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Excellence & Equity at 25: Then, Now, Next

A word cloud featuring different colored words that relate to Excellence and Equity.

Greg Stevens is director for professional development at AAM. (Excerpted in Museum magazine, Jul/Aug 2017)

Cover, Excellence and Equity, 1992
Cover, Excellence and Equity, 2008

Diversity. Equity. Accessibility. Inclusion. These terms (together, “DEAI”) are central to current, often animated discourse across the field, reflecting a significant time of transition for museums. With the important diversity and inclusion conversations currently taking place, colleagues who were around in the late 1980s and early 1990s may be experiencing a sense of déjà vu. Then, as now, thought leaders grappled with the past, present, and future of museum practice as they examined the evolving role of museums in a pluralistic society.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the 1992 AAM report, Excellence and Equity: Education and the Public Dimension of Museums. Written and edited by Ellen Hirzy, Excellence and Equity was the result of two-and-a-half years of work by the AAM Task Force on Museum Education, chaired by Bonnie Pitman, and made up of museum colleagues from across the field, brought together to identify critical issues in museum education. The report includes 10 principles and recommendations–from assuring the commitment to serving the public is at the core of everything the museum does, to enriching our understanding of our collections and the diverse cultures they represent; from ongoing collaboration and inclusive decision-making processes, to staff and board diversity; from committed leadership, to commitment of financial resources.

To recognize the silver anniversary of Excellence and Equity, AAM reached out to several thought leaders who were part of that original Task Force, as well as to current and emerging colleagues working in the fields of education and DEAI. We posed questions to each of them to capture their reflections on the “then, now, and next” of Excellence and Equity as a guiding document. All interviewees­­­–Gail Anderson, Keonna Hendrick, Elaine Heumann Gurian, Ellen Hirzy, Michael Lesperance, Sage Morgan-Hubbard, Annie Leist, Bonnie Pitman, Cecile Shellman, Sonnet Takahisa, and Frank Vagnone–provided rich commentary and insight about Excellence and Equity, both practical and philosophical. Those who were on the Task Force agreed that the diversity of the participants on the Task Force gave great strength and unity to the work at hand; at the same time, this diversity presented unique challenges and resulted in sometimes contentious but ultimately rewarding discussions. The interviewees who were not on the task force acknowledged that Excellence and Equity provided a foundation on which current DEAI dialogue and action have been built. They also recognized that much work remains to be done. All agreed that the effort to address DEAI in the museum field is ongoing; there will never be, as Cecile Shellman pointed out, “an endpoint at which we can sit back and congratulate ourselves for finally being inclusive.”

A word cloud featuring different colored words that relate to Excellence and Equity.
Excellence and Equity, Word Cloud from 2008 webinar

Greg Stevens: What was happening in the museum field in the late 1980s/early 1990s that saw the formation of the AAM Task Force on Museum Education, resulting in Excellence and Equity?

Ellen Hirzy: By the time AAM published Museums for a New Century in 1984, museum education was a vibrant force in most museums thanks to more than 20 years of activism and advocacy. But as we observed in that report, there was still a “tension of values” between collections and education—a carefully negotiated term that hinted at a persistent struggle within the museum profession. Museums needed to move beyond traditional program-centered notions of education, the report said, toward something deeper, more embedded in the purpose of museums. Those were fairly radical statements at the time. Museums for a New Century pointed to other issues: low salaries, race- and gender-based inequity in staff hiring, advancement, and leadership, mostly white museum boards, and the urgency of embracing the transformational demographic change that was happening all around museums. In this context, the AAM Task Force on Museum Education was formed.

Bonnie Pitman: The late 80’s and early 90’s was a tumultuous time. The Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and the Museum Assessment Program (MAP) were emerging, Accreditation needed a rethinking, and standards for the field–especially in ethics–were in the cross-currents. It was clear that additional work was needed to actively support the changing roles of our institutions in our communities. I was appointed chair of the Task Force and the group was charged with writing the document and reaching consensus in the field for its support.

Gail Anderson: There was a need to declare and finally acknowledge that education was the central role of museums, not a sidelined department and that if our museums were to be successful they needed to be inclusive.

Sonnet Takahisa: I was relatively new to the field at the time of the Task Force, but my view of the field was skewed because I lucked out with some amazing mentors. At the Boston Children’s Museum, the Seattle Art Museum and The Brooklyn Museum, I saw my role as an activist or community organizer, raising awareness of the fact that museums hold their collections in public trust, encouraging a broader range of people to take an interest and pay attention to what belongs to them, and to participate in the meaning-making process. I thought all museums were like that; I did not realize that the people who had hired me and encouraged me were at the vanguard of a movement!

GS: Describe the task force’s complex work.

EH: It was an intense process, but a highly collaborative one. Traditionalists who were protective of a museum hierarchy with collections at the pinnacle were still reluctant to share authority with education practitioners and advocates. We went through countless drafts and external comment periods that tested my skills as a writer, finder of consensus, and weaver of disparate perspectives into one. Looking back, it was no small feat to arrive at these two sentences: “By giving these concepts [excellence and equity] equal value, this report invites museums to take pride in their tradition as stewards of excellence and to embrace the cultural diversity of our nation as they foster their tremendous educational potential” [emphasis added].

GA: For me, it was a deeply meaningful experience. To sit at the table with extraordinary leaders and diverse perspectives, and discuss these deep issues–that has stayed with me for a long, long time. I was honored to be asked to be at the table. Because of the diverse perspectives around the table, there were many points of view that might not have been heard if the make-up of the participants was different.

BP: The diversity of the Task Force of 25 colleagues was both a gift and one of the great challenges of the writing of the report. We went through 42 drafts; at that time they were sent back and forth on fax machines of rolling paper, and we used the mail system! Each person on the Task Force had points of view that were important—the issue was how to craft these divergent ideas into a document the whole profession could support. One vision we all shared was that together excellence in education and collections made stronger and more inclusive institutions—in all domains of the museum profession.

ST: Only in hindsight did I grasp the significance of being at that Task Force table and the political implications of the work that we were undertaking. It was a triumphant and visceral affirmation of the “and!” There were passionate and stubborn individuals. But the “and” became a powerful expression of group consensus.

Elaine Heumann Gurian: In 1992, an article that I wrote reflecting on the experience of being in the Task Force was published. The article was entitled “The Importance of ‘And.’” The idea I learned in that group about the issues of complexity, ambivalence, and multiplicity has become the leitmotif of all my subsequent writings: more than one idea can be held simultaneously and the word “primary” can be used for more than one idea at a time.

GS: How did Excellence and Equity affect museum education, educators, and the field?

BP: The change was profound. I spent much of the next two years of my life at meetings with museum professionals, other professional organizations, foundations, and government agencies advocating this perspective. You saw dramatic changes in the MAP and Accreditation reviews because of this work. Foundations such as the Pew Charitable Trust and MetLife stepped forward with funds to support new initiatives in museums that embraced their work. These were ground-breaking initiatives.

ST: For museum educators, Excellence and Equity was a great manifesto that paved the way for new program experiments and formats. At The Brooklyn Museum, it provided fuel to bring in outside evaluators to help us conduct research about the impact of our educational programs on the participants. It empowered us to define the nature of the work we were doing and then structure professional development that we needed to hone our skills. We used the language of Excellence and Equity to articulate for students, their families and district administrators, the unique attributes of museums–the collections, the experts, and the architectural spaces–that represent an academic tradition of excellence and provide a model of learning that is engaging.

GA: Education evolved into the visitor-centered museum in the ensuing years. Many institutions shifted the nature of exhibitions, programs and the public engagement they offered. Conversely, I think diversifying boards, staff, and volunteers made little progress in the 90s (and even now).

EHG: Even though we were unaware of the long-lasting effect Excellence and Equity would have when it was written, we hoped to make a difference in the field. We were sincere in our work and respectful of each other even when enmeshed in passionate disagreement. In retrospect, the activity of creating Excellence and Equity was a model of political best practice. We all were trying to come to an agreed new cooperative space without losing our deeply-held positions. I wish for that process to be used more widely now. Clearly, the issue of winners and losers is more paramount than ever considering today’s American politics.


GS: How does today’s museum landscape compare to the field when Excellence and Equity was published?

BP: There are similarities between the 90’s and the challenges we are facing now. The issues of changing audiences, finding new ways to connect and engage with them both in the museum and digitally, the shifting demographics of our communities, and other societal issues are all the same challenges we faced in the 90’s. Donor giving is changing, and with the potential demise of IMLS, National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), and National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), strain is being placed on the entire community.

GA: The museum landscape is similar and drastically different all at once. In this political climate, issues of immigration, identity, equity, and racism are bubbling up in every conversation among every citizen and in our museums. This is a call for museums to be bold in their work, as they strive to really make a difference in the lives of people in their communities and beyond.

Michael Lesperance: When Equity and Excellence came out, there were precious few LGBTQ-related exhibits, programs, or operational guidelines. Museums have become, as a whole, much more welcoming to broader segments of their communities. In many cases this has been the result of conscious decisions, but too often external forces—I’m thinking mostly of transformative social media—have been the real driver. The commitment to equity needs to come from inside, not be shaped by the external environment.

Franklin Vagnone: I would say that communication is the primary shift that has occurred. We have changing expectations, speed, and need for detail in all of our communications. Things are moving far too quickly for traditional cultural organizations that do not seem nimble or capable.

ST: We know more about our audiences and potential audiences now, in part because we are inviting conversation and asking for input and actually listening. Educators work collaboratively with marketing and visitor services, using more sophisticated tools to analyze participation and impact, allowing us to be more effective in working with curators around exhibition, program design and outreach.

GS: How far have we come in addressing the key ideas of excellence and equity?

EH: We’ve come impressively far, but not far enough. Re-reading Excellence and Equity, I think museums have made the most progress in the principles we called mission, learning, scholarship, interpretation, collaboration, decision-making, and leadership. But the three principles that are related to equity–audience, boards, staff, and volunteers, and professional development–challenge museums to see the disconnect between their institutions and the world around them. In those areas, we haven’t come far enough.

Cecile Shellman: Twenty-five years ago, this landmark report reverberated throughout the field and permeated practitioners with simple truths: that we needed to embrace public service as a core tenet of our mission; that we needed to be more inclusive; and that community relationships were key. In 2017, we still grapple with the same challenges. Rather than viewing this as an indictment of our inability to “get things right,” our continued work requires an investment from each of us, and the knowledge that this is the work of social justice, not merely community engagement.

FV: I still see major issues with inclusion within the museum and cultural profession. I see issues in both the boards as well as staff. Museums are attempting to–and aspire to be–agents of social connection. I think, however, that many consider this to be a programmatic element and not a fundamental leadership and decision-making dimension. This, of course, rolls directly into funding sources. Politics has never been more central to this as a challenge as it is right now.

ML: The recently-launched AAM LGBTQ Welcoming Guidelines provide a roadmap for including LGBTQ concerns in every part of a museum’s internal and external operations. More museums are curating exhibits, developing educational programs, and implementing staff policies based on a commitment to equity. I wonder if the authors of Excellence and Equity could have imagined how openly LGBTQ content, staff, and programming would be shaping many museums in 2017.

ST: We no longer have to justify audience research and evaluation. Educators engineer opportunities to listen to audiences, and incorporate social science strategies and new technologies to learn more about the impact of museum experiences. As funders demand greater accountability about the impact of museum programs for audiences, we are embedding assessments that reveal strengths and areas that need improvement.

GA: One challenge I continue to see is the lack of change in trustees. By definition, board membership changes frequently, and trustees are volunteers and have a finite amount of time to give to their role; as a result, it is difficult to shift the entire board and get full buy-in. This is tied to who is on the board and who is serving as director or CEO. Leadership is the key factor to instigating change. In this political climate, more change will come around inclusion for the next tipping point.

Annie Leist: For people with disabilities, the barriers to participation may be as much practical as they are conceptual. Removing these barriers (through solutions such as ASL interpretation; the verbal description of objects; captioning of programs and media; and more accessible digital content) costs money. Too often these solutions are considered to be augmentations or add-ons useful only to a small percentage of visitors, which makes resource allocation even more challenging.

Sage Morgan-Hubbard: In order to be dynamic, inspiring institutions now, we need to have key partnerships with other institutions across our communities–schools, libraries, civic organizations–and demonstrate our vital role in the educational ecosystem in a democratic society. Museums can and should be “learning laboratories” as Excellence and Equity points out.

Keonna Hendrick: Public discussions on gender, sexuality, and ability are becoming less binary and more nuanced. Artists, historians, activists, and scientists are both leading and responding to these shifting discourses around identity while critiquing the oppressive histories that have marginalized many groups of people. 

GS: What are some examples of challenges and successes in museums addressing their public dimension?

CS:  In 2001, after 9/11, the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum (where I was then employed), realized that responding thoughtfully to the horrific attack and the ensuing anti-Muslim sentiment in Boston was something that they needed to do to build community. From 2002-2003, robust Dialogues on Diversity were held at the museum among high school classes. The program eventually won a national award for its impact, but more importantly, museum work at that institution continued to be defined as the work of changing lives. In other spaces, such as Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, my current place of employment, a challenge is engaging staff who hold a multiplicity of beliefs across spectra and among four different museums and a central administration.

BP: The one I know the best is the Dallas Museum of Art: the creation of the Center for Creative Connections, Late Nights, and exhibition and conservations initiatives are focused on public engagement. I am also doing work in art and medicine–to foster the development of new ways for museums to engage with patients and caregivers, the medical profession, and the environments of the hospital and other healing organizations.

ST: Programs such as the Explorers program at the Newark Museum exemplify a commitment to changing the face of our institution (and reinforce the mission of service that John Cotton Dana put in place in 1909). Part college and career preparation, part youth leadership, and a part-time job, the program gives 35 predominantly “minority” high school students invaluable exposure, access, and experiences that only the Newark Museum can provide. It is significant that Jessica Nuñez, a former Explorer is now coordinating the program.

GA: The Oakland Museum of California has been bold in their exhibits from the recent show on the Black Panthers and another on marijuana, and many others in recent years. They have adopted a bold approach to how they envision, develop, and engage their audiences. This has been supported by an entirely new organizational structure that broke old barriers and siloed departments.

ML: Many museums rely on funding from government sources that are susceptible to political factors. The LGBTQ Alliance recently spoke out against the Trump administration’s withdrawal of Title IX Guidance allowing transgender students to use restroom facilities of their gender. Museums must make true equity part of their core; otherwise, any gains my community and other traditionally marginalized groups have made will be threatened.


GS: In what ways might the key ideas and principles in Excellence and Equity be useful and relevant as we head into the future?     

SM-H: Excellence and Equity is 25 years old, but it reflects the current AAM Strategic Plan focus areas, and the key ideas and principles are still relevant and crucial for our times. In an expanded version of the report, I would like to see each of the recommendations accompanied by case studies that can provide clear examples for museums to follow. We should be able to return to Excellence and Equity as a core text and make following these principles mandatory for recruiting and hiring in museums, educational programs, accreditation, and grant support.

EH: The museum field still needs Excellence and Equity as a reminder of the work that remains. The work is systemic and internal, and it must be done with greater reflection, tenacity, and authenticity. It’s not just about how museums look from the outside. It’s about how museums as organizations behave on the inside as they decide just what values drive their work and then put those values into action.

ST: Museums are places where standards, excellence, and authenticity matter, even if we need to constantly review, challenge, and re-assess the assumptions and biases that informed choices and selections. Museums create opportunities for conversation, contemplation, and reflection–between people of different cultures, time periods, and places–whether through the medium of our objects or between visitors themselves.

EHG: We cannot proclaim [Excellence and Equity] a success without acknowledg­ing that implementation actions–even difficult budgetary ones–should follow. In public service, both excellence and equity can occur in each of our museums if we so wish it, and public service itself can become one of the primary missions of each of our museums if that becomes our collective intention.

KH: Excellence and Equity offers recommendations for developing more diverse and inclusive museums. We need to revisit those recommendations and consider where we succeed and where we fall short in our individual and institutional practices. Once, we do this, we need to be honest about what communities we have to be intentional about engaging.

GS: Where do you think the field is headed with regard to education, diversity, inclusion, equity, and accessibility?

Nicole Ivy: Today, visitors have access to more information than ever before right at their fingertips, bringing knowledge from powerful search engines into the museum via smartphones and other handheld devices. Advances in augmented reality mean that visitors can layer other images on top of the objects on view in museums. The changing educational landscape requires that we continue to acknowledge the multiple layers of meaning that visitors provide even as we adapt new ways to create immersive and compelling learning experiences in our museums.

GA: By the very nature of deep change tied to the public dimension, we have to keep providing resources and training, examples of successes, and support innovative partnerships between and among institutions. Meaningful collaborations extend the power of our museums as integral parts of our communities.

AL: Museum collections and museum staffs may yet not be as diverse as the general populations of the communities in which they exist. However, in the field of accessibility, I have witnessed a dramatic increase in the number of conversations and movements on local and national levels to recognize the role of not only audiences with disabilities, but also artistic creators and cultural service providers with disabilities. 

SM-H: The field is ready to take some risks. We have been saying these are priorities for a while, but we have not demonstrated these values in our missions, staff hiring, boards/ trustees, volunteers, leadership, and financial resources. If we really want diverse audiences, then we have to do the work and make these tangible changes.

KH: It’s challenging to identify exactly where we’re headed in terms of inclusion, cultural equity, and accessibility because not everyone shares the same goals, understanding, and language around these issues. There are many individuals working to push their institutions and individual practice beyond diversity toward anti-racist actions that begin to dismantle racism within the institutional culture. We still need to see more of this across the field.

NI: I think we will see more collaboration between museum educators, curators, and public engagement staff to create truly magnetic and integrated experiences. I also expect to see more emphasis on universal design in our physical spaces and user experience in our digital spaces as museums move toward centering education.

GS: What are some specific actions museums might take to promote the key ideas and principles of Excellence and Equity? 

SM-H: There are many tools and suggestions outlined in Excellence and Equity that each institution should enact based on their own particular needs. All museums should actively hire staff and recruit trustees and volunteers that reflect their communities and desired audiences and provide them the professional development and training that they need. Museums should open up their decision-making processes and develop new, more accessible and collaborative models so that a broader range of community stakeholders feel included.

ST: I would love to see some new models of creative professional development. For example, in Newark, we have set up inter-visitations among arts education groups–a way for colleagues who gather at meetings to actually observe what goes on in another institution’s programs. But the reality is we are still an under-staffed profession and/or we work long hours to engage the public.

GA: We need to build interest groups in regions where the topic is addressed with carefully thought out agendas and desired outcomes, safe places where we diversify the conversation, as we undertake deep personal assessments that reveal underlying assumptions and philosophical barriers as well as strengths.

EH: As I re-read Excellence and Equity, I was looking for the coded language that I now work hard to avoid. A quick search for some buzzwords–like nontraditional, underrepresented, and outreach–revealed surprisingly few. Some people now reject the word “inclusion” because it suggests an “otherness”: those on the inside are inviting others in precisely because they are outsiders. The language museums use is a central part of changing organizational values, structures, and behaviors around equity.

EHG: These are complex challenges that require time, resources, and commitment. Guided by the spirit of Excellence and Equity, museums have the potential to nurture an enlightened, humane citizenry that appreciates the value of knowing about its past, is resourcefully and sensitively engaged in the present, and is determined to shape a future in which many experiences and many points of view are given voice.

Three Key Ideas

Excellence and Equity is based on three key ideas:

  1. The commitment to education as central to museum’s public service must be clearly expressed in every museum’s mission and pivotal to every museum’s activities.
  2. Museums must become more inclusive places that welcome diverse audiences, but first, they should reflect our society’s pluralism in every aspect of their operations and programs.
  3. Dynamic, forceful leadership from individuals, institutions, and organizations within and outside in the museum community is the key to fulfilling museums’ potential for public service in the coming century.
Ten Principles

Excellence and Equity presents a plan for action that centers on the following ten principles with accompanying recommendations:

  1. Assert that museums place education—in the broadest sense of the word at the center of their public service role.
  2. Reflect the diversity of our society by establishing and maintaining the broadest possible public dimension for the museum.
  3. Understand, develop, expand, and use the learning opportunities that museums offer their audiences.
  4. Enrich our knowledge, understanding, and appreciation of our collections and of the variety of cultures and ideas they represent and evoke.
  5. Assure that the interpretative process manifests a variety of cultural and intellectual perspectives and reflects an appreciation for the diversity of museums’ public.
  6. Engage in active, ongoing collaborative efforts with a wide spectrum of organizations and individuals who can contribute to the expansion of the museum’s public dimension.
  7. Assess the decision-making processes in museums and develop new models that enable an expanded public dimension and a renewed commitment to excellence.
  8. Achieve diversity among trustees, staff, and volunteers to assure a breadth of perspective throughout the museum.
  9. Provide professional development and training for new and established professionals, trustees, and volunteers thatmeetsthe needs of the museum profession so that museums may carry out their responsibility to their diverse public.
  10. Commit leadership and financial resources—in individual museums, professional organizations, and training organizations and universities—to strengthen the public dimension of museums.

Gail Anderson is president, Gail Anderson and Associates. Keonna Hendrick is a cultural strategist and educator. Elaine Heumann Gurian is principal, Elaine Heumann Gurian, LLC.  Ellen Hirzy is an editor and writer. Michael Lesperance is principal, The Design Minds, Inc. Sage Morgan-Hubbard is the Ford W. Bell fellow for P-12 Education, AAM. Annie Leist is special projects lead, Art Beyond Sight. Bonnie Pitman is distinguished scholar in residence, Edith O’Donnell Institute of Art History and co-director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Study of Museums, University of Texas at Dallas. Cecile Shellman is diversity catalyst, Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh. Sonnet Takahisa is deputy director for engagement and innovation, Newark Museum. Franklin Vagnone is principal, Twisted Preservation Cultural Consulting.

Thank you to Sheri Levinsky-Raskin, assistant vice president for education and evaluation, Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum (and professional development chair of the AAM Education Professional Network [EdCom] for her assistance with this article.

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