Perceptions of Diversity

Diversity is complicated. Politicians, film makers, and marketing primarily see diversity in terms of ethnicity which ignores socioeconomic status, education, and gender. It also completely overlooks the ways people define themselves.

In classes, books, and media, we have been told repeatedly how important it is to have ethnic diversity within the museum. Gonzalo Casals, Director of Education and Public Programs at El Museo del Barrio New York City, differs slightly in this regard. He believes that it is more important that the people making decisions come from different backgrounds—culture, ideology, and education—than to have a person from every ethnicity working as a security guard or in visitor services. This sort of diversity, he says, does no good to anyone.

Gonzalo also insisted on the importance of meeting with the community to find out what they need rather than assuming that all people of a particular culture want certain things. For instance, the museum recently asked to decorate a building with a mural. They contacted a local artist to do the work but did not let their community involvement stop there. They also contacted a local second grade class to paint pictures about what was important to them in their community. The artist designed a mural based on the class’s designs. In this way, the class will not only have a stronger connection to their community and museum but feel they have influenced their community.

Most importantly, Gonzalo brought to my attention how fluid identity is. Each of us identify as different parts of ourselves given the situation. While it is difficult to design exhibits around individuals, it is important that we work to be as inclusive as possible. By breaking down our points to a universal level, everyone can take something away from our program.

-Cassie Cavanaugh



Interview with Gonzalo Casals, Director of Education and Public Programs at El Museo del Barrio, December 7, 2012.

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7 Responses to Perceptions of Diversity

  1. bschline says:

    I really love that El Museo del Barrio involved a second grade class when putting together a mural with a contemporary, community artist. When I spoke to Lauren Cross at the Wadsworth, she was telling me how their Artist in Residence program works with local schools in similar collaborations. I think these kinds of projects not only allow for community input, but community ownership. If kids know that they have helped to create something displayed in a museum, they will feel a sense of belonging to that institution.

    I think one big problem we’ve talked about in class is how to get people from different backgrounds (I really like here, Cassie, how you’ve pointed out this doesn’t just refer to ethnicity!) to not only become visitors, but also to get involved professionally in the field. I think programs like these show kids that these careers exist and offers them an opportunity to see what goes on in a museum. I also think if these early experiences have an impact on them, making them feel a sense of belonging, they may become lifelong museum visitors, or even consider a career path they might not have before!

    • cccavanaugh says:

      Britney, you bring up a good point about the increased likelihood of them looking into museums as a career. I hadn’t considered that. I was mainly impressed by the influence the museum is having on how those children view their home. While it is important that museums find new and continued visitors, I think it is also important that a museum does good for its community.

  2. bschline says:

    That’s such a great point, Cassie. It reminds me of the Cool Cultures project we heard about at MAAM, where they asked kids and their parents to take photos of their neighborhoods to develop and display. And while the activity was meant to be for the children, it had the unexpected, but welcomed, effect of making the parents see the beauty in their neighborhoods as well. I think participatory art can be a great tool in building community pride if museums use it correctly.

  3. kwoodling says:

    I really appreciate your comments and thoughts, Cassie. Mr. Gonzalo raises some excellent points as well. The unfortunate prohibiting factor to increasing diversity among museum professionals are some of those identity factors that you discussed. In particular, it is because of their socioeconomic backgrounds that many people cannot receive the education to acquire the degree to enter the museum field. I live in a rural community where only 15% of the population has a bachelor’s degree or higher. Higher education is not always financially feasible, which limits people’s occupational choices. I am sure this is true in other regions and communities as well. This challenge for the museum field needs to be first addressed in high schools and undergraduate programs by graduate programs, advertising the potential for a career in museums. Unfortunately, socioeconomics and educational limitations are not problems that can be immediately addressed.

    • cccavanaugh says:

      Actually, Kahla, I think what Mr. Casals was advocating for was the removal of some restrictions to getting into the museum field. I think it is important that anyone Who wants to get an education has the resources to do so, but I also foresee the issue that if everyone is educated the same, there will be no new ideas. I would prefer to return to an almost apprenticeship-like atmosphere in some cases. I believe it would help to balance out new ideas to people who cannot afford an advanced degree.

      • kwoodling says:

        I am sorry if my response wasn’t clear. I did understand and appreciate Mr. Casuals approach. And I could not agree more that everyone who wants an education deserves one!! You are absolutely right. I was more or less suggesting that its because of class and education backgrounds that people from some of these more diverse backgrounds are limited from joining the museum field as a profession. Hopefully, in the near future, some of these issues can be reconciled by those in the field, encouraging a more diverse focus, not only in terms of audience but also with staff.

  4. Yes, that mural seems really cool! I love how museums find creative ways to include multiple perspectives in a single project. I think it’s great they bring in diversity through age as well. Mr. Casals brings up a great point. It’s so easy for us to try and put people in neat boxes but no one fits in such categories. As museum professionals we try to be inclusive by looking at people as outsiders and figuring out what they want. We should constantly strive to provide what our audience wants but I think it’s time we look at ourselves and ask about our own identities. What do we identify with? Can we label it as one thing? Likely the answer is no. Understanding that will help us as we approach others and the services we provide.

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