MCN 2014: Performative Participation and Diversity

This the last of my wrap-up posts on MCN. I also storified my notes, so they don’t complete disappear into the ether of my Twitter feed.

Race, culture, and socio-economic class also loomed large for me at #MCN2014. Certainly, the wonderful Ignite helped move me towards that conversation. But, given my own professional labors in community engagement, outreach, and action, I was particularly receptive to these conversations. In the days before the Ferguson grand jury was announced, perhaps race was foremost in our consciousness. But, for me, the issue has been ever present. Museums receive funds from organizations that are eager to “impact the diversity of audiences.” Diversity is just one such coded term. (Community is another common one.) This phrase is a sort of catch phrase for something very specific. The actual meaning of diversity could be said to be a mix. An alien newly arrived at Earth might rationally state that diversity could include a mix of ages, genders, socio-economic classes, and races. But, diversity in the museum context is more often a coded term for something specific. In many regions, this means African-American; in some, Latino. Generally, museums are attempting to bring in the poorest denizens of their region.

The challenge is that the impetus for such initiatives is altruistic. Certainly, there are major implied barriers in museums. Breaking these barriers is incredibly challenging. They are invisible to most average visitors and staff members. They are felt by those who not feel welcome for their background, education-level, race, ethnicity. While invisible, they are very real. Diversity initiatives, in their best forms, are about finding useful ways to create chinks in these barriers. Museums have certainly been guilty of paternalistically planning the best programs for an intended group. But, now, museums have started to do much better. Ideally, these initiatives are done in a shared manner, working with those in the target group.

Yet, we still find ourselves carefully employing works like diversity and community, knowing full well that we have much more discrete meanings. As a field, we do need to have more honest terminology about race and ethnicity, power and authority. Now, given the state of race in America, museums are not alone in our inability to discuss race and class honestly. But, rather than trying to be just as good as the rest of the messed up conversations, museums have an opportunity to do better. We are not schools. We are not politicians or government officials, mostly. We are in a limnal space. We have dinosaurs and sculptures and butterflies and beautiful paintings. We have the best of human innovation and the most magnificent aspects of the natural world in our halls. We house the universals of existence. In other words, we are universal, and so in the unique position to move the conversations about race and power forward. We can push past banal, tentative discussions about diversity and community and into a phase where we can honestly deal with race.

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