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LETTER FROM TOM HENNES

What on earth are we doing?

How is it that, amidst all of the voices raised to proclaim that Black Lives Matter, amidst all of the calls for change, amidst public officials taking a knee and public companies voicing their solidarity, that yet another Black man, Rayshard Brooks, is shot and killed by police in Atlanta this past Friday? How is it, how is it that the same pattern of police violence and escalation repeats and repeats itself, day after day, even in the face of all of this civil action and public anguish?

Did we really need more evidence that our system of racial oppression is doing exactly what it was designed to do? It’s not broken, as a friend has said, it’s working just fine.

It has long protected White lives and White wealth against anything—Black lives, poor lives, other lives—that it perceives as a threat to White lives and White wealth. It continues, generation after generation, to distort and traumatize everything it touches.

Human beings created the system we live in. Human beings can throw it out and create a new one. One that we can all thrive in.

We, all of us, have to say out loud that Black Lives Matter, not only because it is true and right and sacred to do so, but also because it lays the ground for something new. It proclaims our rejection of what the present system has always said, sometimes at a whisper, and sometimes out loud: that White lives matter, but Black lives, and Indigenous lives, and all those lives lived by people who are not heteronormative White people—do not.

Enough! Enough suffering, enough trauma, enough dehumanization. It has been enough for hundreds of years, as far too many Black people—and far too few White people—have long since known to the depths of their bodies and the depths of their souls.

We cannot change the past, but we can acknowledge it. And we can damn well change the present and the future.

The system the police were designed to serve and protect must be got rid of. Policing as we know it must end. Defund? Hell yes! What kind of society do we want to be? A society of oppressors and oppressed? Of walled communities, some with free White people in them, others with imprisoned Black people? Does institutionalized madness make America great? Hell, no! It rots us to our core. It expresses, enables, and functionalizes the sickness of White Supremacy.

We should all be sick of being sick.

Museums are part of the sickness. Right or wrong, they reflect and hold in their collections things that their societies value, and they transmit those values, explicitly and implicitly, in ways that people of all colors take into their minds and their bodies for a lifetime. Far too many museums embody and promote values of Whiteness that reflect their largely White boards, White staff, and White audiences. Far too many are still, in this day, riven by anxiety about adopting and reflecting new values that transform how and why and for whom they live in the world. They struggle to make changes that people of all colors in their ranks know is essential, and when they do change, their movements are all too often incremental and insufficient.

We in the museum community must challenge ourselves to examine the extent to which Whiteness and racism have seeped in to every aspect of our work. We must challenge museum boards and administrations to open themselves far more widely to Black participation and Black leadership. And we must reach out, with far greater humility and purpose, to Black and Brown communities, inside and outside these institutions, to join together in defining what fundamental change would look like and how, exactly, to enact it.

We must bring museums fully into the whole of humanity, or we must tear them down.

We who are Thinc must also challenge ourselves to stand more fully with the whole of humanity. We must use our voices and our abilities with a strength we have not previously imagined, and do so with new clarity, consistency, and persistence. In the past, we have spoken truth to power, but too often we have also equivocated. We have worked with Black and Brown communities, and listened to their narratives, but too often we have also failed to convey the power and fullness of those narratives in the places we build. We have advocated that museums co-create exhibitions and programs with those who have largely been excluded, but too often we have also allowed the necessary processes to remain aspirational.

Time to get real.

Time to stop equivocating. Time to finally hear the full resonance of the truths that have been spoken to us for far too long, and time to live their implications in everything we do. Time for the shock of the moment to move us to feel what we’ve been too timid to feel, to think beyond what we’ve allowed ourselves to think, and to act in ways we have not dared.

Time’s up.

Tom Hennes