How does your identity impact your institution?

Identity is the lens with which an individual views the world.  As museum professionals we are often asked to represent peoples, cultures, and ideas that are outside the purview of our own identity.  How can we do this effectively and in an unbiased way?

American Association of Museums study Excellence and Equity offers answers to this question by recommending community involvement and collaboration in all stages of museum plans, programs, and exhibits. But is this a feasible idea and how does it work in a real museum?

To better answer these questions I interviewed Lisa Falk, Director of Education, at the Arizona State Museum.  Lisa Falk is very aware of her own identity and how it is often not the same as the people represented in the museum.  To counter any bias she advises first to acknowledge the unique lens with which you see the world and then embrace the views, knowledge, and experiences of a variety of other people.  Central to her own work is an openness and collaboration with the community and a willingness to not always be the expert.

When the traveling exhibit Through the Eyes of the Eagle: Illustrating Healthy Living, which promoted health from a Native American perspective, was slated to come to ASM Lisa Falk went into the community to see how to make the exhibit relevant to the local Native American population and the Tucson community. What came out of this community collaboration was a dynamic exhibit, programs and materials, including a digital comic book aimed at teens, that promoted awareness of type 2 diabetes prevention for a wide audience. To see more about this exhibit and working with the community please read Lisa Falk’s posts on the Western Museum Association’s blog and on the Center for the Future of Museums’ blog.

-Mary Alexander



American Association of Museums, and American Association of Museums. Excellence and Equity: Education and the Public Dimension of Museums. 3rd ed. Washington, DC: American Association of Museums, 2008.

Interview with Lisa Falk, Director of Education at the Arizona State Museum, October 1, 2012.

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10 Responses to How does your identity impact your institution?

  1. mmpaulus says:

    You make a great point about each person having a personal identity and how our identity can bias different cultures or points of view. I think the notion of shared authority is essential in order for museum’s to remain effective institutions of learning and maintain the public’s trust. Asking what the public thinks or reaching out to professionals with differing viewpoints can allow museums to share their authority. The example of Through the Eyes of the Eagle: Illustrating Healthy Living is an example other museums should use when considering the benefits of shared authority.

  2. evanme28 says:

    The Minnesota Historical Society just opened an exhibition examining the evidence from the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. Staff went out into the American Indian communities to discuss the project, even going to Canada and other states within the US to talk to descendants of both the settlers and the Dakota. Like Through the Eyes of the Eagle, it was important to discuss the project and allow everyone to have a voice. Here’s a link if you are interested:

    • mbalexander says:

      I am really impressed with what the Minnesota Historical Society is doing with this exhibit. They are incorporating not only multiple view points but also asking the audience to leave their own comments and opinions. In that way the Historical Society is sharing the authority with the audience as well. Wish I could go and see this exhibit. Thank you for sharing this.

  3. Hold these thoughts. Your comments are the perfect lead-in to this week’s conversations about the new book, Letting Go, Sharing Authority in a User Generated World.

    • lizcongdon says:

      You are so right, Gretchen. That book ties so well with this discussion. If more people like Lisa Falk are able to let go of their egos and open up to other people’s ideas, we will see many great examples of new perspectives in museums like what Fred Wilson has done ( Just think of what the field would be like if every museum had at least one non-traditionally curated exhibit!

      • mbalexander says:

        I agree as professionals we need to let go a little bit of our own expertise and instead help facilitate others. By involving our communities and letting their voices be heard we could really do some dynamic things and get more people interested in these places that are in their own backyard!

  4. As someone who is interested in bringing under-represented visitors to museums, I struggle with these ideas all the time. I know that museums are a great way for people to engage with their culture and feel empowered, but I am often at a loss on how to bring nontraditional museum visitors into the fold. It seems that many museums are reaching out to the communities that they want to involve. Taking the first step is a great way for museums to become more open and understanding.

  5. kwoodling says:

    I think that you raise some excellent points in looking to the community for additional input in museum programs and decisions. Focus groups, surveys, and open forums are but a few ways to reach out to the public, ensuring that the various identities represented in the community are not forgotten in the museum. However, how do we reconcile that not all views and opinions expressed by community members will be implemented, or at least immediately implemented? I feel that we could alienate community members by asking them for their advice and then not implementing it, realizing, of course, from a museum perspective it is just not always feasible to implement these ideas/requests. How do we navigate this dilemma? Unfortunately, there is probably no perfect answer to that.

    • mbalexander says:

      I agree it must be hard to make everyone happy, and odds are museums won’t, but I agree they need to try. I think it is necessary to try hard to incorporate as many ideas as possible especially when it comes to community advisory board. I think it comes from realizing that people’s opinions and ideas are valid, and that we should respect them. In the example I gave, Lisa Falk’s community advisory board for the exhibit came up with so many ideas and things they wanted which was a great deal more than she expected. She told me that when these things came up she was surprised, but instead of running away she took their ideas and “started writing grants”. She said there were only two things she was unable to make happen for her community advisory board. What came out of her work with the advisory board was a very dynamic exhibit and their ideas that seemed too big at first really worked well in the end. I think there needs to be more respect for the vision and ideas and a commitment to seeing them through. But again it is hard to please all people. That is where I think the museum professional comes in. Through diplomacy museum professionals can try to make sure everyone’s voice is heard or that consensus is reached. In the end even when all parties cannot be pleased I think it is important to show that you are trying.

    • This is something I often think about! I think these are questions we have to ask ourselves especially when dealing with heavily biased history that is continuously revised and reinterpreted. How do we teach controversial views of history that are tied up in identity without it seeming like we’re pushing forth an interpretation the academy has long since determined is invalid? As a southerner, I deal with issues of Confederate memory that define some people’s identity to the very core. These are views that can be dangerous and rarely find their ways into museums. Because these are not represented, visitors holding these views often don’t come to museums, believing them to be institutions of revisionist (i.e. “wrong”) history. But these are visitors who could greatly benefit from seeing other perspectives and could possibly change their views. This is quite different from the excellent example Mary outlined above of outreach to underrepresented groups in museums. However, I think it’s still important to think of how identity can be controversial and how we should address these issues as museum professionals. Or should we address it at all?

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