The staff and board of the 62-year-old Moab Museum have been working to evolve the organization into a more relevant and active community asset.
Evolution and growth can be messy and painful. The recent and abrupt resignation of two board members amid comments on the use of racially insensitive language has prompted a series of facilitated discussions about the museum’s identity and mission.
When current interim director Forrest Rodgers first began working with the Moab Museum as a consultant in 2017, he interviewed dozens of key community members to find out what they wanted from the museum.
In the recommendations included with the final assessment, the report states that “21st-century museums are not just ‘about’ something; they strive to be ‘for’ something,”
In the wake of the May 25 homicide of George Floyd and a nationwide outpouring of concern about racial justice, museum board members Michele Johnson and Deb Slechta felt that the museum had a responsibility to stand for something, following the museum’s recommendations: to acknowledge the historic significance of the moment and make a stand against racism.
Instead, following a disagreement with museum board President Dennis Brown, the two resigned.
“Moab Museum was not ready to have a conversation or make a statement when the suggestion was made,” Johnson wrote in an email to the Moab Sun News.
Johnson, who is Black, said she has experienced racial discrimination from a museum member. She commented that she felt a lack of interest in or acknowledgment of Black historical figures in Moab and the West, and has heard “elder museum members” use terms like “darkies,” “you people,” and “Negro” to refer to Black people.
A focus on storytelling is an important theme in the museum’s new approach and exhibit, and Slechta proposed focusing on stories about historic local racial relationships to give a unique local connection to the current discussion about racism in America. She did not feel that her suggestion was welcomed by the board president.
Board President Dennis Brown described the situation as a misunderstanding. He said he was not against the museum making a statement about racism, but that he didn’t have the authority to do it without first calling an emergency meeting of the board and calling for a vote.
The Moab Museum did publish a statement on its Facebook page on June 5, condemning “America’s centuries-long history of oppression of African Americans and all communities of color.”
“As a Museum of cultural history, we are today reaffirming our commitment to illuminate the true and often unpleasant stories about our past, so that we may learn from them and inspire our audiences to shape a more humane future for all people,” the statement reads.
Brown said he didn’t know of any other contributing factors to Johnson’s and Slechta’s resignations.
“I didn’t ask them to resign, nobody wants them to resign,” he said.“They were both good board members… I apologized to them if they had misunderstood the conversations that we had by email. I regret doing that—I should have picked up the phone and called them. I learned that lesson, that email is not a good form of communication.”
Johnson said she chose to respectfully step down from the Museum board to pursue her work with the nonprofit Canyonlands Field Institute.
“In my work with CFI, I feel my contributions are accepted and valued and that I am safe,” she explained. “CFI Board and staff were listening to the voices from around the world about Black lives and made a conscious effort early on to create a statement of solidarity in support of the movement.”
At the time of the 2017 Community Engagement Survey, the museum board was contemplating a new building located on the Colorado River, an expensive proposition; Rodgers’ findings, published in a report in the spring of 2017, suggested that community members had a different idea of how the museum should move forward.
Instead of launching a new building at a new site, a large financial donation was used to fund a major renovation of the existing museum and a major overhaul of the dated exhibits. The new exhibit aims to use artifacts to tell stories—including stories that have been obscured or overlooked in the past.
“For this museum, it’s particularly important that we address the centuries-long treatment of Indigenous people and the tribes and nations and bands that surround us,” said Rodgers, who has collaborated with Native American tribes through his work at museums in Oregon and Washington.
“We have a commitment to really strengthen our relationships with the tribes, and to do it in a way that gives them space to tell their stories, and where we can celebrate their culture today—rather than us trying to tell their stories,” Rodgers said.
After two years of focus on the logistics of renovating the building and refreshing the exhibits, Johnson’s and Slechta’s resignations have been a wake-up call to the board that, in addition to new floor plans and artifact narratives, they must reckon with the culture and identity of the museum as an organization.
Rodgers said the board has been having “facilitated conversations about diversity, inclusion, and equity, and what those will mean to the board: how we define them, how we look at those three characteristics and make them commitments.”
Lianna Etchberger is an ex-officio trustee on the board, representing Utah State University, and she’s been facilitating the discussions so far. She said participants seem open to learning and growing.
“I’m hopeful that things can change…everyone wants to do better,” she said.
The board may consider in the future hiring an outside professional to assist with ongoing exercises in identifying values.
Meanwhile, Johnson and Slechta will be missed.
“Both of them bring such great energy and passion to the museum,” Rodgers said. “They brought great ideas and a lot of energy, and that’s especially why I’m heartbroken over their resignations because we need them to help us move forward—we need their voices, their ideas.”
Johnson said she plans to remain a member of the museum and assist the board and staff when she can. She recalled collaborating with Regina Lopez Whiteskunk of the Ute Mountain Ute Weminuche Band during her time on the board.
“She taught me ‘aminik,’ which means ‘listen’ in Ute,” Johnson wrote. “For all of us, now is the time to listen to people of color to understand their lived experiences in our Moab community.”
Racial justice and representation issues challenge museum to self-reflection