Reflections of a Registrar
“Isn’t the museum closed right now?” was the response I usually got when talking about how 2020 has been one of the busiest years of my tenure as a registrar at SFMOMA. Even without the public, the art on view and in storage needed to be regularly checked; art shipments and installation schedules still need to be updated to match ever-changing exhibition calendars as museums across the country endeavor to safely reopen in a global pandemic. The COVID-19 climate of uncertainty isn’t ideal for registrars: we are planners, overseeing a myriad of activities related to acquisitions, exhibitions, outgoing loans, and art storage.
Before the pandemic, working closely with artists and my colleagues to realize exhibitions was the highlight of my job as assistant registrar for SFMOMA’s media arts collection. But social distancing does not allow for such intimate experiences, and so we have found ourselves physically divorced from the center of our jobs: the art at SFMOMA. These professional limitations are playing out within a landscape of layoffs, potential furloughs, and the galvanizing social justice movement gaining momentum around the world.
Many institutions have been forced by both their staff and public to examine the museum’s role in the systemic societal inequities that have only been exacerbated by this global pandemic. Likewise, SFMOMA has begun a deep review of our internal culture, collection, and programming to foster diversity, equity, and inclusion. Throughout this institutional journey of self-reflection, I’ve found myself asking one question: what does it mean to be a museum today?
Debates about the museum’s civic role are not new. In “The Museum, a Temple or the Forum,” a 1971 essay in the Journal of World History, Duncan F. Cameron, who was then director of the Brooklyn Museum, delves into this topic in relation to the “democratic museum,” where collections are put on view for the benefit of the public, not just the private collector. Here visitors are invited to partake in a shared, enlightening encounter with the museum’s collections, an experience that exudes the values of the museum as temple: a civic center of cultural “excellence.” The forum, which “confront[s] established values and institutions,” acts as a civic balance; this social forum should not be confused with institutional support of emerging art and new forms of knowledge.
Today, we are seeing this symbiotic relationship between temple and forum in the museum reform movement taking place in the twenty-first century’s public forum: the internet. Yesomi Umolu, director and curator of the Logan Center Exhibitions at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, University of Chicago, is one of the many voices calling for change online. In a June op-ed for Artnet, Umolu reflects “on the limits of knowledge and care” in museums, tracing their history from the colonial desire to collect to our current radical moment and providing steps toward a decolonized future. Umolu’s compelling meditation may be framed as a contemporary continuation of Cameron’s work, highlighting the new social conditions required of institutions in this moment: “Museums must be sites of advocacy, not just for the artistic and art-historical traditions that they hold so dear, but for basic rights to life, safety, shelter, well-being, and economic and intellectual sustenance. Museums must dismantle regimes of power even when that power emanates from within.”
For me, museum work has always centered on serving our community, but the past few months have clarified my working definition. I was drawn to SFMOMA because of its reputation for centering the artist’s voice — now the museum must champion the perspectives and values of our local and internal communities as well.
While writing this article, I’ve been working on two exhibitions debuting on the seventh floor as the museum reopens this month: Muzae Sesay: Cut Trees, a new site-specific commission for Bay Area Walls, and Future Histories: Theaster Gates and Cauleen Smith, which highlights two recent acquisitions to our Media Arts collection. After installing Muzae Sesay’s work, my first intimate art experience since the start of the pandemic, I realized I was living through the concepts I had been trying to express.
Muzae and I met at SFMOMA in 2016 deinstalling The Campaign for Art, the museum’s first exhibition on its new floor seven. As on-call museum preparator and registrar, respectively, we have worked on almost every subsequent exhibition on that floor (my favorites include Runa Islam: Verso, Soundtracks, and Nothing Stable under Heaven). And here we were, installing Muzae’s paintings in this familiar gallery setting across the floor from media artworks by Theaster Gates and Cauleen Smith.
Yet apart from Muzae’s “new” role as artist, not much else was different from the installations of our past. We were working together to realize an exhibition for the benefit of the museum’s community. Again, my definition of community includes artists, the museum’s public, and its staff. To me and many others at SFMOMA, Muzae Sesay is all of the above: “So how are things outside art?” was heard more than once on the second day of install, as various SFMOMA workers observed Muzae tying approximately one hundred black ribbons, emblazoned with the names of every unarmed Black individual killed by police violence in the past ten years, to a transformed chain-link fence — a monotone memorial sitting between his two vivid paintings.
This is the second time SFMOMA has reopened during my nearly five years at the museum. It’s been moving and inspiring to simultaneously install Muzae’s work and the premiere installations of Gates’s Do you hear me calling? Mama Mamama or What Is Black Power? (2018) and Smith’s Sojourner (2018), which address timely themes like Black female power and the potency of photography. Together these exhibitions offer our community spiritual respite and intellectual sustenance, while elevating the art of our time and the diversity of the people who make and experience it. In response to my earlier question: To serve as a site of advocacy for its collections and community, equitably and inclusively, that is what it means to be a museum today.