Diversity and Inclusion in the 21st Century Workshop Reflection

The Incluseum was honored to be invited to last week’s “Diversity and Inclusion in the 21st Century: Reimagining The Future of Museums” Invitational Workshop, which I (Aletheia) attended. The workshop was hosted in Washington, D.C. by the National Museum of African Art and Dr. Johnnetta Betsch Cole and made possible by a grant from the Ford Foundation. I first want to thank Dr. Cole, Makeba Clay and Alexandra Topalsky for the invitation to participate in this workshop and represent the Incluseum. Today, I want to share some of the aspects of the workshop that particularly stood out for me, along with their implications for the field broadly.


The recently released Andrew R. Mellon Report on Diversity in American Art Museums uses data as a tool to broaden our understanding of inequities that exist regarding racial and gender diversity in museum staff. This report played an integral role in framing the “Diversity and Inclusion in the 21st Century” Invitational Workshop. Within the group of museum professionals assembled at the workshop, many expressed that they have been part of ongoing discussions about inclusion and diversity throughout their careers.  It was recognized by most guest speakers that even though everyone present in the room was aware of and/or actively grappling with diversity and inclusion in their work – efforts to secure the resources needed to facilitate large scale structural change repeatedly lose momentum after the conversation stage.

Additional roadblocks in diversity and inclusion work acknowledged by guest speakers were related to language, in other words, how the terms “diversity” and “inclusion” are understood and used. One example given was how “diversity” is interchangeably used to refer to the increased representation of people of color within museum staff, leadership and audiences. Though this understanding of diversity alludes to racial equity, an urgent issue, it can also be a limiting framework for understanding the many facets of difference and the identities and experiences that are underrepresented in museums. Furthermore, if we do want to talk specifically about the under representation of people of color in museums there is more exacting language we can use to describe what we need to work on, such as “racial equity”, and to acknowledge, like “racial bias”.  A more encompassing framework conceptualizes “diversity” as difference experienced by individuals at the intersections of age, race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, expertise and more.  Likewise, “inclusion” can be used and understood in many different ways based on the context.  Setting up agreed upon definitions is foundational to setting clear action-oriented goals. So, understandably, requests to convene to “discuss” diversity and inclusion can be met with apprehension from professionals who want to focus their energy on action, armed with clearly defined and used terms. I believe that early recognition of persisting challenges around language* and follow-through invited more moments of transparent and open participation than there would have been otherwise.

One of the recurring themes at the workshop was how to create greater access to the series of opportunities that can facilitate emerging and diverse talent entering and thriving in the field, otherwise known as the “pipeline to museums.” This includes, but is not limited to, initiatives that open doors to higher education, mentorship, internships, professional experiences, and networking for diverse candidates. There are an increasing number of initiatives and programs operating by and for museums to address current inequities in the pipeline to museums. However, at the workshop it was recognized that these initiatives remain decentralized. An inventory of current opportunities is needed as a resource to promote the innovative ways schools, institutions and foundations are opening up the pipeline. Another theme that recurred over the course of the workshop was the need to co-create new ways of being museums that are more equitable. Among the resources identified by presenters and participants that would be needed for this co-creation were systems of accountability, standards and measurement for long term goals, as well as creating opportunities for community-based leadership and sharing curatorial authority.

At this invitational workshop respected leaders in the field and influential heads of departments in large institutions were well-represented. One of the clear goals for the workshop was to assemble these individuals as a “brain trust” to move conversations on diversity and inclusion toward action and to create a network of accountability and support. Beyond the stated goals that this invitational workshop set out to meet, I couldn’t help but consider another powerful avenue for change when leaders such as these gather together or speak with a shared voice on issues of inclusion and diversity. I would like to take this opportunity to invite influential leaders to share with the broader field their positions on museum labor, pipeline programs, budgeting for inclusion work, the work they do with boards and funders as well as goals they want to set for themselves and the field.

Dr. Johnetta Cole welcomes participants to the National Museum of African Art and to the Workshop at the opening night reception.

Dr. Johnetta Cole welcomes participants to the National Museum of African Art and to the Workshop at the opening night reception.

Museum workers are looking to museum leadership at all levels for courageous transparency. This transparency would support local communities and/or museum staff who are organizing to co-create new inclusive ways of being museums. To paraphrase a point made during the keynote address by Sandra Jackson Dumont, of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Executive leadership in museums are the real Heads of Diversity and Inclusion.” In other words, they set the tone for the ways diversity and inclusion are addressed in their museum and whether talent is empowered with the resources to lead inclusively in their work or not. More leaders are taking strong public positions on diversity and inclusion. One recent example is Nina Simon’s MuseumNext address (the theme of the MuseumNext conference was “Building Inclusive Museums”) and the accompanying Museums 2.0 post. What gives Nina’s words their weight, however, is not just that she is taking a strong position on diversity and inclusion but that she is willing to share her challenges, her growth and even when she changes her thinking with a broader audience. Hearing from more museum leaders in these ways could spur cross-organizational learning and standard setting and support emerging leaders to follow suit; to likewise take courageous risks.

The Incluseum is looking forward to staying connected with work embarked on by this invitational workshop.

AAM definitions from the Diversity and Inclusion Policy Statement were used to frame the workshop. Diversity: The quality of being different or unique at the individual or group level. This includes age; ethnicity; gender; gender identity; language differences; nationality; parental status; physical, mental and developmental abilities; race; religion; sexual orientation; skin color; socio-economic status; education; work and behavioral styles; the perspectives of each individual shaped by their nation, experiences and culture—and more. Even when people appear the same on the outside, they are different. Inclusion: The act of including; a strategy to leverage diversity. Diversity always exists in social systems. Inclusion, on the other hand, must be created. In order to leverage diversity, an environment must be created where people feel supported, listened to and able to do their personal best.

Further reading!
At the invitational workshop Nicole Ivy, of the Center for the Future of Museums (CFM), presented on defining what we mean by using the term diversity and will be expanding on those thoughts in an upcoming CFM Blog post. Stay tuned!

For more on defining “diversity” and “inclusion” check out Alyssa Greenberg’s MuseumNext post, Porchia Moore’s Danger of the D Word post, or last year’s 2015 AAM Session reflection all about the meanings of words we use to talk about inclusion.


  1. Virgil Talaid · · Reply

    This is a terrific summary, Aletheia! Thank you!

  2. […] Aletheia traveled to Washington DC to participate in a Ford Foundation sponsored Diversity & Inclusion Workshop Summit hosted by the National Museum of African Art and Dr. Johnetta B. Cole. You can read about it here. […]

  3. Alexandra Topalsky · · Reply

    Thank you so much for this great recap Aletheia! Again, it was so great to meet you. I keep revisiting this to stay fresh as we (hopefully) continue to move forward with this project. There was so much shared that day! Also excited to see Incluseum on Museum Hue’s blogroll!

    1. Hey Alex!Thanks for your comment! We would love to hear more about what the next steps might be for this project and glad to hear you are still involved on the team working on it. Hope we can catch up more soon!

  4. […] related  initiatives in the museum field. These have included, but are not limited to the Diversity and Inclusion in the 21st Century:Reimagining The Future of Museums workshop at the Smithsonian, the MuseumNext 2015 Conference, and the recent Race and Museums: […]

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