When Diversity Calls, Pick Up the Phone!

As museum professionals we do a lot of talking about diversity. But how do we actually go about attracting diverse visitors?  Perhaps museums need to stop looking at diversity as a challenge they need to overcome, and start viewing it as a tool they can use to make museums better. In her article, “The Real Multiculturalism,” Mesa-Bains says that museums see audience as a problem, rather than a resource. Perhaps museums do themselves a disservice when they view learning as one-sided.  A community might have just as much to teach a museum, as a museum has to offer its public.

Lauren Cross, Community Programs Coordinator at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, has a similar idea. She says that meeting with community groups to figure out how they can work together, and both get something out of collaboration, is a priority. Opening the lines of communication is also key. Museums must let their audiences speak, and then be willing to listen and respond, in order for meaningful change to occur. Lauren emphasizes that the Wadsworth wants to show all members of the Hartford community that the museum is open and receptive, a goal it has carried out, in part, through its Community Engagement Initiative.

What we must remember is that we cannot expect that members of any community will just want to come to our museums. Lauren points out that each and every day we must answer the question, “Why is what we do important to any person or community?” We must prove to every potential visitor, as she says, that “we are relevant to your life.”

-Britney Schline



Interview with Lauren Cross, Community Programs Coordinator at the Wadsworth Atheneum, November 15, 2012.

Amalia Mesa-Bains, “The Real Multiculturalism: A Struggle for Power and Authority,”  in Reinventing the Museum, ed. Gail Anderson (Lanham, New York, Toronto, Plymouth, UK: Altamira Press, 2012), 104-113.

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6 Responses to When Diversity Calls, Pick Up the Phone!

  1. mbalexander says:

    I read the document you linked to in your post on the Wadsworth’s Community Engagement Initiative. As I read it I was captured by the statement “The Community Engagement Initiative is the overriding focus of the museum in years ahead.” I really respect this level of commitment to the idea, this was not just something tried and put aside, and instead there is an ongoing commitment to making this the future of the museum. This is a really refreshing attitude to see the museum engaging their community. I also liked the way the museum engaged community organizations and formed partnerships to strengthen the museums connection with the populations it is trying to reach. I also like that the museum has this material accessible for the public and the professional to look at. By freely sharing this document the museum is showing the community how important it is to the museum, but also that any museum can use these ideas as a model for their own community engagement and diversity initiatives.

  2. kwoodling says:

    As I was reading your post, I kept thinking about my undergraduate education classes. My one professor taught us that in order to be a welcoming, trusted, and effective teacher, we need to see ourselves as the learners/students as well. It is only when we realize that we have as much to learn from our students as they do from us that we can really become effective in the classroom. I think that it is the same attitude needed in the museum field. Our audiences know what they want and need. We, as the museum community, need to welcome those diverse audiences and needs and strive to meet them, whether that is through diverse programming, staffing, etc.

  3. georgied14 says:

    Your interview seems like it was really informative, Britney! Your belief that allowing audiences to speak for themselves is a notion that museums must take into consideration. It is important for us, as the next generation of museum professionals, to not just talk about it, but to be about it. Oftentimes, community voices get lost when academics believe that “common” people are not capable of appropriately expressing their own wants and needs. And thus, we run into problems of cultural trespassing and speaking for groups of people who have not necessarily asked to be spoken for. While we need to give credit to those museum professionals who are trying to tell different stories, we also need to “pick up the phone when diversity calls.” (I love the title of your blog, it’s so fitting!) Last week, I spoke with Megan Dickerson of the Boston Children’s Museum. I will put my blog up shortly for everyone to read, but one particular thing that we talked about was how important it is to have people of the communities that museums serve sitting with museum professionals at the planning table. Megan told me about a conference that she went to in Philadelphia for museum professionals who work on creating family events in their institutions. Megan brought a couple of community members to this meeting with her because she essentially wanted to share her authority. She wanted actual people from various Boston neighborhoods to be present and heard during this conference, which would have traditionally only been open to museum professionals. What better way to truly know what our communities want then to actually include them in the planning of exhibitions, programming, curation, etc.? It’s no longer good enough to just ask for the input of our audience once we have already made all of the big decisions. Sometimes the five question survey after the museum experience just isn’t good enough. I’m confident that we can step it up. Power to the People.

  4. Lauren Cross sounds like a cool gal! The question she asks “Why is what we do important to any person or community?” is an important one I wish more museums would ask themselves on a daily basis. I find it interesting that when we speak of diversity and study examples of outreach programs we focus on large institutions. Obviously their recognition and budgets have a lot to do with this but I would love to see more diverse examples of museums of all shapes and sizes reaching out to the community. In my experience, small institutions have tended to look outward from their birth for the sake of survival. Grass roots efforts behind such organizations are often rooted in the community, creating a community focused institution from the beginning. Diversity and public engagement might be one instance in the museum field where smaller institutions can serve as examples.

  5. bschline says:

    I agree, Emily! I think smaller institutions are a great place to start when it comes to community engagement,especially since they sometimes lack the bureaucracy of larger institutions and afford the ability to really get to know people face to face. I think the building of these personal connections could be a key in getting more diverse audiences and perspectives into museums, as it can build a certain level of trust between a museum and community.

  6. I really like the idea of viewing a diverse audience as a resource upon which you can draw. It really changes your perspective to one of limitless possibilities.

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