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A Museum for Everybody: An Interview with Dr. Porchia Moore

Dr. Porchia Moore is Department Head and Assistant Professor of Museum Studies at the University of Florida in the School of Art + Art History. Her research investigates the role and function of race in museums and the cultural heritage sector. She is the Critical Race Futurist for The Incluseum, a Project Advisor for Museum as Site for Social Action (MASS Action), and the co-creator of The Visitors of Color Project. She previously served as the Inclusion Catalyst at the Columbia Museum of Art where she also worked as consulting curator of the African-American Art for the Spoken rotating art gallery. She has partnered with museums nationally and internationally on educational programming, training, and workshops on race and anti-racism.

Hai Ning Ng: What led you to study the intersection between race and museums? 

Porchia Moore: I was born and raised in South Carolina, the first state to secede from the Union. It’s a state that prides itself on the false notion of “heritage, not hate,” evidenced by its numerous Confederate flags and Confederate monuments. There’s this devotion to an American history that very intentionally and wholeheartedly centers on a White, slave master narrative. My mother was a fourth grade teacher, and she was very interested in historic house museums and historical sites in general. So while other students were attending football games with their families, we would take road trips to these historic sites, monuments, and museums. I fostered a passion for visiting museums and learning about their history and culture. As I got older, I began to realize that we were often one of the few families in attendance at these events and visiting these sites. I always wondered why only a small majority of folks were actually attending these spaces. 

When I had the opportunity to earn my doctorate, I was awarded the Laura Bush 21st Century fellowship, a CHILL fellowship (Cultural Heritage, Informatics, Leadership, Librarians). We were tasked with identifying critical issues in cultural heritage institutions and solutions for those issues. I wanted to focus on this notion of representation: who’s attending museums and who’s not. Critical race theory was a really good way for me to analyze the role and function of race in cultural heritage institutions, specifically museums. You see Trump, for example, trying to center a White, dominant narrative, trying to hold on to this false American historical perspective. It’s as if this nation was created without four hundred years of oppression of formerly enslaved Africans. So, critical race theory allows us to interrogate libraries, archives, museums, and galleries, then critique them for their dedication to telling particular narratives that exclude all kinds of people and their lived experiences.

HN: How have museums perpetuated racism and colonialism? How do you see that changing?

PM: It’s offensive to enter a museum and realize that there are all of these intentional omissions, or to feel that museums are trying to remain neutral. I do want to lift up the names of La Tanya Autry and Mike Murawski, who created the hashtag #MuseumsAreNotNeutral to complicate these discussions about race, inclusion, and equity. Who’s attending these spaces and who’s not? Who’s working in these spaces and who’s not? Whose narratives are being excluded or whose objects are being, for lack of a better word, exploited? Think about the origins of museums: they are racist, colonialist, imperialist institutions that were literally created to show the bounty of our looting. We’re putting on display the very intentional rape and pillage of entire cultures, and we’re proud of that. It has been interesting to see this continued movement of nations asking for their objects back, forcing museums to figure out, what is the need for us to decolonize? What does it mean for us to repatriate? So often you hear museums say, “If we return these objects, how will you care for them?” It’s so insulting. It’s like they’re saying: “People don’t know how to care for their own objects.” They’re also not taking into account the fact that so many of these objects are sacred and were never meant to be seen outside of select groups of people. Some of these objects were used in sacred rituals. Some of them were designed not to be touched by certain genders, and there are many other complicated issues. 

However, I love that museums are undergoing all of this transformation and change. If you look at the last year, you see over a dozen open letters from museum professionals calling out institutions, stating these institutions are racist, they uphold white supremacy, they’re violent in ways that create all kinds of harm, they’re triggering, and they’re not paying people what they deserve. It was especially interesting to follow what happened recently with the executive director of the Newfields Art Museum in Indianapolis. They had a job listing for someone who could help the museum maintain their “core White audience.” It is mind-blowing that someone can believe that while simultaneously saying they are committed to equity and access.

HN: What is the profile of museum goers in America today? 

PM: I think about the 1776 Commission, the Trump administration trying to tell people that they can’t use words like White privilege, that there’s no such thing as racism, or wanting to co-opt historic sites and make them emblems of white nationalist narratives. That’s scary. I think about what happened in Charlottesville, when [white supremacists] killed a woman because she was protesting against a Confederate monument. In South Carolina, churchgoers were brutally murdered after a Bible study at Mother Emanuel Church, a church that I have attended most of my life. It has become clear to me that we don’t know what the profile of a museum goer actually is because we haven’t done the due diligence to cultivate that. We have, for a very long time, pushed a certain narrative. Even when we tell so-called Black stories, they are still rooted in one particular historical period – either enslavement or civil rights. There’s so many gaps in our cultural heritage institutions’ narratives. We’re only now starting to see a little bit of work towards decolonization and the telling of different narratives, so much so that I do not believe we know what the profile of a museum goer is; for so long, we’ve only relied on one demographic.

I think if we made all those changes, we would see people in these institutions that we have never seen before. When you look at the visitorship of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in D.C., there’s people who would tell you, I never go to museums. It’s almost like a pilgrimage. People of all ages, ethnicities, and demographics do whatever it takes to visit. They take busses. They carpool to attend this museum because they feel like they’re going to learn something in a new way. They’ve heard other people share about their experiences. It’s a dynamic experience, and it’s a complete narrative. That’s why people make this journey. The people who go in and return repeatedly are the people we should be studying because they can inform us about who hasn’t been going and why. If we learn from that museum about how to tell new stories in such a compelling way that millions of people want to visit, then other institutions can do the same thing, whether it’s telling Queer stories, Asian stories, First Nations stories, Latinx stories. All of these experiences are American experiences. 

HN: You mentioned in a 2014 article, “The Danger of the ‘D’ Word,” that the concept of diversity in museums tends to be very narrow. Instead of diversity, what should we be aiming for? 

PM: First of all, museums need to understand their origin story: how and when they were created and for what purpose. We should also be focused on calling out what anti-Blackness is and where it lives. We should always be thinking about the ways in which certain communities have historically been marginalized and/or excluded. Then we should focus on repairing those things and truly creating our own frameworks for equity, access, and inclusion. One of the challenges is that everyone wants to have this simple formula telling them what to do. Museums, no matter how large or how small, are rooted in community, and every community is different. You have to figure out for your own institution what equity, access, and inclusion look like for the community that you’re rooted in. It’s going to look different everywhere. 

In my mind, the process of unlearning is associated with the willingness to be racially literate. One of the things I focus on is, how can an institution be racially literate and what does that mean? I ask people to think about their information gaps. What are some things they clearly have no awareness or understanding of? Then, I ask them to pick 15 to 30 media outlets that they can follow, so that they can begin to be exposed to all kinds of communities and understand these different issues. At least in that way, you can begin to increase your own cultural competency. And then from there, that will allow you to do your own research, to continue to learn from others so that you can increase your racial literacy.  

HN: How should museums go about presenting painful and traumatic histories like enslavement? Can we make museums safer spaces for any visitor, no matter who they are?

PM: I don’t know if that’s a goal. I don’t even know if we can make a museum a safe space. I think it has to be a well-informed space. The more we decolonize and tell these stories, the more cultural heritage institutions have to truly get the training required to be trauma-informed and healing-centered. I don’t know if we can guarantee safety, but we can be intentional in the ways we present information, and design experiences that help people navigate that information. And that, to me, is the only “safety.” 

As a Black woman, while I want this information, it’s also traumatizing and triggering. I know that there’s more to my narrative. Yes, my most recent collective history is that we were formerly enslaved people. But even amongst that, there are so many people whose names we don’t know who made all these contributions. Where are the joy-filled stories, the stories about entrepreneurship, the stories about mothering and parenting, the stories about love, the stories about adventurers and explorers and inventors? We need more of that to complete the narrative. A lot of the time it still goes from, you were enslaved, to civil rights, to famous ball players, and maybe a couple of artists, as if that’s the whole tapestry. It’s not. We have to start being more intentional about finding those stories, which is why cultural heritage institutions need to do a better job of speaking to one another. If we have archives and we have recordings and diaries and paperwork, museums need to use them in more powerful, creative ways in our exhibitions. We need to enrich the experience with more types of information, not just the traditional wall text with a certain sort of institutional tone attempting to remain neutral. What’s most empowering is not trying to remain neutral, not trying to adhere to some false narrative, but presenting all of the information so people can come to their own conclusions.

HN: You’ve criticized museum directors for running museums like Fortune 500 companies. What should be the best practices for running museums? 

PM: Increasingly, I’m trying to understand more about power, and how power and authority are connected to race, and how those two things show up in museums. Look at the structure of museum boards, which have a major influence on museums’ decision making. Why do we have them? What is their function? They’re almost always made up of wealthy, White individuals who have an overwhelming amount of social capital. Why do we need those boards, and if we need a board for governance, why does it have to be composed of that demographic? Are they racially literate? What do they actually know about the inner workings of these institutions? I think we need new models of power. If we say that we are rooted in community, why are we not allowing genuine opportunities for community members to share their knowledge and influence? You can be an expert curator or an expert museum educator, but you can still be informed by community members. They can share authority, and they can share in the co-creation process. I think moving forward, museums really need to unpack power and authority, so that it doesn’t feel so top-down. 

HN: You’ve written about respectability politics in museum programming before. Could you expand on that? 

PM: People traffic in stereotypes. I’ve heard museum professionals say, “We’re going to advertise in the Black church bulletin.” People rarely have printed church bulletins anymore. When you look at the age demographics, millennials now are not going to church the way that their parents went to church. There’s a huge group of Black atheists. You also see in COVID, for the people who do attend church, there’s this whole digital church movement, so there’s no real place to advertise about a program. There’s a respectability politic built into that, it’s we’re going to target the “good Negroes” of the church community, because we know that they are Christian. They’re going to behave a certain way. They’re not going to ask questions. They’re not going to make a fuss. They might even contribute a few dollars. If you belong to a church or have a level of education, or if you’re in a social circle with other “good” White folks, then you could be the group that we can market to. No one ever says, “We’re going to advertise this program at the local community center or the housing project,” because of all these expectations on socioeconomic status and behavior, like who’s able to pay and who’s not, who’s able to arrive at our location and who’s not.

If museums are rooted in community, then they exist for everybody in that community, whether you’re a homeless person or someone who lives behind the gates in some well-to-do neighborhood. At the institution where I previously worked, the conversation was, what are we going to do about “the homeless”? It was a nauseating conversation. There were parts of the museum that were “free to the public”, yet there was all this gatekeeping about who “looks homeless”, who could come into certain spaces, or whether you needed to call security. They even wanted to redirect people from our public bathroom to walk a few blocks down to this other bathroom. That to me was just outrageous. I just think that the museum, particularly if it’s a free public institution, has to figure out a way to exist for everyone. The same way that the library does. You see homeless folks using the library. You see the wealthiest of the wealthy using the library. There are programs, events, and resources for everyone included. Museums have to figure out a way to do that same thing. 

HN: Have visitors’ expectations of museums shifted?

PM: We all live on our phones and it has created an expectation of how you can access life. I think our connection to technology has definitely embedded itself in the ways people expect to experience a museum visit. There’s an expectation that information is going to be readily available at the click of a button, or that the experience will have a digital component. Museums have done a good job in trying to respond to that. In my class on design thinking and social media in museums, we talked about the rise of the Instagrammable museum experience. There’s museums like the Museum of Ice Cream where you can dive into a pool of sprinkles and take selfies with cool backdrops and other interactive things. But is this applicable to all types of museums? Could you do this at a Holocaust museum or a museum that has a more somber, difficult history? And if so, is it triggering? Is it disrespectful? In any case, the increase of those types of museums have definitely changed the visitor expectation about what a museum visit can actually look, feel, and sound like.

At one time, particularly when we think about children’s museums and science centers, there was this push for museums to be extremely tactile. Now in this COVID era, people are very mindful about the things that you can touch. MuseumNext has a wonderful conference about how museums have had to pivot to digital in this age and how that has transformed our field and visitor expectations. For the last five to eight years in museums, we’ve been talking about the Internet of Things, and about 3D printing. We’ve been talking about A.I. We’ve been talking about more virtual experiences where things are beamed in front of you, where you can interact with them based on your motion. I think we’ll begin to see more of these things where people can have this extremely dynamic museum experience. You don’t have to touch anything. You just have to come in and move and it activates something. I think that’s the safest, most 21st-century way of changing the museum experience. I’m looking forward to seeing more virtual reality and A.I. offerings that feel safer than some of the more tactile things we’ve seen recently. 

HN: Where do you hope museums go from here? 

PM: We’re in the midst of this great process of unlearning and the genuine decolonizing of our minds. One of the things that I talk about often with my museum colleagues and students is the International Council of Museums’ debate last year on the definition of a museum. I think there were over 250 definition submissions, but ultimately on the day they were supposed to vote on it, so many nations found it unacceptable. And so now we are in limbo, relying on a 2007 definition of museums. People said that the definition they put forth was too academic, too wordy, too aspirational, and didn’t actually capture the full breadth of museum work. But I thought it was inspirational, and it encapsulates the work that we are currently doing to create equity, access, and inclusion. This definition also takes us to the next level of museum-going. One of the things that was included in the definition was that museums should be polyphonic spaces – yes, we should have multiple voices represented. The more voices represented, the more narratives can be told. People said that museums should help others focus on planetary well-being and social justice. These elements are things that us museum professionals are already calling for and trying to do. 

So a lot of us are still unclear about the very definition of a museum, but it’s also a good place to grow. I’m excited about coming up with the new definition, because to me, it’s not about the definition, it’s about the vision encapsulated in that definition. We could reflect on the definition as a tool to create the museums that we all deserve—museums that center BIPOC folks, queer folks, and all kinds of people, stories, and narratives. I’m looking forward to this next iteration, this new museum. 

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.