In 2015, Dr. Johnnetta Betsch Cole delivered a landmark keynote address at the AAM Annual Meeting & MuseumExpo in Atlanta. In it she called upon museums to “be of social value by not only inspiring but creating change around one of the most critical issues of our time—the issue of diversity.” This clarion call continues to guide AAM’s DEAI work seven years later.
In 2016, with Laura Lott newly installed as AAM’s President and CEO, the Alliance included “diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion in all aspects of museums’ structures and programming” as one of three pressing focus areas in its strategic plan. Then, in 2017, building on the decades-long work of many people, AAM convened a Working Group of diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion (DEAI) leaders from the field to examine why the field hadn’t made more progress becoming more diverse, inclusive, and equitable—and to begin developing an actionable strategy.
The DEAI Working Group, chaired by Dr. Cole and Lott and supported by AAM’s first chief diversity officer, Dr. Nicole Ivy, issued a culminating report called Facing Change: Insights from AAM’s DEAI Working Group. The five insights included the following imperatives:
- prioritize individual work by museum professionals to confront our unconscious biases,
- find ways to make systemic change, and
- ensure ownership of DEAI at all levels of museums.
The same year, AAM’s inaugural 2017 Museum Board Leadership report became the first-ever comprehensive look at the people, work, and culture of over 850 museum boards. The data was tremendously valuable—but also pretty disappointing. Among many findings, we learned that nearly half of ALL museum boards were 100 percent white—not a single person of color on them. Fewer than 10 percent of museum board members and museum directors identified as people of color. Sadly, decades of investments in diverse pipelines, fellowships, and alternate pathways to museum work had made little progress in our goal to have more racially and ethnically diverse leadership in museums.
At a time when the demographics of our communities are changing rapidly, the lack of diverse representation at the top of our institutions, and too few museums doing deep introspective work, meant museums were making little substantive progress in becoming more truly equitable and inclusive.
However, the data also promisingly showed that the vast majority of museum directors believed expanding racial and ethnic diversity was vital to their museums’ missions, and they were dissatisfied with the current racial/ethnic diversity of their boards. But only a small percentage (10 percent) of those museums had developed a plan of action or allocated resources to do this work.
AAM’s leadership team, including Lott, Dr. Ivy, Brooke Leonard, Rob Stein, Arthur Affleck, and advisor Kathy Dwyer Southern, saw an opportunity to address this gap with a focus on boards because that is where values and “tone” are set, culture starts, strategic decisions are made, and budgets/resources are allocated. Sustained, large-scale, cohort-based board work had never been tried before. And many thought it was impossible.
In 2019, AAM launched a pilot, Facing Change: Advancing Museum Board Diversity and Inclusion, to work with museum boards to reflect and learn, create action plans to develop more inclusive board cultures, and recruit and elect more diverse board members—in most cases that meant more people of color. Three foundations came together to support the museum field in this critical work: the Mellon, Alice L. Walton, and Ford foundations. The project was led by AAM’s Senior Director of Equity and Culture Andrew Plumley, Senior Manager of DEAI Programs Grace Stewart, and DEAI Project Manager Ibrahim Shafau.
AAM created cohorts of museums (see “Participating Museums” on previous page) that broadly represented the diversity of our museum field, because DEAI and racial equity is the work of all museums. The cohorts included big and small museums of different types—history and art museums, science centers, and zoos. And they were in several different regions of the country—Chicagoland; the San Francisco Bay Area; the Twin Cities; Jackson, Mississippi; and several cities in Texas, including Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, and San Antonio.
A key component of the Facing Change initiative was building capacity for DEAI work in the field by hiring, elevating, and supporting 10 Senior DEAI Fellows—Aiko Bethea, Sandra Bonnici, Eric Carpio, Makeba Clay, Omar Eaton Martinez, Ann Hernandez, Danielle Linzer, Azuka MuMin, Cecile Shellman, and Levon Williams—who were assigned a cohort of museums to coach. These Fellows individualized the national curriculum to meet the unique context and needs of each museum in the program.
Beginning in the fall of 2019, AAM held a dozen board retreats across the country. Amid divisive national politics, numerous natural disasters, the very public murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and many other Black and brown people, and a global pandemic that shuttered museums and forced budget and staff reductions, the pilot persisted through 2021—and achieved some significant results:
1,400 museum leaders and trustees took the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI) and participated in multiple trainings to face their unconscious bias. (AAM staff and board members and the Accreditation Commission joined museum trustees in these steps as well.)
So far, 42 of the participating museums have added more than 120 new racially/ethnically diverse candidates to their boards.
The museum boards developed and are implementing measurable DEAI goals and plans.
And nearly all of the participants reported increased knowledge and understanding of DEAI issues during their time in the Facing Change program.
There is plenty of work left to be done. And it is ongoing. Each museum’s journey has been its own—and yet we have found power in the cohorts, in the communities of practice that are being built.
In the following articles, participating museums and Senior DEAI Fellows share their perspectives, experiences, and learnings from their time in the Facing Change program. Over the next several months, AAM will continue to share additional learnings and resources developed throughout Facing Change.
Aurora Regional Fire Museum, Chicago Botanic Garden, Chicago History Museum, DuSable Museum of African American History, Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, Lincoln Park Zoo, Museum of the Grand Prairie, Naper Settlement, and Oak Park River Forest Museum
San Francisco/Oakland/San Jose:
Bay Area Discovery Museum, Contemporary Jewish Museum, Exploratorium, Filoli Historic House and Garden, Museum of Sonoma County, Oakland Museum of California, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose, San Jose Museum of Quilts & Textiles, UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, Dallas Heritage Village, DiverseWorks, Fort Bend History Association, Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, Holocaust Museum Houston, Perot Museum of Nature and Science, Space Center Houston, and Witte Museum
B.B. King Museum & Delta Interpretive Center, International Museum of Muslim Cultures, Lauren Rogers Museum of Art, Mississippi Department of Archives and History (Eudora Welty House and Garden), Grand Village of the Natchez Indians, Historic Jefferson College, Manship House Museum, Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, Museum of Mississippi History, Old Capitol Museum, Winterville Mounds, and Mississippi Museum of Art
American Swedish Institute, Anoka County Historical Society, Bell Museum, Goldstein Museum of Design, Hennepin History Museum, Minneapolis Institute of Art, Ramsey County Historical Society, Science Museum of Minnesota, University of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, Walker Art Center, and Weisman Art Museum
Visit aam-us.org/programs/resource-library/diversity-equity-accessibility-and-inclusion-resources for museum DEAI resources.