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“Like Trying to Shift an Aircraft Carrier”: Museum Association Board President Calls for Greater Diversity

The MAAM staff greeters at the 2015 conference. Photo by Michelle Paulus.
The MAAM staff greeters at the 2015 conference (photo by Michelle Paulus)

PHILADELPHIA — A few weeks ago, I attended the Mid-Atlantic Association of Museums annual conference in Philadelphia. The meeting’s theme, “Building Communities: Embracing Diversity in All We Do,” was given clarity and weight by a conversation I had with Gretchen Sorin, MAAM board president and director of the Cooperstown Graduate Program, which offers a two-year degree in History Museum Studies. The conversation with Sorin illuminated what “diversity” means for her with regard to the museum field, why it’s necessary for museums and historic sites to work toward greater diversity among both staff and audiences, and how that could be achieved, even though, in her own words, trying to change the museum field is “like trying to shift an aircraft carrier.”

That shift, Sorin argues, will not be accomplished by inserting one or two people of color into management roles. When that occurs, the danger is a kind of tokenism, often setting up an unfair dynamic in which the lone person of color is expected to speak for an entire race or culture. On the audience side, the overly simplified response to inclusion has often entailed little more than adding a day of free admission to the historic site’s calendar — in which case the public is treated as putative beneficiaries of only episodic institutional concern. The same caveat applies to museum boards. As Sean Kelly, director of interpretation and public programming at Eastern State Penitentiary, stated during the conference’s “Diversity Matters” session, for the people who populate boards, “money is an issue that doesn’t get talked about.” He observed that often the board members of a historic site or museum do not see the value of diversity — a condition often correlated to their class status and income level. Augmenting Kelly’s point that boards also need to be diversified, one audience member emphasized that there needs to be more than one member of a given ethnicity, because a single person will likely feel uncomfortable being in such a conspicuous position.

Diversity among staff and board members is crucial to building and sustaining communities, provided the new personnel are committed to nurturing and facilitating connections with their varied audiences. Sorin said that too often she attends museums and is met with only what is interesting to the curator. She remarked, “Being a curator is about you, [but] what does the public want to see? What I believe is that it’s about the public, my neighborhood, and my community.” Sorin recalls a conversation with a curator at the Shelburne Museum in Vermont in which she asked what the curator thought would be the most important exhibition she could mount. The curator’s answer was “pewter.” For Sorin, the suggestion that this metal alloy, while having key uses for human civilization since the ancient world, is the crucial object to bring to public attention now reveals an old-guard, institutional bias towards de-politicized, esoteric, and uncontroversial objects that do not address current real-world concerns. This attitude is illustrative of why the museum field needs to have more people of color on staff who are engaged by ideas that are important to the communities they serve — enough to so that we “get to a critical mass.”

On left, Gretchen Sorin, President of MAAM; on the right, Laura Hortz Stanton, Executive Director of the Conservation Center. Photo by Gretchen Sorin.
Left, Gretchen Sorin, president of MAAM; right, Laura Hortz Stanton, executive director of the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts, Philadelphia (photo courtesy Gretchen Sorin)

Sorin is practical in her approach to confronting these endemic issues of disengagement from the community and insularity in the professional ranks of curators and public program administrators. She says, “You have to put your money where your mouth is.” Doing so means getting younger people and people of color to attend MAAM conferences, with an eye to getting them on boards as well (such as the Delaware Representative, Jessica Jenkins, who is the manager of marketing & PR at the Delaware Art Museum). Sorin states, “this year we provided six fully paid scholarships to encourage greater diversity at the conference for students and emerging professionals.” At the program she directs at Cooperstown, students of color are provided with very generous scholarships. Sorin also works with other higher education institutions, such as Jackson State, a historically black university in Mississippi, where she makes presentations to undergraduates, helping them to see that a career in the museum field is attainable if they attend graduate school, and that this vocation can allow them to earn a salary that will sustain them. Sorin believes that if students who might not otherwise consider a museum career are approached early enough in their educational tenure, they can be led to see the field as a place for them.

To be clear, the field is in dire need of this variety of perspectives and concerns. Associate Director at University of Pennsylvania’s Arthur Ross Gallery Dejay Ducket related an illustrative anecdote in a session titled “Building Diversity from the Ground Up”: At another conference of museum professionals, Tom Finkelpearl, the commissioner for the Department of Cultural Affairs in NYC, asked the audience, “How many of you work for a black director?” Ducket says only two hands went up in the entire room.

The MAAM keynote address given by Rosalyn McPherson. Photo by Michelle Paulus.
The MAAM keynote address, given by Rosalyn McPherson (photo by Michelle Paulus)

The keynote speaker, Rosalyn McPherson, president and CEO of the Urban League of Philadelphia, echoed these convictions. She described museums as “intellectually arrogant enterprises,” saying that they tended to behave as if the information they promulgate is the most important information that can be known. McPherson cautioned: “there is a power in public voice. It is critically important to seek out that input.”

Shifting the focus of museums and historic sites to nurturing a community involves structural challenges, because an entire spectrum of pressures encourages inaction — fear, the glacial pace of institutional change, and the lack of programmatic vision, to name a few.

The chief tool for combating inaction is one that was emphasized many times at the MAAM meeting: shared support. As Virgil Talaid of the New York Transit Museum articulated, we have to “tap one another on the shoulder and become more fluent in the language of diversity.” The indications are that this is what Sorin does in her professional practice, both making the effort to draw institutional attention to what had been previously missed, and taking the time to find students to support and sustain. Sorin believes that students will in turn help to sustain the critical museum project of providing a place in which we can realize ourselves. Perhaps McPherson most cogently summarized the conviction of the MAAM board and its leader, saying that as she became successful, she realized that as she became empowered, she could empower others.

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