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The Conflict Around Diversity at the American Alliance of Museums

An question board located at the CFM during the conference. All photos by the author for Hyperallergic
A question board located at the CFM during the conference (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

This year’s AAM (American Alliance of Museums) conference, organized under the theme “Power, Influence, and Responsibility,” made a significant effort to meaningfully engage with issues of diversity and the inclusion of historically underrepresented populations. Among the most visible of these gestures was allocating space for The Center of the Future of Museums (CFM) in the MuseumExpo Hall. This “Alliance Resource Center” held gatherings and workshops throughout the conference, specifically targeting bias in hiring practices, the politics of unpaid internships, and the mechanics of credentialing. According to museum futurist and Mellon/ACLS Public Fellow Nicole Ivy, the main concern was to “bring strategic foresight” to the future of work in museums and to the various pipelines into the profession. An entire suite of related sessions took place on Friday, assembled under the banner “Museum and Race 2016: Gathering for Transformation and Justice,” which sought to integrate issues of race into institutional self-reflection. This mini-conference was developed among several partners, including #MuseumWorkersSpeak, DivCom, The Empathetic Museum, The Incluseum, Museum Hue, The Museum Group, and AAM itself. I spoke with several members of these groups throughout the conference, conversations that showed their aspiration to make museums more widely culturally inclusive.

Between sessions, I talked to Darcie Fohrman of the Museum Group, who told me that for years, their organization has been pushing AAM to take up and forthrightly engage with issues of representation and race, and has always encountered resistance. According to Fohrman, it was the Museum Group that largely developed and paid for the program for Museum and Race 2016 and convinced the AAM directors to allocate space for them at the conference.

Elizabeth Merritt (l.), founding director of the Center for the Future of Museums and Nicole Ivey, the Center's acting manager.
Elizabeth Merritt (left), founding director of the Center for the Future of Museums, and Nicole Ivy, Mellon/ACLS Public Fellow.

Several people I spoke to wanted AAM to use its considerable institutional power to do more to foster diversity and made suggestions in this vein. During a conversation at the CFM, Therese Quinn, director of the Museum and Exhibition Studies program at the University of Illinois at Chicago, suggested that AAM could begin to affect real change by refusing to give accreditation to any museum or historic house that provides unpaid internships or refuses to offer paid maternity leave, since these are two of the ways in which people in less-advantaged demographics are de facto prevented from working in these institutions. In a follow-up conversation after her session on creating “empathetic museums,” Rainey Tisdale, an independent museum curator and member of the Empathetic Museum group, added that AAM could also refuse to accredit institutions that do not pay their staff a living wage.

However, other conversations I witnessed suggest that some in the field are not as committed to an ideal of museums becoing more representative of the general population.

On Saturday morning, I wandered into a session called “What Do We Really Mean? The Power of Museum Jargon,” where a few of the panelists were listing “problem” words. Among these were “intersectionality,” “impactful,” “curate,” “curriculum,” and “community.” At one point, an audience member related an anecdote that ended with “…and intersectionality — I have no idea what that means.” About half the room broke out into laughter. A few minutes later, someone else mentioned confusion about that term, again eliciting laughter. I wondered what this meant. Was the nervous laughter aimed at a word that made people feel discomfort? Was it derisive laughter, or, worse, a show of contempt?

Later, I asked one of the session leaders why he thought this word elicited that response. He replied, “I think it’s just a stupid-ass word. It’s pretentious.” He went on to say that neologisms that are actually useful are developed because other words don’t fully encapsulate a concept that needs elucidation. But for him, the essence of intersectionality is simply conflation (the merging of different sets of ideas, texts, traditions, etc.) of different types of identity, and therefore he finds its use unnecessary. More, he feels that people often use the term as a shibboleth, indicating that they are on the “correct” side of certain issues and positioning themselves as gatekeepers who can condescend to others who aren’t as “in the know.”

Therese Quinn, associate professor of art history and director of the Museum and Exhibition Studies program At the University of Illinois
Therese Quinn, associate professor of art history and director of the Museum and Exhibition Studies program at the University of Illinois

I believe this individual failed to grasp the fact that the concept of intersectionality offers a critical political insight that is not about identity, but rather about the systems (economic, social, and cultural) that marginalize people of color on the basis of their ethnicities, which are the same systems (employing similar mechanisms) that marginalize women, gay people, or the differently abled. This is to say that intersectionality is a lens that seeks to make concealed, systematized power relations observable. When a museum consistently fails to promote capable women within its ranks, often the hiring faculty of that institution will also claim that they cannot find suitable candidates of color.

Another session speaker, Eric Jolly, the former president of the Minnesota Science Museum, indicated that policies could be implemented to stymie that institutional failure to recognize talent in nonstandard guises. He said that while acting as the museum president, he would not allow a hiring process to move forward until a committee had found at least one qualified candidate of color, and if that candidate was not ultimately chosen, the committee would need to write a letter to him or her explaining in detail why he or she had been passed over. The same policy, I believe, should be implemented with regard to promoting women within institutions. It costs extra work but prods a kind of conscientious thinking that may not otherwise occur.

These conversations gave rise to several questions: What portion of the museum field is essentially hostile to ideas like intersectionality, as opposed to merely being intimidated by them? Does AAM have the institutional will to enact policies that support expanding diversity? If that will is absent, what does it take to move large organizations like AAM to become catalysts for profound change in the field? What would the field look like if they did, and, ultimately, how do we deal with these differing, sometimes oppositional viewpoints?

A conversation on labor practices at the CFM
A conversation on labor practices at the CFM

Part of the reason for the disparity of vision within museums is the current sociopolitical context, in which anger at the erosion of the long-fixed social order has become increasingly palpable. White men have begun to recognize that they have lost their position at the top of this order and, particularly for working-class men, this is compounded by a depletion of the type of steady employment that once guaranteed a comfortable lifestyle, provision for subsequent generations, and a retirement of relative ease. The social world has always been regarded by some as a place of relentless competition, a zero-sum game of winners and losers, and this ideology is only invigorated when social power is transferred to people of color. As Linda Theung, a researcher at the Rand corporation, recently reiterated in the discussion around internship programs set aside for underrepresented groups: “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.” Unfortunately, this thinking crosses over into culture, and the assumption is made that museums are yet another competitive arena, the push for diversity becoming just another battleground. This is a mistaken perception.

The museum birthed during the Enlightenment was conceived in the promise of universal education — one that has never been fulfilled. Only in the last few decades, as the museum has become more visitor-centered and the visits themselves more personalized, has the museum begun to approach this ideal. The public museum, for much of its existence, has privileged a de facto segregation. As French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu observed, the museum has long been an edifice for the display and affirmation of bourgeois values, encouraging the poor and working-class to self-select as unworthy of spending time there.

We have only just begun to see the pendulum of representation swing, and as Sarah Pharaon, a senior director at the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, said during her keynote speech at the PRAM lunch (the PR and marketing group event), it may need to swing far in the opposite direction before we can achieve equilibrium. Ultimately, we all benefit from this movement. When we diversify museum staffs, audiences, and boards, we allow more stories to be told, more voices to be heard, and more enriching experiences to be had, because these are not just our stories — the museum should be a place of discovery rather than merely affirmation of who we are. A museum that only displays and caters to one kind of aesthetic is woefully incomplete. As Aletheia Wittman of the Incluseum project said, that group’s aim is no less than to make the museum better. There is much work to be done on that front, and part of that work is convincing long-standing museum professionals and organizations that it needs doing at all.

Putting the ball in AAM's court.
Putting the ball in AAM’s court.

The American Alliance of Museums is the largest museum advocacy group in the US. Its annual meeting took place in Washington, DC from May 26 through May 29

Note: The author of this piece was given a grant to attend the conference as an AAM Fellow.

Editor’s Note: Subsequent to this article being published, Darcie Fohrman, president of the Museum Group, reached out to Hyperallergic and informed us that she thought her positions with regard to AAM were mischaracterized. She wants to affirm that the AAM was a completely eager and supportive partner in developing the Museums and Race colloquium, by generously providing meeting space and marketing for the event, and that the Museum Group encountered no resistance from AAM in their working together on producing it.

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