Unfinished. Revisiting HORSE, a Pre-COVID Project to Support Social Action in Rural Museums PART 3

This week, Zachary Stocks (@Museumorphosis) continues to share with us a project he created called Heritage Organizations for Rural Social Equity (HORSE). This is the third part of a 4-part series. In this post, he present the first two steps of the four-part methodology for rural museums to help create more equitable communities.

Part 1 of this 4-part series discussed the origin of this project. Part 2 discussed the foundational philosophy behind HORSE, outlining why museums should serve as sites for social action, and why that work is important for rural museums in particular. Part 4 will present the last two steps of this methodology.

Zachary is a returning contributor to The Incluseum; you can read his previous blogpost here. Thank you, Zachary for sharing your work and reflections with The Incluseum community!


Part III.

Step One: Create Inclusive Policies

Heritage museums in rural communities are positioned as keepers of local culture, but they are also creators of local culture. The choices museum professionals make regarding what photos or objects to display reflect their own interests, sensibilities, and biases. And who gets to be the voice of local heritage is a representation of who is perceived to be qualified to interpret local history. In this way, museums contribute to both a community culture and a workplace culture. The community culture museums create is a shared local identity, highlighted by key moments and industries. It’s a common origin story written in the timeline of the permanent exhibition. The workplace culture of a heritage museum is one that assigns authority (and often promotion and compensation) based on perceived expertise in that story.

But just as a community is more complex than its most visible figures, knowledge of local history is not reserved to select museum employees. Museums of all sizes are now facing increased calls to share authority with their audiences. Some have pushed back, reluctant to cede curatorial authority to those they believe are not knowledgeable enough to accurately interpret local history. Without a doubt, many museums are carried by the passion and rigorous scholarship of longtime subject experts. However, to shun an approach that presents a multitude of voices is an example of the ways museums continue to privilege predominately white, male experiences ahead of all others. It also lacks creativity.

For small and rural museum workers to attract the next generation of museumgoers, they need to reconsider the stories that they tell, and more importantly, reconsider what their role is in building a better community.

For rural museums especially, this could be a fatal mistake. The populations of our rural counties are declining overall. Where there is growth, it is often from an influx of Latinx and other non-white families. Today’s museum learners expect to be challenged to think critically, and seek opportunities for interactivity and personal expression. Museums cannot sustain themselves on the same old exhibits, uninspired labels, and the support of an aging, shrinking demographic. For small and rural museum workers to attract the next generation of museumgoers, they need to reconsider the stories that they tell, and more importantly, reconsider what their role is in building a better community.

So how can they do that? Museums have to define their values and then codify them into governing documents. Periodically, the staff and Board of a museum should take some time to determine what their vision is for the future of the institution. Do they want to see more teenagers coming in, or reach more students? Do they want their volunteers and staff to resemble the demographics of their town? Do they want to thrive and offer programming that people appreciate and are willing to support financially? Hopefully the answer to all of these questions is “yes”. Key to achieving these goals is prioritizing diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion priorities in the museum’s operations. After recognizing the need for DEAI, every museum should define those terms explicitly and articulate how the museum’s DEAI values will affect the kind of community and workplace culture the museum will build. These statements should be reflected in written policy documents for both internal and external audiences.

Defining DEAI

Diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion are not buzzwords. They are commitments to which a museum will hold itself accountable to, as it strives to be a more representative community organization. DEAI principles are crucial for rural museums are they seek more meaningful ways to connect with changing community demographics and reenergize stagnant interpretation.

The following definitions come from the American Alliance of Museums’ 2018 Facing Change Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion working group. They represent just once of many sources for great descriptions of these terms which museums should carefully review and commit to paper.


Diversity is all the ways that people are different as individuals or as groups. Most often when we talk about diversity we are talking about differences in race. Diversity is not just skin deep though, as it also describes the range of languages, ages, beliefs, genders, and all other qualifications that make us unique. Having a diverse representation among your visitors, volunteers, Board, and staff creates greater opportunity for underrepresented perspectives to be given the attention they deserve.


Equity is deliberate, weighted measures put in place to provide marginalized groups the same level of opportunity to succeed as dominant groups are afforded. Equity specifically addresses the privileges of organizational leaders and redresses inequalities through targeted interventions. That could look like greater investment into projects geared towards Indigenous peoples, or a promotion pipeline that favors years of continuous service no matter one’s current role, as opposed to hiring outsiders with are perceived more qualified due to advanced degrees.


Accessibility is ensuring equal opportunity for everyone to fully participate in a visitor experience no matter where they are on the spectrum of ability. Accessibility requires that no learning opportunity is prohibitive to someone because of a physical or cognitive limitation.


Inclusion is an effort to share authority with others. It is ensuring that the voices presented in decision making spaces come from the widest, most diverse stakeholders possible. Inclusion goes beyond diversity in that it not only means having many different groups represented, but also allowing each of those groups the same opportunity to affect change at the highest levels.

With an understanding of DEAI, rural museum professionals should begin considering what these values would look like in their museum. They should visualize the impact they could have on their community if they were to practice diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility as benchmarks to achieving their stated mission and vision. With a foundation of what they hope to accomplish, the museum team should next develop a DEAI policy.

DEAI Policy

A DEAI policy is an internal document that functions as the museum’s stated goals and commitments towards social accountability. Each DEAI policy will be slightly different, as they typically include the organization’s mission and vision, and will be crafted with the local community in mind. As well, a DEAI Policy should be SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-bound), meaning there will be variation in the specific goals and timeframe set aside for DEAI achievements. When completed, museums can include the DEAI policy in its guiding documents, hiring paperwork, Board governance materials, contractor paperwork, etc. so that the museums values are made clear to all those who do business with the organization.

DEAI Policies may be as simple as a few sentences outlining the museum’s desire to build a more inclusive and equitable community, and bullet point beliefs or priorities the museum will consider when trying to reach that vision. Below is an example of a simple DEAI Policy for internal use:

[Museum] Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion Policy

Our institution’s mission is [mission statement]. We are committed to holding our institution to the highest possible standards for staff development and community engagement. As part of our institutional values and our work to preserve and present the diverse local heritage of our community, we strive to meet the following standards:

  • To see advances in diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion as integral to the fulfillment of our mission and critical in ensuring the wellbeing of our staff and the audiences we serve.
  • To identify and correct systemic inequities within our policies, practices, and programming which prevent staff from succeeding or raising concerns.
  • To examine how social inequities, both historic and contemporary, impact our work and our relationships to various community groups.
  • To challenge our assumptions about leadership, specifically by considering what strong leadership has traditionally looked like within our institution, recognizing opportunities for shared authority, and establishing pipelines for leadership development of others.
  • To practice active listening, receiving constructive criticism, and empathy.
  • To accept non-closure and discomfort on difficult issues.
  • To recognize others’ lived experiences as real and valuable to the work of representing diverse community insights and interests.
  • To try hard everyday.

[Our museum] is committed to the following actions to promote DEAI in the workplace:

  • Create opportunities for staff-wide cultural competency training, either from outside facilitators or by supporting individual staff persons’ professional development.
  • Improve our recruitment practices by creating policies that support staffing that is reflective of the diversity of the country as a whole.
  • Connect with other arts organization to share resources and opportunities for DEAI.
  • Be more conscious of personal bias during hiring, promoting, or evaluation process.
  • Include salary ranges within public job descriptions and consider the actual experience needs of the position [for example, is a college degree absolutely necessary to do this job well? Is it really critical for this person to be able to lift 50 lbs? etc.].
  • Challenge external systems and policies that perpetuate oppression, inequality, or marginalize groups that are already facing a disadvantage.

Equity Statement

A second critical way museums can make clear their intent to pursue more equitable practices is to say so explicitly in an equity statement. Unlike the DEAI policy which guides internal practice, the equity statement is a public-facing declaration that prominently signals the institution’s commitment to equity. These statements are typically between one and four sentences long, and can be viewed alongside the museum’s mission, vision, and values statements on its website, reports, and other external communications.

Here are a few examples of successful equity statements from Oregon:

Oregon Historical Society
(Oregon’s flagship historical society and museum)

“The Oregon Historical Society practices and promotes inclusiveness. We honor the diverse strengths, needs, voices, and backgrounds of all members of our community and are committed to the equitable treatment of all people and the elimination of discrimination in all its forms.”

Oregon Humanities
(Oregon’s arts and literacy funding and programming arm)

“Oregon Humanities is committed to the creation of inclusive spaces and to the equitable treatment of all—including participants, audiences, supporters, staff, and board—at every level of the organization and in all of our programs.

“Oregon Humanities believes equity, justice, empathy, and respect are essential for vital, flourishing communities. [In hiring] we encourage applications from candidates with diverse backgrounds, particularly those from historically underrepresented groups, whose professional and personal experiences will help us work toward our vision of an Oregon that invites diverse perspectives, explores challenging questions, and strives for just communities.”

Non-Profit Oregon
(Advocacy and professional development organization for Oregon non-profits)

“The Nonprofit Association of Oregon believes that diversity, equity and inclusion are critical to a thriving, effective and successful nonprofit. The mission and vision we hold for enriching the lives of all Oregonians move us to directly challenge ourselves and to deconstruct frameworks of oppression while building opportunities for learning, change and accountability. We therefore believe that DE&I components are embedded across all Principles and Practices areas for Nonprofit Excellence.”

The Seafarer Collective
(Non-profit workforce development program for youth entering commercial maritime sector)

“We believe that equity and diversity are essential to a thriving, modern maritime workforce. In order to fulfill our mission to change the face of the maritime industry, we must take into account our society’s inequalities, including those based on race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, and geography. Through the direct support of women, people of color, LGBTQ+ people, registered tribal members and the coastal residents of the waters that we impact, we will continue to break barriers and create opportunities that challenge the status quo.”

Creating an equity statement that is unique to each museum is a critical step, not only in demonstrating to funders that the museum shares their values, but also in advocating on behalf of vulnerable populations within the community.

Step Two: Advocating for Vulnerable People

One of the easiest but most impactful actions a rural museum can take in support of its community is to publicly demonstrate that it is a safe and welcoming place for all community members to gather. While this may seem like an inherent quality of public institutions, the truth is that museums have historically been places of exclusivity more so that inclusivity.

The unfortunate reality is that many of the same inequalities which have marginalized vulnerable populations in the past continue to hinder these groups’ full participation in local society. Across rural America demographic and social shifts are often perceived as a threat to communities which had previously been racially, politically, and socially homogenous. One of the clearest examples of this is the growing Latinx population nationwide (both American and foreign born) which has caused conflicts over employment, language, and civic participation. Years after marriage equality for all has been settled, LGBTIQ individuals in small communities still struggle with the realities of homophobia and transphobia on a daily basis. Meanwhile Indigenous Americans have led a new and bloody resistance to infringement of treaty-protected land and water rights by private and governmental forces. In many ways, the frontlines of America’s social battles are in rural areas where the most vulnerable peoples are out of sight and out of mind of the US popular conscience.

Every person has a role to play in ensuring peace and justice, but institutions amplify the impacts of individuals. A museum can make a difference by raising awareness of systemic inequalities faced by members of its community and lead local change through empathetic social action.

Who will stand up for these groups? Every person has a role to play in ensuring peace and justice, but institutions amplify the impacts of individuals. A museum can make a difference by raising awareness of systemic inequalities faced by members of its community and lead local change through empathetic social action.

When we think of making marked improvements for all people in our society we are usually thinking of “big picture” changes. This makes sense, since the societal inequalities that continue oppress vulnerable peoples are is built into our systems. The historical legacy of slavery and generations of subsequent white supremacist policies have disproportionally affected people of color’s ability to secure affordable housing, equal hiring opportunity and pay, criminal justice, and more. While correcting these structural-level inequalities are crucial to positive social development, they are beyond the capacity of small and rural museums.

Display Welcoming Signage

Where museums can make a difference is at the community level. Community-level social actions can take many forms in museum practice. At the most basic level, rural museums can actively combat systemic oppression simply by publicly demonstrating their values and their intent to engage in inclusive community building. A good way to do this is to develop some sort of welcoming signage to physically mark the space as inclusive and encourage patronage of diverse peoples. You have likely seen similar signage regarding specific issues or groups of people in your town. In response to recent increases in hate crimes targeting religious and ethnic minorities, non-profits, faith groups, and grassroots organizations have created yard signs and wall signs that demonstrate support towards these groups.

While putting up a sign may feel like a passive response to the significant and violent pressures of political and social inequality, such as a step does have an impact when combined with state and federal policies to address inequalities in our systems, and personal-level efforts for individuals to address our privileges and implicit biases. In 2018 the American Independent Business Alliance issued a statement advocating for small businesses that post messages of support toward vulnerable community members, which has relevance for museums that would choose to do the same (emphasis added):

We all should take responsibility to ensure everyone can walk the streets, do business and live their lives free of discrimination or concern about receiving verbal or physical abuse… If a person doesn’t feel safe from bigotry in your neighborhood, they’re far more likely to travel to one where they feel more welcome to do business

Sending a clear message to anyone entering your establishment can help, but educating employees also is essential… Small businesses also should consider educating their staff on how to protect customers in the event of harassment in or around their business without endangering their own safety. Finally, we suggest business owners strive to hire and develop a diverse staff, including leadership positions, not only to model inclusiveness, but for their business’ success. Impartial studies have found businesses ranked toward the top for diversity in gender and race generate greater profit than less diverse ones.

Because of the low risk and easy reward of posting inclusive signage, there is the potential for the message to be lost in vague support statements. Welcome signage must be centered around the museum’s commitments towards the values of diversity, equity, inclusion, an accessibility established in the organization’s guiding policies. There is scant benefit to communities facing inequality if the museum’s statements of inclusion are limited to generic phrasing that fails to call out the specific hostilities that threaten them.

For example, it is not uncommon to see businesses with signs that emphasize that “all people are welcome here”. While messages like these may make the staff feel like they have done their part, these passive messages do little to reassure targeted communities that they will be supported by the employees of the business in the event of a dangerous incident, or that the business is taking steps to prevent discrimination from occurring on the premises. Because “intent” and “impact” are not the same, it is important for museums to recognize that even a good faith gesture can be damaging if it fails to address the root causes of inequality. To make a meaningful commitment of support, museums should have signage that raises the threshold for support by calling out views that are counter to their institutional values, and explicitly clarify prohibited behaviors that would threaten vulnerable visitors. Put another way, it would be more valuable for targeted groups to see what kind of behavior is not tolerated here than just to see that “everyone is welcome here” generally. Again, from the American Independent Business Alliance (emphasis added):

While we hope overt bigotry from an employee or business owner is a rarity, businesses should cultivate an environment in which all customers receive welcoming treatment, not merely an absence of hostility. A friendly verbal welcome and a smile always is good business, but especially so for people who stand out from others in your community.

Besides signage there are other visible steps small and rural museums can take to demonstrate support towards disenfranchised and vulnerable populations in their community. Language is another significant opportunity for museums to connect with new audiences. Museums will be well positioned for future growth by developing materials that reflect the linguistic diversity of their growing rural communities. In 2017 the U.S. Census found that 1 in 5 American speaks a language other than English at home, and that percentage is growing. As these Spanish-speaking populations continue to grow within rural communities, museums will need to adapt to reach their audiences that will soon sustain their operations. It is not practical for underfunded or understaffed museums to begin writing multilingual panels and websites right away, but smaller efforts can be made to reach the linguistic communities of the audiences that the museum seeks to grow. Just as with the welcome signage, key words or phrases on signage can be printed in other languages to help non-native English speakers navigate the spaces effectively. The entrances and exits, ticketing desk, and bathrooms are most critical for this.

Representation Matters

Another important step towards ensuring rural equity would be in hiring. Museums can make deliberate efforts to hire candidates which increases the institution’s racial, ability, gender, and linguistic diversity in order to better engage communities who have been historically left out. But with greater employment opportunities for those representing underrepresented communities, there come new challenges. Tokenism and stereotyping are damaging behaviors that can further alienate minority workers. Because these individuals may be tasked with significant additional labor, their skill set should be privileged with higher wages and leadership opportunities, just as a hiring manager might privilege years of higher education. As the museums’ visitor pool and staffing diversifies, so should its volunteer corps, its donor base, and its community partners. The engagement of populations which had before been marginalized will better position the museum to develop interpretative material from a variety or perspectives and support new programming that requires the long-term input of diverse community stakeholders.

Zachary Stocks is a public historian and writer. He is the part time Executive Director of Oregon Black Pioneers, Oregon’s African American historical society, and a seasonal interpretive ranger at Lewis and Clark National Historical Park. You can find Zachary online at @Museumorphosis.

One comment

  1. […] sites for social action, and why that work is important for rural museums in particular. Finally, Part 3 presented the first two steps of the four-part methodology for rural museums to help create more […]

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