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The Whole Spiel

Racial Equity and Anti-Racism work in Museums

February 16, 2021

Photo courtesy of CJM Museum Educator Stephany Fry.

Over the summer of 2020 it became impossible for museums to ignore calls for racial equity.  There have been efforts for years to push museums to reckon with the historic centering of white stories and white visitors.  While efforts for racial equity should have always been an aspect of museum culture, many museums are using this time to take a hard and critical look at themselves.  

CJM (Capital Jewish Museum) is one of these organizations.  We as a staff have been horrified by the police brutality and the unequal responses of police to minority communities.  We recognize the need for tangible action on racial justice.    

Because we are currently building our new museum, we are in a unique opportunity to infuse racial equity into the foundation of our new museum, literally and figuratively.  We are participating in a Racial Justice Cohort with other Jewish organizations in our area.  The cohort is run by Joyous Justice, which describes itself as “…a Black Jewish woman-led, multiracial community-powered social justice and spiritual transformation organization that seeds and leads systemic change and healing.   

A few staff and board members are participating in our training.  Each month we get together with the larger cohort.  During our trainings we go over key concepts, and break into smaller groups to discuss prompts given to us by the facilitators.  Because we have only had two larger sessions so far, the focus has been on defining racism, particularly structural racism and discussing ways in which it affects minority communities.  As well as recognizing that oppression can come in many forms. 

Rendering of Identity Cubes

In the planning for our new museum’s permanent exhibit, we are looking and adding stories that may not often get told.  We are pushing to reach out to communities who may not have always felt included in the story we tell.  For one example, the exhibit will feature Identity Cubes.  These cubes will feature faces of Jewish Washington, and because of this we have looked to provide a diverse look at Jewish Washingtonians, because Jewish Washingtonians are diverse.  Our exhibition team is always looking for more stories and objects to help round out the full picture.  Below is a photo being used in our Identity section, showing Yom Tov Congregation, a Sephardic Congregation.  One of the congregation’s past president’s Sol Ereza, is being featured on an identity cube. 


Photograph, Panoramic, black and white, titled center bottom, “BANQUET/SEPHARDIM HEBREW CONGREGATION/MR. SOL EREZA, PRESIDENT/WASHINGTON, D.C. MARCH 8, 1936”. Printed lower right, “Schultz/PHOTO/FILE NO. /961/1516 H ST. N.W./WASHINGTON, D.C.”. Four tables of men and women, with stage and piano in background. Yom Tov Cogregation Collection, CJM Collection. March 8, 1936

Our racial justice training will help us to imbed anti-racist policies into every facet of our new museum.  While we do this work within our cohort and internally as a staff, we hope to provide the resources for visitors to examine their own privilege once the museum opens.  We are committed to welcoming all visitors to our space and telling a diversity of stories that can connect with many different visitors.  We are also committed to fostering diversity and inclusion within our own staff. 

For museums to be successful going forward they need to be honest and upfront about the history of centering white stories.  CJM strives to be a true community museum.  To that end we have to be inclusive and welcoming to all neighbors in our community.  In our cohort, it has been discussed that diversity does not equal inclusion.  The simple presence of diversity does not, in and of itself, mean that we are an inclusive organization.  We must constantly evaluate ourselves to be sure that we are embracing diversity and making all feel included.  Our work with Joyous Justice will lay the foundations and policies that we will carry into every aspect of the new museum.