The Activist Museum vs. The Activist

In the past few years, I have observed an increasing number of museums reinvent themselves as activist museums. Activist museums espouse an explicit agenda and offer visitors concrete ways to create social change. While I am heartened by the trend of activist museums, museums still have a long way to go to gain the trust of veteran social activists.

The Museum of Contemporary Art’s (MCA) public event “Screening: Day With(out) Art, ALTERNATE ENDINGS, ACTIVIST RISINGS,” exemplifies the fraught relationship between the activist museum and veteran activists. The MCA screened a series of short films compiled by Visual AIDs, an organization that uses art to bring attention to the international HIV epidemic. The film collection, ALTERNATE ENDINGS, ACTIVIST RISINGS, highlighted the role of art in community organizing. As part of the program, the MCA distributed the Visual Aids’ Resource Guide, which challenged the audience to take concrete actions in support of the activist organizations. The MCA also convened a panel of AIDs activists to reflect on the movies.

Two of the films in ALTERNATE ENDINGS, ACTIVIST RISINGS exposed museums’ failure to represent the full diversity of people living with HIV. A film about ACT UP new york depicted the process of organizing a protest of the Whitney Museum of American Art’s retrospective on David Wojnarowicz. ACT UP pointed out that the retrospective neglected to connect Wojnarowicz’s work to contemporary AIDS issues.  In response to the protest, the Whitney added text about AIDS in 2018.

Tacoma Action Collective infographic

The film about the Tacoma Action Collective  (TAC), focused on the group’s die-in at the Tacoma Art Museum (TAM). Through the die-in, TAC urged the curators of TAM’s Art AIDS America exhibit to #StopErasingBlackPeople. As TAC related, “black Americans represent over 40% of the death toll (nearly 270,000 AIDS related deaths since the 80’s) but only 4 out of 107 contributors to the exhibition are Black.” TAC demanded that TAM hire black staff, train existing staff in Undoing Institutional Racism, and include more black artists in touring versions of the exhibit. In the wake of TAC’s protest, TAM met all of the TAC’s demands.

After learning about TAM and Whitney’s positive reactions to activists’ interventions, I was naively optimistic about the prospect of the activist museum. Curious how the panel of activists felt, I asked them to offer suggestions for activist museums.

The panel was highly skeptical of museums’ ability to overcome their colonialist white supremacist history. As Pamela Sneed, a poet, performer, and AIDs activist stated, “I wouldn’t expect the Whitney to represent me…we really need a paradigm shift. [TAM] can’t just throw black folks in and say, ‘we’re intersecting…we need to have alternative exhibits. All the power does not have to be in these institutions.” As Sneed spoke I could hear activist Audre Lorde in my head telling me, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”

Left to right: Alex Fiahlo, Coleman Goodie, Mary Patten, Pamela Sneed

According to Alex Fialho, the Programs Director at Visual AIDs, museums are simply a stage upon which true activists perform political theater. Fialho stated, “museums can be places where intervention can spark action, where intervention can shape and shift the conversation.” Mary Patten, an artist and activist, agreed with Fialho, stating, “we really have to expose the power in museums.”

Creating an activist museum feels like pushing a really queer rock up a really big hill

I left the event forlorn. “I know so many museum professionals dedicated to making museums welcoming, inclusive, and accessible,” I thought. “Is the activist museum a Sisyphean endeavor?”

After attending “Screening: Day With(out) Art, ALTERNATE ENDINGS, ACTIVIST RISINGS,” I honestly don’t know if the activist museum is an impossible dream. But, I do know we owe it to our communities to try and make the activist museum a reality. We need to work to create a world where the incredible contemporary artist-activists represented by Visual AIDs feel embraced by our best cultural institutions, not erased by them.

Resources for the Activist Museum


“We envision a world in which all people are empowered to share their talents to strengthen their communities. Communities in which people feel safe, welcome, and connected to the strangers who cross their paths every day. We plan to build this future by helping civic and cultural organizations grow of, by, and for their communities. Our intent is transformation: to change the way people design, manage, fund, and engage with community organizations.”

Who Is Your Museum For? A Tool for Initiating Critical Conversations and Reflection

This Incluseum resource will help you discuss ways to make your museum more inclusive with colleagues.


“Museums have the potential to be relevant, socially-engaged spaces in our communities, acting as agents of positive change.  Yet, too often, they strive to remain ‘above’ the political and social issues that affect our lives — embracing a myth of neutrality.”

Empowering Change: Towards a Definition of the Activist Museum

“Jennie Carvill Schellenbacher argues that the potential for activist museums lies in museums acknowledging and harnessing the role they play in shaping society. If museums can inspire action in their visitors to become more active citizens, more engaged in their communities, more involved in democracy at the local, regional and national level, more informed about how their everyday actions can affect real change and empowered to make change happen, the more relevant museums will be.”

Inclusion or Irrelevance : The data behind the urgent need for museums to engage new audiences

According to Colleen Dilenschneider, Chief Market Engagement Officer at IMPACTS Research & Development, making museums more inclusive not only aligns with the mission of most cultural organizations, but also is a business imperative. This video can help you make the case for the activist museum to your board.

Should museums be activists?

“With our upcoming MuseumNext USA conference focusing on the theme ‘Revolution’ we wanted to dig into this subject further and commissioned a survey of 1000 Americans, to investigate the public perception of museums, protest and politics.”

Making Museums Welcoming, Inclusive, Accessible

Hear from staff at the MCA, The Chicago Children’s Museum, and the Chicago Zoological Society about how “accessible, inclusive, and welcoming museum practices improve the museum experience for all visitors.”

Getting ready for the program to start!

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