In our Introduction to Museums course we are learning about how museums can better embrace diversity. I had the opportunity to interview Maria Vann, Director of the Iroquois Indian Museum in Howes Cave, N.Y. My discussion with Maria enlightened me about multifaceted issues of incorporating the history of diverse populations, and creating exhibits and programs that honor the history of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Native Americans.
Maria believes museums need to work towards bringing in visitors from different backgrounds to the Museum. Her staff is working with the BOCES program and schools in the capital region to bring in school groups from different ethnic and socioeconomic groups. It is also crucial that museum exhibits and programs attract diverse populations and bring up issues of diversity. She believes that if controversy surmounts than museums are doing a good job of creating dialogue because visitors deserve to know different perspectives.
In order to achieve more diverse museum exhibits staff members should have different perspectives that they can bring to exhibits and discussions. The staff needs to work on making exhibits reflective of the cultures they are presenting. In order to not offend the group you are presenting and to have exhibits that reflect the group’s perspective you need to engage the community representatives, and have open discussion of why an exhibit could be offensive to them. What are some other ways museums can include people from diverse backgrounds, and create an environment for dialogue about diversity?
Museums are facing an increasing amount of dilemmas when it comes to attracting diverse new audiences. Ron Crouch, director of the Kentucky State Data Center at University of Louisville, explains in the article “Rules for a New Demographic Ballgame,” that the aging baby boomer generation and declining funding from that generation is a signal for museums to shift towards younger and ethnically diverse groups. He states gone are the days when placing a label and an object was guaranteed to attract people and simply put there is a paradigm shift in the younger generation’s expectations that museums need to address.
Newly hired, Danielle Newell has strategized different ways to reach out to younger and more diverse audiences at the Fenimore Art Museum. During a sit-down interview, she explained how her role as Director of Education has brought fresh ideas to the museum. One of her main initiatives has been setting up dramatic interpretations throughout Cooperstown to engage younger people and attract interest from townspeople who may have never entered the museum in the past.
Newell has taken an ambitious step forward regarding outreach; however, there is a continual question about diversity and the evaluation of outreach efforts. There were no records or measuring tools to report how well the dramatic interpretations attracted local newcomers. Though she has occupied the position for less than a year, Newell needs to build a strong inclusive foundation for the museum’s outreach program to be able to measure and attain a diverse audience.
The paradigm shift is all about moving the core of museums from conservation and collections to education and public service. This new focus gives rise to a plethora of questions. Should exhibits be driven more by items or ideas? How can museums attract new audiences? Who are museums for? What should museums provide? When, if at all, is it acceptable to exhibit non-authentic items? In the digital age of overabundant information, how can museums present information in enticing and novel ways? New questions are always surfacing, and old questions require revisiting.
Collections are only as interesting as the stories they have to tell. By starting with ideas rather than items, exhibits can be fascinating and relatable to a wide range of audiences. In the modern age of people striving to become socially conscious and globally connected, museums must find ways to become the cultural meeting places for lifelong learners. The wonderful thing about education is that it never ends. Museums must provide programs and services for the public’s unquenchable curiosity. Museums as education centers challenge us to open our minds to unfamiliar stories and perspectives. Exhibits have special potential to show any subject or object in an interesting light. Today’s museums are aiming for enjoyable learning experiences. By beginning with ideas, museums become institutions for thinking rather than just things.
City Seeks Tourist Dollars, Provides Museum with New Audience
Recently the Press & Sun Bulletin of Binghamton, NY reported that the Roberson Museum and Science Center is partnering with the city to attract Chinese tourism. Binghamton’s location on the highway between Niagara Falls and the New York City makes it an ideal way-point. The Roberson contains a museum, planetarium, and historic mansion. With translation assistance from volunteers and interns from Binghamton University (BU), tours of the mansion will be available in Mandarin, as will a section of the museum’s website. 1 The program is still in its infancy, and its success is still uncertain. Through its connection with BU’s international students, the Roberson has the opportunity to further its mission of engaging “people of all ages and backgrounds” in its present community while it works with the city to welcome international visitors into that community.2
Though I believe this example is an opportunity for growth, it raises some broader questions:
Do programs that target tourist groups risk viewing people as numbers rather than visitors?
What can a museum do to avoid this and make travelers truly welcome?
Is it appropriate for a city to ask a museum for help attracting money like this?
1 Steven Howe. “Binghamton Eyes Boost for Chinese Tourism” Press & Sun-Bulletin. September 15, 2014. http://www.pressconnects.com/story/news/local/2014/09/12/binghamton-seeks-chinese-tourism/15516377/.
2 “Home” Roberson.org. Accessed September 19, 2014. http://www.roberson.org/.
The collection is everything in the art world. It is the heart of the institution, so why would an institution decide to get rid of it? If you start deaccessioning items, eventually you won’t have a collection or anything that matters, right? Some may say these actions are unethical if the profit made is not put back into collections, but who decides what’s ethical? When museums make decisions that challenge public trust, who’s the brain behind the decision? If your institution saw an opportunity to invest in its future at the expense of the collection, would you do it?
Brian Alexander had an ethical dilemma as the Director of the Shelburne Museum. His Board made the decision to deaccession a small number of items in the collection to establish an endowment that went toward the long-term care and management of the majority of its collections. The decision sent many people and organizations in the art world in uproar. One of these being AAM who stepped in to advise Alexander on what they thought to be the ethical path. Is it the AAM’s duty to be the arbitrator of ethical decisions in museums or is that power in the hands of trustees of individual institutions? Ultimately, he said, what it comes down to is that the obligations of the trustees is to the institution first, even if it means criticism.
As Alexander said, when in doubt “always take the high road and try to do the right thing for your institution.”
Alexander, Brian. Interview by Megan Hartmann and Araya Henry. 13 December 2013.