Diversity and Museums
It’s not an advisory board if you don’t listen to the advisors’ advice.
While pursuing my MA in Museology in Florida, I was treated differently. People said that I was diverse. I took that to mean that I was black, female, and had an accent. I was the only person of color in my program and began to realize that not only was that lacking in my program but also in the museum sector.
Soon, I began asking myself, “Do I even belong in these spaces?”
This prompted me to examine issues of racial equity and inclusion in museums. My goal is to help museum professionals understand what the museum experience is like for groups that have been marginalized by museums.
Let's focus on the word diversity. Diversity is an important issue for museums and the reason for my passion.
While interning at an art museum, I was asked to be on the advisory board for a Jacob Lawrence exhibition. I knew why I was asked, other than security I was the only person of color working at the museum.
At the first meeting, I met other people of color from the community. We were excited. We believed, our voices were going to be heard — We were going to have an input into how an exhibition was displayed and labeled at an art museum.
However, ten minutes into the meeting we realized that the Curator had already chosen the paintings and was working on the labels. During the meeting, the Curator kept mentioning that the museum wanted to diversify its audience and this exhibition would be the first of many.
The first of many? Many of what? I still don't know.
The look on the “advisory board'' members’ faces, including my own, was shocking, to say the least. We were shown the paintings and asked if we liked them. Thirty minutes later, the meeting was over. We never had another meeting. The exhibition opened one month later.
Not surprisingly, the audience was not diverse at the exhibition and after. What went wrong? The museum did not take the time to examine who is being represented and whose voices were heard? What stories they were telling? And who wrote the narrative? Better collaboration can not only give the audience ownership and involvement in the exhibition but also broaden the perspectives revealed in the exhibition.
Museums should try to continuously engage communities of color and to reflect the diversity of their communities in their governing boards, staff, collections, and programs.
If minority audiences see themselves or their culture in exhibitions, or as part of the staff, they can have a sense of belonging. Museums should focus on internal change throughout the entire organization. It will take more than a temporary exhibit or special program to challenge racial equity in museums. As a result of their historical beginnings, the legacy of elitism remains rooted in the museum’s organizational structure. A visit to a museum reveals a racial composition that is strikingly different between the leadership staff and the security staff. A 2015 study by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation found that of 30,000 employees across 322 US museums, 84% of curators, educators, conservators, museum directors, and leadership staff were white.
Museums are the center of community and as such everyone who enters their doors should feel welcome. In addition, the entire staff should reflect the diversity of the communities they exist in. However, statistics indicate that museum visitors and staff do not reflect the diversity that exists within today’s society. Facing budget cuts and the difficulty to remain relevant in a rapidly changing world, museums must take a critical look at themselves and make changes. The American Alliance of Museums states that one of the core standards of museums is its commitment to public accountability and transparency in its missions and operations.
What can museums do to reflect and support the communities they serve?
Museums can begin to change by forming close and lasting relationships with their communities. Authentic community engagement builds trust in the museum, increases participation, and increases the racial diversity of visitors. While there are museums that have made the necessary changes, there is still a lot of work that has to be done. In recent years, some funders have launched initiatives to foster change within museums.
In 2017, the Ford Foundation and Walton Family Foundation launched a $6 million initiative to diversify museum leadership in 22 museums. The goal is to fill 30 percent of art museums' curatorial and management positions with non-white staffers nationwide by 2025. “For museums to be truly inviting public spaces, they must better reflect the communities they serve,” said Alice Walton, Walton Family Foundation board member, in a press release. In 2019, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Alice L. Walton Foundation and Ford Foundation gave $4 million in grants to assist 51 museums to create a more inclusive culture within their institutions that reflect the communities they serve.
Of course, ideally, museums would pursue these goals regardless of financial incentives. But if that’s not realistic, should we take a budget-first approach to diversification? What do you think? What are some examples you’ve seen of museums making real progress in their efforts to support internal and external diversity efforts? Leave a comment below to share your thoughts.