A Museum In Mid-Shift

The museum field is slowly changing. Institutions are working to become more inclusive of race, class, gender, and ability. One such changing museum is the Delaware Historical Society. Recently, DHS has been revising its programs and renovating its facilities, trying to better reach their community. To learn more about this, I spoke to Katie McDade, Curator of Education at DHS’ Read House and Gardens in New Castle. She provided an insider perspective on the changes at DHS.

One major project at DHS lately is the new Center for African-American Heritage, intended to study and promote African-American history in Delaware. DHS is trying to build a more diverse organization, but the project has been controversial. Like many museums, DHS has been a mostly white institution for most of its history. Some in the community questioned whether DHS was the right organization to run the Center. While it has been striving to be more diverse, it’s a slow process.

Despite these objections Wilmington’s mayor chose DHS to host the Center, and gave it a million-dollar grant for that purpose. That settled the issue of whether DHS would host the center, but the community still doubted whether a mostly white staff could do the project justice. Katie spoke of how DHS is working to prove itself. DHS has formed an advisory committee of community members, trying to bring a more diverse perspective and make sure that they do the Center for African-American Heritage justice.

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17 Responses to A Museum In Mid-Shift

  1. kwebberj says:

    Good example of the changes in the field. I think it’s fascinating to see how an institution that lacks internal diversity is grappling with the responsibility of a new position.

  2. juliafell17 says:

    The issue of race representation and diversity in museums is one that’s been on my mind recently. I think with the paradigm shift, more diversity will absolutely be possible, as long as everyone tries to keep an open mind and realistic expectations about the speed of progress. I’ve also been curious about how communities which are mainly made up of people of color react to museums run by mainly white people trying to tell their stories or relate to their communities.

  3. emerbr84 says:

    What specific ways are they addressing community concerns? It is one thing to have an advisory board, but too many times have these advisements gone ignored. I think it is great they are pursuing the outreach, but it may be necessary to actively seek diversity amongst employees. It is like the Smithsonian Folk Life Festival struggling in 1968 with the inclusion of Native American. That only changed in the following years when an employee of Native background was brought in to run the event because she could offer an insight into contemporary issues and concerns, breaking through the myth that these cultures are extinct.

  4. peteglog says:

    I agree with the move that DHS has made to involve the community in their project. It seems that the community is raising concern over who is the authority for the project? I am not sure, but either way the museum is correct in involving their community. If the museum did not involve the community from the onset, what issues of diversity and voice would come up and could the project even get off the ground?

    • I’m with you, the museum should absolutely be including the voices and opinions of the community. It reminds me of the concept of “shared authority” we have been discussing in relation to oral history. I wonder if the paradigm shift might be pushing more museums to share authority with the public. I can certainly see that being difficult for some institutions.

  5. thankyouluke says:

    I feel like this ties in nicely with the discussion we had this week. Museums must keep in mind there is a major demographic shift that is developing; the country is getting older and becoming more racially and ethnically diverse. I also liked Julia’s comment. I come from a very homogeneous community, but I imagine that it would need to be handled delicately and with plenty of input from the community.

  6. shaual96 says:

    It’s good to see that DHS is working to involve their community. I wonder how they can reach out even further. The advisory committee is a great start, and I think that getting people involved in their community first would be a great next step. This advisory committee could be a stepping stone to starting new projects and maybe even finding volunteers.

  7. at01lang says:

    The concerns of those who arguing against the Delaware Historical Society hosting this exhibit are legitimate given the nature of the organization and the issue of a lack of genuine representation for issues of diversity to be discussed. That said, I feel it is not well-advised to entirely invalidate the organization on these grounds without the possibility of creating a broader coalition within the organization that reaches out to relevant community actors. The past or current character of an organization should not become a reason to not attempt to challenge and expand its boundaries; if anything, it has the potential to create a more encompassing and nuanced look at the issues involved as it negotiates conflicting ideas, harsh elements of the past, and unanswered questions of how to share dialogue moving forward. Not that it will be easy, but no one ever said genuine community engagement over complex issues was.

  8. hoffsm90 says:

    I think this is an interesting situation and I highly doubt it is unique. Whenever we are interpreting a culture that is different from our own, we must proceed with the utmost caution and communication with the community in question is of utmost importance. I do think DHS is in its limits, but I think they will have to seriously consider either a good advisory board built up of knowledgeable cultural ambassadors that actually has control or seriously consider using some of that grant to hire at least one knowledgeable non-white staff member who can contribute to the diversity factor.

  9. lucega96 says:

    Hi John! This is very interesting. Will the Center for African-American Heritage be located in Wilmington?

  10. pnorman02 says:

    I like that they developed an advisory committee, but it still doesn’t seem like enough. Do you know if they have asked the community exactly what they want to see and what it would take to get them in the door? I do respect that they acknowledge their weaknesses and are actively trying to tackle this challenge, I just hope the advisory committee is allowed to voice their opinions.

    • joshdtaylor says:

      I agree it is one thing to set up something it is something else to use it. I feel they will use it in the end since they are actively making the effort to look for more diverse options

  11. peytonktracy says:

    This is such hazy ground for the paradigm shift. On one hand, it clearly demonstrates the shift to community focus by bringing in the community to support and advise the staff in areas of expertise they may be lacking. But at the same time, the choice to place this particular center of history in this particular institution is somewhat questionable due to the backgrounds of the staff that will be curating and running this history. It opens up doors of accessibility to new visitors, new narratives, definitely bringing it to the public but they will have to be really careful how they go about it.

  12. grahlm87 says:

    It’s good to hear that they are making an attempt at addressing the communities concerns and acknowledging that they may not be completely equipped to handle the exhibit by involving the community and being open to different perspectives.

  13. mickcr says:

    I think this is an issue a lot of institutions deal with, making sure they contact and include the right people within the community to make sure different groups are represented correctly. Hopefully with the right members, a museum can approach controversial or unaddressed issues with tact.

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