History Sanitizer and Growing Uncomfortable

from Michelle Willard, Founder of Mighty Museum

Spring is in the air! Time to dust things off and get ready to welcome visitors back to the many museums across BC and beyond. As a small museum, you may have been closed for the off season, or since the pandemic hit, and are now moving forward with preparations to provide visitors with safe, physically distanced visiting opportunities.

Now is the time to talk about sanitizing. And I don’t mean the Museum of Clean, or your COVID-19 cleaning protocols. I am talking about the removal or omission of what might be deemed uncomfortable histories from your galleries in order not to offend visitors. In other words, sanitizing history.

Some small museums are currently reckoning with their sanitized exhibits, which have been sitting unchanged since they were created at the inception of their museums back in the 1970s or 80s. Museums were historically created as exclusionary places, so it follows that the stories presented within these institutions would be exclusive as well. Uncomfortable histories were altered, glossed over or outright omitted in preference of dominant and comfortable colonial narratives.

So what should museums do with these sanitized exhibits? It is a complex process to undo the clean. Art historian Alice Proctor actively unravels comfortable colonial narratives in museums and galleries through her Uncomfortable Art Tours. For the undoing to be done in a meaningful way, it takes time, resources and skillful relationship building. And for small museums with limited resources, this work may take even longer. Regardless, many small museums are stepping forward and are in fact ideally situated to undo the clean (see Mighty Museum blog, Shaking Things Up: Small Museums and Activism).

We can feel encouraged by the visitors who encounter uncomfortable and challenging histories in museums and say, “Yes! It’s about time! Thanks for telling it like it is! How refreshing!” Comments such as these were left in museum visitor books of a small museum I worked at, confirming that the desire for these stories to be incorporated into the museum experience is very real. The comment “how refreshing” also points to museums’ historical shortcomings in telling these stories.

This spring, plant history seeds of justice, reframing the past for a better future. Let them blossom in new and engaging ways, and grow uncomfortable stories. Let them sprout up in your museums, edging in between the rocks of once-known truths. Let their unruly offshoots spread and climb the walls, taking over the space. Don’t cut them back. There is no need to shy away from telling it like it is. Museums can stop sanitizing history. The only sanitation practices needed going forward should involve Purell.

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