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White sanctuaries: race and place in art museums

David G. Embrick (Department of Sociology, University of Connecticut, Hartford, Connecticut, USA)
Simón Weffer (Department of Sociology, Northern Illinois University, DeKalb, Illinois, USA)
Silvia Dómínguez (Department of Sociology, Northeastern University, Boston, Massachusetts, USA)

International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy

ISSN: 0144-333X

Article publication date: 13 September 2019

Issue publication date: 22 November 2019




This paper examines the Art Institute of Chicago – a nationally recognized museum – as a white sanctuary, i.e., a white institutional space within a racialized social system that serves to reassure whites of their dominant position in society. The purpose of this paper is to highlight how museums create and maintain white spaces within the greater context of being an institution for the general public.


The empirical analysis of this study is based on collaborative ethnographic data collected over a three-year period of time conducted by the first two authors, and consists of hundreds of photos and hundreds of hours of participant observations and field notes. The data are analyzed using descriptive methods and content analyses.


The findings highlight three specific racial mechanisms that speak to how white spaces are created, recreated and maintained within nationally and internationally elite museums: spatiality, the policing of space, and the management of access.

Research limitations/implications

Sociological research on how white spaces are maintained in racialized organizations is limited. This paper extends to museums’ institutional role in maintaining white supremacy, as white sanctuaries.


This paper adds to the existing literature on race, place and space by highlighting three specific racial mechanisms in museum institutions that help to maintain white supremacy, white normality(ies), and serve to facilitate a reassurance to whites’ anxieties, fears and fragilities about their group position in society – that which helps to preserve their psychological wages of whiteness in safe white spaces.



Embrick, D.G., Weffer, S. and Dómínguez, S. (2019), "White sanctuaries: race and place in art museums", International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy, Vol. 39 No. 11/12, pp. 995-1009.



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