How can museums contribute to dialogue about social justice when we are exemplars of segregation?

At the PlayHouse last weekend we celebrated Eid-al-Fitr — the Muslim holiday marking the end of Ramadan — as part of our Celebrate Peoria series. One visitor approached the manager on duty that day, and asked her if we would be celebrating Christmas. When she told him that we do not have plans to do so, he let her know that he might be asking for a refund on his membership.

eid al fitr both

Eid-al-Fitr at the PlayHouse. Left: A visitor gets henna on her hand. Right: Two visitors try on traditional Muslim clothing.

Within our wonderfully diverse country, we live shockingly segregated lives. According to a recent article in The Atlantic, 75% of Whites have entirely White social networks. In Peoria, there are very few, if any, public spaces where one mingles with a population that mirrors the diversity of the city. When I lived in Brooklyn, while the playground was integrated, for a long time our local school (like many New York City schools) was not. Recently my facebook feed featured links to articles on how to talk to your child about race and how to educate yourself about race. We wouldn’t need these articles if we occupied social spaces in which meaningful cross-racial dialogue were common.

I visited Milwaukee recently, and went to both the Milwaukee Art Museum and to a beach located just north of it. The museum was fantastic (kudos on the amazing building, the phenomenal educational spaces and materials, and the wonderful and well-curated permanent collection galleries), but the visitors I saw were almost all White, and I suspect skewed toward the economically privileged end of the spectrum. The beach, on the other hand, was beautifully diverse. Not only were people of all colors present; there were people in all sorts of family groups and clothing choices, signalling differences in cultural background and economic means.

milwaukee beach all

Two images from the Milwaukee beach

How can museums contribute to creating broad social understanding, and meaningful dialogue on social issues, when we are exemplars of segregation?

Museums historically serve wealthy, white audiences. In a country that is 63% white, museums serve an audience that is 88% white (see this 2010 report from Reach Advisors). We are historically, and continue, in large part, to be elitist institutions, run by Boards comprised of the 1%.

For those of us who want museums to be spaces of social justice, the most important first step is to attract and welcome an audience that represents the diversity of the United States. When we foster dialogue with others just like us, we leave satisfied but unchanged. When we address social justice issues with our current audiences, we are primarily reaching White liberal educated audiences. We are rarely reaching the people who would leave a museum because it celebrates Eid-al-Fitr and not Christmas, or hearing other perspectives in the dialogue we promote.

When someone walks into the Peoria PlayHouse Children’s Museum, I want them to see a group that represents the full diversity of Peoria – to see a crowd more like the Milwaukee beach than the Milwaukee Art Museum.

Is this possible? I’m not entirely sure it is, but it is important to try. And while I think many museums envision and work towards a truly diverse visitorship, it may be that children’s museums may have a particularly important role to play, because our target audience is still malleable – they are the potential social justice advocates, and potential bigots, of the future.

Here are a few thoughts on how to create happily integrated museums, a list of ideas I hope readers will add to:

(1) Offer free or reduced price admission for at least some visitors. Welcoming only visitors who can pay full admission, or only offering free admission on selected days, means that most of the time we drastically limit who we let in the door. Diversity means economic diversity as well as racial diversity. We need mechanisms in place that allow everyone to enter at a price they can easily afford.

One of the things I admired about the Milwaukee Art Museum is that their membership sign very clearly listed its access membership program, allowing low-income families to purchase $20 annual memberships. I did wonder if it would have been useful to list something similar on the admissions sign – an access admission ticket that allows new visitors to enter free or for $1, before deciding to spend $20 on a membership.

Milwaukee Art Museum admissions

Membership sign at Milwaukee Art Museum

(2) Prepare to orient new audiences. Museums have myriad unspoken codes of behavior. When visitors do not know the rules, they are uncomfortable, and act in ways that are uncomfortable for other visitors. At the PlayHouse we have found that offering free admission (whether for low-income families or for military families) leads to more visitors who “misbehave.”

When we are able to determine that visitors are new to children’s museums (often a tricky call for the front-line staff) the best approach is to gather the group and explain the museum rules in a welcoming way. In this way, instead of telling visitors that how their behavior is incorrect, we can orient visitors by clarifying the code of behavior needed to successfully navigate a new space, while preventing behavior that alienates other visitors. This is surprisingly effective, stopping behavior such as splashing other visitors at the water table and throwing things down from our mezzanine.

(3) Explicitly invite minorities to be part of the museum. “Shared authority” is a popular phrase these days. And museums are sharing authority in many effective ways. At the PlayHouse, through our Celebrate Peoria series, we invite cultural partners to create programming sharing their heritage and traditions with visitors. Partners include the Islamic Center of Peoria, the Jewish Federation of Peoria, and the Hindu Temple of Central Illinois.

I do think these events are useful in diversifying the museum beyond these events: Once people are welcomed, they may come back. At our Eid-al-Fitr event, a number of members of the local Muslim community purchased museum memberships. But this approach has its limits. First, it is problematic to celebrate a culture only once a year. Second, there are groups we want to recognize and invite in to the museum that don’t fit neatly into this programmatic structure. We celebrate Kwanzaa and have talked about celebrating Juneteenth, but how many Black families in Peoria really celebrate either of these? And we want to explicitly welcome families with two moms or two dads into the PlayHouse, but celebrating LGBT families doesn’t fit neatly into the Celebrate Peoria model, either.

As a side note, we are currently planning a half-day, facilitated retreat for Celebrate Peoria lead partners, and selected other community members, during which participants can really get to know each other, including asking all of their questions of each other. We hope that this retreat will help us form a committee that is knowledgeable about the diversity in our city, and help us find ways to deepen our Celebrate Peoria initiative.

(4) Get the word out. Advertising in the same newspapers and magazines you read, purchasing billboards in the parts of town you frequent, and posting on facebook are effective to tell people just like you about the work you are doing. But they are not very effective at reaching other groups.

At the PlayHouse we have an “Explorer Pass” program that invites low-income families to visit for free, and to purchase $10 annual memberships. While people do use these memberships, I suspect the vast majority of eligible families do not know about them. We are still figuring out how to let low-income families who have never heard of our museum, or who feel it is inaccessible to them, know about this program.

(5) Involve the entire museum. Many of the calls for social-justice-related programming, and meaningful dialogue in museums spaces, come from the Education Department. But the entire museum needs to be involved in order for these initiatives to work. Curators must think about how objects, exhibits, and text can contribute to (or detract from) this goal. Marketing departments are essential to getting the word out about any program. Visitor Services staff must be fully invested in welcoming new visitors. If this initiative is not embraced from the Board level down, it will not be effective.


I hope that a few years from now, at least visitors like our Christmas advocate will have changed their tune. That the biases of their world will become apparent to them through introducing them to the people who live all around them, and who they rarely, if ever, meet.

Recently the wife of the Imam at the Islamic Center of Peoria had a terrible experience: she was driving down the street and a man in a car next to her started yelling racist things at her. I want this man, and his children, to visit the PlayHouse and learn about Muslim culture, and Hindu culture, and Jewish culture; to meet and talk to African Americans and gay parents; and to understand that we live in a world beautifully populated by people from different backgrounds who all make up this city.

We have a long way to go.

23 thoughts on “How can museums contribute to dialogue about social justice when we are exemplars of segregation?

  1. Hi! I really love this piece. I would like to add to one of your points. I agree with the fact that museums should explicitly invite people of color, and I love that your museum is celebrating various cultural holidays. Though I think it is interesting that you point out how many Black people actually celebrate either Juneteenth or Kwanzaa. I think that’s a fair questions, but think of the reasons why these holidays might not be celebrated within the Black community. In public schooling, the oppressed are not talked of highly and are rarely celebrated. True and fair history is not taught in the classroom but instead colonial thought-processes that have a tremendous negative impact on all people–especially people of color. This is where museums can thrive! They can create a space to learn and celebrate holidays that aren’t usually talked about. But we have to be careful in that who wants to learn about Juneteenth/Kwanzaa from a non-Black person? If you continue in growing your partnerships with community leaders and organizations, I think the museum would be a great space to celebrate both of these holidays, if done critically and correctly.

    • You point out exactly the reason we collaborate: I (a White woman) could not possibly teach people about Kwanzaa or Juneteenth. So we invite in cultural partners who want to share their traditions with others.

      While I agree that minority culture is rarely celebrated in schools, Kwanzaa and Juneteenth are both very new traditions. I suspect the reason that a lot of people don’t celebrate them is that they never entirely caught on. Passover, or Ramadan, or Chinese New Year, are also not taught in our public schools, but they have been around for a very, very long time and are central to Jewish, Muslim, and Chinese communities.

      • Interesting discussion. I do think that if you’re celebrating world religions, excluding Christmas seemed the only point that was problematic in the article. Celebrating all religious festivals seems to expand our thinking about inclusive practices, that we all have an equal place at the table and that we recognize the majority as having equal focus despite the over-saturation elsewhere for the majority. Black History month needs at least two make-up days some other month to ensure they have a full month, etc.. It’s more exciting to look at how we assess contribution to trust and reciprocity as an outcome of this rather than familiarity. Once we have reciprocity, we move closer to peace work.

      • How do you celebrate Christmas in a meaningful way in the context of examining cultural traditions and diversity? I’d love to hear thoughts on this.

      • Juneteenth is specific to Texas, the last state to be told that slavery ended. There was a reluctance to reveal this information and people who were enslaved suffered at the hands of ill willed, greedy whites until June 19th. So to say it hasn’t “Caught on” is partly because it is regional, and partly because you don’t get invited to Juneteenth celebrations that happen in Texas or anywhere for that matter – and never will.

  2. Hi Rebecca, your question is at the base of the Empathetic Museum project on which I work w a number of colleagues. I think your suggestions are good ones but mostly look at changing the behavior and attitudes of we want to come in. More basic in view of Emp Mus movement is that the museum transform itself from inside out. More diver admin and staff for eg. If this is not immediately possible then involve advisory comm from groups you want to attract and collab with lac all community groups. It is the white privilege culture of museums that should change in order that all feel more comfortable. See Emily Dawson article ” Not Designed for Us” and my recent blog on museums and white privileges. You are on right track but our inner transformation must accompany our invitations to those who do not yet come. Thanks for raising ques. Would love you and your staff to try the maturity model tool on
    Thanks. G

    • I love the maturity model tool – I had not seen that, so thank you for pointing it out. I think the PlayHouse staff do this internal work on a regular basis. But I also think it’s easy to be self-congratulatory. If you ever feel like taking a look at the PlayHouse and making suggestions for how we can be more empathetic, I would welcome your expert eye.

  3. I completely support your desire to be inclusive, but I fail to see how excluding Christians (which includes many black families and LGBT families who you are supposedly trying to include.) Excluding any group does nothing to promote inclusiveness, so I hope you will rethink your position of celebrating some religious/cultural holidays, while purposely excluding others.

    • This is an important point, and one I’ve grappled with. This past spring, I was asked if the PlayHouse would offer an Easter Egg hunt or egg roll. I thought about it. But there are literally dozens of these in Peoria, and even in multi-culti Brooklyn there was a neighborhood Easter Egg hunt held in our local playground. Ultimately I decided that the only reason to offer an Easter Egg Hunt was that it would be a money maker, and this is an awful reason to “celebrate” a religious tradition.

      I don’t think we are excluding Christians. We did celebrate St. Patrick’s Day (and Irish Heritage) in March. And we have been considering reaching out to the local Greek Orthodox church, to see if they would like to collaborate with us in some way. But what would it mean to Celebrate Christmas at the PlayHouse? Would we introduce visitors to the tradition of Santa? The symbol of the cross? The Christmas tree? Celebrate Peoria is about introducing visitors to cultural traditions that may be unfamiliar to them. There is no point in introducing our visitors to a tradition that 95% of them are already familiar with.

      • I don’t think that these “mainstream” holidays (Christmas, Easter, etc.) are at all monolithic. Many of them are shared by numerous cultures/communities, and each one has its own traditions and practices. For instance, a Greek Orthodox family may have very different traditions for celebrating Christmas than, say, a Catholic Mexican-American family. The thought that Christmas is only celebrated through Santa, crosses, and trees is denying the very diversity you are trying to promote. The format of a fair or art market could visualize this diversity and allow visitors to find their own place within it.

      • This is why I think it would be interesting to reach out to the Greek Orthodox community. And not at all useful to celebrate “Christmas” in a general way.

  4. Thank you for this, Rebecca. I do like to read your posts and in this case, it started with the title! As I went on reading, though, I felt like the title really touched the wound but the post avoided doing so. It is rather a common belief among museum professionals that the issue is essentally related to the price / free admission and to special events. If the museum’s content is not relevant for communities which are diverse, if the museum tells the story of the majority who visits (also because its collection reflects that same majority who visits), can we solve the problem with free entries and “community” events that happen once a year? I dom’t think it would be enough, it hasn’t proven to be enough. I think we should truly concentrate in your point 3 and try hard to make the inivitation matter, to make it meaningful and permanent.

    • The issue of content is a tricky one, which I am still grappling with. In part because, as a children’s museum director, I’m not sure how relevant this is to my institution – a water table themed as the Illinois River, for example, is not weighted toward a single community, and where there are pictures of people in the museum they certainly reflect diversity. And in other museums I think this issue is far more complicated than we often acknowledge. At the Brooklyn Museum they get droves of people, and lots of Black visitors, for a show like Basquiat, but not nearly as diverse a group in their Egyptian galleries. Why is that? At the Milwaukee Art Museum there was a great representation of art by Black artists in their permanent collection galleries, but that didn’t impact visitor diversity, as far as I can tell. The invitation needs to matter, but museums should find ways to work with their existing collections, and to represent different perspectives through labels / educational approaches rather than assuming that people will not be interested in objects that don’t represent them or their experience.

  5. I would like to second those proposing that you include Christmas and Easter along with Ramadan, Eid, Passover, Chanukah, Diwali, Kwanza, and other religious holidays. As others have mentioned, Christmas and Easter traditions vary widely among various Christian denominations and from country to country. As far as minority citizens being already exposed to these Christian holidays, I would ask how would they know. It would not be from the schools, which deliberately stay away from the topic of religion. It might not even be from the general culture, which commemorates Christmas and Easter in largely secular ways. One of the Muslim grad students, back in the days when I was in grad school, had been in this country for something like five years, and had taken part in Christmas celebrations the whole time, when he finally learned what the holiday was all about. He’d had no idea that it was a Christian holiday. In a multi-cultural society such as ours, I think it is important to include everyone’s major religious holidays, so that we all understand and appreciate one another. Ignoring the majority religion is liable to backfire by reinforcing the ideas of some people that they no longer count in their own country. We need to be building bridges, instead of causing hurt feelings and insult.

  6. Drawing on your point about not just advertising in your ‘space’ (physical or digital), I would be curious to hear from others how they identify alternative outlets to promote their programs, especially with a limited or nonexistent outreach budget. How do you get the word out to diverse communities via social media without just spamming hashtags.

    [in re: “How do you celebrate Christmas in a meaningful way in the context of examining cultural traditions and diversity?” especially for a Children’s museum, perhaps instead do something for the feastday of Saint Nicholas, who is the patron saint of children in both Western and Eastern Christian traditions – in medieval England, I think, they would appoint a boy as ‘Bishop’ on St Nicholas’ Day to preside over things like Feasts of Fools.]

  7. Pingback: Guest Blog Post by Rebecca Herz: How can museums contribute to dialogue about social justice when we are exemplars of segregation? | CultureSpots

  8. Museum in the Uk have been making attempts to incorporate groups of people not known to be museum visitors. Collection days where communities are asked to donate or allow items from their family’s heritage to be on display in the museum has been working well. Barnsley Museum in the North of England has done this as well as having oral history projects. The Geffrye Museum in East London, a very diverse area of London also tries to centre itself as a museum for the community and there are plans for doing this as part of the new plan for the future museum once renovated and changed.

  9. Pingback: How do museums help to create a better world? | Museum Questions

  10. Pingback: Guest Blog Post by Rebecca Herz: How do museums help to create a better world? | CultureSpots

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