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Our Shared Responsibility: A conversation with Joanne Jones-Rizzi

Category: Museum Magazine
A woman smiling looking off into the distance with short curly black hair with bit of grey wearing red rimmed glasses and dangling earrings with a pink scarf around her neck.
Joanne Jones-Rizzi

Joanne Jones-Rizzi began working at the Boston Children’s Museum in 1985, focusing on issues of access and equity. In 2004, she left Boston to work on the “RACE: Are We So Different?” exhibition at the Science Museum of Minnesota. Jones-Rizzi—the recipient of AAM’s 2018 Award for Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion (DEAI) for individuals—took some time to reflect on her accomplishments over the decades and offer advice for others who want to work on DEAI at their museums. This interview is a continuation from the Tributes and Transitions section of the November/December issue of Museum magazine (a benefit of membership with AAM). 

What has been your career path in museums?

I often say, when asked about my career trajectory, that I’ve been in the right place at the right time. I’ve been fortunate to have leaders who believe in my abilities.

I joined the staff at the Boston Children’s Museum in 1985. A frequent visitor with my then toddler daughter, I didn’t know much about museum pedagogy or practice, but I understood that people at the museum were thinking about children and learning in unique and exciting ways.

The Boston Public Schools were under court-ordered desegregation at that time, and I was committed to working within a community structure that supported educational access for students of color. The center where I was working part-time was deeply involved in that work. On the days when I wasn’t working, I visited the Children’s Museum with my daughter. She and I got to know many of the staff at the museum, and they encouraged me to speak to senior staff about several positions that they thought might fit my interests. I already had meaningful work that I was happy with and didn’t want to leave, but I agreed to talk with Suzanne LeBlanc, who was leading Community Programs, and Leslie Swartz, who was directing programs within schools. I remember how excited and passionate they each were when discussing their work.

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Several weeks later, I received a letter from them informing me that they had combined two positions into one job, and they hoped that I would reconsider their offer and join the staff. The rest is history. I can still remember my first day of work at the museum; it was September 16, 1985. I was excited to continue my work on educational access for children and families living in multiple communities in the greater Boston area. I remember being aware at that time of how many people did not visit the museum.

Access and equity have been constant themes in my museum practice since the beginning of my career. I continued working at the Boston Children’s Museum until 2004 and held numerous positions during those years. Each position, project, exhibition, and program led me to understand the complex relationships of race, power, and privilege inherent in most museums and audiences. During this time, I grew to understand that exhibition development and situated community are intrinsically linked, that relationships between museums and community can influence exhibition development and in turn impact shifts in audience demographics.

I joined the Science Museum of Minnesota in 2004 to work on “RACE: Are We So Different?” as an exhibition developer and as co-leader of the participatory programs that extended the learning experience of the RACE exhibition. Moving my life and starting new work in a new city forced me to articulate and recontextualize a model for authentic community engagement that emerged from and was core to my museum practice in Boston. I was able to bring this practice to my work on the RACE exhibition and program development process.

How did you get involved in DEAI work?

I co-led a project in Boston with Aylette Jenness in the late ’80s and early ’90s that focused on what we called at that time “multiculturalizing” the museum. This was an early iteration of my current work in which I examined all aspects of the Children’s Museum from a multicultural perspective that assessed the representation of people of color, from museum board to museum audiences, and worked to create a culture of equity and inclusion in all facets of the museum. This work informed, and then became tangible with, the opening of a pivotal exhibition called “The Kids Bridge,” which focused on helping young children explore and appreciate their own cultural identity, celebrate diversity, recognize racism, and learn to work against it. It called out racism and discrimination, acknowledged that children do recognize difference, and validated the experiences of children. This was the first exhibition that dealt overtly with racism. It shifted the paradigm of multiculturalism to one centered on identity. The Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service commissioned a traveling version of “The Kids Bridge,” which opened in the Experimental Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution in 1992.

What project at the Science Museum of Minnesota (SSM) has best advanced this work?

SMM was involved in equity work long before me. There were others before me who were passionate advocates for this work. I now lead a division that is focused on STEM, equity, and education. Since being at SMM, I have been a catalyst for a significant shift, working collaboratively to reconsider and reposition equity and inclusion as essential to the work of everyone in the museum. Under museum President and CEO Alison Brown’s leadership, equity and inclusion are now integral to SSM’s strategic plan, and the museum has issued a public Statement of Equity and Inclusion.

The opening of the “RACE: Are We So Different?” exhibition at SMM in 2007 significantly advanced DEAI work internally and externally. A project of the American Anthropological Association, developed by SMM, the RACE exhibition represents the work, perseverance, and talent of many individuals. Following a national tour to over 50 museums, we were able to bring the RACE exhibition back to SMM in 2015. Having the exhibition on-site again allowed us to build upon it for our internal equity work.

A significant example is the Race Forward project in which we are trying to understand how informal science organizations can create and sustain change, particularly in conjunction with hosting the RACE exhibition. As part of this four-year NSF-funded study, Marjorie Bequette, who leads the Research and Evaluation Department, is working with me and other SMM staff to lead museum-wide programming focused on equity. Noah Feinstein at the University of Wisconsin–Madison is conducting research with museums throughout the country, and Cecelia Garibay, principal of the Garibay Group, is bringing her expertise to better understand how organizational change is related to equity. We are in the final year of the project, and much of the work of the project has been operationalized. As a result, museum staff who consider equity to be core to their work at the museum are no longer only among the staff within the STEM Equity and Education Division; they are museum-wide. We know that there is still more to do, that this is lifelong work, and that institutional change won’t happen overnight.

What are some of the challenges and opportunities with DEAI work in museums?

The challenges with this work are the same challenges associated with any kind of work that is about change. Some museums relegate DEAI work to one department. In order to make real change, it’s critical that museums view this work as core to their mission and their strategic plan. This work is not only the work of people of color, LGBTQ people, or people of other under-represented groups; it is the work of everyone in an institution. Understanding larger systems of oppression, white supremacy culture, and how these factor into our collective experience is hard work. The opportunities of DEAI are unlimited, and diversity enriches our lives. This work is critical to our survival.

What is your most meaningful accomplishment?

It’s hard to say what is the most meaningful. I tend to get very focused with each project that I am working on. The latest meaningful accomplishment would be leading the development and subsequent Board of Trustees approval of the Statement on Equity and Inclusion for SMM. This was a process that I worked on with a group of authors for over 18 months. The Statement of Equity and Inclusion can be viewed on SMM’s website at

What has been the greatest source of inspiration in your work?

I have so many incredible and committed colleagues in this work. I could not do this work on my own. Seeing visible changes within museums and knowing that there are other disruptors pushing change and bringing new and exciting theories to the work is inspiring.

What advice would you give to others doing, or aspiring to do, this work?

This work is all-consuming and can be daunting, frustrating, anger-inducing, and inspiring. It’s important to remember to find ways for self-care. As a black woman working in a primarily white institution, self-care is vital. This is an exciting time in our field; there are incredible people, dynamic projects, and social actions. Everyone has their own path—be true to your own ideals, be vulnerable or open to new ideas, and be courageous and disrupt.

What do you hope the museum of the future will look like?

In museums of the future, as I imagine them, positions like mine will not be necessary. Equity, diversity, access, and inclusion will not be the work of people of color or LGBTQ people; it will be core to the values and actions of all institutions. White people will view this work as their work and will not be shut down by past behaviors and their own fragility.

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