Not So Black and White

What does real museum diversity look like? Exhibitions and programs alone can not be expected to achieve connections between our institutions and our communities. This week, at the Museum Association of New York’s annual conference, I was able to help facilitate a conversation and brainstorming session about what museums can do to increase the diversity of their staff and of the museum field. This topic, which I have spent the last year researching as part of my graduate thesis work, is one that is near and dear to my heart.

Candace Anderson, the executive director of Cool Culture in NYC, spoke about the need for the diversification of our field in her keynote address. She talked about identity, and the ongoing process that each of us must go through to examine our experiences, biases, and opinions. When I started interviewing leaders across the field about the topic of racial diversity, I began to question my right to tell this story. Who am I – an educated, middle class, white woman from the Chicago suburbs – to tackle the subject of race in our museums? My co-presenter and mentor, Gretchen Sullivan Sorin, looked me straight in the face and asked me if I was passionate increasing the racial diversity of the museum professional field. The answer is yes. Check out a few photos from our discussion session below.

Approximately 30 conference-goers participated in our hour and a half long discussion session. Topics included racial diversity of the museum field, African American material culture and collections, diversity related professional development, and the cultivation of a more diverse workforce.

Approximately 30 conference-goers participated in our hour and a half long discussion session. Topics included racial diversity in the museum field, African American material culture and collections, diversity related professional development, and the cultivation of a more diverse workforce.

Race is a difficult topic for many to discuss. To get the conversation started each participant took some Post-Its and brainstormed some answers that guided our later discussion.

Race is a difficult topic for many to discuss. To get the conversation started each participant took two different colored Post-It notes and brainstormed some answers to the above questions. These answers were later grouped together based on similarities and were used to guide our small group discussion.

Each of the discussion leaders - Ashley Bowden (2nd year student at CGP), myself (pictured center), and Gretchen Sorin (Director, CGP) took about 5 minutes each to discuss our various research endeavors. I focused on the reciprocal relationship between diversity of staff and diversity of audience, and I shared success stories of professional development programs in the field that are actively encouraging diversity.

Each of the discussion leaders – Ashley Bowden (2nd year student at CGP), myself (pictured center), and Gretchen Sorin (Director, CGP) took about 5 minutes to discuss our various research endeavors. I focused on the reciprocal relationship between diversity of staff and diversity of audience, and I shared success stories of professional development programs in the field that are actively encouraging diversity.

Post-It notes helped guide our discussion and figure out what various institutions could do to increase diversity.

Post-It notes helped guide our discussion and figure out what various institutions could do to increase diversity. One of the most interesting barriers that popped up: FEAR (pictured middle).

We broke into small groups to discuss themes such as recruitment, professional development, funding, and point of view in institutions. Myself and the other facilitators joined in on the conversations being had and encourages participation by all involved.

We broke into small groups to discuss themes such as recruitment, professional development, funding, and point of view in institutions. Myself and the other facilitators joined in on the conversations being had and encouraged participation by all involved.

So what did we conclude? It’s clear that there’s been a lot of talk in the field about diversity, and not a lot of action being done. From our presentations and large group/small group discussions we concluded that each person in the field can make active steps towards diversity. Here are a few ways that you can make a difference:

  • Sell the field – Reach out to your community and figure out ways to let students knows that museums are the place to be (and work!). Talk at a career fair, make connections with local schools, and reach out to underserved audiences. We cannot expect diverse candidates to appear out of thin air – we need to cultivate talent from outside of the field.
  • Partner with other organizations – Schools, community centers, other museums, libraries, religious organizations, environmental groups, other non-profits, etc etc (you get the picture). Seek out connections in your community and see where these collaborations can lead.
  • Mentor – Every single person reading this blog can be a mentor to another professional or student whether they are in the museum field or not. We each possess the talent to give to an emerging professional encouragement and I cannot stress enough how essential this can be to that person’s career and future. Do it, just do it!
  • Cultivate diverse board members – Diversity needs to be embraced my an entire institution in a museum’s strategic plan and leadership. Having a diverse board means having a diverse range of experiences to pull from and support your endeavors.
Myself with Gretchen and Ashley at a post discussion celebration at the Everson Art Museum

Myself with Gretchen and Ashley at a post discussion celebration at the Everson Art Museum

So I’ve talked a lot at you in this post.

Here are my questions for you: what are you going to do? We can each make a small change in the field that can lead to a group of more diverse decision makers in our museums. Dialogue can lead to action. What can you do? How are you going to take a stand?

Comment on this post and lets continue the discussion that we started at the MANY conference.

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About catebay

Informal educator working in the world of art. Interests in public programming and community advocacy. Loves learning about people, collecting blue mason jars, and consuming Swedish fish.
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One Response to Not So Black and White

  1. Pingback: Meet a Museum Blogger: Cate Bayles | Museum Minute

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