Board Member Diversity
The American Alliance of Museums (AAM) found in their Museum Board Leadership 2017: A National Report that 46%—nearly half—of museum boards “are all white, i.e., containing no people of color.” The same report found that only 10% of museum directors indicated any development of an action plan to address becoming more inclusive.
While building a diverse board is now a prominent conversation and one of the first steps in diversifying a museum, that doesn’t mean it’s easy. BoardSource offers three key steps to build a more representative board: communicate, develop a plan for change, and measure progress.
Curatorial Staff and Frontline Workers
Diversity in hiring practices doesn’t end at the museum board. Diversity in the curatorial fields and staffing positions is incredibly important as well. For museums to truly welcome change and become more inclusive, many museum policies and biases once considered traditional must also reflect such change. One important reconsideration is paid internships, which ensures that one of the field’s historic modes of professional training is open to students without the means to volunteer for an extended period.
Many GLAMP institutions have positions considered to be “frontline,” in near-constant interaction with the institution’s daily visitors and operations. Security guards, admissions staff, janitorial staff, and docents and programming staff are often disempowered due to a perceived distance from the museum’s artifacts. These staffing positions are also most likely to be filled by people from marginalized racial and ethnic backgrounds. In fact, a 2015 study by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation found that the great majority of workers in the field from a minority background are concentrated among these jobs with no pipeline for further advancement.
Yet frontline staff typically have the most consistent opportunities to connect with the museum’s actual and potential audiences. By reassigning more institutional power to these positions, institutions have an opportunity to reach new and existing visitors in powerful ways, as the Baltimore Museum of Art did in a 2021 exhibit curated by 17 of the museum’s security guards.
Administrative Policy and Action
Hiring a diverse staff is certainly a positive step in centering DEAI in museums, but the work doesn’t end there, either. Museums across the country have been facing calls to address systemic racism and injustice. This section will provide a brief survey of some administrative actions and policies that museums and related institutions have used to further their antiracist and decolonizing goals.
To help reflect on practices and measure organizational change, see the Empathetic Museum Maturity Model. This model provides a method for measuring DEAI values within a cultural institution.
Centering DEAI work in museums requires allocating resources for that work. This means that if museums wish to be seen as racially equitable, they must financially plan for and support racially equitable practices. Often, this kind of action takes place during an institution’s strategic and annual budget planning. The New Museum’s action plan for racial equity is a good starting point.
Disrupting White Supremacy Culture
To engage in racial and ethnicity-centered DEAI work, it is crucial for museum leaders and staff to first recognize how museums, as a category of institution, emerged from white supremacist ideas. With this knowledge, each museum can better examine its own historical and contemporary shortcomings in racial equity, and craft plans to address those histories, undermine systemic racism, and repair relationships with harmed communities. The University of Virginia’s Fralin Museum of Art has developed a strategic plan with action items specifically catered towards disrupted the white supremacist culture within and surrounding the museum.
- The Museum as a Site for Social Action (MASS) offers a toolkit that provides examples of white supremacy in the museum field and how to address it.
- The tenants of White Supremacy Culture, as seen in Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups by Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun offer concrete characteristics of white supremacy culture for institutions to recognize and address.
Living Land Acknowledgements
A living land acknowledgement is a statement that recognizes the forced dispossession and displacement of indigenous peoples from the homelands upon which the institution was built, currently occupies, and operates in. It is a living statement because it is meant to be created and continually revised and strengthened in partnership with members of the particular indigenous community.
The Lenape Center, a contemporary organization of and honoring the Lenape peoples, collaborated with New York City’s New Museum to create their living land acknowledgement statement. This statement is featured on a permanent page on the museum’s website and includes a site heritage statement honoring the African American history of their land.
While living land acknowledgements are an important first step towards reparative justice for Indigenous communities, words without actions are empty gestures. When considering how to build on an acknowledgement and develop long-term relationships with local Native American communities, consider what a Lenape representative suggested at a 2019 symposium at the Brooklyn Museum: “Now that we have welcomed you, how do you respond?”
- To identify indigenous homelands, see the Native Land Digital Project
- The United States Department of Art and Culture, a grassroots action network, offers a #HonorNativeLand Virtual Resource Pack to assist institutions in utilizing land acknowledgements across their institution, exhibitions, programming, and more.