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After the Election, US Museums Affirm Their Roles as Safe, Open Spaces

The Philbrook Museum of Art, Tenement Museum, and Japanese American National Museum are among those speaking out.

Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, Oklahoma (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, Oklahoma (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

After the election last week of Donald Trump to the American presidency, some museums have maintained a political silence; others, however, have issued statements on their roles as cultural and community spaces.

One of the most proactive responses came from Scott Stulen, the director and president of the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, Oklahoma — a state where the majority of voters supported Trump. In a letter issued on November 13 and titled “We live in a divided nation,” Stulen wrote that the museum is not “a place that is guided by fear but one that sees possibility, opportunity, and joy in our neighbors.” He affirmed that the institution will continue to “respect and value our teachers, preserve the environment, champion social justice, and be a safe place for unsafe ideas.” Stulen added that the museum is starting a program to give free membership to Oklahoma teachers, which is more than just a nice, random gesture — in this election, state voters rejected a teachers’ raise, and their salaries remain among the nation’s lowest.

Morris J. Vogel, president of New York’s Tenement Museum, posted a message on November 9  about how the election will impact his institution’s work, focusing especially on the narrative of immigration. “We know that many voters yesterday sought to distance themselves from what we at the Museum regard as this nation’s foundational principle—that immigration allows us to become more than we already are as a people,” Vogel wrote. He went on to note that he and his staff “explain to visitors that Americans in the past sometimes lost confidence in their national future and lashed out against immigrants in reaction. We try to help visitors appreciate that immigrants often had to build new lives in the face of hostility.”

Food display at the Tenement Museum in New York City (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Food display at the Tenement Museum in New York City (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Similarly, the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles released a statement on November 10 referencing the importance of the history it represents. Norman Y. Mineta, the museum’s board chair (and a former US Secretary of both transportation and commerce), cited Trump’s “alarming statements threatening the civil rights of specific ethnic groups” and emphasized that the institution “hope[s] that the 45th President of the United States will remember the unlawful violation of Japanese Americans’ civil rights during World War II that led to their incarceration in concentration camps, and aggressively act to prevent that kind of history from repeating itself.” The Asian Art Museum (AAM) in San Francisco also shared a message entitled “Building Cultural Empathy” from its director, Jay Xu, who wrote that he was “deeply troubled by the messages of exclusion and prejudice surfaced across the country over recent months.” He asserted that the AAM is “a museum for all.”

On November 10, Jonathan Foley, executive director of the California Academy of Sciences, which is located in San Francisco as well, published a letter that he sent to his staff addressing the institution’s responsibility to discuss science and the environment. “Regardless of your partisan leanings, the results of the presidential election have raised serious concerns about the future of American science and education, and the fate of the global environment,” he wrote, concluding that the academy “will stand up — taller than ever — for education, for independent science, for nature, for people of all backgrounds, and for fundamental decency.”

Some museums shared their election responses through the hashtag #MuseumsTheDayAfter; others, like the Brooklyn Museum, offered free admission in the days after. The Newseum in Washington, DC, is offering teacher resources for “constructive classroom conversations after the anger, angst and roaring rhetoric of this historic presidential race,” while the Children’s Museum of Manhattan tweeted tips from its deputy director, Leslie Bushara, on talking to your child about what transpired. Hopefully more museums will address their post-election roles in the coming days, and continue to activate their resources for necessary dialogue and community.

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