Shortly after my visit to New Mexico, I came across the March issue of the National Geographic with the front cover reading; ‘Coming Home. Returning Treasures To Where They Came From Isn’t Closing Museums. It’s Opening New Doors.’ Tamara and I were impacted by this conversation which helped us reframe our future conversations.”

Heidi Majano, Executive Director of the Peaceful World Foundation

By Julián Antonio Carrillo

On Thursday, February 10, 2023, the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology at the University of New Mexico (UNM) welcomed Heidi Majano and Tamara Randall, Executive Director and Board Chair of the Peaceful World Foundation, respectively. I currently work as the Maxwell’s Curator of Education & Public Programs, so I organized an in-person conversation with museum staff and included people from the UNM Art Museum, Museum Studies students, and members of the Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums student club.

With help, we turned our museum’s center gallery, currently displaying “In the Place of Spirits: Photographs by David Grant Noble,” depicting archaeological sites in the Southwest, into a dining room with a long breakfast table for 14 people. And the conversation was spirited given our complex topic.

Our theme was “Museums + Peace” and our initial question was “How do museums contribute to conflict-resolution and peace-building?” But this question shifted quickly as it was pointed out that there can be no peace if there is no justice first. Moreover, justice is more concrete, less abstract, and arguably more attainable as we more easily know what justice can look like in our society. 

As such, the main driving conversation became centered on how museums both work toward and also against justice and equity. And, importantly, on what museum workers and students can and should do to decolonize these spaces and ensure they are transformative rather than spaces that uphold the classist, racist, and increasingly more intolerant status quo.

Indeed, these violent and destructive forces have to be actively fought against as museums are institutions of power that still embody the contradictions and legacies of colonialism. In this conversation, the important role of the individual was highlighted but not without the reminder that institutions will always outlive us and that we need systemic change. 

Museum staff, students and collaborators having breakfast in the Maxwell Museum before opening hours.

It is clear that museums as systems of the status quo – based on very real violence, greed, collective compulsions to collect objects (and people and relations) as well as control of the dominant narratives of who we are, were, and will be as a collective –  must be continually challenged or we risk perpetuating the same problems we are trying to solve. 

Much has been written, theorized, challenged, and discussed about these topics. But, for me at least, it is never the same as hearing the voices of my colleagues and fellow workers directly. I greatly appreciated them talking about their direct experiences, hopes, fears, and the real challenges that they face in the endeavor to change the status quo.

So, the breakfast conversation was meaningful and educational in this sense. Moreover, the event introduced me –  and of course Heidi and Tamara – to new people whose ideas and perspectives I now know and respect.

Participants continued sharing their thoughts and expanding on community involvement.

Museums and Foundations as spaces and resources open to artists, activists, and others doing real work against structural violence can and are certainly playing a part in today’s world fomenting justice and peace, broadly defined. 

For example, the Andrew W. Mellon Mellon Foundation recently gave a rare $1 million grant to composer and artist Samora Abayomi Pinderhughes to continue and grow The Healing Project, which is about “purposefully upending all the current systems to create new ones.” More closer to home, the Peaceful World Foundation supports the transformative work of The Mosaic Project, which over 20 years has been creating “microcosms of the just, diverse, inclusive world we envision, demonstrat[ing] that peace is possible, and inspir[ing] action.” I invite everyone to check out both of these initiatives. 

African American Miniature Artist, Karen Collins (Left) standing next to our founder’s daughter Tisavera Star Baires at the Maxwell Museum showcasing Karen’s commissioned work.

The bigger question is can we move beyond the limits and issues of the museum and the Non-Profit and Foundation industrial complex to be more than open spaces and funders? As someone in the Maxwell Museum’s conversation said, faith and hope is one resource that we need to accomplish this but we also require commitment and courage to stake a claim, take a side, and mobilize to change the status quo.

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