Confronting an Uncomfortable Legacy

By June 11, 2020June 12th, 2020Blog

Museums, especially cultural and historic museums, are fundamentally about identity. The Los Altos History Museum gathers and presents artifacts and stories about our community in order to build an understanding of who we are and the choices we have made during our lives.

Right now, museums across the country are being challenged to examine the choices they make about how they define themselves, and which people they choose to include, or unconsciously exclude, when telling their story. This is in response to the Black Lives Matter movement, which is compelling cities and towns and communities to take a serious look at how they represent and engage with communities of color. Pretending that there is no issue of race in this country is not a satisfactory response now, and really, it never was.

Museums serve the public best when they are forums for confronting difficult issues. They are in fact designed for that. The format of museum exhibits allows for visitors to delve into complex subjects as they walk around an exhibit, read labels, and look at objects at their own pace. Because the design is non-confrontational and self-directed, visitors are given space to think through difficult issues, fraught with emotion and historic import. Think for instance of the Holocaust Museum. When exhibits deal with truly difficult subjects, understanding grows, empathy and sympathy develop, and ultimately, a small act of healing can occur.

The museum field in general, including the Los Altos History Museum, has not done enough to utilize our facilities and our public platform to confront the issues of institutionalized racism in the United States, California, and our local community.

We pledge to do more: to look for opportunities of genuine engagement and inclusivity, to present diverse narratives, to venture out of our comfort zone, and utilize the forum we have to make a real difference in hearing the many voices calling out for justice.

Dr. Elisabeth Ward, Executive Director