An audio recording of a meeting between Queens Museum staff and leadership provided to Hyperallergic reveals opposing views of the museum’s responsibility to address Israel’s ongoing attacks on Gaza. In her conversation with five workers who asked the institution to release a statement about Gaza, Director Sally Tallant explains that the museum cannot do so because it “is not able to make political statements.”
The meeting yesterday, November 16, followed a collective letter signed by 17 Queens Museum employees last month calling on museum leadership to reckon with its building’s history as the site of the United Nations 1947 vote to adopt Resolution 181 (II), according to internal emails verified by Hyperallergic. Otherwise known as the UN Partition Plan for Palestine, this resolution divided Palestine into two Jewish and Arab states when Great Britain’s Palestinian mandate expired. Among many Israelis, this vote continues to be celebrated as the first legitimization of Israel on the world stage. But for Palestinians, the partition is remembered as the catalyst for the 1948 Nakba (meaning “catastrophe” in Arabic) that expelled 700,000 Palestinians from their homeland.
While the Queens Museum has a plaque commemorating that the UN General Assembly met in what was then known as the New York City Building, and makes general mention of this on its website, the institution does not refer to the vote’s impact on Palestinians.
Moreover, several staffers who signed onto the collective letter and participated in an October 20 strike in support of Palestine, who have asked to remain anonymous, have described an atmosphere of “heightened surveillance” in recent weeks, alleging intimidation by museum leadership in the form of one-on-one meetings without their direct supervisors. A week after the statement and strike, the museum also implemented the use of work phones for employees, according to staffers. After the workers circulated the collective letter and call to sign on to the strike via the museum’s email server, the director replied in an email that such actions were “violative of Queens Museum policies” including “anti-harassment” and “solicitation and distribution” on company time. One employee has also resigned from their position, as confirmed by Hyperallergic.
The recent meeting reveals that the cultural institution continues to refuse to acknowledge how the vote’s legacy still actively harms Palestinians today. In her response to the workers, who have asked to remain anonymous, Tallant invokes the institution’s nonprofit status as well as the museum’s bylaws and the American Alliance of Museums’ Code of Ethics.
When employees asked why these bylaws and ethics codes did not extend to the museum’s 2020 public statement during the Black Lives Matter protests, Tallant responded by saying that this announcement was “written as a commitment.”
“We felt that actually as a museum we could do something … very intentionally, which was that we can affect change in our working conditions, our staff, the makeup of our board,” Tallant said.
The workers also pointed out the Queens Museum hosts a food pantry, an example of a focus on social justice and supporting historically marginalized people, and argued that the museum has the opportunity to make tangible action by contextualizing its plaque commemorating the 1947 vote with additional information. They also noted that the institution has a living land acknowledgment in its building and on its website.
However, Tallant reiterated that the Queens Museum “cannot make a statement because of our status as a nonprofit institution, because we’re a museum and it is not our job.”
“Where is our statement on Ukraine? Where is our statement on Congo?” Tallant continues, adding that although the museum cannot issue a statement expressing solidarity with Palestine, it can continue to engage with this issue and other so-called political matters through its programming.
The Queens Museum has not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment.
Founded in 1972, the Queens Museum is located in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park in one of the most ethnically diverse neighborhoods in the world, and its mission statement says that the museum strives to be “open, responsive, inclusive, and empathetic.” Tallant, who was previously artistic director of the Liverpool Biennial in the United Kingdom and head of programs at London’s Serpentine Galleries, was appointed president and executive director of the Queens Museum in 2019.
In late 2017, the museum hosted a controversial reenactment of the UN Partition vote after succumbing to pressure from Israeli and New York politicians who accused the museum of antisemitism for initially canceling the event. A commemoration of Israel’s 70th anniversary, the event followed former Governor Cuomo’s still-in effect executive order requiring state agencies to divest all public funds from institutions and companies in support of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement. Former Queens Museum Director Laura Raicovich stepped down from her role in the wake of the controversy, prompting curators, artists, and academics to sign an open letter in support of the culturally and politically engaged programming under her leadership.