Speaker: Beverly Robertson- Director, National Civil Rights Museum
Title: “Politics in the Museum: Rights and Responsibilities”
Commentary by: Laura Browarny, graduate student in the Seton Hall M.A. in Museum Professions Program; IME travel stipend recipient.
It was no doubt, from the moment that she stepped up to the podium, that Beverly Robertson is a woman with a tremendous presence and a great deal of personality. During her past year as President of the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, TN, Beverly was certainly put to the test and “baptized by fire” as she herself put it. It is intrinsic to the Civil Rights Museum to represent some sensitive subject matter and a very controversial part of America’s past, but the ethics of museum governance were called into question recently when the museum decided to privatize.
In her presentation, Beverly itemized some of the responsibilities that museums have to their audience. One of the most important of these is to “maintain a positive public image.” If Beverly adheres to her own standards, it may be difficult to understand why she was made the decision to get involved in a hugely controversial and political undertaking to privatize the museum. The decision was met with explosive opposition and what had begun as a strictly financial matter had escalated into an issue of politics and race.
At issue was museum governance but the debate that occurred had much more to do with race and who owned the past. The people of Memphis and its surrounding communities were concerned about what would happen to their museum if under private ownership and control (the new board consisted mainly of upper class white men). Robertson handled the situation by building trust through maintaining accessibility and transparency.
Many museums attempt to avoid controversy at all costs, often at the expense of overlooking important issues, but sometimes it is necessary to address these issues in order to carry out a museum’s mission. Robertson took a risk in her decision to support the privatization of the Civil Rights Museum, but was there a way that would have made the process a little less controversial? Could she have involved diverse stakeholders in the decision-making? Are there other models of power-sharing that could have been helpful in the transition process?