Order of Multitudes

Building a Human-Centered Museum: Conversation with Armando Perla

Armando Perla is a curator, scholar, international museum consultant, and human rights advocate based in Canada. Initially trained as a human rights lawyer and legal researcher, Perla has worked as a curator at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights and as a consultant for the Swedish Museum of Movements and the City of Medellin in Colombia, among numerous institutions, and recently became the Chief Curator for the Toronto History Museums at the City of Toronto. He is also an educator, teaching most recently in the Museum Studies Master’s program at the University of Toronto. In this interview, he discusses human rights-centered approaches to museum work, working across different national contexts in the museum field, and dismantling oppressive hierarchies in both museums and the academy.

Sarah Pickman: You began your career as a lawyer, working in the field of human rights advocacy. How did you first become involved with museums as a venue for human rights and justice work? Were there specific experiences that drew you to this sector?

Armando Perla: In some ways it was serendipitous. I was born and raised in El Salvador and I grew up in a very small town where we didn’t have any museums locally. I left when I was 21, and the first time I went to a museum was after I arrived in Canada. I came to Canada as an asylum seeker, and I began working with asylum seekers to present their claims to the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada.  Eventually I went to law school and while I was still a student I moved to Guatemala where I worked with sexually exploited and trafficked children.  After graduating I moved to Washington D.C. to work at the Centre for Justice and International Law. And then to Sweden to complete my Master of Laws there. Throughout, I was always on the research side of the law—versus being in a courtroom—traveling and working for various human rights and justice organizations around the world.

I realized that, as human rights lawyers, when we go before courts or pursue cases we’re always acting as “damage control.” Something has already happened, and we’re trying to create precedents so that future abuses can be decided in a similar way. But I started wondering, what if we used the law, used education, in a way that would prevent human rights abuses from occurring in the first place? Then, while I was in Sweden, I got to know a visiting professor from Canada, who asked me to distribute a job posting through my networks. A new museum, focused on human rights, was being constructed in Winnipeg and the museum’s organizers were looking for people to help develop exhibitions. Once I read the post, I realized how well it matched my own experience and interests in human rights education, especially since they were looking not for museum professionals, but for human rights professionals. I applied for the job, and that’s how I moved back to Canada and started working for the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, where I was for almost ten years.

Sarah Pickman: One of the goals of the “Order of Multitudes” seminar has been to interrogate why museums are the kinds of institutions they are; how these places reflect deeply problematic histories in their collecting practices, connections to colonialism, and other legacies still embedded in how museums operate. Given that museums can’t be separated from this history, why are museums still good avenues for human rights work?

Armando Perla: I think museums are amazing places for us to do human rights work precisely because of their colonial history—there is so much reparative work that we can do, that museums have to do! With a human rights-based approach, you prioritize historically excluded voices, so you can try to correct the inequities that have existed and still exist in our institutions and our systems. And museums are one of the most inequitable spaces where one can be. When I started working in museums, I quickly understood how elitist and exclusionary they can be, and how unwelcoming they can be both to certain people who work there and certain groups of visitors. Of course, that means that museums are not the easiest places to do this work, because when you try to push against the status quo the status quo will push back.

I think of the work of my colleagues Sumaya Kassim or Puawai Cairns who always stress that museums are colonial institutions, that they cannot be decolonized. Cairns has often said that we cannot decolonize museums; the best we can do is make them less harmful for people who come from marginalized communities like she and I do. We have to do this work in museums because it is our moral responsibility, our legal responsibility, to the communities we represent in the places where our museums are situated. Museum workers are not charity workers, doing work that is somehow inherently benevolent. I think that is completely the wrong approach. We need to think of ourselves as human rights workers. We need to see ourselves as beholden to stakeholders, to repair damage that has been done.

Sarah Pickman: Over the past few years critiques of museums have become much more visible outside of the museum profession (especially with hashtags such as #Museumsarenotneutral, social media accounts like Change the Museum, and so on). However, most museums have been slow to respond to these calls for change in meaningful ways. What specific practices would you like to see museums implement that reflect a human rights-centered museology? What do you see as the most challenging aspects of museums to overcome to turn them into more accessible, equitable spaces?

Armando Perla: There are definitely institutional roadblocks. I feel that after the summer of 2020, for example, we made a lot of noise about the deeply discriminatory and unethical things that go on inside museums. Those of us who have worked in museums have always known about these things, but I think we brought the issues to people outside of the museum field. Many white museum leaders reacted with incredulity, claiming that they didn’t know these things were going on under their noses. But for people of color who work in museums, we know that these same leaders just haven’t been listening. Taking to social media seemed like our last viable option!

Once these inequities were out in the open, many museums rushed to create positions for Diversity Officers, DEAI committees, and the like. But these museums were essentially bringing in one or a few people of color without any structural change. If you don’t change institutional structures of oppression, you don’t create environments in which people of color or LGBTQ people—people who have been left out of the traditional museum canon—can feel welcome and do their work. There needs to be a shift in thinking about how museums are run, how museum leadership works, not just bringing in one or two diversity officers. Since  2020, so many museums have reached out to me asking me to do diversity training,  to develop diversity or to become their DEAI person. But that’s not what I do—I’m a curator. Why not offer me a job as a curator or director of exhibitions instead? So many museum leaders see people like me as only being able to do one thing. We need to get people from marginalized communities in positions across the board in museums, in leadership positions, and build support for these people within museum work cultures, or nothing is going to change.

One thing the movements of the last two years has done is connect museum professionals who come from marginalized communities across institutions. So many of us may have been working in isolation in our own institutions, feeling alone, but because of this mobilization we were able to connect with each other online. Now with so many museum professionals who really want change, we’re not just trying to support the communities outside of museums, we’re creating these networks of care and support for each other inside the museum sector.

Sarah Pickman: You’ve worked in museums across different national contexts, especially in Canada and Sweden. What are the most notable differences (or similarities) you’ve observed across these different national contexts, both in terms of how museums are funded and structured, and how different communities have responded to the work in their local museums? 

Armando Perla: Funding models are so crucial. In Europe, except for the U.K., museums rely mostly on funding from national, provincial/state or municipal governments. In Canada, we have a mix of public funding and private philanthropy, although not to the same extent as in the U.S., where private philanthropy is generally more important. Of course, this varies somewhat depending on the particular kind of museum. In Canada, for example, large national museums receive a huge amount of public funding, but that funding doesn’t necessarily extend to small, community-based museums. I believe that there needs to be better mechanisms to make sure that smaller, more community-based museums that are already doing great work on the ground receive a larger share of the funds. In Sweden, I saw that even small museums get some government funding, but the limited funding from the national government is spread across many more institutions. There’s one pot of money that essentially every museum in the country has to share. That leads to a lot of collaboration between institutions, to share resources. It’s not always smooth-going, of course, with collaborative work, but that was a great model for me to be exposed to. But in any country, whenever funding is tied to government sources, there will always be politicians trying to tie museum funding to political agendas, and museums censoring themselves because of the fear of losing government funding.

I’ve also worked with the city of Medellín in Colombia as an advisor on museums, human rights, and social inclusion. This city has put a lot of money into its cultural institutions, especially because they consciously want to tell a different story than the story that’s usually been ascribed from the outside: the city’s previous association with the drug trade. Social inclusion through cultural institutions is a high priority for Medellín’s city leaders, but many private businesses are also encouraged, through public policies, to give financial support to these cultural institutions. This mix of private and public funds and a strong commitment to inclusion has created some very cutting-edge museum work there. Of course, no funding model is perfect, but what I’ve observed in Medellín is very inspiring.

Sarah Pickman: It’s interesting how many academic critiques of museum exhibits assume that what is on display is a direct result of a curator’s intent alone. However, financial resources and pressures dramatically shape what visitors get to see.

Armando Perla: Yes, absolutely! What you see on display in museums is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the institutional forces at work, the bureaucracy, the pressures from funders.

Sarah Pickman: You’ve worked as a professor, teaching museum studies students, and are now in a doctoral program yourself. How do you approach teaching future museum professionals, and what’s been most meaningful for you about this part of your work?

Armando Perla: We’ve been talking about how toxic museum spaces can be for BIPOC or LGBTQ people, but those same criticisms are equally true of academia. For people who live “outside the canon,” so to speak, academia is not a welcoming place either. And just like in museums, we are also tasked with decolonizing whole programs and institutions with our presence. But meaningful change won’t happen in academia unless those in power are willing to look at themselves critically first. I also think it’s crucial that the academy recognize that other forms of knowledge are just as important and valid as academic research, including lived experience. Otherwise, if you don’t get rid of those hierarchies, how can you teach your students to go into the museum sector and dismantle those same colonial structures?

So many museum studies programs focus only on teaching students to make budgets and strategic plans and the like, but they need to teach their students values. They need to instill in them the importance of talking to the communities that are served by museums. That’s what’s going to help them do something good with those budgets and strategic plans. I don’t want to just teach students formulas. I want to teach them anti-racist and anti-oppressive values.

Before I started teaching in a museum studies M.A. program, I had already been talking to students who didn’t see themselves reflected in their faculty members. I joined the M.A. program as an instructor because I wanted to work with students who couldn’t find mentors that understood what it was like to be a racialized museum professional, navigating these spaces. I’m still mentoring students. But I also learn so much from students every single day. I have so much hope for the museum sector because I’ve met these students and learned what they want to do with this field. I know that change is coming; I might not see it anytime soon, but I think those students who are coming up now are agents of that change. Their lived experience brings so much to the table, so much more than what they can learn in the classroom alone. And they are demanding that their institutions, their schools, recognize that their lived experience is just as valuable as anything they might learn in an academic setting.

Sarah Pickman: What projects are you working on at the moment that you’re excited about?

Armando Perla: I just started a new job as a Chief Curator for the City of Toronto. Part of my role will be to develop new curatorial vision for all ten museums at the Toronto History Museums. This includes new exhibition strategies and programs as well as a new exhibition calendar, whole also continuing work that has already been happening in the city through a program called “Awakenings.” We’re going to strengthen our relationships with local communities, build a contemporary collecting strategy that is ethical, and continue developing an Indigenous collections management strategy that has already been in the works. I’m extremely excited about all of this work.

I’m also in the midst of developing an exhibition for the United Nations Development Program in El Salvador, which is very exciting for me because it’s the first time I’ve worked in El Salvador since I left. It’s going to be presented at the National Gallery. It’s going to be about historical memory, aimed at children from ages eight to twelve, focused on the memory of several historically excluded groups/communities in order to  decenter the white, male, cisgendered, heterosexual voice and gaze that has dominated how our stories have been told. This also includes the way in which the armed conflict has been presented. With this exhibit, I wanted to situate the roots of this conflict in colonization, in slavery, in racism, land theft, the exploitation of enslaved people and center historically marginalized voices, including Indigenous and Afro-Salvadorian voices. We’re working with local artists and artists in the Salvadorian diaspora.

Finally, I’m also working on my Ph.D. through the University of Montreal. So really, it’s like I have three full-time jobs now!