Riding the spiral of history

On a recent sweltering day in St. Louis, as Saint Louis University observed Juneteenth as a university holiday for the first time, I read back over a blog post that I wrote a year ago. Reflecting on all the significant events of the past year, while recognizing the persistent injustice in the lives of so many people, I found myself pondering the ways we view the passage of time.

Is it linear, so that we may say, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”?

Or cyclical, with the same patterns repeating over and over? (King adapted his famous quote from an 1853 sermon by the abolitionist minister Theodore Parker, who said, “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe. The arc is a long one. My eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by experience of sight. I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice.”)

Personally, I favor the image of the spiral. It brings together the sense of forward motion and trajectory of the linear with the sense of repeating patterns of the cynical. Or put more directly, we may return to familiar ground again and again, but each time, we are different people. Our experiences give us opportunities to broaden and change our perspectives; we can make new choices about how to respond to the challenges of the moment. As MOCRA returns to actively organizing new exhibitions and programs, we aren’t the same museum, St. Louis isn’t the same community, the U.S. isn’t the same nation, as we were when we hit pause in March 2020.

A point raised frequently during recent conferences of the American Alliance of Museums and the Association of Academic Museums and Galleries was that “museums are not neutral.” Museums don’t get to hold themselves above the fray wearing a guise of “objectivity”; we must engage all the complicated and difficult issues of our times. This includes examining and addressing blind spots and injustices in our past and present practices. For MOCRA, this includes being more intentional about how we build and diversify our collection; developing programming for our MOCRA Voices podcast that explores the interrelationship of between art, creativity, and racial and ethnic identity; and being an active participant in realizing Saint Louis University’s Clock Tower Accords commitments.

In the blog post from 2020, I quoted an op-ed from Usher:

“Recognizing Juneteenth as a national holiday would be a small gesture compared with the greater social needs of black people in America. But it can remind us of our journey toward freedom, and the work America still has to do.”

A year later, we have that reminder. What will we do with it? Where do we hope to be when the spiral brings us to next Juneteenth?

David Brinker
Director, MOCRA

1 thought on “Riding the spiral of history”

  1. […] Reflection, revision and rebuilding are critical in the bigger picture. As was highlighted at the recent conferences of the American Alliance of Museums and the Association of Academic Museums and Galleries, COVID-19 has disrupted museum financial and operating models and exposed inequities and unexamined biases in staffing, collecting, and interpretation. It has brought to the fore questions about who is welcome at museums and the barriers that museums raise. (You can find some of my musings on this topic here.) […]

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