Should Museums Rethink Black History Month?

As February draws to a close, and with it another Black History Month, I’ve been reflecting on how museums recognise this celebration of black achievements, contributions, and stories. In 2017, museums observed Black History Month in many different ways – from sharing relevant artefacts on social media, to black history gallery trails, to online exhibits, to special events, and more. I’ve enjoyed seeing more diversity on museum Twitter feeds recently (not to mention I’m a lifelong fangirl of Ella Fitzgerald):

Originally started in the United States as Negro History Week in 1926 by black historian and writer Carter G. Woodson, it’s transformed into an international movement observed by governments, cultural organisations, charities, schools, and businesses alike.

So it’s an easy win for museums trying to promote equality and diversity, right?

Actually, it’s not that simple. Not everyone thinks Black History Month is a good idea, and others suggest we need to rethink the way we celebrate it.

I grew up and continue to live in very multicultural neighbourhoods, and studied Black American and colonial histories at university. But I’m still a white female with no firsthand experience of what it means to be black. The best way for me to write about museums and Black History Month is to share the perspectives of others.

What I learned might surprise you.

Some people support museums celebrating Black History Month, but are disappointed by the approaches they have seen:

“If museums want to learn how not to respond, look at how Vice President Mike Pence responded when he twitted [sic] about Abraham Lincoln freeing slaves. He didn’t recognise what black people have done to win their freedom. Instead he perpetuated the white saviour complex, as if we have white people to thank for our freedom, instead of speaking on what POC have done. If museums decided to respond they should make space for POC to express their history and their truth. What I have noticed is many people who don’t understand the black experience tend to shut POC down but in order for museums to respond well they first need to listen to learn.” Dianna, a museums and community engagement worker in the UK

“Those first historians unearthed a great cast list of black figures from the British past, and many of the organisers of Black History Month began to place these biographies at the centre of their celebrations. But somewhere along the line those black historical figures morphed into black heroes. Black History Month…might be better called Black Heroes Month….while there is some impressive research going on into various aspects of black history, the celebration of heroes has at times limited our idea of what black history might be.”David Olusoga, a historian and broadcaster. Originally published in The Guardian.

While others are on the fence about whether museums should participate:

“If a museum is only highlighting black history for one month of the year, I think it can seem kind of patronising. It’s tricky though, because the status quo now is to celebrate it and so not participating could be viewed as unsupportive. Black History Month can seem tokenistic sometimes, but getting rid of it could send a bad message.”A museum visitor 

Some even think the concept of a dedicated Black History Month is detrimental to social justice:
“I believe that having a month for black history compartmentalizes the issue, as if once the month is over we can turn our attention away from it again until the next year…It is important to discuss issues of race in the context of current events throughout the year”  – Zia Hassan, a teacher in the U.S. Originally published in The Atlantic.
“There was always a focus on the civil-rights movement and it was as if black history stopped once Dr. King died…we rarely learned about anyone new from year to year, and we also didn’t get a context of different time periods.”Raquel Willis, a writer and activist in the U.S. Originally published in The Atlantic.

What I’ve found through my conversations and research is that observing Black History Month is far from an “easy win”. Museums and other cultural institutions need to think carefully about why they will celebrate it, how they will avoid being tokenistic and patronising, what they will do to involve black voices in their plans, and if diversity will be on the agenda the other 11 months of the year. 
Have you seen any good (or bad) examples of museums celebrating Black History Month this year? Please share in the comments below!

2 thoughts on “Should Museums Rethink Black History Month?

  1. An excellent article! Thank you for offering so many different voices and opinions. This is definitely one of the very timely topics museums face.


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