What is a museum without educators?
To our dismay, our employer, the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center in Hartford, seems determined to use the pandemic as a means to answer this question.
As museums across Connecticut have opened, the Stowe Center insists on remaining shuttered until January 2021, and its eight unionized educators furloughed until at least then. That this stance is blatantly anti-labor is in itself bad enough. What makes the Stowe Center’s decision to hibernate for nine months especially egregious is the fact that anti-racism is central to its educational programs—meaning that for nine months, in the middle of what is arguably the most important moment in the fight for Black rights in the 21s century, the Stowe Center has no anti-racist educators on staff. Zero.
In other words, an institution that has accepted awards, accolades, and of course funding in recognition of its anti-racist work currently employs no one with the knowledge and experience to perform that work.
Why keep a museum, identified as a leader in the field for its interactive engagement with contemporary injustice, shuttered for three quarters of a year? We see no explanation beyond management’s desire to sideline the institution’s educators and stymie our negotiations for a fair contract by denying our many roles as educational staff and potentially diluting our bargaining unit in the process —all while still publicly claiming a commitment to social justice.
To employ us now (and indeed, to employ us throughout the pandemic, as many museums did) would entail acknowledging that our jobs encompass more than leading tours through the home of Harriet Beecher Stowe. In fact, it is not unusual in museums, as at other nonprofits, to work collaboratively and perform a wide array of duties, particularly at smaller institutions like ours.
As a whole, the members of our bargaining unit have led, co-facilitated, and developed a wide variety of public and school programs, including film screenings, salon conversations, public outreach, workshops for Connecticut public school teachers, book clubs, and a new tour offering. We lead all of the school programs and work constantly to develop our knowledge to better serve our many audiences. We unionized in part because we believe in our work as an important contribution to the fight for racial justice and we want the value of our contributions recognized by our management. More than fair pay alone, this entails an acknowledgement of our stake in the institution’s identity, one we have earned by our labor.
But to acknowledge the value of our work on behalf of the institution is to acknowledge that our compensation should be reflective of it. Though we love what we do, and though our commitment to racial justice animates and sustains us, it is mentally and emotionally taxing, especially for the Black and brown members of our union.
Combating racism is central to what we do at the Stowe Center: we educate our visitors about enslavement, abolitionism, 19th century Black activism, and the white supremacist culture that simultaneously made Harriet Beecher Stowe a bestselling anti-slavery author and the epitome of white privilege. Moreover, because our pedagogical model is dialogue-based, we facilitate conversations with the public, creating space to talk through the nation’s racist past in order to understand and agitate against its racist present —difficult but highly rewarding work.
As a new wave of the movement for Black rights strengthens across the nation and the world, we are eager to talk through this moment with visitors who want to connect with other people through conversations about history as history happens. Instead, we are furloughed and heartsick, idled by an institution that tepidly tweets its support for racial justice but meanwhile suspends all its school programs, develops no virtual content for school-age children, and uses its few public programs to celebrate paw-paws and the 19th amendment with costumed interpretation (and without explicit note of the Black suffragists who made it possible and yet were denied the exercise of the right it granted).
We fail to see how a museum can continue to deliver the educational programs for which it was once lauded with no educators experienced in delivering racial justice content on staff. After the recent elimination of our educational programs coordinator — who was likely eligible to petition to join our union— the sole person responsible for developing programs during this nine month closure is a director who began working at the organization in earnest in mid-January only to have all of the staff in her department removed.
We understand and sympathize with the challenge of having to create racial justice programming without the support of experienced museum educators. Perhaps the plan for the moment is to simply outsource racial justice content from outside experts and institutions, as the center has done in its new multimedia gallery and one or two virtual programs. Perhaps the plan is to do this perpetually so that our management can claim, as it has done to justify our nine-month furlough, that our role at the institution is chiefly to show the house.
At a time when the Stowe Center should be amplifying the momentum of anti-racist activism, it is locking its doors and watching from a comfortable distance —rather like Harriet Beecher Stowe herself.
Though heralded as an abolitionist for her bestselling anti-slavery novel, Stowe makes clear within the first ten pages of Uncle Tom’s Cabin that racial equity is not one of the values she espouses, and the subsequent decades of her life, with minimal activism on behalf of Black civil rights, confirm her halfhearted, shortsighted commitment to racial justice.
To tell the story of Stowe’s life without being upfront about her racism only serves to perpetuate that racism, and we worry that, with no education staff experienced in delivering and developing anti-racist content, the Stowe Center, too, is now muddling toward an institutional practice that does just that.
For what is a museum without educators? It is, unfortunately, a monument.
Anita Durkin, Jasmen Hunter, and Colleen Thomas are members of the Stowe Center Union, Local 2110 UAW/Hartford.