Five months after Black Lives Matter, museums are shyly emerging from the silence

Demonstrations and statues of “generous donors” debunked: the anti-racist movement “Black Lives Matter” has pushed museums to question their role and to come out of a form of silence for which they were accused.

“Museums are not neutral,” said in June in a forum the International Council of Museums (ICOM), which brings together some 30,000 members. They “have the responsibility and the duty to fight against racial injustice (…), from the stories they tell to the diversity of their staff”.

After the death of George Floyd in May in the United States, during an arrest by the police, the “Black Lives Matter” movement called on many institutions, especially cultural ones, to demand change and better representation.

The Metropolitan and the MoMa in New York split their stands to express “their solidarity with the black community”. In Great Britain, the British Museum very symbolically removed from its pedestal the bust of its founder Hans Sloane, who had become rich in the slave trade, and now exhibits it in a display case.

In France, the reactions were more timid and the debate was dominated by the question of the unbolting of statues. This “reveals the difficulty of France to face its colonial past”, estimates Françoise Vergès, political scientist and president of the association “Décoloniser les arts”.

– Thirst for living museums –

But “the public thirsts for living museums, which tell us a multitude of stories rather than reveal a multitude of variations of the same story”, observes Cécile Fromont, professor of art history at Yale University. (United States).

Like the exhibition on the representation of black figures in painting (“The black model”) in Orsay, which attracted 500,000 visitors in 2019.

Some institutions have taken up the subject, such as the Aquitaine Museum in Bordeaux which relayed the call “to collectively decolonize our museums”. “The assassination of George Floyd resonates loudly”, explains Katia Kukawka, its deputy director, believing that a museum cannot remain neutral on such a subject.

“We are not here to play politics, but to take a certain look at society as scientists,” says André Delpuech, anthropologist and director of the Musée de l’Homme in Paris. He took the opportunity to rebroadcast articles and podcasts relating to the exhibition “Us and the others” (2017), on racism and prejudice.

The Pompidou center also wondered this summer about what “culture can do” in the face of racial discrimination. For its president Serge Lasvignes, the modern art center must mark a break with the “museum-sanctuary” and move away from the history of Western art, with exhibitions such as “Global (e) resistance” (until ‘in January), with points of view of artists from “countries of the South”.

– Mirror of society –

If the Louvre has not publicly expressed itself on the Black Lives Matter movement, its management ensures “to address contemporary issues and issues”. And to recall the existing initiatives, which aim to deconstruct prejudices, such as the visits organized in 2018 by the Lilian Thuram Foundation against racism to the Delacroix museum (under the supervision of the Louvre).

In places of creation, such as 59 Rivoli, support for the anti-racist movement is hardly in doubt, a “Black lives matter” banner being deployed since spring on the facade of the building, in the heart of Paris. An initiative that would not have taken place without the presence of a young artist, herself a victim of racial discrimination, underlines Gaspard Delanöe, co-founder of the place.

“Museums are mirrors of society. If in this mirror we can see no diversity, there is a problem”, believes the one who defends a policy of diversity to find new artists.

For museum professionals, this is still wishful thinking. “I have never received candidates of color for the post of curator”, notes Serge Lasvignes, for whom the entrance examination is elitist and would require “real positive discrimination measures”.

“Society moves much faster than institutions which remain cautious about this movement”, summarizes Françoise Vergès. The latter recently collected testimonies from dancers from the Opera, a cultural “other fortress” called upon to break the silence on questions linked to racism.

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