Adapted from Chapter 19 of An AASLH Guide to Making Public History.
American history organizations must address issues of diversity and inclusion in an intentional, systematic, and thoughtful way. And they must do so now.
Why is this important? More than anything, it’s the right thing to do. Organizations should strive to represent the entirety of their communities’ pasts, to be welcome to the various narratives that comprise their histories. Beyond that, diversity and inclusion is inherent to the practice of public history.
Diversity and inclusion is our mandate as history professionals, but it is also a matter of survival. By 2040, the American populace will be “majority minority” — in which no single race or ethnicity will formulate the majority of the population. But according to Reach Advisors, 80 percent of museum visitors are white, non-Hispanic. If we want to best meet our missions to serve the community, we must improve this.
Setting aside the justness of the cause of more inclusive histories, these demographics are not favorable for sustainability. By numbers alone, at least 38 percent of our visitors today should be people of color. In less than twenty-five years, that number should really be closer to 50 percent. History organizations and museums bear the responsibility to close these gaps.
This is not a new discussion. It has been an ongoing conversation since at least the advent of the New Social History movement. But it has more recently evolved into a more active pursuit as the field has moved from the term “diversity” to “inclusion” — the biggest change I’ve seen in my two decades in the profession.
“Diversity” is a term with which most are familiar. It is the ideal I pursued in my early career directing education programs at the History Center in Orlando, Florida (the building on the left here). We sought to engage the diverse elements of our public, starting with the local African American community, a group that had long had fraught relationships with the institution. These activities were not one-offs and I worked hard to follow John Cotton Dana’s mantra, “Learn what aid the community needs: fit the museum to those needs.”
Evaluations and informal conversations with stakeholders reflected people’s general pleasure with our efforts. But if I’m being honest, I’m not sure these activities moved the needle all that much. They had great results in short-term engagement but not necessarily in building long-term relationships.
I’ve since come to the realization that diversity is a passive exercise. As my friend Chris Taylor (left), chief inclusion officer of the Minnesota Historical Society, observes, “Diversity tends to be more about the number of programs aimed at ‘diverse audiences’ and the number of ‘diverse attendees’ to our programs.” This often gives institutions and history professionals cover for a field that is 90+ percent white and whose exhibitions, programs, and activities have often skewed toward that demographic as well. There is much wisdom in Chris’s words.
From my own experience, I remember my frustration in why people hadn’t applied for a particular diversity scholarship or why so few people of color engaged with organizations I worked for. I believed my heart was in the right place, and that our board and staff were supportive of diversity. So why, then, were we doing so poorly in this area?
Enter “inclusion,” an active pursuit that makes it incumbent upon the institution to reach out and actively seek to make connections, to make people feel more a part of the work we are doing. Ultimately, Taylor notes, inclusion signifies “feeling safe, engaged, respected, and valued.” And while he’s specifically referring to inclusivity as it relates to an institution’s internal operations, I believe it applies to our organizations’ external focus as well.
Inclusion is about more than just audience; it should also be reflected within our institutions. As museum leader Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko wrote in her excellent Museum Administration 2.0, “A critical step in meeting the diverse needs of the community is a diverse staff that reflects its community and understands the larger societal realities.” Cynthia Robinson of Tufts University emphatically agrees: “A successful museum’s culture is one where leadership is mindful of history and inequities, and thus sets a tone that says that sexist and racist behavior and attitudes in the workplace, in interpretation, and in interactions with visitors will not be tolerated, and who helps staff understand the far-reaching impact of colonialism and of the importance and challenges of creating an organization that truly serves a multicultural audience.”
In Leadership Matters, authors and leading museum thinkers Anne Ackerson and Joan Baldwin share that this mindset should extend to boards of directors as well. “The boardroom is still male (but just slightly so), and most of them are white. On this score, many directors and trustees remain puzzlingly defensive, saying things like, ‘Our small, rural community is not racially diverse’ or simply, ‘We just cannot find diverse people to serve on our board.’”
This has long been the field’s excuse for a lack of diversity. We must recognize that these statements (which are all too common) reflect a lack of inclusion. “Inclusion is a verb,” Chris Taylor reminds us, “in that ‘to include’ requires action.”
Our institutions should consciously reflect our communities, Ackerson and Baldwin maintain. “Board and staff leaders owe it to the future health of their institutions to put in motion strategies that create pathways to attract volunteer and paid talent that better mirrors the communities they represent.”
Institutions should, however, recognize the inherent challenges for people of color joining our staffs. “Increasing staff diversity” (the noun), Taylor writes, “does nothing for the organization if that organization is not able to retain diverse staff or to create a space where diverse perspectives and experiences are embraced” (the verb, or the action of inclusion). My friend and colleague Dina A. Bailey uses a succinct example, “You might have one Asian American person on staff and consider yourself to have a diverse staff. However, if you do not practice inclusion, that staff member might soon leave and your organization will be homogenous again.”
The active process of inclusion connotes intentionality. The field has long understood the moral imperative of diversity, inclusion, and equity. But, Taylor observes, that has not been enough to change the dynamic. “We cannot continue to allocate minimal resources, in terms of money and time, and really believe that we can be different organizations…. We have to begin to recognize inclusion as a business imperative.”
Both Taylor and Bailey remind us that diversity and inclusion is an internal and an external activity. “We need to focus on talent management, cultural competency trainings, implementing specific diversity and inclusion strategic plans for policies and procedures, and developing and maintaining staff development,” Bailey says, while we simultaneously “strengthen existing relationships and build new ones.”
We must actively engage our friends in the communities we want to serve. “More often than not,” Taylor posits, “they want you to be successful as much as you do when it comes to inclusion.” Ask how your institution can best engage these communities; learn directly from them how your institution can be inclusive. But, Taylor urges, we must also bring these partners into the conversation from the beginning. Consider The Platinum Rule (an update to The Golden Rule, one of the oldest maxims in the world): Treat others as THEY would like to be treated.
“You cannot know how members of under-engaged communities want to be treated until you ask,” Taylor argues. “You develop relationships and you work in partnership. True partnerships, not paternalistic or transactional partnerships, but authentic transformational partnerships. And what you will find is that more often than not, the transformation in that partnership happens for you more so than your partner.”
Inclusion is not an accident. Therefore, if we haven’t yet formed relationships, it is incumbent upon us to make them. It is an intentional act on to create a culture where as many people as possible feel like they belong and are a part of our work.
This change will not magically happen overnight. Taylor again provides insight.
“Groups that have had their cultures marginalized since the inception of this country will not all of the sudden decide to patronize our organizations. It is up to us to create spaces that have value for members of these communities. We need to make sure they see themselves represented in our archives, collections, and programs. They must feel like we value their cultures as much as any other culture. But most of all, they must feel like they can truly be stakeholders, and have a say in what we do.”
We are far from the final pages in the chapter of the field’s efforts toward diversity and inclusion. In fact, I’d argue that we are actually only now writing the foreword.
Bailey believes, as do I, that “The public history field is making strides to become more inclusive. Efforts are being made in terms of interpretation, collections, programs, and hiring. The next step is to work on making these strides sustainable. Diversity and inclusion must infiltrate all aspects of museums.” This includes holding ourselves and our leaders accountable in pursuit of this goal.
GET ENGAGED: There are lots of ways to get more involved in Diversity & Inclusion discussions. Here are three:
- Museums & Race: Transformation and Justice is a movement to challenge and reimagine institutional policies and systems that perpetuate oppressions in museums.
- Susie Wilkening is providing a FREE research opportunity on Inclusive History in Museums.
- Donna Ann Harris (email) is looking for content for a new chapter on diversity and inclusion at historic house museums for her revision of New Solutions for House Museums: Ensuring the Long-Term Preservation of America’s Historic Houses.
A twenty-year veteran of the nonprofit world, Bob Beatty is founder of The Lyndhurst Group, a history, museum, and nonprofit consulting firm providing community-focused engagement strategies for institutional planning, organizational assessments, and interpretive direction.