented from experiencing parts of the (LGBTQ) content and that is tragic. But tons of other people had transformational experiences going through the museum and hopefully this (controversy) won't take away from their learning." – former employee

The inability of CMHR management to confront and respond to the issues being raised by their own staff -- the heart of Harris' allegation of systemic racism -- largely explains how it could have allowed the censoring of LGBTQ content for certain tour groups that complained about it offending their religious sensibilities. Approximately 126 students in six different "modified" tours were prevented from seeing that content.

This one issue has turned out to be particularly concerning to many current and former staff who believe, despite the issues raised in the Harris report, that the content of the museum is still viable and credible although it does ignore certain people, particularly Canada's Black community.

Many noted that the museum exhibits on LGBTQ issues, abortion, the Holocaust and Indigenous issues have been largely celebrated by people from those groups as fair and accurate portrayals of their human rights struggles.

"The content does stand on its own although it needs to be deepened and added to," said the former employee. "There were 126 students prevented from experiencing parts of the (LGBTQ) content and that is tragic. But tons of other people had transformational experiences going through the museum and hopefully this (controversy) won't take away from their learning."

So, do not be shocked at the details now emerging from the CMHR. Be disappointed and perhaps, just briefly, try to be hopeful that somehow this unique institution can rebuild itself and embody the principles contained within its lofty mandate.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Dan Lett

Dan Lett
Columnist

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

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