I want to share some thoughts, post-election, about diversity, inclusion and healing. But maybe not the thoughts you expect.
As I listen to museum colleagues talking about the election, I hear over and over again phrases like “I was living in a bubble,” “I wasn’t listening” “I didn’t know anybody who supported Donald Trump, so I was gobsmacked when he won.” Why the surprise? I suspect that in large part it’s because, as a field, we’re pretty homogeneous when it comes to politics.
Take a look at this interactive graphic by Verdant Labs that looks at occupations by political affiliation, identified by campaign contribution data from the Federal Election Commission. The occupations don’t map directly to museums writ large, but you can find some museum-specific data, under the Arts Management category:
Museum Directors: 89 Democrats for every 11 Republicans
Museum Curators: 94 Democrats for every 6 Republicans
These data support my general impression, from years of working in and around museums, that our field leans largely liberal & Democratic. That being so, we don’t necessarily create a very friendly work environment for people who don’t share a liberal, Democratic world view. Look at the conversations taking place among museum folk on social media this week, or listen to the conversations in your own office. In the midst of what sounds like a universal outpouring of grief at the election of Donald Trump, how comfortable would a colleague feel admitting that he or she voted for him? Micro (or macro) aggressions can be directed at political views just as they are used to marginalize people for race, weight or gender.
If museums have a mandate for our staff to reflect our communities, shouldn’t that encompass political outlook as well? And if we don’t encompass political diversity, with all the perspectives about values, priorities and policy that go with that very important form of self-identification, doesn’t that leave us vulnerable to being out of step with a huge segment of the public we, as nonprofits, have pledged to serve?
Political affiliation isn’t the only personal attribute omitted from museums’ commitment to inclusion. Our field is often selective when it comes to embracing some kinds of religious diversity as well. We consider it right and appropriate for natural history museums, for example, to respect and acknowledge Native American creation narratives in exhibits otherwise devoted to scientific explanations of evolution. But one of the most frequent questions I received about Accreditation, when I ran the Excellence programs here at AAM, was “will AAM accredit the Creation Museum if they apply?” The questioners were uniformly horrified at the thought that we would validate a museum presenting a fundamentalist Christian world view.
Yesterday I listened to an episode of the podcast On The Media recorded the morning after the election, in which the hosts, Brooke Gladstone and Bob Garfield, talked through how they were feeling and about the future direction of the show during the Trump presidency. Brooke felt that the outcome of the election took them by surprise because they had not done a good enough job listening to people from outside their own echo chamber. She felt that the best response, over the next four years, was to invite a more politically diverse set of people into the recording booth, and to “pull back somewhat from commentary.” Bob, on the other hand, thought it was imperative to take a stand, to make people more aware of the insidious rise of demagoguery in politics, and of the immense harm this may do to our country. (They actually were kind of yelling at each other by the end of the episode.)
I think museums face the same choices, and with many of the same (unstated) consequences. Do we concentrate on being safe, neutral places for dialog, and work to bring in people with a conservative world view, just as we might work to bring in people of color or recent immigrants? Or do we double down on activism, fighting what we see to be the good fight but perhaps in ways that make people who believe in small government, self-reliance and personal responsibility feel even more strongly that we aren’t for them.
No one is saying museums ought to countenance hate, bigotry, or violence. But if we talk as if everyone who voted for “the other guy” is in favor of those things, we write off half the American public. The public we supposedly serve. And, not incidentally, the public that supports us with their tax dollars. Government funding for our institutions has been declining for 40 years—and that’s only counting direct support, not the significant subsidy provided via tax-exempt status. If museums, individually or collectively, act in ways that are perceived as partisan, we had better be ready to adopt new financial models sooner rather than later.
But really, the financial argument is only a proxy for the underlying issue: are we museum people willing to expand our commitment to diversity and inclusion to encompass people with whose beliefs and values may make us profoundly uncomfortable?