Museums in the Age of Colorblindness

By Sheila Majumdar
Ishihara plate rendering.

blog intro

A month ago, editors, designers, distributers, and printers from around the world flocked to the Radisson Blu Hotel in Chicago for the National Museum Publishing Seminar (NMPS). As a young editor, I was glad to attend (and no, not just because of the free coffee, pastries, and jelly beans!). I left with a strong impression of museum publishing today and what it aspires to be.

on diversity in museums

Many speakers touched on a goal best summarized by Kathy Fredrickson, Director of Exhibition Research and Publishing, Peabody Essex Museum: “The most important words in publishing are not print and digital but content and connection.” Our diverse institutions agree: to have a sustained impact in our communities, we need to produce high-quality content and find ways to help audiences forge meaningful connections with our work.

Audiences are central to cultural institutions. But at most museums in the United States, there is a significant disjunction between their audiences and the public at-large. The opening panel, “Museum Diversity: Inside and Out,” described these trends, using statistics and anecdotes to paint a picture of who is coming to our museums, who is using the staff entrance, and who is staying home. It is a picture that needs retouching.

So when I attended the subsequent teach-in, led by nikhil trivedi, Application Developer at a museum in Chicago and co-organizer of the Visitors of Color tumblr, I was curious to see how we would workshop the lack of diversity in museums to improve our departments. Instead, trivedi prompted us to shift our mindsets from action to inquiry with a single question: How has your institution benefitted from slavery?

Beginning with smartphone searches, we speculated about the direct and indirect connections between slavery and museum collections, museums proper, and founders’ business dealings. Some were even able to trace the lineage of museum founders to present-day patrons. Our institutions’ About pages—particularly what was left unsaid—proved universally interesting. (It is compelling to note just how common it is for museums to ignore the history of inequality in the United States and how this might continue to affect communities today.)

This task demanded patience and painstaking research at odds with the conference’s emphasis on forward-facing ideas and fast-changing technologies. The teach-in posed a difficult question about personal and institutional responsibility without providing answers. There was no obvious path forward, and a few frustrated voices emerged. How can this conversation be used to draw more diverse audiences to our museums? Where do we start within our institutions? Who can we individually talk to?

I don’t have the answer (as much as I’d like to), but I also think it is somewhat beside the point. These discussions are in and of themselves a critical part of arriving at a solution. Regardless of how altruistic the goals of museums are, it is naive at best and disingenuous at worst to say they can address the lack of diversity among visitors and staff without understanding the causes.

As museum publishers, we cannot resolve or atone for society’s ills, but we can seek out the voices of people who have traditionally been excluded from and underrepresented at all levels of the industry, facilitating the conversations and eventual actions that will bring about positive changes in our field, and more importantly, our communities.

As my colleagues and I prepared to head to the next panel, trivedi put our 45-minute activity into sharp relief. Reminding us that the critical self-examination required of museums is a long game, he asked us, as we left: Are you willing to commit?




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