The Neighborhood/El Barrio by Bianca Diaz at the Museum of Mexican Art Credit: Sun-Times Media

“Museums are conservative institutions,” says Carlos Tortolero, founder and president of the National Museum of Mexican Art in Pilsen. “They come from the same tradition, sometimes started by people who had money, sometimes by the government. Historically, they’ve been elite institutions. If you want to change it, first you have to admit you have a problem.”

Tortolero will be appearing on a Chicago Humanities Fest panel this weekend with Chip Colwell, senior curator of anthropology at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, and David Pilgrim, founder and director of the Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Michigan, to discuss one very big problem facing museums today: the problem of institutional racism.

Each of their museums has a different challenge in dealing with racism. The Jim Crow Museum is a collection of racist objects; it is, in effect, a museum of racism. The National Museum of Mexican Art, on the other hand, was founded by Mexican-Americans and is all about celebrating Mexican and Mexican-American heritage, particularly in Chicago.

The Denver Museum of Nature & Science faces an entirely different dilemma. The majority of its Native American artifacts were acquired by white collectors, some of whom were not above stealing objects that they wanted. Since the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) was passed in 1990, Native Americans have been requesting that objects be returned to them, which is sometimes at odds with the ambition of the museum to preserve, for the benefit of the public, a broad view of Native American history and anthropology. In his book Plundered Skulls and Stolen Spirits: Inside the Fight to Reclaim Native America’s Culture, Colwell describes the history of four of these artifacts and how he and the museum returned them to their tribal owners.

Tortolero believes the best way forward for museums is to allow as much public access as possible. Of course, that’s the way he’s been running the National Museum of Mexican Art since its inception.

“People have hearings, talk about how museums are essential to human experience, but then come back and charge exorbitant rates,” he says. “Arts are something we’re all born with! It’s in our DNA. To explore life is in our DNA. If you put up obstacles to prevent people from participating, this is bad. Arts are essential to democracy. Arts should be the vehicle that leads the way.”

In order to do that, he says, museums should be more involved in social activism, feature the work of more local artists (who pay taxes to support those museums), and include different kinds of pieces, including performing arts.

“One of my favorite things,” Tortolero says, “I love when a high school couple are dating, and they’re at the museum. When your name is Garcia or Hernandez and you see your name in paper, usually bad news. Here, it’s not. That’s something we really believe in. I’m glad we’re able to do it.”

“Museums and Race” Sun 4/30, 2 PM, Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington, 312-494-9509,, $15, $10 students and teachers.