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← Museums should honor the everyday, not just the extraordinary

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Showing Revision 8 created 12/21/2018 by Oliver Friedman.

  1. Representation matters.
  2. Authentic representations of women matter.
  3. I think that too often,
    our public representations of women
  4. are enveloped in the language
    of the extraordinary.
  5. The first American woman
    to become a self-made millionaire:
  6. Madam C. J. Walker ...
  7. The dresses of the first ladies
    of the United States ...
  8. Shirley Chisholm, the first woman to seek
  9. the US Democratic party's
    presidential nomination --
  10. (Applause)

  11. As a museum curator,

  12. I understand why these stories
    are so seductive.
  13. Exceptional women
    are inspiring and aspirational.
  14. But those stories are limiting.
  15. By definition, being extraordinary
    is nonrepresentative.
  16. It's atypical.
  17. Those stories do not create a broad base
    for incorporating women's history,
  18. and they don't reflect
    our daily realities.
  19. If we can collectively apply
    that radical notion
  20. that women are people,
  21. it becomes easier to show
    women as people are:
  22. familiar, diverse, present.
  23. In everyone's everyday throughout history,
  24. women exist positively --
  25. not as a matter of interpretation,
    but as a matter of fact.
  26. And beyond a more accurate
    representation of human life,
  27. including women considers
    the quotidian experiences
  28. of the almost 3.8 billion people
    identified as female on this planet.
  29. In this now notorious museum scene
    from the "Black Panther" movie,

  30. a white curator erroneously
    explains an artifact
  31. to Michael B. Jordan's
    character seen here,
  32. an artifact from his own culture.
  33. This fictional scene caused
    real debates in our museum communities
  34. about who is shaping the narratives
    and the bias that those narratives hold.
  35. Museums are actually rated
  36. one of the most trustworthy sources
    of information in the United States,
  37. and with hundreds of millions of visitors
    from all over the world,
  38. we should tell accurate histories,
  39. but we don't.
  40. There is a movement
    from within museums themselves
  41. to help combat this bias.
  42. The simple acknowledgment
    that museums are not neutral.
  43. Museums are didactic.
  44. Through the display of art and artifacts,
  45. we can incite creativity
    and foster inclusion,
  46. but we are guilty
    of historical misrepresentation.
  47. Our male-centered histories
    have left our herstories hidden.
  48. And there are hard truths
    about being a woman,
  49. especially a woman of color
    in this industry,
  50. that prevents us from centering
    inclusive examples of women's lives.
  51. Museum leadership:
  52. predominantly white and male,
  53. despite women comprising
    some 60 percent of museum staffs.
  54. Pipelines to leadership
    for women are bleak --
  55. bleakest for women of color.
  56. And the presence of women
    does not in and of itself guarantee
  57. an increase in women's
    public representation.
  58. Not all women are gender equity allies.

  59. In the words of feminist
    theorist bell hooks,
  60. "Patriarchy has no gender."
  61. Women can support the system of patriarchy
  62. just as men can support
    the fight for gender equity.
  63. And we often downplay
    the importance of intersectionality.
  64. Marian Anderson was one of the most
    celebrated voices of the 20th century,
  65. and the Smithsonian
    collected her 1939 outfit.
  66. After the white Daughters of
    the American Revolution denied her access
  67. to sing in Constitution Hall,
    because she was black,
  68. she famously sang instead
    on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial,
  69. to a crowd of over 75,000 people.
  70. And in libraries all over,
    including museums,

  71. you can still find the groundbreaking
    1982 anthology, entitled
  72. "All the Women Are White,
  73. All the Blacks Are Men,
  74. But Some of Us Are Brave."
  75. Demands for the increase
    of women's representation

  76. does not automatically include
    Afro-Latinas like me ...
  77. or immigrant women,
    or Asian women, or Native women,
  78. or trans women, or undocumented women,
  79. or women over 65, or girls --
  80. the list can go on and on and on.
  81. So what do we do?

  82. Targeted initiatives
    have helped incorporate perspectives
  83. that should have always been included.
  84. I arrived at the Smithsonian
    through a Latino curatorial initiative
  85. whose hiring of Latinx curators,
  86. mostly women, by the way,
  87. has raised the profile for Latinx
    narratives across our institution.
  88. And it served as a model
  89. for our much larger Smithsonian
    American Women's History Initiative,
  90. which seeks to amplify diverse
    representations of women
  91. in every possible way,
  92. so that women show up,
  93. not only in the imagery
    of our contemporary realities,
  94. but in our historical representations,
  95. because we've always been here.
  96. Right now though, in 2018,
    I can still walk into professional spaces
  97. and be the only --
  98. the only person under 40,
    the only black person,
  99. the only black woman, the only Latina,
  100. sometimes, the only woman.
  101. My mother is African-American
    and my father is Afro-Panamanian.

  102. I am so proudly and inextricably both.
  103. As an Afro-Latina, I'm one of millions.
  104. As an Afro-Latina curator,
    I'm one of very few.
  105. And bringing my whole self
    into the professional realm
  106. can feel like an act of bravery,
  107. and I'll admit to you that I was
    not always up for that challenge,
  108. whether from fear of rejection
    or self-preservation.
  109. In meetings, I would only speak up
  110. when I had a fully developed
    comment to share.
  111. No audible brainstorming
    or riffing off of colleagues.
  112. For a long time,
  113. I denied myself the joy of wearing
    my beloved hoop earrings
  114. or nameplate necklace to work,
  115. thinking that they were too loud
    or unscholarly or unprofessional.
  116. (Laughter)

  117. I wondered how people
    would react to my natural hair,

  118. or if they viewed me as more acceptable
    or less authentic when I straightened it.
  119. And anyone who has felt outside
    of mainstream representations
  120. understands that there are basic elements
    just of our everyday being
  121. that can make other people uncomfortable.
  122. But because I am passionate
  123. about the everyday representation
    of women as we are,
  124. I stopped presenting an inauthentic
    representation of myself or my work.
  125. And I have been tested.
  126. This is me pointing
    at my hoop earring in my office --
  127. (Laughter)

  128. Just last month, I was invited to keynote
    a Latino Heritage Month event.

  129. The week of the presentation,
    the organization expressed concerns.
  130. They called my slides "activist,"
  131. and they meant that negatively.
  132. (Laughter)

  133. (Applause)

  134. Two days before the presentation,

  135. they requested that I not show
    a two-minute video affirming natural hair,
  136. because "it may create a barrier
    to the learning process
  137. for some of the participants."
  138. (Laughter)

  139. That poem, "Hair," was written
    and performed by Elizabeth Acevedo,

  140. a Dominican-American
    2018 National Book Award winner,
  141. and it appeared in an award-winning
    Smithsonian exhibit that I curated.
  142. I canceled the talk,
  143. explaining to them that their censorship
    of me and my work made me uncomfortable.
  144. (Applause and cheers)

  145. Respectability politics
    and idealized femininity

  146. influence how we display women
  147. and which women we choose to display.
  148. And that display has skewed
    toward successful and extraordinary
  149. and reputable and desirable,
  150. which maintains the systemic exclusion
  151. and marginalization of the everyday,
    the regular, the underrepresented
  152. and usually, the nonwhite.
  153. As a museum curator, I am empowered
    to change that narrative.
  154. I research, collect and interpret
    objects and images of significance.
  155. Celia Cruz, the queen of Salsa --
  156. (Cheers)

  157. yes -- is significant.

  158. And an Afro-Latina.
  159. The Smithsonian has collected
    her costumes, her shoes,
  160. her portrait, her postage stamp
  161. and this reimagining ...
  162. by artist Tony Peralta.
  163. When I collected and displayed this work,
  164. it was a victory
    for symbolic contradictions.
  165. Pride in displaying a dark-skinned Latina,
  166. a black woman,
  167. whose hair is in large rollers
    which straighten your hair,
  168. perhaps a nod to white beauty standards.
  169. A refined, glamorous woman
    in oversized, chunky gold jewelry.
  170. When this work was on view,
  171. it was one of our most
    Instagrammed pieces,
  172. and visitors told me they connected
    with the everyday elements
  173. of her brown skin or her rollers
    or her jewelry.
  174. Our collections include Celia Cruz
  175. and a rare portrait
    of a young Harriet Tubman ...
  176. iconic clothing from
    the incomparable Oprah Winfrey.
  177. But museums can literally change
  178. how hundreds of millions
    of people see women
  179. and which women they see.
  180. So rather than always
    the first or the famous,
  181. it's also our responsibility to show
    a regular Saturday at the beauty salon,
  182. the art of door-knocker earrings ...
  183. (Laughter)

  184. fashionable sisterhood ...

  185. (Laughter)

  186. and cultural pride at all ages.

  187. Stories of everyday women
  188. whose stories have been knowingly omitted
    from our national and global histories.
  189. And oftentimes in museums,
    you see women represented by clothing

  190. or portraits or photography ...
  191. but impactful, life-changing stories
    from everyday women
  192. can also look like
    this Esmeraldan boat seat.
  193. Esmeraldas, Ecuador
    was a maroon community.
  194. Its dense rainforest protected
    indigenous and African populations
  195. from Spanish colonizers.
  196. There are roads now,
  197. but there are some parts inland
    that are still only accessible by canoe.
  198. Débora Nazareno frequently traveled
    those Ecuadorian waterways by canoe,
  199. so she had her own boat seat.
  200. Hers personalized
    with a spiderweb and a spider,
  201. representing Anansi,
    a character in West African folklore.
  202. Débora also sat on this seat at home,
    telling stories to her grandson, Juan.
  203. And this intangible ritual of love
  204. in the form of
    intergenerational storytelling
  205. is common in communities
    across the African diaspora.
  206. And this everyday act sparked in Juan
    the desire to collect and preserve
  207. over 50,000 documents related
    to Afro-Indian culture.
  208. In 2005, Juan García Salazar,
    Débora's grandson,
  209. and by now a world-renowned
    Afro-Ecuadorian scholar,
  210. traveled to Washington, D.C.
  211. He met with Lonnie Bunch,
    the director of the museum where I work,
  212. and toward the end of their conversation,
  213. Juan reached into his bag and said,
    "I'd like to give you a present."
  214. On that day, Débora Nazareno's
    humble wooden boat seat
  215. became the very first object donated
  216. to the Smithsonian National Museum
    of African-American History and Culture.
  217. It is encased, displayed and has been seen
    by almost five million visitors
  218. from all over the world.
  219. I will continue to collect
    from extraordinary historymakers.

  220. Their stories are important.
  221. But what drives me to show up
    today and every day
  222. is the simple passion to write
    our names in history,
  223. display them publicly for millions to see
  224. and walk in the ever-present
    light that is woman.
  225. Thank you.

  226. (Applause and cheers)