So many questions, so little time…

Museum Questions is going on a six-week hiatus. It turns out that opening a new museum and producing weekly blog posts are a challenging combination. And really, between now and June 12th, I need to focus on getting the Peoria PlayHouse Children’s Museum open.

This is a difficult decision, because there is so much out there to think about and respond to. If I were going to blog this week (which I’m not, because I have no time), I might write about the intersection of two articles I just read. The first is this article, about the behavior and treatment of a group of African-American high school students visiting the Guggenheim Museum, and the intersection of what seems to be a racist response to rowdy schoolchildren and the commitment of the museum to protect its collection (which leads to all sorts of questions about group management and field trips). And the second is this NY Times Op-Ed, from Charles Blow, which is about the ways in which generations of inequity impact cultural access, but fails to meaningfully address the ways in which museums respond might, or fail to respond, or pretend to respond. What does meaningful response look like?

Why do we (museum practitioners) think museums, without acting in collaboration with other societal forces, can change things? And how often do museums work with partners not to increase attendance but to support causes which do not result in an immediate change in “numbers served”? During a conversation in Atlanta during AAM, Mary Ellen Munley suggested that what museums call collaboration is generally not collaboration at all, but the engagement of non-museum partners in helping museums achieve their very specific goal of increasing visitorship. To what extent do most museums – even those espousing outreach or access programs – care who visits, as long as visitorship is high? If a museum had to choose between 50,000 wealthy white visitors a year and 50,000 visitors from a more diverse, but less affluent, pool, which would it choose?

The whiteness of museums is a difficult, self-perpetuating loop. At the PlayHouse I intended to hire a diverse staff; I read articles about equity vs equality and spent hours strategizing about where to post job descriptions to attract a diverse group of candidates. In the end, nearly all our applicants have been white. I would guess this is because the people who apply to museum jobs are those who had the privilege of visiting museums, and for whom museums are positive and meaningful places.  But can a staff of almost entirely white women appear welcoming face to a diverse audience? And, looking forward, can teen programs, paid internships and fellowships, and working with community partners diversify the applicant pool and change the face of this museum? Of museums more generally?

The complexities of this train of thought overwhelm me. Can we change museums? If so, how? And would changing museums make a difference to the larger challenges of racism and inequality we face in the United States and elsewhere?

See you in June, when I hope to have time to better tackle this and other museum questions.

2 thoughts on “So many questions, so little time…

  1. ::Sigh:: This is a conversation that I’ve been replaying in my head since Museum School. I’m an African-American museum educator and in my opinion I think that it is possible for museums to change the dynamic within their communities to be more inclusive of minority groups. I think that It can be done in a variety of ways dependent largely on factors that museums deal with when reaching broader audiences. it just takes a bit more nuanced awareness of the audience and research. I do think though that its really got to be sincere and its got to take a commitment and a concerted effort on the part of the institution to do its homework and develop a plan that adds to its overall mission. For example, doing one program on black history is not going to provide members. However, working with partners that already cater to these communities in a sustainable way can make more lasting change. In my experience if you are not sincere, not committed to making lasting relationships and not providing services that meet these groups specific needs, reassess or at the least, be upfront with what you can and can’t do and brainstorm solutions.

    I was really shocked by the Guggenheim article. Why not create a plan where they can see who hasn’t been to the museum, visit the school beforehand and educate the staff and students about what is expected in their museum. You can do that with ALL school groups if they are worried about behavior problems. Educating staff about how to approach teen visitors and how to talk to them. Sending security guards to talk with a predominantly black student group about their behavior, I could see that as not feeling fair by the students, especially in light of what’s going on in the country….

    I was frustrated by the Times article. Frustrated that Limbaugh would say what he did about being in a post-racial society and putting all the blame on Obama. Frustrated that he doesn’t get that the fact that Obama as President isn’t a reflection of post-racial world (ie, no racism at all), but of a world were we can finally deal with the question of racism in America in a more open way.

    Hope to see you back soon with more observations, questions and articles. Good luck with your work:)

  2. I think your question of a diverse applicant pool (to start) is also a matter of privilege as these positions are often not high – paying to say the least. So it may be a question of SES On top of the experience/value issue. In Baltimore we would pay college grads with no experience about half of what they would make to be public school teachers. not an easy issue to overcome either. Can you afford fewer but better paid staff? What if we could endow museum staff jobs In the way we do professorships, and get donors to support these efforts? Would the (also not likely diverse) donors support such an effort?

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