PEMcast Episode 15: The Struggle Transcript

Dinah: Several years ago, PEM began a new initiative. Positioned at the end of all major exhibitions, would be a wall featuring group portraits of PEM staff. These clusters of smiling faces represented all the faces of all the people that make our exhibitions possible.

Lev: Collections management, creative services, marketing, curatorial, research and publishing, ....

Dinah: That's Lev McClain, associate director of security here at the Peabody Essex Museum.

Lev: We are getting a really noteworthy and consistent reaction from a lot of our visitors where they are moving through the show, taking in all the themes of the show and getting to the end of the show, and looking at the composition of our staff and saying, "Wow, everybody in the panel is white”

Chip: It started so innocently. To give credit to everyone involved. To give visitors a peek behind the curtain. How did it go this wrong?

Dinah: Welcome to the PEMcast. Conversations and stories for the culturally curious. From the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, I’m Dinah Cardin.

Chip: And I’m Chip Van Dyke. Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle opened on Martin Luther King Jr. weekend. The exhibition reunites Lawrence’s paintings in the Struggle Series for the first time in over 60 years.

Dinah: Lawrence painted the Struggle series to reveal quote, the struggles of a people to create a nation and their attempt to build a democracy. End quote

Chip: The 30 paintings feature the words and actions of not only America’s founding fathers, but enslaved people, women and Native Americans.

Chip: What does that one say?

Lev: “The exhibit is well-done but not a single person of color (African American) on such a large Jacob Lawrence team…”

Dinah: Lev is reading from the exhibition comment book.

Lev: So this comment is two comments later.

Lev: "Thanks for the show and also for including contemporary artists. I echo the comment on the previous page. A lot of white folks on the exhibition team, AKA PEM staff."

Lev: It’s not so secret, but if you haven’t really thought about it, yes museums are really white.

Chip: Lev is right. Although HE is black, PEM’s staff is largely white. Dinah and I are both white.

Lev: I mean, our collections,institutional history, our funding is all steeped in colonialism. It's a Eurocentric worldview. Most of the time, the exhibitions we put on don’t even invite these kind of conversations. Because the exhibitions we put on don’t do anything to highlight those other perspectives. It's only because we're highlighting the other perspective thematically that people even feel invited to start having that conversation and building expectations of accountability.

Dinah: So what can we do? Not have a Jacob Lawrence show? Should we not tell this story? Do we take the staff photos down at the end of the exhibition?

Chip: Staff diversity has been a big topic everywhere, including the museum world. The Mellon Foundation partnered with national museum organizations to conduct surveys on this topic.

Dinah: The most recent 2018 report shows some gains in racial diversity but also a need for improvement. What’s shocking is that 84% of museum curator, educator, conservator and leadership positions were held by white non-Hispanics, which means European Americans, Middle Eastern Americans, and North African Americans as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Chip: At PEM, we’re taking this very seriously. We’ve assembled an internal team of staff members with diverse viewpoints, including Lev who you heard from earlier. This team, known as the equity and inclusion task force, addresses issues of diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility at the museum.

Dinah: They made several recommendations --- the addition of gender neutral bathrooms, hiring more diverse staff and the reintroduction of paid internships.

Lev: We want to be ambitious. We want to establish an endowment fund for that paid internship program. I was actually a paid intern here at PEM for a program that no longer exists and I never would have been able to come work here for free. I participated in an internship program that was grant funded at the time. And the money was quite good actually. Which was great for me because I was working my way through school at the time. I was going to an Ivy League school, which was way more than I could afford so I really needed that money.

Dinah: When Lev finished college, he returned home to the Salem area, looking for a job.

Lev: Having had that internship...people were willing to take a chance on me. We really limit who can participate in the institution by not compensating people for their work. All you have to do is have a rudimentary understanding of our society to know who's going to be most impacted by that. You're not going to get many people of color coming through your internship program if it's unpaid.

Nathalie: There are a number of things we are looking at, including what do we want to do about the price of admission.

Chip: This is Nathalie Apchin, Chief Financial Officer at PEM.

Nathalie: It’s also about the hours. We tend to be open 10 to 5 and that’s when most people work.

Chip: Before coming to the museum, Nathalie was CFO of an organization focused on helping low income families. Nathalie feels that PEM can also be a force for positive change in peoples’ lives.

Nathalie: I think PEM has that reputation for being really welcoming. From being welcoming to being inviting to being inclusive...How do we make that evolution?

Dinah: Questions like this are being examined in PEM’s new strategic plan. The plan seeks to define the future of the museum. Nathalie is a key player in this process.

Nathalie: We’re very seriously looking at it right now and that’s very hopeful for the impact the museum can have on multiple people.

Chip: We asked Nathalie what she thinks of the multiple perspectives represented in Jacob Lawrence’s Struggle series.

Nathalie: We tend to think about history in terms of people who saved the battle.

Chip: History is written by the victors.

Nathalie: That’s right. It really calls out how we see our place in historical events. It made me look at other works that he has done and really surface a piece of history I was not as familiar with.

Doris: Case number 2. Kendra loves being a guide at the Peabody Essex Museum, particularly now that the Jacob Lawrence exhibition is open. She is excited that more people of color have been visiting the museum to see the exhibit.

Chip: It’s Saturday February 2nd. The Jacob Lawrence exhibition is on its second week and Doris from PEM’s Education Department is working with our guides on the subject of implicit bias.

Doris: One day while Kendra is in one of the gallerys, another guide whom she hardly knows smiles as she reaches out toward Kendra’s braids and says your hair looks so exotic. I have to touch it.

(Sound of guides’ reaction.)

Doris: This particular prompt we are going to first discuss the intent and impact of Susan’s behavior.

Dinah: At the end of the one hour training, Doris shares a personal story.

Doris: I am what is called passing. I pass as white, I pass as straight and I pass as female. But I don’t feel those ways. My father is black. My mother is white. I also do not identify as a woman or a man. I identify as non-binary. My pronouns are they, them. So, if you were using a sentence to describe Doris. Doris left the water boiling because they are making themselves coffee. .If you are struggling with they/them pronouns, if you say she left, I’m sorry, they left. Just really simple. don’t worry about it.

Nancy: Whenever you get in a routine anywhere, it’s always good to step out of that routine and look at what it is we do, how we do it and how does it make people feel..

Chip: This is Nancy Hackett, a PEM guide.

Nancy: I think the training is that the entire world is more diverse. The world keeps changing every day and so our need to learn and to appreciate that and acknowledge that is important and this is a step toward that.

Bethany: The struggle of this moment is actually not different than the rest of our history.

Chip: Bethany Collins is an artist featured in the Jacob Lawrence exhibition. She and two other artists, Derrick Adams and Hank Willis Thomas, offer their contemporary perspectives on the American Struggle.

Bethany: We keep repeating over and over again. We move a little bit forward and then we fall way back into the abyss and we keep doing this again and again.

Dinah: Her work, America -- A Hymnal, is in a small chapel-like room. As you enter, you are surrounded by six disembodied voices singing multiple versions of the song – My Country Tis of Thee.

[Clip from A Hymnal]

Betheny: What you'll hear is a kind of familiar dissonance. It will be equal parts noise and familiarity.

Dinah: The song My Country Tis of Thee has been embraced by many, from the National Anthem of Great Britain to causes championed by suffragettes, abolitionists and even the Confederate army.

Bethany: It gave me the language to say this moment feels familiar and expected... That's inherent in Lawrence's series and also estranging and a surprise and like a betrayal and somehow that was relief. To be able to trace the origins of this moment, feels like a relief.

(Musical interlude)

Derrick Adams: My particular piece in the exhibition offers a certain level of optimism when you think about struggle.

Dinah: Derrick Adams is a multidisciplinary artist based in Brooklyn.

Chip: His piece, Jacob’s Ladder, is filled with emphemora from Jacob Lawrence’s life.

Derrick: Photos from his photo album, a vinyl record taken from a list of music he listened to in his studio, as well as his studio chair.

Dinah: From the chair, a ladder climbs toward a portrait Derrick painted of Jacob Lawrence.

Derrick: I think it’s really more about his life, to kind of show the history of Jacob, from this thinker to this person who is now considered an icon. From sitting to ascending.

Dinah: Derrick’s whole life changed because of a college assignment that sent him to the public library It was there that he found a book of Jacob Lawrence’s work.

Derrick: I was really fascinated with the imagery, and the color, and the composition. When I got towards the end of the book, there was a photo of Jacob. You know, very dapper, with a pipe. I think he had a pipe or something like that. And so when I saw an image of Jacob, which looked like he was around my age at the time, I was like, "Wow." And I discovered that he taught at Pratt. I knew from doing that report...that I was going to go to Pratt. I was like I’m going to go to Pratt. I’m moving to New York. And I did, I Just moved to New York. Representation is very important for everyone to see some similarities in yourself with others who you admire and respect.

Chip: Because who isn’t affected by someone who inspires you, especially if they look kind of like you.

Dinah: If you visit PEM’s Jacob Lawrence exhibition today, you may notice something in addition to the staff photos. A new note below reads:

Chip: Nationwide, museum staff lack racial diversity. Find out how PEM is addressing this issue at

Dinah: What do you see as the American Struggle? Share your personal story on March 14, when The Moth Storyslam comes to PEM. Find more details at

Chip: If you have comments or story ideas to share, please write us at

Dinah: We leave you with this, a hip hop collective who recently performed in the Jacob Lawrence exhibition. Their words are inspired by the Struggle series. They call themselves Wreck Shop Movement.

(musical interlude)