Demonstrations and statues of “generous donors” debunked: the anti-racist movement “Black Lives Matter” has pushed museums to question their role and to break 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 a responsibility and a duty to fight racial injustice (…), from the stories they tell to the diversity of their staff.”
After George Floyd’s death in May in the United States, during a police arrest, 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 is now exhibiting 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 France’s difficulty in dealing with its colonial past,” said Françoise Vergès, political scientist and president of the “Décoloniser les arts” association.
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 murder of George Floyd resonates loudly,” says Katia Kukawka, its deputy director, saying that a museum cannot remain neutral on such a subject.
“We are not here to play politics, but to take a certain view of 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 from artists from “countries of the South”.
Mirror of society
While 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 not 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 do not see any diversity, there is a problem “, believes the one who defends a diversity policy 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 “fortress” called upon to break the silence on issues related to racism.