Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

Diversity and the museum sector

Museum Studies students with Dr. Gretchen Sorin at the Cooperstown Graduate Program.

Dr Gretchen Sorin, Museum Studies Programs & Tools for Creating More Inclusive Curricula, Centre for the Future of Museums, 29 March 2016

The graduates of museum studies programs are overwhelmingly white and female. If we want museums to be staffed by people who reflect the American public, we can broaden our search beyond museum studies program, and we can encourage traditional graduate programs to recruit diverse students. Today Gretchen Sorin, director and distinguished professor of the Cooperstown Graduate Program, addresses the latter approach. She maintains that students who graduate from museum programs should be equipped to create inclusive learning and work environments for diverse audiences and staff.

Professional museum conferences include plenty of talk about “diversity” and the need to cultivate new audiences, particularly people of color. Indeed this talk has been going on for decades and while some museums have embraced strategies to bring in new audiences and make their institutions truly inclusive many others have struggled. I recently listened to a very well-meaning colleague express his frustration that we really don’t talk to “them” and, he proposed that the first step to greater diversity is to find out what “they” want. I realized that despite many years in the field, I am still “them.”  We may be talking about diversity, but have not yet embraced inclusion.

As an African American professional who has worked in museums since the 1970s I chose to lead a museum studies program beginning in the 1990s to accelerate the process of making museums more inclusive by training those who enter the field. It has not been easy, but I believe that we have identified an approach that is getting some traction. Here are my recommended best practices to make museum studies programs inclusive:

Everyone needs to learn about inclusion, not just students of color.

Create a more inclusive curriculum that makes inclusion a priority.

Every student needs to know how to create more welcoming and inclusive museums (since, as our first lady recently pointed out, many museums make people feel they “do not belong”). Courses in art history, material culture, and history, required of all students, should go beyond wealthy white culture. Courses that provide the methodology for researching and engaging different groups should not use a one and done approach, but rather provide deep knowledge and understanding of American sub-cultures and include the art and culture of the different people who inhabit this country. Teaching collections should include the objects and art of African Americans, Latin Americans, Asian Americans, Muslim Americans, and American Jews that go beyond stereotypes and tokenism. Just teaching about slavery alone or including Romare Beardon as the only black artist in a course on American art, for example is insufficient.

Cultural Competence is essential for every museum studies program.

Projects that provide experiences in audience engagement expose emerging professionals to diverse colleagues and communities. For example, this fall, nine students and three faculty members will spend an intensive week in New York City working with the Dyckman Farmhouse Alliance, the last farmhouse in Manhattan. For the last year this 18th century museum in northern Manhattan and its new Director, Meredith Horsford, have been working to develop programming to engage two constituencies, the mainstream community on one side of Broadway and the Dominican community on the other side. Students will work directly with school children and teachers, business owners, chefs, artists, and other Dominican community members to create programs related to food and nutrition, art and photography, and material culture. Team learning environments composed of students from many backgrounds engaged with multiple audiences can simulate the ideal practices of inclusive museums.

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