The Danger of the “D” Word: Museums and Diversity

We are so pleased to welcome Porchia Moore as a new regular Incluseum blog contributor this week. When we were introduced to Porchia’s work, which uses Critical Race Theory as a lens for understanding museum spaces as platforms for inclusion and explores intersections between culture, technology, information, and race, we got very excited! Porchia’s first guest post creates space to challenge commonly used vocabulary and standards in the museum realm, demanding that we re-examine assumptions about how to be inclusive. We are fortunate to be able to promote and share her writing. 

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D

Let’s get rid of diversity initiatives. Many museums have done some good, hard work in this area. I am in awe of and applaud these efforts. Yet, while some might argue that the path to engaging visitors is to feature minority artists or develop programming targeting minority groups who otherwise might not visit their museum; I have been seriously considering that we might need to re-think the term “diversity”. I am not sure that “diversity” is what we need. Here is an anecdote: Contemporary artist Leslie Dill’s “I Heard a Voice”, a large-scale theatrical artwork, was on exhibit at my local art museum and it changed me in ways that I am not even quite able to articulate. I recall that year that I mentioned the Leslie Dill show in almost every conversation that I had, to as many strangers, and passers-by that I could. Not only had most people not seen the show, but they admitted that they had not visited the museum, any museum, in many years. I went about excitedly summarizing the exhibit in tantalizing bits in hopes that they would visit. I spoke of the free admission Sundays. I encouraged museum memberships and quoted hours and admission fees. Isn’t this what we in the museum world do? We advocate for museums without ceasing. We encourage others to visit this museum or that and we exclaim the praises of a truly great exhibition. But I was experiencing something far more complex. I was beginning to feel that something was askew.

The mark of a great museum and a really good exhibition or museum program is that you want to share the experience with as many people as you can. Yet, I could not help but notice that each time I entered Dill’s magical world in that gallery, I was the only person of color in the room. I desperately wanted and needed to know and understand why. Instantly, the methodical researcher in me philosophized the numerous reasons why: 1) I am a student with flexible day time hours and many others are at work. 2) Not everyone likes art. 3) Not everyone enjoys art museums. 4) Perhaps, folks in my city are not familiar with Leslie Dill? 5) Maybe the price of admission simply did fit others’ budgets? I pondered if museums truly were for everyone and if they are not, why did I care if someone had had the opportunity to view “I Heard a Voice” or not?

I came to the realization that I care because we are the cultural gatekeepers. It matters who enters our gates. It matters what is inside our gates. It matters how our gates are perceived. We are tasked with making sure that our cultural heritage reaches all. For years museums have sought to address ways to increase diversity and invite full participation from minority communities. At the same time, we seem to view it as the norm when, in spite of our best efforts, the minority turn out remains low. We resign ourselves to a job well done for our efforts or walk way exasperated and frustrated at our energies to diversify. It is my very firm belief that museums are for everyone. Everyone. But, perhaps, our conversation on inclusion in museums should not be framed around discourses of diversity.

The truth is that I do not like the term “diversity” because I find it to be a racially coded term which exacts all sorts of confusing sentimentalities and hidden agendas. In more than one conversation that I have had with people of color, they admitted to only visiting a museum when the exhibition or programming featured African American, Latina, or Asian artists or culture. In most cases, there was some special marketing in their church or neighborhood or organization which highlighted the black, Latina, or Asian artist or exhibit. And this is part of the problem. We should be cultivating lasting relationships with communities of color; and be certain that we are not just targeting them when we deem their participation to be culturally congruent. All culture is connected. We must be cautious to not send the message that minority visitors are merely niche or annual visitors. Instead, what can we do to ensure that visitors of color are long-term invested stakeholders with a unique set of values whose narratives are celebrated as equally as important and complimentary to the system of values which permeate the traditional white mainstream museum? The Center For the Future of Museums reports that of the core group of museum visitors only 9% are minorities. How can we increase these numbers so that they mirror the racial compositions of our communities?

But there is a larger truth. Genuine racial inclusion can and must come soon or museums will find themselves in a precarious position. Why? Because increasingly, there is no such thing as a racial minority. In fact, our racial identities are becoming more complex and multiracial as a multitude of racial groups are growing in numbers across the country. For this reason alone, museums will need to restructure because the core group of white visitors to museums will eventually decrease.

No one culture and their cultural values and heritage should dominate the other. A young black teen living in Ohio or the Carolinas or a middle-aged Iranian woman residing in Texas should see the museum as theirs—not sometimes; but all the time. They should feel that the museum has something powerful, compelling, and transformative to offer whether it is in the work of Dill or the work of Carrie Mae Weems. They should feel this way not just because the work of their cultural ancestors is on display but also because they feel as invested in another culture as their own—this should be the mission of museums—to create a passion for culture and memory.

Museums must consider ways to help visitors understand what it is that we do in fresh, engaging, practical ways. What we do is promote and preserve culture—not just a dominant white culture—but a shared culture. When communities of color do not see equal representation of cultural heritage in our exhibition schedules and programming, we send the message that museums are founded upon a dominant culture’s values. We imply that visitors of color are invited to participate and reinforce the notion that they somehow exist outside the dominant system. Moving forward I would like to advance our conversations on “diversity” by substituting “diversity” for a more inclusive term such as “fullness” or “completion” which I hope connotes an innovative manner in which the museum can elevate a more integrated vision. I would argue that “diversity” cannot merely exist to provide a diverse experience for a dominant culture. True “diversity” means that the visitor of color would need to feel that their very presence did not constitute the diversity. In fact, it is the presence of a multitude of ethnically varied visitors and/or cultural heritage on display which would prove sufficient to constitute the feeling of “diversity” and representativeness for them as well. As I spend more time reflecting on these ideas, I would like to believe that when we begin to change how we think about discourses of diversity and participation that we begin to understand that it becomes necessary for the concept of inclusion to be rooted in the act of co-creation. In my next blog post, I will explore why I feel that co-creation is so important and suggest ways that museums can begin to incorporate a racially kaleidoscopic vision.

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Porchia Moore, is a third year doctoral candidate dually enrolled in the School of Library and Information Science and McKissick Museum’s Museum Management Program at the University of South Carolina. She is the recipient of the Cultural Heritage Informatics Leadership fellowship as endowed by the Laura Bush 21st Century Librarian Grant. Her work employs Critical Race Theory as an informative framework for interrogating and exploring the museum space as a means to advocate for inclusion in the museum world. In addition, she is interested in the intersection between culture, technology, information, and race. She is a 2013-2014 Humanities, Arts, Science & Technology Alliance & Colloboratory (HASTAC) Scholar. Currently, she serves a two year appointment to the Professional Development Committee, which helps design and plan the annual conference for the South Carolina Federation of Museums. She regularly presents on race, culture, and museums at conferences such as Museums and the Web and Museum Computer Network. She is an avid lover of museums, having explored museums from Malaysia to New Zealand and back. Follow her on Twitter @PorchiaMuseM.

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13 comments

  1. A rather large problem with the way “diversity” is bandied about is that it reifies those essentialized categories which divide us. Diversity can be a powerful concept, when it applies to such a fluid thing as society. On some occasions, lack of diversity in age can be a real issue, but it’s not because age determines much about the experience. People born in the same need not live through things in similar ways. In other contexts, we use such tricky social constructs as ethnicity or, worse, ”race” to segment the population in ways which make more sense to us than the true diversity of humanity. Maybe it’s more fine-grained than “like me” and “others”, but it fails to account for the complex negotiation of cultural and social identity.
    What’s more, “inclusiveness” might be considered a goal but it may not be achieved if we simply think of numbers. Regardless of any change in the percentage of people from diverse groups participating in a given event (say, a museum visit), the roles these people play and the sense of belonging they may or may not get from the experience could radically shift the “degree of inclusiveness” this event may afford. An event with a fairly homogeneous crowd overall could be very inclusive if those factors of heterogeneity are treated appropriately (for instance, by not drawing undue attention to them). Conversely, some events bringing together unlikely groups of people may also be zones of very tense contacts where nobody really feels welcome.
    Part of the interesting thing about visitor studies is that it goes beyond statistics and demographics. “Diversity” may not be the ideal label to use, but those of us who cherish the varied experiences of human beings may perceive something quite stimulating coming out of events and venues which give room for such subtle and thoughtful exchanges.

    1. I really like your point that inclusiveness can not merely be about an increase in numbers. I am going to be thinking more deeply on this notion. I appreciate your response and willingness to participate in this conversation. Thanks so much!

  2. leonard cicero · · Reply

    Is it possible that too much emphasis is placed on “keeping the gates” than becoming more active in with and in the communities that are reluctant to visit these relatively static institutions?

    1. I think that in many ways I can agree with your assertion here. I think my use of the term “cultural gatekeeper” is in direct response to recent conversations that I have participated in on issues of authority, power, narrative privilege, and curatorial authority. I am so happy that you have commented here. Thanks so much!

  3. Madalena Salazar · · Reply

    Thank you for this great post. I feel my experience exactly mirrored yours. I shared the same experiences and questions. Those led me to the same conclusions you did, and led me to the position I now have – DAM’s Latino Cultural Programs Coordinator. In my role, I am adamant that we build inclusion, not diversity, and highlight our shared cultures. I think our complex identities require our approach to equally multifaceted. I would love to talk more about how you have put some of these theories into practice. I come from the same perspective, but I find multiple challenges to putting these ideas to work. For example, leadership in an institution may say that they are committed to building inclusivity, but individuals within may be at different levels making that commitment for multiple reasons. Furthermore, we have found that many people in our community have pervasive perceptions of what the museum is and isn’t, and it is a huge hurdle to get past these perceptions. Some of these perceptions are less innocuous and go beyond ignoring a community’s perspectives, but amount to the institution doing wrong by their community. That being said, I would love to hear more about your methods and practice. I hope that we could be in touch to discuss more. My email is msalazar@denverartmuseum.org. Thanks for your work!

    1. Hello Madelena! I genuinely appreciate your comments. My work moving forward is to try and get at the root of these perceptions of the museum that you speak of. I would love to hear more about your work at DAM. I applaud the great and powerful work that you are doing! I will send you an email. Thanks so much for participating in this conversation!

  4. […] to be human nature, but isn’t as restrictive as you might think. Porchia Moore states in her article rethinking diversity in museums, “all culture is connected”. I’ve found ways to connect with people from very different […]

    1. Ali! Super jealous! How awesome that you are having this amazing experience traveling the world museum by museum. I will be following your journey closely and going back and discovering all that you have accomplished thus far! I love your passion for museums and people. Thanks for contributing to this conversation. Enjoy your journey. And, yes– ALL CULTURE IS CONNECTED!

  5. Richard Josey · · Reply

    Ahhh…someone who gets me!!! For the past year, I’ve advocated for museum administrators to do less special, yet limited exhibits or programs and focus on how to express the true panorama of cultures and perspectives; warts and all. I struggle whenever I hear the term diversity. I suppose if grants or funds are dependent on “diversity initiatives”, institutions will parade there diversity programs around to compete for them. Diversity should include diversity of thought as well. All latinos dont think the same. Anyhow, my question rests with how to mark inclusivity…thoughts?

    1. Hi Richards, thanks for your comment. You bring up the important point that diversity initiatives tend to over-simplify the situation. I’m not sure I fully follow your question…could you please clarify it? -Rose

  6. […] to  host our second blogpost from our regular contributor, Porchia Moore (find her first post here). This month, she discusses the topic of Open Authority in museums with a focus on what this […]

  7. […] our regular contributor Porchia Moore encouraged us to re-think how we speak of and envision diversity and open authority in museums. This month, she shares with us her vision for what she has coined […]

  8. […] posts that explored language and the power of words. Porchia Moore, for example, discussed how words like “diversity” hold implicit meanings and I wrote about how the MAH’s reframing museums jobs through the wording of their job […]

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