Counterpoint: Whose Harm?

By Adrienne Lalli Hills (Citizen of Wyandotte Nation)

The following letter to the AAMI editors was written in response to the Jan 9, 2023 blog post “We Tried This: Reimagining Our Labels.”

Dear AAMI editors:

As an Interpretive Planner at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art from 2014–2018, I read with interest the series published on Kera Collective Blog and the recent AAMI feature that detailed recent label revisions. I commend the authors of the article on their attention to problematic labels in the museum’s permanent collection. From firsthand experience, I recognize that it is difficult to marshal an institution’s limited resources toward changing permanent collection labels.

However, the use of “harm reduction” has rankled me since my first reading. In my mind, this framing can strip racialized readers of agency, savvy and resiliency, as if encountering colonial and racist tropes in label copy is a surprise. This novel application of clinical language ventures into paternalism and recalls institutional legacies of pseudoscientific racism and medicalized violence. Further, it invites questions of who should determine what harm is acceptable, what is most acutely harmful and how is reduction measured and validated?

While I do not wish to diminish the importance of labels in supporting learning and the overall visitor experience, we should not overstate the significance of label revisions in light of deeper museological concerns. Many museums still illegally hold Indigenous ancestors and cultural materials in “their” collections and draw from endowments built on slave labor or stolen land.

Labels cannot remediate colonial worldview embedded in “encyclopedic” museums: the disproportionate footprint that American and European collections occupy within their buildings and the Euro-centric, anthropological and exoticizing lens through which Indigenous American, African, Asian and Oceanic materials are presented.

This is not a critique of the important discussions happening at the Nelson-Atkins. But I invite all interpretive planning colleagues to explore new methodologies that move the sector beyond incrementalist approaches and boldly confront the systemic racism and legacies of colonialism that still undergird all institutions. Scholars and educators of color are already forging these pathways—it is time to follow their lead.

Adrienne Lalli Hills (Citizen of Wyandotte Nation)
Former AAMI Board Member, 2018–2020, 2021

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