Panel Discusses Bringing Diversity to Museums

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Four panelists were recently invited to take part in a conversation on Feb. 28 sponsored by The Museum Studies Program, The Africa and African Diaspora Studies Program, and The Maryland Humanities Council to discuss the topic of diversity within museums.

Hosted in Daughtery-Palmer Commons, “Diversifying the History Museum: A Panel Discussion” was put together by Professor of Anthropology and Museum Studies Chair Julia King, and led by Deputy Director of Development and Museum Programs at Historic London Town and Gardens and Visiting Instructor of Museum Studies Rod Cofield, ’03.

The four panelists included Class of 2012 President Stephon Dingle, Historic Preservation Specialist for the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation Najah Gabriel-Duvall, Historian and Slave Life Interpreter at Historic Brattonsville Nicole Moore, and Historian and Curator of the National Museum of the American Indian Gabrielle Tayac.

A 2010 report published by the Center for the Future of Museums titled “Demographic Transformation and the Future of Museums” has revealed that even though the United States is coming close to having 50 percent of the population identifying as non-Hispanic white and 50 percent identifying as part of a minority, there is still a huge divide within the country’s museums, as 91 percent of museum visitors are categorized as white.

“If museums cannot figure out how to attract non-white audiences, that is a major problem,” said Cofield, warning the Museum Studies minor students that this would be an obstacle they would soon have to tackle once in the field.

Since the panel related to diversity, King felt it was perfectly timed, as it followed soon after the College’s recent St. Mary’s Day discussions and was at the tail end of Black History Month.

Most museum audiences are generally white, college-educated, and older. The emails released promoting the panel discussion asked the question, “How can we keep this audience and expand the history museum’s relevance to audiences from all backgrounds?”

Dingle began this conversation by talking about his own experiences as someone who does not directly study or deal with museums. He tried channeling his attitudes as a kid from Baltimore City and how it felt to visit museums in Washington, D.C. as an elementary school student. He said he believes the key to diversifying museum audiences lies in the classroom.

Moore, who works as an interpreter of slave life, discussed the difficulties she has faced as a result of how slavery interpretation is seen as controversial and uncomfortable to many audiences.

“It’s hard to get your audience to come to you,” said Moore, “because of the stigma and fear…. It may be emotional for you, but you really have to see that this was a part of life.” She explained that using slave life interpreters could be a great opportunity for museums to find a way to diversify their histories.

Moore also stated that museum institutions should not wait for the masses to come to them, but they should go to the masses by doing things like visiting schools and teaching students about slavery.

Tayac, a member of the Piscataway Nation, brought a different perspective to the panel by discussing her work at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) and the perspectives of American Indians in the museum setting.

NMAI operates closely with American Indian groups and previously consulted the different nations while the museum’s newer building was built along the National Mall in 2004. The museum’s original collection, though, was started at the turn of the twentieth century in New York by George Gustav Heye, who believed that American Indians would soon vanish and that he needed to collect as many artifacts as he could in order to preserve their cultures.

Tayac stated that today the museum allows American Indians to reclaim their voices, reclaim their objects, and rewrite the narratives that have been put upon them by non-American Indians.

“Museums instill pride in one’s heritage,” said Gabriel-Duvall, who discussed the same topic but in regards to African-Americans. “African-American museums stand as a monument to the cultural heritage that they reflect,” she said.

The panelists further discussed how to reach out to local minority communities and what should be done to make museum attendance more closely reflect the diversity of the current United States population.

After each panelist was given roughly 10 minutes to discuss their thoughts, audience members were asked to join the conversation with questions or comments. It was then concluded that museums should aim to create a safe space for these types of discussions to occur, and that even if museum visitors enter a museum believing that they already know all of the information, they should still ask themselves if this is really true.

Though topics of discussion were extensive, one major question was left unanswered: Why are many museums broken up into different racial and ethnic identities when all human life is part of one large interwoven history? The audience was left to mull over this interesting question as they left the discussion.

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