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What can museums teach us about diversity?

Representation is a delicate subject and cultural institutions must work hard to ensure a range of voices are heard.

Diversity is a very loaded word, one which means different things in different settings. So when we talk about promoting diversity within a museum setting, what do we really mean?

In recent years, debates about representation within a cultural setting have become far more commonplace. Part of examining the success or impact of a piece of culture involves asking who is being represented and indeed whose voices are we hearing? What stories are they telling? And, of course, whenever we ask who is being included in the narrative, there is always the consideration of who is being excluded or overlooked.

This is the case with all culture, from television and film to books, artwork and, yes, museum exhibitions.

Of course, this increased scrutiny can be a good thing. By forcing curators to think harder about who they represent, and devolving the straight, white, male default of past eras.

So what do museums have to teach us about diversity, and are they getting it right or wrong?

Diversity remains an issue in museum spaces, but one which can be tackled

Museums are heralded as places where culture comes together; hubs of information, understanding and creativity. However, there is no shortage of data demonstrating that museums around the world are failing to connect with minority groups and vulnerable people.

A 2017 study by Colleen Dilenschneider found that more than a quarter (26%) of university educated, ethnically diverse people felt that cultural organisations were “not welcoming of people like me.” What’s more, a follow-up study found that 40% of millennials and 35% of the population as a whole believed history and art museums were “not for people like me”.

This is a systemic issue, one in which those behind the scenes automatically represent their own group by default. One 2015 study by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation found that of 30,000 employees across 322 US museums, 84% of curators, educators, conservators, museum directors and leadership staff were white.

These issues aren’t surprising when we look at the origins of the museum space itself. Many of the most esteemed museums began life as manor houses designed to show off the collections of the upper classes, who were most often male and almost always Caucasian.

We should always be careful when framing this particular conversation, of course. And it is important to state that there is an important difference between appraising an exhibition or institution in a new light; and devaluing it entirely.

Nevertheless, museums must today perform a careful balancing act – tackling important but complex and potentially controversial issues in a way that is progressive and promotes diversity.

Challenging expectations and reflecting audiences

Work and artefacts displayed within a museum should speak to a range of voices, and being honest about the origin of works is important. Many of the most famous artefacts within Western museums were acquired through questionable means across history – take the infamous Elgin Marbles debate as a prime example – but addressing these controversies can help museums use their platform to highlight injustices in power structures rather than simply using them to their own advantage.

Diversity stretches to museum marketing, too. When imagery associated with an institution is made public on websites, print ads or social media content, it’s important that all viewers can see themselves reflected. After all, 88% of US marketers agree that more diverse images help boost a brand’s reputation.

“Diversity in Museums: what change would you like to make?”

In 2017, programme manager at the UK Museum’s Association, Jess Turtle, and diversity leadership consultant at cuspinc.org, Sarah Pickthall, took to the internet to seek public opinions on diversity within museum environments.

The responses were both wide-ranging and enlightening. One user asked:

“How can we diversify our audiences without being so prescriptive that we’re in some way asking for a certain demographic? If we assume that there’s no reason one person won’t be interested in an exhibition the same as another, then is it unhelpful to continue to categorise?”

The reply came from Frances Reed, Events and Exhibitions Coordinator at the Royal College of Nursing:

“In our current project, to diversify our collections we are being very open about the haps we want to fill. And so we are asking for materials, objects and stories from certain demographics – BAME, LGBT+ and disabled nurses for example. This has been well received so far. Being specific helps audiences see that their contributions are relevant.”

This highlights one of the key debates surrounding diversity: shouldn’t collections be based purely on the relevance of the work rather than trying to cater to a specific group, minority or otherwise?

In an ideal world, the answer to this would be a simple yes, they should. However, because the straight, white, male default is so ingrained in all aspects of society, extra effort must be taken to ensure that those who have been under-represented in the past can see themselves represented now. Diverse museum collections can teach us about the benefits of this.

Charlottesville, Virginia: representation in the aftermath of tragedy

A collection in Charlottesville, Virginia displays not only the power of diverse exhibitions, but the need for diversity across society as a whole.

In 2017, white supremacists staged an infamous march in the area which resulted in the murder of a counter protester, Heather Heyer. In answer to this tragedy, the University of Virginia’s Fralin Museum of Art devoted half of its exhibitions to underrepresented art.

Museum director Matthew McLendon commented:

“It’s important to make a real, discernible commitment. There are difficult conversations our society needs to have. Mediation through the work of art, being respectful of cultures and experiences other than our own, adds a different tenor and a return of civility to the conversation.”

This is an important point. As centres of learning and understanding, museums can teach us how to discuss issues of diversity in a civil and constructive way.

The unifying power of art

One can argue can the role of art itself is to broaden our horizons, heighten our understanding and increase our emotional capacity, all of which are vital for diversity.

African American artist Oletha DeVane, often described as “the matriarch of the Baltimore art scene”, says she sees artists as visionaries and teachers. By sharing their stories, artists can increase understanding in our pluralistic society. It is the job of museums to give such art a platform.

About the author – Manuel Charr

Manuel Charr is a journalist working in the arts and cultural sectors. With a background in marketing, Manuel is drawn to arts organizations which are prepared to try inventive ways to reach new audiences.

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