NEMA Wrap up 3: Discussing Diversity

At the 2014 conference, NEMA launched a new set of sessions styled as “Think Tanks,” or opportunities to have thought leaders and conference attendees work together in structured brainstorming to consider issues in the field, and what museums’ assets, opportunities, barriers, and possible action items are to create change.  The Think Tank I attended was on improving and promoting diversity in the museum field, especially in museum employees.  Though this has been discussed before, in light of recent studies that show how quickly the traditional museum-going public is being eclipsed by the growth of other segments of the population, the question remains key in the quest to retain museums’ relevance in the 21st century.

PEM's "Museum Action Corps" intern program was a paid internship that targeted students from underserved communities, and featured a collaborative project each semester.  This one, from 2007, was an oral history video on the changing face of Salem.

PEM’s “Museum Action Corps” intern program was a paid internship that targeted students from underserved communities, and featured a collaborative project each semester. This one, from 2007, was an oral history video on the changing face of Salem.

Defining Diversity

The first task the Think Tank took on was trying to encapsulate what kinds of diversity we seek as a field.  Recognizing that ‘diversity of thought is even more important than diversity of look’ to promote change, while not underestimating the impact of the ‘this place is for people like me’ effect, meant that our definition in itself was diverse.  The questions raised included ‘how can we define/identify what diversity is – and should we?’ and ‘what kind of diversities are priorities for museums?’  These are both much bigger ideas than we had airspace for in an hour long session, but I would love to hear your thoughts!

According to our brainstorm, museums seek to promote diversity in their staff, board, volunteers, and (eventually, hopefully) audience in:

  • age / lifestage / generation
  • culture
  • race
  • economic background
  • language/bilingual
  • physical ability
  • learning styles
  • gender (& gender identity)
  • orientation
  • mobility
  • religious
  • neurological/non-neuro-typical

We then split into groups to discuss the following topics.

Assets and Opportunities

How are museums well positioned to diversify?  What do we have in our ‘toolbox’ that can help solve the problem, and what opportunities do we have or can we create to improve the state of diversity in our field?

This is a really positive place to start, and while it’s both true and unfortunate that the group who chose to work on ‘barriers’ was twice the size, there was still some really good discussion here.

Here are a few of the places where my discussion group felt like we had real advantages or options for taking a more diverse path:

  • volunteer opportunities for high schoolers or younger (including a discussion about why this is an important experience)
  • mentorship
  • a core mission of telling human stories
  • location (where museums are central to their communities)
  • collections (what strengths and diverse experiences do we already have represented in our beautiful, interesting, important stuff?  What about the stuff that gets overlooked?)
  • sense of place

Focusing on these strengths with an eye towards diversity can hopefully lead to:

  • increased strength, power, sustainability and credibility of museum individuals and the organization as a whole
  • increased attendance

The group that discussed barriers to diversity had what appeared to be a lively and honest conversation in the back of the room.  They were focused on identifying impediments to diversity, and potential ways to mitigate them.  Some of their discussion points included:

  • unpaid internships (in fact, compensation at most levels was mentioned as being a potential barrier, but internships got top spot as a matter of concern)
  • lip service to diversity without true institutional commitment of time, money, and other resources
  • facilities (one possibility is to try to provide accessible and gender-neutral bathrooms)
  • negative histories/dislike/distrust of institutions (lots of minority groups have justified issues with museums based on past interactions)
  • location (not all museums are easy to get to or located in an area that is prime for diversifying)
  • only telling a narrow storyline (need to make room for more voices!)

Some of these barriers are easier to knock down than others, but there was some good follow up discussion on how to get there, enumerated below.

Specific Suggestions for Progress

Aside from the suggestions specifically directed at NEMA above, the group came up with some other ideas about ways to bring a more diverse set of applicants and attendees to the museum world:

  • Sensible job descriptions – reducing the entry barrier by making job descriptions and requirements more feasible for a wider range of applicants.
  • Putting a commitment to diversity in the mission statement, inquiring at new jobs what their commitment to diversity is.
  • Consider: where are we posting jobs? where are we advertising? Do we only talk to ourselves?
  • Can’t only be externally motivated & funded (i.e. by grants, accreditation assessments, etc.)
  • Diverse staff should be in every section : curatorial, board, education, facilities, front line staff, everywhere.
  • Seek partnerships with the organizations that are working where we want to – we are each others’ assets.
  • Get to know your coworkers – they’re probably more diverse than you’re aware of, and have connections, skills, and ideas that aren’t being used.
  • Existing is not enough if people targeted are not aware/interested: make sure you have what people need/are looking for, spend the time and effort to get the word out once you do, and make it lasting, not a one-time thing.

And a few things to consider when we’re trying to figure out how well we’re doing:

  • Metrics : when have we reached the goal/balance?  How diverse is ‘enough?’ Maybe we’re never there, always need to be thinking, working, aware of changing contexts.
  • Being realistic about the effort, not just seeking to fill quotas: what does success look like? Results do matter, but numbers are not the only method of measuring institutional change.
  • Open dialogue is important, more important than comfort, even.  If we’re outside our comfort zone, that’s probably a good thing!
 And a final reminder that I think we all need, lest we get discouraged:

Next Steps

In the time it’s taken for me to assemble my thoughts, the conversation around museum diversity and responding to social justice issues has continued.  If you haven’t yet checked in with the #MuseumsRespondtoFerguson discussions, here are a few good links:

Joint Statement from Museum Bloggers and Colleagues on Ferguson and related events
Responding to the Events in Ferguson and Beyond: The Northwest African American Museum’s Example
Twitter Chat: #museumsrespondtoferguson
#Museums respond to Ferguson – Things must change.

Now, as our session leaders urged us, it’s your turn to “go out and talk to one other person that wasn’t here!  Start the conversation somewhere else.”

Or, keep talking to me here! Do you know of any projects or initiatives that are working to make the museum world a more inclusive one?

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