Zulmilena Then, Preservation Manager, Weeksville Heritage Center at the 2022 annual conference in Corning, NY –MANY’s inaugural recipient of the Scholarship for BIPOC Museum Administrators
As a native Brooklynite, grassroots organizer and activist, Zulmilena Then works in various capacities to preserve her home community. She holds a Bachelor of Architecture degree from Pratt Institute and currently serves as the Preservation Manager for the Weeksville Heritage Center (WHC). In this capacity, she ensures the integrity and long-term preservation of the Historic Hunterfly Road Houses, the only remaining domestic structures of 19th-century Weeksville. Before WHC, while working with the Black-owned architectural firm Michael Ivanhoe McCaw Architect, P.C, renovating historic buildings throughout Brooklyn, mainly in Bed-Stuy, she realized the power historic buildings have in anchoring our communities. In 2015, this inspired her to form, Preserving East New York (PENY), an organization focused on celebrating and elevating the voices of the predominantly Black and Brown East New York community to make a real social and political change to protect the neighborhood through historic preservation.
Zulmilena Then is the inaugural recipient of the Scholarship for BIPOC Museum Administrators. As part of her conference scholarship, we asked her to share more about her role at Weeksville and her reflection on the conference.
Stepping into the museum field at the start of 2020 at Weeksville Heritage Center (WHC) in Brooklyn, NY, was not what I expected as the Preservation Manager. I came into the institution to care for the historic Hunterfly Road Houses, the last residential remnants of the historic Weeksville neighborhood, one of the largest 19th-century free African American communities in the United States. But two months after starting my role, COVID-19 shut down our worlds and forced us to stay at home. Suddenly separated physically from the structures the institution hired me to care for was perplexing; how do I do my job from home? The pandemic changed how I engaged with the site, the historic houses and my work and opened the doors to incite thinking beyond the traditional ways we previously had conformed to fulfill our roles at work and in life.
While the world swiftly learned to adapt to different ways of living and working, the events unfolding shortly after the shutdown sparked a fire for the Black Lives Matter movement to rise again, unequivocally triggering the racist roots and oppressive systems we have inherited since birth. The pandemic has been a shifting moment for people, organizations, and governments to re-evaluate themselves and their roles in enforcing systems that have not been equal and just. With Envisioning Our Museums For the Seventh Generation, the Museum Association of New York's Annual Conference opened up a space to reflect on what that would mean for each of us within the museum field, what role we play, and how our actions will take shape for the seventh generation. The Seventh Generation Principle is an Indigenous philosophy about being mindful of our present-day actions and decisions and the impact they will have on the seventh generation.
During the conference opening, Jamie Jacobs of the Tonawanda Seneca Nation, Turtle Clan, curator at the Rochester Museum and Science Center for the Rock Foundation, welcomed us and delivered his message in the Indigenous Seneca language, followed by English translations. I marveled at the poetics of his tongue and rich expressions. With a room filled with English speakers, I thought it was a beautiful and powerful move—a reminder of where we stand, the sacred land of the Indigenous. It was also a reminder to come up, show up as you are, and take up space. As a person of color, a daughter of immigrants where English was my second language growing up, and as a preservationist and professional just starting in the white-dominated museum field, it was a moment of empowerment. While listening to them, I reflected on information access in museums. How are museums working to be more inclusive? Are digital, audio and printed materials available in languages other than English? Are we gatekeeping information by not doing so? Why are we not reaching beyond the English language? Or are we using language to separate ourselves and exclude others?
After Jamie Jacobs followed the Opening Keynote by Chloe Hayward, Associate Director of Education at the Studio Museum in Harlem, who delivered a phenomenal introspective speech. One question she asked that stuck with me was, "How are we as museums co-creating with communities we are with and a part of? How are we making space?". This question made me reflect on who has access to information, how information is shared, and who the targeted audience is for museums. When in early 2020, the world closed its doors for in-person connections, the internet opened its doors and provided broader opportunities we hadn't explored before. While the internet provided closeness in the digital world, it also excluded those without access to the technology. While the internet can facilitate instant and wider outreach, how are organizations and institutions connecting to the surrounding community beyond the museum's building and digital walls? Is there community outreach in person? Is the targeted audience representative of the surrounding neighborhoods, and are we creating opportunities to give underrepresented communities access? Are those communities sitting at the table to influence our programming and engagement? Are we asking what their needs are, and are we supporting them? Are we invited to sit at their table? If not, how do we build community trust?
While hope for a better place exists, change can only start from within. Are we doing the work within ourselves to bring about the change we want and need in the world? Only then can we dismantle the racist, oppressive, inequitable and unjust systems we've inherited. Only then can the world and its institutions start being shaped by how the nation should move forward into a just and inclusive environment. A better world we can begin to birth for the Seventh Generation.
–Zulmilena Then, Preservation Manager, Weeksville Heritage Center, July 2022