Alice Anderson, Ed.M. & Michelle A. Mileham, Ph.D.
Alice Anderson is the Manager of Audience Research and Impact at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, Minnesota, where she studies what people think, feel, and learn through informal learning experiences. She has worked as a researcher and evaluator in the fields of science and art museums, educational technology, and makerspaces.
Michelle Mileham is Director of Education at Tracy Aviary in Salt Lake City, Utah, where she integrates research and evaluation into daily educational programs. Michelle serves as the Vice Chair for the American Alliance of Museums’ Committee on Audience Research and Evaluation.
What does it mean for a museum to be welcoming in 2020? And how has the answer to this question changed in the past 20, 50, 100 years? Who defines what welcoming means? As museum professionals, practitioners, and researchers, we contemplate this question through myriad lenses — location, admission prices, physical spaces, languages, staff presence, etc. In this Virtual Issue, we examine the concept of museum welcoming through the lens of evaluation and research. If museums communicate that all visitors should feel welcome, how can that be measured? Are the exhibits, programs, and museum experiences truly welcoming for all visitors? In what ways is evaluation part of the process of examining welcoming?
We came to this topic through reflecting on and reckoning with the power our positions afford us and the socio-cultural privilege we hold in this field. In terms of how we present in the world, we both identify as white, cis-gender, able-bodied women. Our histories with museums are positive; we both were raised by families who saw museums as learning sites, and when we visited, we saw museum staff who looked like us. We both felt (and still feel) invited and comfortable in museum spaces. At the same time, we recognize that museum spaces have been created by and for people who share some of the characteristics of our identities, and how what can feel welcoming to one group can feel oppressive, inflexible, and alienating to others.
Clearly, our childhood experiences in museums influenced our career trajectories, but that’s not surprising. When museum professionals were asked in a study to tell stories about a pivotal learning experience they had or had observed in museums, many cited specific childhood experiences. It was these experiences that ultimately led them to pursue museum careers (Spock, 2000). The museum memories shared in Michael Spock’s article revolve “around a collection, an object, an exhibit, a chain of related experiences, and an extended program” (p. 21). The stories represented both museum professionals who, like us, frequented museums in their childhood, as well as stories from professionals who didn’t have these experiences before participation in museum-based programs. Either way, the article suggests that museum memories can have a lasting impact and that they develop from a myriad of museum experiences. We believe evaluators must be attuned to the multitude of experiences visitors have both in and out of the museum. We therefore must design tools that measure learning and memories through the five categories proposed by Spock (collections, objects, exhibits, chain of experiences, extended programs) and beyond, as well as over multiple museum experiences.
Looking through the lens of our identity and personal experiences, we ask what are our museum evaluation practices missing? As museums, exhibits, and programs address diversity, equity, access, and inclusion, are evaluation practices and methodologies keeping up? Can museum evaluation practices and methodologies help lead transformation?
Diversity in the Current U.S. Museum Field
While we recognize that Curator: The Museum Journal is an international publication, we examine diversity in the museum field in the context of the United States because that is where we live and work. Therefore, our analysis of diversity is focused on a system that privileges white, cis-gendered, and able-bodied men. Systems of power and privilege naturally differ in other contexts, but we do not discuss them here.
In the spirit of taking an inward look to examine these issues, we searched for data on the diversity of museum or informal education evaluators, specifically the representation of people of color, academic degrees, gender, and age here in the US where we were both born and raised. Few comprehensive reports exist or are not publicly shared. But from what we did find, it is evident that museum professionals do not necessarily reflect the diversity of the United States. In some reports of US museum professionals that draw on data from U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, we see that while gender parity has increased in the past 50 years, men still hold a higher percentage of leadership positions than women, and women make 79 cents for every dollar men in similar positions earn (Baldwin, 2019). If we consider women and race, the story is bleaker. Black and Latina women in the museum profession make 60 cents and 55 cents, respectively, for every dollar a white man makes (Baldwin, 2016). These disparities are deeply rooted in systemic and structural issues of racism, sexism, and classism, and museum evaluators are not immune. Our field prioritizes higher education and specific types of analytic, written, and oral communication skills.
The most comprehensive report is the 2017 National Museum Salary Survey published by the American Alliance of Museums (AAM), which includes many demographic characteristics except race and ethnicity. While this resource proved useful for our argument in this Virtual Issue, we do feel it is important to highlight some challenges of using this report. First and foremost, this report is behind a paywall and not easily accessible to all in the field. Second, the findings represent 1,060 of 6,965 institutions who were invited to participate, meaning sample sizes for some specific museum positions are too low to make broad generalizations. Finally, as professionals in the field, we recognize that many museum positions (i.e., educators, admissions, and grant managers) are engaged in evaluation work under the “other duties as assigned” umbrella.
Although multiple roles were captured in this survey, the AAM study does not offer specific information about those who identify as evaluators as a secondary or tertiary role in their museum. What the report does tell us is that of the museums who have Visitor Research & Evaluation Director or Manager positions, 75% are full-time employees, nearly 89% identify as female, the median age is 40, and 54.5% hold a Master’s degree or higher. The majority (56.3%) of Visitor Research & Evaluation Assistants or Associates represented in this report are full-time employees. Just over 72% identify as female, the median age is 32, and about 53% hold a 4-year degree and about 42% hold a Master’s degree or higher. The field as a whole (as represented in this report) is 83% full-time employees, 67% identify as female, nearly 45% hold a 4-year degree, and 44% hold a Master’s degree or higher. Therefore, research and evaluation positions tend to proportionally have the highest level of academic achievement across all positions reported in the survey. Again, we caution the use of the data for these positions because the sample size is low, but this report provided the only comprehensive data we could find. Unfortunately, the AAM report doesn’t include information on race or ethnicity across museum professions, but based on this report we argue that those currently in museum research and evaluation jobs may be there because they benefited from systematic racism and/or classism. As research and evaluation positions in museums continue to expand, as we hope they do, the field needs to reform hiring practices to be more equitable and inclusive.
In recent years, emphasis has been placed on equitable hiring practices, including offering paid internships and giving weight to skills over degrees earned (see the AAM’s blog posts on this topic). Changing the workplace culture only starts with looking at our hiring practices. We also need to examine which staff are being promoted, staff attrition rates, and especially workplace culture. Ultimately, we need to create pathways for people of all backgrounds and identities to enter and advance through the museum profession, and we would argue for more diversity in museum evaluation specifically.
In spite of good intentions, we find the literature still indicates that consistent barriers to diversify museum professions still exist, including the use of inequitable language, overlooking knowledgeable staff from all departments, and lack of career-growth opportunities (Baldwin, 2016; Fischer, et al., 2017; Gilbert, 2016). And the AAM data seem to suggest that our evaluation practices are no better. For example, do surveys still use language that isn’t equitable? Are we measuring only what the institution, our personal identities, and the field recognize as important? Without diversity among museum evaluators, our practices — from hiring, to exhibitions, to programs — will never be truly equitable. In order to address gaps in evaluation, we first have to consider what identities dominate our field and our practice.
What Identities Have Been Encouraged and Which Overlooked?
The archives of Curator offer a fascinating history of museum evaluation and which identities have been most investigated. Browsing these early studies and commentaries, it appears that prior to the 1990s, demographic questions included in evaluation or audience research studies were limited. In a review of the museum evaluation literature by Gloria Zyskowski (1983), demographic characteristics used in most studies appear to have consisted of sex, age, education level, and prior museum visitation. This leaves out key identity variables such as race, disability, and household income. By the 1990s, a few articles appeared in Curator which explicitly discussed diversity of visitors, such as characteristics related to disability and how those relate to accessibility issues (Majewski & Bunch, 1998; Kalisher, 1998, Davidson, Heald & Hein, 1991) and racial and ethnic minority populations (Kahn, 1994). This suggests that for many decades, what we knew about the effectiveness of museum experiences — whatever the metric — did not include knowledge about important aspects of identity, particularly the identities of those that have been historically marginalized in the United States.
Moving beyond the archives of Curator, a search of the audience-research focused journal Visitor Studies (and its predecessor, Visitor Behavior) revealed several articles discussing what identities motivate visitors to come to museums. Motivation and identity go hand-in-hand, as described by John Falk with his five identity-related visitor motivations (Falk, 2006, 2011; Falk, Heimlich & Bronnenkant, 2008), otherwise referred to as little “i” — or situational — identities. Dawson & Jensen (2011) critique Falk’s model, expressing concerns about “side-stepping of standard demographics or contextual factors, such as race/ethnicity, gender, class, and age” (p. 129). Understanding visitor motivations illuminates who is, and who isn’t, coming through the doors, but these motivations do not necessarily address how welcoming, or not, the museum is to its diverse community. Exploring the archives of the historic publication, Visitor Behavior, drew our attention to an entire 1993 issue (Volume 8, Issue 2), available as open access, addressing Black and African-American people in museums and multicultural pluralism. This issue articulates racial differences of museum visits, seeks to understand who does and doesn’t visit art museums and why, and sheds light on understanding leisure decisions of African-Americans. Much of what is discussed in these articles, including how to engage more diverse audiences, are discussions still occurring today amongst museum professionals.
Funding priorities have also shaped museum evaluation and its focus over the years. Much of what is known about museum learning in the United States comes from findings and measurement tools rooted in the sciences. This is likely due to the US government’s sizable influence in and notable funding preferences for informal science learning above other types of learning among federal agencies, which has had an effect on the museum field. Here we look at three different government agencies, which have distinct priorities: the National Science Foundation promotes the progress of science at museums and a wide range of other organizations, the Institute of Museum and Library Services supports museums and libraries but does not specifically emphasize science, and the National Endowment for the Arts supports creativity and the arts in museums and other organizations.
In the 2018 fiscal year budget, the National Science Foundation’s Advancing Informal Science Learning (AISL) program, which has historically supported museums, granted $62.7 million dollars in award funding to informal science learning efforts (Harris, 2017). In the same fiscal year, the Institute for Museum and Library Services reported that all grants to museums (including zoos, science, children’s, and arts museums) totaled $34.7 million, while the National Endowment for the Arts agency’s Arts Research grants only totaled $550,000. Though a small snapshot that does not include private funding for evaluation that comes from foundations and operating budgets, these numbers do indicate the disproportionate amount of funding for the sciences. This is especially important in the public sphere which requires public reporting and rigorous methodologies. Furthermore, as the emergence of new funding initiatives focused on diversity in federal funding (e.g. NSF INCLUDES) suggest, the primary recipients of science programming and learning research have often been white, which has likely affected museum evaluation as well.
With regards to the outcomes that these studies have focused on, there is a huge amount of literature focusing on the development of identity in the STEM fields and future workforce development. In 2009, the influential United States NGO National Academy of Sciences released the report, “Learning Science in Informal Environments: People, Places and Pursuits.” The following year, an entire issue of Curator (Volume 53, Issue 2) was devoted to responses by museum professionals to the report, from the perspective of other disciplines (art, history, digital media), programming, and assessment. The report, and these reflections, remain influential 10 years later.
Driving the Field Forward: What Can We Do?
Museum-based evaluations are often highly localized and contextual, which has benefits and drawbacks. On the one hand, findings do not always easily translate to other settings. On the other, the ability to customize evaluation questions and processes to the participants and program — and above all, be grounded in the cultural context in which the evaluation is occurring — are imperative for participants to feel open to collaborate. The practice of Culturally Responsive Evaluation is guided by a belief that cultures understand, articulate, and use evaluation in different ways, and most of all, know what processes and outcomes are best for their cultural group. While no two communities are exactly the same, as we think about creating and evaluating welcoming spaces, we need to be more intentional, anti-racist, and empathetic, as suggested by recent articles cited in this Virtual Issue.
Elaine Gurian (2014) offered sets of critical questions for museum staff to reflect on their assumptions about visitors, staff, knowledge, and community. In 2016, colleagues across the museum sector gathered for the first Museums and Race convening (Fischer, Anila & Moore, 2017), a meeting centered around systematic racism in museums. What came out of the meeting was a list of recommendations for self-work specific to white people, people of color, allies of museum professionals, and institutions. And in the Empathetic Museum (Jennings et al, 2019), the authors suggest that museum institutions communicate a “body language” that impacts visitors. The institutional identity is made up of all of the individuals who work there, and must overcome the museum fields’ traditions of siloing, stasis, and silence. They write, “True change will only come through an honest assessment of internal culture and external practices — including a process of decolonization and the rejection of systemic white supremacy” (p. 13). The authors of these articles, representing many different museums, positions, and personal identities urge museum professionals — especially those who have always felt welcome and comfortable — to critically examine our personal and institutional identities before we make any more evaluative claims of being welcoming to all.
A museum is more than its collection, exhibits, and programs. Museums are about, by, and for people. Museum staff need to represent the communities they serve and their voices need to be valued in order to disrupt the authority and power typically held by museum leadership. Evaluations and the work of evaluators can help disrupt that authority and power by facilitating collaboration to articulate goals, documenting outcomes, and leading collective meaning making (e.g. Korn, 2017). Doing so increases the likelihood that “problematic exhibits and activities will be recognized and revised before being deployed… helping make the museum a more welcoming place for visitors of all backgrounds” (Gilbert, 2016, p. 137 [emphasis added by authors]). It is imperative that we embed these practices into our collaborations so that all partners see their contributions included.
We call for museum evaluators, ourselves included, to examine their personal identity and history with museums, and to recognize biases in our own work. Based on what we have learned through reviewing the archives of Curator and our own self-work, we recognize that some issues are structural, some societal, some cultural, and some personal. We encourage all museum professionals to interrogate their own biases and assumptions using resources such as MASS Action, review and discuss culturally responsive evaluation practices, and utilize tools included in articles referenced above (specifically Gurian, 2014 and Fischer, et al., 2017). We must resist what has felt “normal” for many of us who have always felt welcome to truly transform our museums to be welcoming to all.
Baldwin, J. (2020, February 10). If You Don’t Close the Museum Salary Gap, You Perpetuate It. [Blog Post] Retrieved from: https://leadershipmatters1213.wordpress.com/2020/02/10/if-you-dont-close-the-museum-salary-gap-you-perpetuate-it/
Baldwin, J. (Ed.) (2016) A Call for Gender Equity in the Museum Workplace. [Position Paper]. Retrieved from: https://leadershipmatters1213.files.wordpress.com/2014/12/gemmplatform-1.pdf
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