Museums are for everyone. Diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion lay at the heart of museum structure and as museum educators, it is crucial to consider all of these aspects when developing and executing programs. As much as we recognize however, we may face challenges. In this blog, I hope to share some of my findings, tactics, and reference materials to stay focused on diversity and inclusion and ways for us to be better able to implement our values in museum practices.
Prior to joining Museum Education program at the George Washington University, I remember facing challenges working in museum. One day during a story time program, the storyteller read the Family Book, by Todd Parr. This book was carefully selected to be read for our toddlers, recommended by our neighborhood youth librarian to ensure its developmental appropriateness. The book featured colorful and happy illustration that demonstrate to children how diverse families can be, but also to embrace differences amongst families. Unfortunately, a parent came up to me looking frustrated and infuriated after the story time session. She asked of who chose the book and told me how these types of things are not what she is trying to teach her children, specifically mentioning a part of the book on some families having two moms or two dads. I wish I responded better than I did. I could not say much back at the visitor because I was shocked at the unexpected feedback. All I could say was apologize and tell her that I will pay more attention to book selection in the future.
After this encounter, so many thoughts roamed in my mind. I felt unprepared as an educator for not being able to handle the situation wisely and not being able to say my stance on diversity and inclusion with confidence. Based on my personal story, I decided to think about how I should face similar challenges in the future and further improve myself as more dedicated museum educator.
What are definitions of diversity and inclusion?
The American Alliance of Museums (AAM) defines diversity and inclusion clearly for everyone’s understanding;
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.
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.
Is there policy regarding diversity and inclusion?
According to AAM,
“The American Alliance of Museums respects, values and celebrates the unique attributes, characteristics and perspectives that make each person who they are. We believe that our strength lies in our diversity among the broad range of people and museums we represent. We consider diversity and inclusion a driver of institutional excellence and seek out diversity of participation, thought and action. It is our aim, therefore, that our members, partners, key stakeholders reflect and embrace these core values”.
Is there museum-wide or organization-wide policy on diversity and inclusion?
Museum organizations have started to adopt and implemented more inclusive policies and practices, including:
- Americans for the Arts’ Statement on Cultural Equity
- The Association of Art Museum Directors’ Diversity Initiative with UNCF
- The Association of Children’s Museums’ Museums for All initiative
- The Southeastern Museums Conference’s Diversity and Inclusion policy
- The Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Diversity and Inclusion policy
- The Association of Science-Technology Centers’ Equity and Diversity Committee Charter
- The LGBTQ Alliance Welcoming Guidelines for Museums
For example, the AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums) have developed their own diversity and inclusion policy, which includes not only the statement itself, but also commitment that its member institutions should adopt and ways of demonstrating the commitment.
Example of museum-wide policy making
- Minneapolis Institute of Art
MIA is an exemplar of museums who have created their own comprehensive policy and practices on the values of inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility. Beyond policy itself, MIA create a framework around those values which the institution strives towards.
“We strive to demonstrate leadership by modeling excellence and best practices for inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility. Mia has a deep belief in the power of human creativity and the opportunities for connection and learning that exist when cultures and communities come together in collaboration and understanding. By recognizing and engaging the wisdom, knowledge, and creativity found within every community, we can begin to weave the complex history of our shared cultural heritage.” [The Framework at MIA]
Despite continuous efforts described above, there are big rooms for improvement. Museums can play even bigger role in impacting communities by advocating for diversity and inclusion. According to a report by Julie Nightingale, museums are exhibiting a powerful element of social inclusion and its influence can be even more tremendous with continuous efforts in the future. The following are findings from her research, which allow us to reflect and consider action plans for the future.
- Museums have own strategies for inclusion, but the progress seem to vary.
- Lack of a policy framework within museums.
- Failure of museum directors to shout about it.
- Staff members are scared of not knowing what to do.
- Staff members resist being drawn into social inclusion work because they view it as “social work” and not part of their job description.
What can we do? (Recommendations)
Without efforts of museum professionals respecting, valuing and celebrating diversity and inclusion, changes cannot happen. As much as we recognize the importance of always advocating for these core values as emerging museum professionals and current museum professionals, we can also neglect them in the midst of busy life. Therefore, I have gathered some tactics and reference materials for me to stay focused on inclusion and continue my efforts. The key is to keep learning and sharing!
- Refer to and learn from various resources to be better able to understand the audience.
- Online resources
- Museum for All Blog
- When working, constantly remind oneself of the goal of making the museum an inclusive and diverse place for everyone. Advocate the mission by advocating to raise awareness and be proactive so that other staff members also learn from seeing continuous efforts.
- Advocate for museum-wide policy making to confidently present the important values of the institution to its staff members as well as visitors.
- Be brave to bring up challenging topics and discuss with others. Acknowledge each other and embrace misunderstandings, unconscious biases, or stereotypes that may rise in conversations because these are valuable opportunities for us to learn together. No one is perfect!