How Do We Increase Diversity in Museums?

This week, our conversation in class will focus on diversity in museums. I was fortunate enough to speak with Cordell Reaves at the NYS Parks Department and Chris Taylor at the Minnesota Historical Society, both of whom are involved in increasing diversity at their institutions. Many museums seem to feel that diversity is achieved by having a few programs or an exhibit that showcases objects from a different culture. On the contrary, museums need to be dedicated to bringing in a diverse audience at all times. This should include not only different racial, ethnic, and cultural groups, but also different socioeconomic groups and intellectual interests.

In order to do this, Chris and Cordell both agreed that we need to change the staff at museums. Only by changing the staff to reflect the diverse people in our communities will museums be able to create an environment where these people feel welcome. Many museums use the excuse that there are not enough qualified people from these communities to work at museums. However, museums need to be the ones to cultivate middle and high school students’ interests and show students that it is possible for them to pursue a career in museums. If they are interested in art, history, or other related fields, this is an industry where they can make a difference.

Have you heard of successful outreach programs for middle and high school students? Do you have any ideas for how we can create and implement these programs for students?

– Cyndi Tolosa

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9 Responses to How Do We Increase Diversity in Museums?

  1. Rick says:

    I am skeptical that one or two methods for increasing diversity will work in every scenario. Museums need to approach communities on their own terms. A plurality or consensus opinion regarding race and inclusivity among African-Americans in Philadelphia may look very different from the one derived among African-Americans in Pittsburgh or African immigrants in Philadelphia. The way to attract members from any of these groups might be different based on their preferences, beliefs, and circumstances.

    If a museum is ignored by a significant community nearby, then the institution should connect with members of that community and find out what is keeping them away. Reaching teenagers or increasing staff diversity should help in most cases, but there may be cases where different solutions are needed. The only way to know for sure is to ask.

    • Cyndi T. says:

      The problem with an institution trying to connect with members of a community when they have no staff diversity is the communication barriers that exist. It would be ideal for a staff member to walk into a community and get answers from community members, but a lot of communities are resistant to the outsider who comes in to talk to them. By cultivating a staff that reflects the community, an institution can prove to a community that their input really matters. The ideal staff would be representative of the community, tolerant of other cultures that may be outside the community, and also knowledgeable about how their community connects with other cultures.

      Additionally, while African-Americans are different from African immigrants, in Philadelphia or anywhere else, they are still generally more similar to each other than they are to your average museum employee – a middle class, highly educated, white American.

      That said, there are always situations where the community does not have a lot of cultural diversity, but they want to interpret a site related to another culture. In our conversation, Cordell Reaves told me a great story about increasing diversity in primarily white, rural areas:
      There were a number of sites interpreting African-American history in areas that were completely rural and completely white. How do we get input when there is no one in the community or staff? The [museum staff] wound up reaching out to descendants that came through the site or settled in that area and then moved away to make them aware of their own family story. That really went well. They did it of their own volition, on their own, and did an incredible job of it. It was amazing to see this group of descendants come back and get involved with the site and become big supporters of the site. It was a good lesson to a lot of sites that think that because there are no diverse communities around them that they don’t have to worry about it or it’s not their issue.

      There are obviously a wide range of solutions that are all relevant in different areas. However, exposing children in your community to your museum and cultivating museum employees from this pool of students to ensure representation on your staff is an important place to begin.

  2. hartmc89 says:

    I guess it’s sort of a chicken-and-egg thing. By that I mean, how can you expect to draw in visitors and job applicants without knowing what attracts various minority communities? But then, how do you gain the trust and confidence of those communities without having anyone on your staff that looks like them? As a middle-class, caucasian person, I know I take for granted the welcoming atmosphere of museums. With other demographics, however, this may not be the case. I agree with you, Cyndi, that museums and museum studies programs need to make more of an effort to cultivate diverse backgrounds amongst incoming students and job applicants. Another way to approach this problem would be to recruit diverse volunteers. These volunteers could serve as amabassadors to the local community, be part of the museum’s front line that visitors with interact with, and also work behind the scenes. Word-of-mouth is a great way to attract visitors, and volunteers can be big part of attracting new audiences. Also, volunteer positions can sometimes stepping stones to employment at organizations like museums. But once again, for recruitment of volunteers, the museum would probably need someone from one of these communities to start with.

    • Cyndi T. says:

      Volunteers is something I tend to forget about, but it’s so true that having volunteers from the community can go a long way. Perhaps this is where establishing relationships with schools can help a lot? Parents that are involved in the parent-teacher association or other school organizations would probably be good targets to get as volunteers and that gives you somewhere to start.

  3. araya1468 says:

    I have heard of different outreach programs and have participated in one myself during high school. This particular program is offered every Saturday, during the school year, to high school students of all years. Although the course offers no credit, it was a substantial way to utilize my time wisely, I gained a lot of knowledge in science, as I was considering a health profession at the time, and it provided supplementary materials outside of my work at school. The program was called the State Pre-College Enrichment Program (S-PREP) hosted by Columbia University. It is “an educational and motivational program for academically talented minority and economically disadvantaged high school students who endeavor to enter the field of medicine, science or related health professions. The program’s aim is to be a pipeline that will assist with increasing the number of minority physicians, scientists and other health professionals. The program offers a schedule of basic and medical science courses structured in order to place maximum emphasis on the teaching of laboratory skills. The courses offered may include: biology, biochemistry, calculus, chemistry, genetics, microbiology, neuroscience, physics, physiology, and pre-calculus, and SAT preparation course provided by Kaplan.” There are also many other endeavors that this program partakes in such as a summer research program, going on college tours both in state and out of state, and many more. I think that museums have the capacity to develop programs like this and should develop programs like this that targets disadvantaged high school students to show them that there are different outlets out there if one has an interest in the arts or related fields or wants to pursue a career in the arts or related fields. In addition, this program set up a mentorship program in which students had both peer and medical school mentors advise them on the SATs, college life, majors, career paths, medical school, financing education and the list goes on. Museums should provide more opportunities like this to students to not only increase diversity in museums, but allow these young students to feel more welcomed in the museum environment.

    • Cyndi T. says:

      I agree! I got involved with museums because of a similar program – the Youth Employment Program at Connecticut Landmarks. I loved the two trips I had taken to different museums with my elementary and middle schools, but my parents had zero interest in going to any museums. As a result, I never really went to any until I participated in this program which trained me to be a docent and gave us experience visiting different museums and speaking with museum professionals. It was a paid internship as a high school student that gave me great experiences that I never would have had otherwise. Had it not been paid, I would not have attended and I would have taken a job at a summer camp instead and I probably wouldn’t be at CGP now! So it goes to show how a small stipend makes all the difference for this kind of program.

  4. Jeanette says:

    I think that if you are trying to reach visitors who are of a lower socio-economic class, you need to i address any community need of that particular group. Many people who are in that class see museums as a place of luxury. Coming from a lower socio-economic background myself, I know that my mother could care less about the latest museum exhibition when she had bigger concerns to deal with. Perhaps if museums can market themselves as place that can help alleviate some problems then perhaps they can see more of a diverse audience. For example, for struggling parents, Museums could offer safe place for children to go after school. They can lower the admission rate to make it easier for them to afford to go or even making the admission free for this type of visitor who may otherwise not even go to the museum in the first place.

    • Cyndi T. says:

      I completely agree Jeanette. These are all things that also need to take place. I do think that you it should really start with children though because a parent probably isn’t going to drag a child to a museum that really doesn’t want to go. I think a child begging their parents to take them would be more effective. However, cost issues and operating hours also play large roles in attendance among lower income groups.

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