Considerations on the Institutional History Project

The Phillips Collection 2021-2022 Sherman Fairchild DEAI (Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion) and Curatorial Fellow Alexis Boyd shares her experience working on the Institutional History Project.

For the past year, as a 2021-2022 Sherman Fairchild Fellow, I have had the exciting opportunity to be a part of the inauguration of The Phillips Collection’s Institutional History Project. Upon beginning my fellowship last May, it became immediately apparent to me that I had joined the museum at a critical turning point not only for The Phillips Collection but for museums and cultural institutions, in general. The 2020 protests against police brutality and systemic racism after the brutal murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless other Black lives at the hands of police prompted museums across the world to turn a critical eye toward their institutions and the museum field. Countless art museums publicly acknowledged, many for the first time, long-standing criticisms of their complicity in maintaining eurocentrism, cultural and structural racism, elitism, and systemic oppression.

In 2018, The Phillips Collection announced its commitment to DEAI by appointing a chief Diversity Officer, Makeba Clay. During her tenure and an as part of the museum’s 2020-2025 Strategic Plan, the Institutional History Project was launched. Led by the curatorial and DEAI departments, it seeks to deepen our knowledge of our history through socio-cultural, political, and intersectional lens, to critically and consciously engage our past and address issues of system racism and inequity, as we consider how we will chart a meaningful and relevant future.

I have been responsible for conducting the preliminary research necessary for a DEAI-engaged institutional historical study. Over the past year, I have studied digital and physical archival materials and reviewed a number of books and articles to critically interrogate and deconstruct the museum’s existing rhetorical history. To deepen the investigation, we convened a community of scholars to learn more about local history and the Phillips’ relationship to the greater DC community. Throughout, I was deeply aware of both the great scope of the project and my limited ability to address all of the equally vital areas of inquiry the project invites within the year of my fellowship. However, upon further reflection, I realized my work this year has been guided by a few principles that articulate my considerations on how one might begin a DEAI-led, self-critical, and community engaged Institutional History project.

  1. Practice Critical Self-Examination First. In order to responsibly and authentically conduct a DEAI-led historical investigation, museums must first openly and critically analyze their own historical legacies, the narratives employed to make sense of them, and the ways both have informed and continue to inform the institution’s identity and practices. Similarly, the histories museums choose to tell about their origins, founders, and collections, and the ones they choose to disregard are never neutral. Rather than ignore or attempt to mitigate the often harmful impacts of their—to borrow a term from Aletheia Wittman—institutional genealogies, museums must turn a critical eye to their collections, staffs, and incumbent narratives to determine what and who they choose to include and what and who they choose to leave out. While this work is often uncomfortable it is also necessary to better understand the present-day challenges diverse, intersectional audiences may face when engaging with museum and cultural spaces.
  2. Frame Your Institutional History Project within a Broader Context. An institutional history project needs to be intersectional. Museum’s identities are shaped by a mix of internal and external forces. An institutional history project that privileges one over the other would not only be incomplete, but would also reinforce the dominant cultural paradigms that a DEAI-driven project should seek to disrupt. Washington, DC, for example, gave birth to aesthetically complex, and diverse art movements (Black, Indigenous, LGBTQ+, Asian, and Latinx, etc.) that—while often unacknowledged in dominant art historical narratives—critically influenced the cultural scenes they were a part of as well as the broader DC culture.
  3. Engage the Knowledge and Expertise of Your Communities. One of the most generative and informative experiences of my fellowship was organizing and participating in our 2022 Institutional History Research Convening. Our six panelists were composed of scholars, artists, archivists, and life-long DC residents who spoke about aspects of DC’s history from the 1940s-1970s. Their presentations and the discussion they generated not only addressed the political, social, cultural, and economic arrangements that shaped the lives of DC’s most vulnerable residents but also spoke to what it was like to live through them. The advisors lent the project a breadth and depth of knowledge that we could not achieve on our own.

Now, at the end of my fellowship, I have a greater understanding of the complexity and importance of this kind of work. The Phillips Collection’s Institutional History project is ongoing and will inevitably bring forth new lines of inquiry and historical narratives that I am unable to anticipate.  I look forward to seeing its continued growth and development.

Some digital resources for DEAI-led institutional histories:

“The meaning we make”—a teacher’s reflection

Laure Veissiere is a Preschool/Pre-K teacher at Washington International School and participated in The Phillips Collection’s Summer Teacher Institute.

A print I created in the workshop about equitable society.

My interest in Art Integration started when I experienced my own limitations as a novice teacher, frustrations with some school systems and society as a whole, and the need to grow, collaborate, learn, and change while working with an underserved population in Anacostia five years ago.

Art Integration has the potential to enhance academics, democracy, and humanity by engaging students in meaningful conversations and proposing an alternative to the violence of the current political and educational climate. To fight against the school-to-prison pipeline, enhance engagement, dismantle some systems of oppression, and decrease violence, Art Integration practices have led to a culturally relevant approach to education.

The Summer Teacher Institute at the Phillips was pivotal in thinking about how we bring our own meaning to our classrooms, our artmaking practices, and our communities of teachers and communities of origin. It got me thinking about how our students can make meaningful connections with each other through art. Also, it allowed me to examine how using art in the classroom can support me in recognizing my own biases and the meanings students bring with them from their own backgrounds and experiences.

Phillips educators had us undergo a process of self-reflection by looking at ourselves, our values, communities, and interests as they transpire into the class. The Phillips Collection Head of Teaching & Learning Hilary Katz, said, “While looking at your personal identity, it is important to be clear about your position (your perspectives, power, and identities) when teaching an arts integration lesson to students.”

During one of our arts integration lessons, we recreated a work of art as a way to confront our biases in the process.

Simone Leigh, No Face (Crown Heights), 2018; My recreation of No Face.

I was drawn to reproducing the artwork by Simone Leigh because I connected to the feeling of discomfort that I felt when looking at it. I learned that she explores historical and contemporary racism in the United States. I connected to the feeling of struggle and the “subjective experience” I felt as a first-generation American woman. Looking deeper at my identity and funds of knowledge by closely looking at my communities of origins made me realize how the meaning we each bring to the classroom impacts our teaching.

Also, this workshop allowed me to think differently about the process of curating as a meaningful creative process and think about ways I could apply it in the class with some original students’ work.

In small groups, we curated the teachers’ recreations of Phillips’s artworks.

This workshop was instrumental in recognizing my power as an Artist, educator, curator, and leader in my communities.  By selecting, encouraging voices, validating students’ confidence, scaffolding talents, creating meaning and culture through inquiry, and building the classroom fund of knowledge, teachers and artists can motivate and change their communities.

Making my own prints and reflecting on their meaning made me think about what kinds of communities come together in my classroom.

My seven-word story about my prints: Communities are powerful when they value education.

This workshop made me look back at my values, my bias, and my commitment as a teacher and artist to nurture the potential in all human beings. Culture is something that is intangible and inseparable from the experience; it is flexible and always interchangeable. Hilary Katz said, “Culture is not in a box.” Culture and funds of knowledge are fluid, always changing and evolving.

Just like artists influence their communities, teachers have transformative powers. They are agents of social change in their communities because they support and nourish their students’ voices and talents and help them recognize their knowledge, cultures, and funds of knowledge.

A poem about Ellington Robinson’s Never Forget on Ice

Carla White Freyvogel is a writer and an educator at The Phillips Collection, and she often leads the Spotlight talk for Wednesday’s Guided Meditation.

Ellington Robinson, Never Forget on Ice, 2013, Acrylic, collage, found objects, glue, and wax on framed mirror, 38 in x 53 in x 2 in., Contemporaries Acquisition Fund, 2018

Ellington Robinson describes Never Forget on Ice: “This work is exploring the idea of how economics and culture are used to create political containers that we call states and countries…. So why are geographical divisions necessary? Why Racism, Imperialism, and Classism?”

The participants in our Wednesday meditation contemplated Robinson’s luminous, textural, and stunning work. Yes, we too were inspired to ask these hard political, ecological, historical questions.

The artist, who joined us for the meditation, assured us that he is “still in search of these answers by collage, found objects, and paint.”

Guiding the meditation, Aparna Sadananda framed our experience in terms of the month’s theme: time.  Viewing the artwork’s fractured forms, we considered that the “political containers we call states and countries” are evolving as time passes. Fighting, shifting, and struggling. The pressure gauge perches on the antique frame and measures … what? The expansive gulfs created by “geographic division”? The earth’s fissures as time marches on?

Deterioration of land masses?

The participants spontaneously dropped words and phrases into the Zoom chat. These insights were provocative and compelling. The words seemed to beg for some consolidation.

A collaborative poem is the result. Here we have the fusing of our thoughts and insights, inspired by Never Forget on Ice by DC’s own Ellington Robinson.


A Map of the World

One minute to midnight
Pressure is rising like bubbles
Ruined remains of a civilization
From the sky a topographical map
Antarctica in all its glory, strength, and fragility?

The bottom of the ocean
Depths and shadows
Gears grinding time away
Newspaper’s information drowning
Burnt edges, scraps of ancient paper
Color, ice, rocks, bones, and sculls,
Continents, layers
A topographical map,
Newspaper clips, remnants of life

Decay beautifully arranged
Lines of black,
Structures fallen into themselves
Bones, sculls, memories

A red splotch emerges from the ice
A reminder of human presence
Attempting to hold together
Continents of a new world