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Representation versus Individuality: A Museum Koan

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog

I am still processing the thought-grenades Gregory Rodriguez lobbed at the audience during the CFM lecture last month. You’ll have the chance to grapple with them yourselves during the webcast January 27th, but I want to share some of my mental explorations as I work on the discussion guide for the webcast. Here’s one—a sort of museum koan that I haven’t been able to work through.

Gregory contends “we tend to think that whites behave as individuals and all non-whites act as representatives of their people.” He shares his experiences being typecast as “Latino” and expected to play that role. And this when his family has been in the US a hundred years! I get his point. My father’s family arrived at Ellis Island in 1906 but no one expects me to speak for all Byelorussians. “Constant and presumed foreignness” laments Gregory “—it’s a problem.”

A closely related issue is that minorities, in being typecast in their roles, are expected to represent everyone from the same category. Gregory contends it is unrealistic (and patronizing) to expect anyone to speak for “their group.”

And yet, with the best of intentions, isn’t this exactly what happens in museums, over and over and over again? In our earnest dedication to diversity, we carefully balance the composition of every panel, committee, council and board. But if the individuals chosen to create this diversity are not chosen to represent the perspective of (fill in the blank…African Americans, Japanese Americans, Native Americans, Latino), what is the expectation regarding their role in the group?

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Is ensuring “diversity” in committees really about PR? A way to signal the museum’s commitment to social equity? Is it a way to do our small bit in ensuring equality of opportunity and advancement? (Though as Gregory also points out, often the representatives chosen to fill these roles are a close match in educational attainment and socio-economic class to the people making the appointments. Elites salving their conscience by finding “diverse representatives” from other elites.)

How does this play out at your organization? Are there expectations regarding the diversity of committees, teams, staff, etc? Are people recruited with the explicit or implicit expectation that they speak for or represent a particular group? If people aren’t expected to represent a group, what is the purpose of having “diverse representation” on boards, committees, etc.? Please weigh in…

And, just as a teaser, here is a clip from the lecture of Gregory talking about expectations regarding roleplaying and expectations:

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1 Comment

  1. I'll offer a possible answer to your question ["If people aren’t expected to represent a group, what is the purpose of having “diverse representation” on boards, committees, etc.?"].

    I wonder if the good that comes from making an effort to diversify authoritative groups has more to do with aesthetics than some kind of representation of "authentic perspectives."

    Assuming that all the individuals in these groups are well qualified, wouldn't there be some good in getting the public used to seeing a rainbow of people in power? For so long the norm (or stereotype or image or expectation) for people in positions of authority have been homogeneously white. Wouldn't consciously making an effort to diversify the picture and listening to those who look different from you (regardless of actual cultural contribuions) go a long way to normalizing an acceptance of people as individuals?

    In other words, if we see diversity in influential people now, could that lead us away from the black/white/brown view of humanity in favor of a view that includes Korean sushi restaurant owners?

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