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From the President and CEO: Museums and Racial Equality

Category: Museum Magazine

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2021 issue of Museum magazinea benefit of AAM membership. In an effort to provide the broadest possible access to this critical topic, we are making these articles free and available to the public.

For most of us, 2020 was an emotionally unforgettable year, knit together by months of anxiety, distress, panic, grief, and, where it could be found, gratitude. In addition to the global pandemic, which shuttered museums and left many of our colleagues out of work, we experienced a national reckoning around racial equity. The effects of these events will linger far into this new year and will forever change us, our society, and our museums.

Organizations across all sectors are being evaluated through a racial equity and social justice lens—their practices, language, and policies all under intense scrutiny. Museums are no exception. We are being challenged in a whole new way to take stances on social justice issues and commit ourselves to striving for greater equity within our institutions and across society. Communities across the country expect the institutions they support to reflect their values in a way that is open and transparent. This is a challenge we all need to embrace in this new year.

It may be intimidating—and it is guaranteed to be difficult—but you are not alone in this work. As your Alliance, we too are taking on this challenge. We are committed to increasing the visibility and transparency of our ongoing internal racial equity work. We hope that sharing data, resources and best practices, and AAM’s own multiyear journey (complete with missteps and course corrections) will inspire you to do the same.

Taking a more active stance on social justice issues is a new process for many organizations. For those unsure of where to start, consider the data. The 2020 Annual Survey of Museum-Goers conducted by Wilkening Consulting found that nearly 70 percent of museum-goers felt that museums could take a position on social justice issues. The report provides a framework for museums to consider when doing so.

The framework calls on museums to use evidence and show their work, make the link to their mission explicit, explain why objectivity or neutrality is impossible, and display an openness to dialogue and mutual respect. This framework can help us structure our responses to social justice issues and help us ask critical questions about our missions, audiences, and abilities to host healthy dialogue. It also guides us to frame social issues in a way that can help broaden worldviews, promote inclusion, and foster empathy and belonging, thereby increasing our positive social impact.

Continually learning from others is also critical. If you’re looking for guidance in your equity work, our website has dozens of member resources, tools, and sample documents related to diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion (DEAI). Our blog features more than 200 posts on DEAI-related topics authored by colleagues in the field who are doing the work and sharing their experiences for you to learn from; we are contributing our own AAM experiences to that library as well.

Museums are cornerstones in our communities and among the most trusted sources of information by the public. We have a duty to respond to our nation’s reckoning with racism and other forms of injustice. It’s critical to note, though, that the internal organization-wide work is some of the most difficult. Undoing structures and systems that contribute to inequity takes substantial energy, resources, and time—and it is never complete. There is no finish line in equity work. How each of us tackles these issues may look different, but there is no contesting that it must be done now—and far into our future.

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