How Museums are (Finally) Providing a Reflection of Diverse Communities

March 25, 2021
woman looking at paintings

This past year has been one of awakening and transformation for cultural institutions as it has been for destination marketers. And yet, when it comes to representing and appealing to diverse communities, there is so much more progress to be made. defines a museum as “an institution dedicated to preserving and interpreting the primary tangible evidence of humankind and the environment.” However, recent studies have shown that 85% of the art that is exhibited in museums is by white artists. Combined with U.S. Census Bureau projected statistic that the U.S. population will be less than 50% white by 2045, it becomes obvious that there is a major disparity of demographics.

This is not a new issue. In 2001, the International Arts Museum Division (IAMD) researched their three Smithsonian Museums on the national mall found that “the local audience [underrepresented] African Americans and Latinos living in the Washington Metropolitan.”

Many museum leaders are starting to realize that their facilities can and should become models for more inclusive communities. In fact, a 2019 report by The Mellon Foundation, the AAMD and the American Alliance of Museums found that 88% of people hired at museums for executive positions and conservation roles were white. This stands in contrast to the 60.7% of the U.S. population that currently identify as white.

As community leaders, now is the time for destination organizations to help support your museum members as they work to become more culturally reflective of society and remain relevant in the 21st century. Looking for a model? Consider the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation which did just that.

The Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation

Christy Coleman has been advocating for more diverse museums for close to thirty years. In 1999 she was appointed president and CEO of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit. In 2008 she became president and CEO of the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar in Richmond, VA, and worked to complete the merge of the American Civil War Center and the Museum of the Confederacy. She has worked as a historical consultant for the 2019 film “Harriet.” And, she has earned an honorary doctoral degree from William & Mary in February 2020 for making museums more meaningful for diverse audiences.

In early 2020, Christy was also appointed as the first Black, female executive director of the Jamestown- Yorktown Foundation, which administers Jamestown Settlement and the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown. In her keynote speech to the 2020 Annual Meeting of the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH), Christy noted the association’s efforts to make the conference accessible to anyone who was interested, regardless of economic means.

“By extend­ing these remarkable resources, insights, and passions with others, we can change the field. We can change our com­munities. We can change the world,” Christy said of participation in experience-sharing conferences such as the AASLH Annual meeting.

Jamestown Settlement refreshed its exhibits in 2019, keying in on their more technologically savvy museum goers with 4D multisensory experiences. But less than three months into her executive director role with the foundation in 2020, the pandemic hit. Coleman has spent significant time thinking about the future of this cultural institution.

“The question extends beyond how inclusive we want to be and into how inclusive we want history to say that we were,” Coleman said. “My goal is to work in partnership with JYF’s board and staff continue to tell powerfully relevant history that is inclusive and compelling.”

Coleman is working to expand the museums’ inclusive story of the past, including adding more perspectives of American Indian and West Central African cultures. The Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation has long incorporated diverse cultural storylines in its exhibition galleries and collection at Jamestown Settlement and the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, and is growing these efforts in the interpretive living-history areas.

What Museums Can Do Right Now

Changing a system that has been in place for centuries can take time, so any museum looking to become more inclusive, or destination organization looking to support its museum community, should set achievable milestones on the path to transformation.

Offer training programs to young professionals

Some museums have found that by partnering with nearby universities, they can encourage a wider range of students to consider a career in museum curation. The Los Angeles County Museum of Arts partnered with the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at Arizona State University in 2018 to create a Master’s Fellowship aimed at helping students stay on track towards a profession in Art History — complete with on the job experience.

Diversify Curation

In 2018, The Baltimore Museum of Art sold off revered artwork to purchase contemporary works from women and people of color. The following year, the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts (KIA) made a similar effort to be more inclusive by devoting all of its nearly 11,000 square feet of gallery space to work by African-American artists.

According to a 2010 study from the American Alliance of Museums, museum attendance across America is 78.9% non-Hispanic white. By curating collections that are more reflective of black diaspora, queer and female audiences, museums can begin attracting audiences that are much more representative to outside population demographics.

Add Diversity Content and Imagery in Marketing Materials

This might seem so simple, but by simply including people of color in your marketing material, your audience will broaden. People feel more welcome when they see others that look like them enjoying a museum.

Alice Walker, the Pulitzer Prize winning novelist and writer of The Color Purple once said that she didn’t trust museums because they limited their exhibits of Native American culture to artifacts and typecast African Americans to their musical prowess (paraphrasing).

Museums can no longer stand to have only a segment of their facilities relegated to multicultural exhibits. To thrive in the next 100 years, museums need to become more reflective of society, with every aspect and exhibit reflecting diverse perspectives and experiences. By removing barriers to entry, and by creating experiences that are relevant to all, museums can achieve this goal.

Museums worldwide are rethinking how they can attract more diverse audiences and become more inclusive with their staff and volunteers. As leaders in place marketing and proven experience in helping museums reach their goals through tourism-driven marketing campaigns, we can help. Get in touch with Daniella Middleton at [email protected] to learn more.