What We Learned
Diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion are essential, sustainable values for museums to pursue. These principles are not only bedrocks of ethical and morally courageous museum work, but they also signal how the field can remain relevant to an ever-diversifying US population.
Inclusive leadership requires a careful and continuous examination of our implicit biases, which are the often-unexamined tendencies and preferences that we all harbor. When museum professionals use phrases like “our audiences” and “our staff,” and pronouns like “we,” “us,” and “them,” we express ideas about belonging. This is not inherently bad. After all, enriching communities and fostering shared learning experiences are at the heart of what museums do. However, failing to recognize how these terms affect organizational approaches can lead to excluding voices not considered part of a museum’s core audience or leadership.
Practicing inclusion also demands continuous assessment and eradication of explicit inequalities. Unconscious bias training and cultural competence building are only valuable if they inform museums’ approaches to structural change.
The working group’s learnings can be summed up into five insights about the key components of effective museum DEAI work. With this report, we collectively assert the following:
- Every museum professional must do personal work to face their unconscious bias
- Debate on definitions must not hinder progress
- Inclusion is central to the effectiveness and sustainability of museums
- Systemic change is vital to long-term, genuine progress
- Empowered, inclusive leadership is essential at all levels of an organization
Importantly, this list is not exhaustive. Our observations also do not provide definitive metrics for success. Indicators such as retention rates for historically underrepresented employees, reports of discrimination, organizational inclusion plans, and accurate demographic information about staff and trustees all help hold museums accountable.
History of the Alliance’s Efforts
The progress in our field to date reflects the brave and diligent work of many people over many years. When AAM launched its 2016–20 strategic plan with DEAI as a focus area, part of our initial work involved identifying and assessing the Alliance’s past efforts. An internal survey of our records revealed a sustained commitment to DEAI over the past three decades, starting with the AAM board’s adoption of the Excellence & Equity report as a policy statement in 1991. Since then, AAM has:
- included diversity and inclusion in several of its strategic plans
- convened external task forces to develop action plans for the field
- created internal inclusion teams
- hired staff members devoted to addressing DEAI
- issued a national diversity statement with affiliate organizations
- worked to integrate DEAI into museum excellence programs
- published numerous related articles, fact sheets, toolkits, and other resources
While we acknowledge and respect our predecessors’ efforts, reviewing AAM’s history around DEAI led to several questions, particularly as we discovered that multiple past plans had featured similar sets of recommendations. The biggest of our questions: Why haven’t we seen more change?
Dr. Lonnie G. Bunch III, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, powerfully expressed this concern in his article “Flies in the Buttermilk: Museums, Diversity, and the Will to Change” (Museum News, 2000). He confessed that he was worried because, after more than 20 years in the field, he was “still hearing some of the same debates and conversations.” The fact that Bunch’s words reflecting on the previous 20 years were written nearly two decades ago is not lost on us. It’s true that some progress has been made, but in many ways we are still having those same debates and conversations.
In the working group meetings, we committed to a process of self-reflection, learning from past efforts, recognizing the barriers that have hindered the field’s progress, and breaking down those barriers
in specific ways. We also agreed that no person or organization can do this work alone. Every museum service organization, museum, and individual has work to do. If we make progress, it is because we have all played a part.
For this study, the Alliance convened museum professionals who have demonstrated commitment
to DEAI. The working group was composed of passionate, talented professionals with a broad base of experience and expertise. It included museum educators, directors, independent professionals, and diversity and inclusion leaders. Still, the group was less a representative sample than a task force. As thought leaders and committed practitioners of DEAI, the members gathered to share strategies and outline practical ways to carry the work forward. Dr. Nicole Ivy, Brooke Leonard, and Kathy Dwyer Southern rounded out the team of Alliance staff that supported the project.
For six months, the working group discussed critical issues around DEAI, including why DEAI is relevant to museums, what current trends affect museums’ approaches to equity, and who bears responsibility for implementing inclusive practices in museums (short answer: everybody). We also focused on how—the importance of developing ways to apply the principles of DEAI across functional areas. Although the working group has formally disbanded, the Alliance continues to consider what future groups could look like.
One of our fundamental working assumptions was that this process would be iterative. Each group member brought their own skill set and priorities to this work. From the outset, the cochairs encouraged the group to be flexible and collaborative. This learn-as-you-go approach meant that we had to be willing to compromise, revise, and restart on more than one occasion. We stressed the importance of trusting both the process and one another. We remained open. We dug into difficult conversations even when they felt uncomfortable. But this, too, is the work of inclusion.
The group decided early on to set its sights on the tough questions. We learned through our initial discussions that, although there are many excellent, sustainable DEAI-related initiatives at US museums and museum organizations, any inventory that we could offer would lack clear insight into the critical issues of inclusive museum practice. So, we decided to assess our challenges and our visions of success. We surveyed ourselves and posed the same questions to museum professionals on social media using the hashtag #museuminclusion and on talk-back walls at the 2017 AAM Annual Meeting in St. Louis. We asked the following questions:
- What are you most proud of in your work on diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion?
- What are your greatest obstacles to this work?
- What resources do you need?
- What does success look like for the field?
Museum professionals responded enthusiastically, generating over 485,000 impressions on Twitter. Respondents were proudest of their museums’ progress in accessibility, openness to dialogue
around inclusion, and steps toward raising awareness about the value of DEAI. The greatest obstacles were predominantly echoed in people’s statements of their needs, which were overwhelmingly “money” and staff capacity or time. Respondents also identified a desire for more practical tools, such as professional development resources, training, examples, templates, and case studies. The visions for success called for living wages across the field, more diverse visitorship, connected communities, and “collaboration over consultation” as a model of engagement.
The working group agreed that money and time are immense barriers to inclusion. We took these challenges into account as we concretized our five key insights, ensuring that they are applicable to museums of all sizes, types, and budgets.