Nick Martinez, MPA
Nick Martinez is Manager of Internships and Youth Community at the American Museum of Natural History. Drawing on his own African American and Hispanic identity, his work focuses on bringing communities of color into museum spaces. Nick is a member of the 2020 Knology — Curator: The Museum Journal Writing Scholars Workshop.
Museums have long been considered bastions of knowledge, housing some of humanity’s greatest works of art and creativity, helping society understand complex scientific principles, and exposing millions of people to a variety of cultures from across the globe. At the same time, museums have been a hallmark of colonialism and oppression, a manifestation of white supremacy that supports the normalization of whiteness and alienation of non-white cultures. Whiteness assumed the privilege of visiting distant lands and removing cultural objects and treasures. Whiteness excised people from their lands and homes. Whiteness placed objects and people on display for consumption by a largely white audience. While many institutions are now repatriating some objects, vestiges of these power dynamics are still present in museums today.
Despite museums’ problematic history, the first two decades of the 21st century saw the field, visitorship, and the sector’s economic output grow rapidly. Here, I focus on the context of the United States of America because that is where I live and work. In early 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic, it was estimated that museums in the US received more than 850 million visits per year and annually contributed more than $50 billion dollars to the economy (AAM, 2020). In 2014, The Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), a federal agency that supports the cultural sector in the US, estimated that there are over 35,000 active museums in the country, a number that doubled from the 1990s when there were approximately 17,500 museums across the country (IMLS, 2014). The museum sector has grown in many other countries as well (OECD & ICOM, 2019).
In spite of this expansion, non-white visitorship to museums in the US continues to lag behind the growing non-white population of the country (Center for the Future of Museums, 2017). Museums have invested heavily in trying to recruit diverse audiences, but there has been limited success. No longer can museums be accessible only to those from the highest socio-economic brackets, nor can they only tell stories through the lens of whiteness. The museum field in the US and beyond now understands that these institutions’ inability to attract diverse audiences threatens the relevance and role of museums in society (Akiva, Shunn, and Louw, 2017; Merritt, 2011).
Today’s museums are grappling with the legacy of colonialism and oppression, while trying to maintain relevance as the US shifts to becoming a majority minority nation (Center for the Future of Museums, 2017). Specifically, within the US, the African American community has been largely ignored and left out of participation within museums, despite being one of the largest minority groups in the country.
I examined Curator: The Museum Journal’s archive and other sources looking for the history of minority community representation and depiction within museum spaces. My goal was to understand what the literature suggests as a starting place for increasing participation from African American communities within museum spaces. Curator’s archive offered few studies specifically connected to African American participation and experiences in museums, which was not surprising to me. But my analysis of other articles in the archive both shed new light on this topic and suggested promising ways forward.
Most audience participation studies that I encountered used white lenses and failed to highlight the ethnicity and racial identity of the study participants indicating, incorrectly, that race, ethnicity or even income do not impact how a visitor engages within a museum space. The few studies that exist explicitly indicate that ethnicity has a huge impact on museum participation, but it is difficult to study audience participation among non-white audiences when they have opted out. John Falk’s (1993) study of leisure decisions among African Americans showed that regardless of ethnicity, museum visitors were more educated and more affluent than the general population. But even when education and wealth were controlled for, Black people visited museums at half the rate of white people. Additionally, there were perceptions among the study participants that museums are racist institutions and not really a “black thing.” Even with that understanding, Falk published an article in 2010 titled An Identity‐Centered Approach to Understanding Museum Learning that mentions ethnicity twice, but fails to identify the ethnicities of the study participants or describe how ethnicity may or may not impact the visitor motivations and engagement (Falk, 2010).
In a more recent Curator article, researchers Thomas Akiva, Christian D. Schunn, and Marti Louw (2017) compared participation in two programs, one at an art museum and a second at a neighborhood-based organization. They determined that ethnicity was the largest demographic determinant of participation in the two programs. Compared to participants in the neighborhood-based organization, most people who attended the art museum program came from neighborhoods with smaller populations of African Americans, lower proportions of those below the poverty line, and lower rates of people without college degrees. This research suggests that we need to take a look at studies that go beyond counting attendance of African Americans in museums.
The literature indicates that a critical factor behind African American participation in museums is the field’s history. Many museums were designed by white people for white audiences and were never intended to be spaces serving diverse audiences. Racial segregation was outlawed in the United States in the 1960s when Congress passed laws to stop discrimination in voting and elections, housing, and education. The Curator archives show that segregation lived on in different ways in museums. According to Smithsonian Institution researcher Faun Rice, “installations specifically for non-white artists might be placed in a museum lobby or dining area, re-segregating African American art and relegating it to the doorways and kitchens of America’s prestigious institutions” (Rice, 2017, p. 249). Similarly, Falk pointed out in an earlier Curator article that the lack of prominence given to non-white artists’ work and cultural exhibitions that continued to exoticize and stereotype non-white groups contributed to the idea that museums are not for communities of color (Falk, 1993).
Staffing and the design of exhibitions play a role in African Americans’ engagement with museums as well, according to my review of Curator’s archive. An article by Barbara J. Soren (2000) suggested that the white lenses that museums and exhibitions have been designed with alienate communities of color. A participant in an audience study conducted by the Art Institute of Chicago, when discussing a lack of African American visitors, said during an interview, “There is a broad cross-section of people and a large middle class in Chicago; it’s puzzling why they’re not here?” (p. 332). Another participant in the same study asked, “Where are the people of color on staff besides cafeteria staff and security guards?” (p. 332).
A history of colonialism and racism in the way museums are structured has led to the exploitation of non-white cultures, a lack of authentic representation in exhibitions, and staffing that does not utilize the experiences and expertise of members of those cultures. When museums do hire African American professionals, those individuals face racism, discrimination, and erasure. For example, at the American Museum of Natural History, where I work, there is no public recognition of the work of Joseph Towles, an African American anthropologist. Towles curated and developed exhibits in the Hall of African Peoples in conjunction with his colleague and partner Colin Turnbull from 1965 to 1967 (Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture, 2009). But even though other curators and museum staff are named, Towles is not mentioned in the hall or on the museum website, and is absent from most discussion about the development of the exhibition. In an article published by Curator in 1973 about the development of the Hall of African Peoples, then called Hall of Man in Africa, Thomas Nicholson makes no mention of Towles and attributes the work mainly to Turnbull and exhibition designer, Henry Gardiner (Nicholson, 1973). Today, over 50 years later, this omission gives the sense that the museum exploited the African American scholar’s work and refuses to acknowledge his contributions. If African American staff of museums are treated this way, communities of color cannot expect to feel respected, valued, or welcomed in these spaces.
Approaches & Practices
What will it take to increase museum participation among African Americans in the US? Generating visitorship among African Americans takes more than simply starting the engagement early in people’s lives. Many young people visit museums on field trips and family outings, but that hasn’t helped to create lifelong museum-goers (Falk, 1993). Based on the literature I’ve studied and my own experience of working in the field, I believe museums must go through a comprehensive examination and reimagination of their culture. This work will require more effort than posting vapid statements of solidarity with Black Lives Matter and public commitments to diversity, so often carefully worded to allow for little transparency. It demands accountability, confronting the institution’s participation in systems of oppression, addressing hiring and promotion disparities, using the museum’s space and platform to amplify Black voices, and respecting the contributions and work of Black people. Museums can no longer be spaces for housing the spoils of colonialism. Museums must be places that not only have diverse staff working at all levels throughout the institution, but also spaces for dynamic conversation and thought. Here are some ideas based on literature from Curator’s archives and other sources:
Exhibition Design – Dynamic exhibition design is just as important as diversity among members of staff and audiences, when it comes to engaging non-white audiences. This is especially true when exhibitions discuss culture. Museums should design exhibitions with regular iteration planned for the life of the installation. Exhibitions focusing on culture can quickly embody problematic stereotypes and become time capsules depicting a cultural group as static rather than the dynamic amalgam of traditional and contemporary practices typical of all cultures. The Hall of African Peoples at the American Museum of Natural History, curated in the 1960s by Joseph Towles and Colin Turnbull, was designed to highlight that “tribal society in Africa achieved stability and developed moral and social characteristics often considered to be a monopoly of the western world” (Nicholson, 1973). When it was designed, the exhibition was sectioned into ecological zones, instead of by country, region, or cultural practice. It featured displays of instruments, tools, masks, and ceremonial dress. There were also life-size dioramas of people in their environments, an exhibition technique often seen in animal-focused exhibitions like the Hall of African Mammals, North American Mammals, or Birds of the World. The exhibit is still structured the same way today and remains largely unchanged. However, in 2020 The Hall of African Peoples is seen by many visitors and staff as an example of colonialism, oppression, and anti-Blackness. The varying states of disrepair, antiquated thinking, and lack of updates in many ways, paints the cultures and peoples of Africa as stuck in the past.
It is possible to build accurate and respectful exhibits about cultures if museums invest the time. As Lauren Cross and Tiffany Isselhardt (2020) described in their Virtual Issue, museum staff can effectively collaborate with the groups that will be represented within museum spaces. Recently, the American Museum of Natural History began a project to renovate and co-curate a new iteration of the former Hall of Northwest Coast Indians in partnership with Indigenous groups from the Pacific Northwest coast of North America. This is an opportunity for First Nation peoples to author their own story and shape public understanding of their people for decades to come, while providing significant cultural context to the artifacts often void of the significance to the people who made them (D’Costa, 2017). This project is a beginning step for a famous museum to address a problematic narrative that has offended many of the people the original exhibition was meant to acknowledge.
Sharing Authority – New generations of potential museum patrons have grown up in the digital age with immense creative ability, and many look for opportunities to create and curate content in ways that make it their own (Merritt, 2011). Shifting away from a model where the museum is the sole keeper and producer of knowledge can bridge gaps between communities and museums. To accomplish this, institutions should experiment with collaborating and embracing the ideas, expertise, and perspectives of local communities. In their Curator article, Pamela Barnes and Gayle McPherson described the impact community collaboration can have on the demographics of museum visitorship, writing, “Allowing different members of the community to engage with the development of the museum and gallery planning will allow the site to move away from being represented by a small section of the community who are often older, wealthier and who hold higher formal education levels” (Barnes and McPherson, 2019, p. 264). This approach requires museums to relinquish some power and control and engage in true collaboration in shaping narratives.
Representation – African American audiences want representation not only within staff and volunteers of museums, but also within museums’ exhibitions and promotional material. We want our work and contributions acknowledged, compensated, and not exploited. In the study of art museum visitors, Soren describes Black visitors who voiced a desire for African American content in their museum experience. One visitor said, “For art to be displayed that I can relate to—I want to see more paintings of African Americans—something to get in depth with” (Soren, 2000, p. 333).
Curator’s archive offers a case study by Portia James (1996), about a museum that was built with the goal of community representation. The Anacostia Community Museum in Washington, DC was designed to focus on the African American community in a section of the city, be a part of the community, and to co-produce with members of the community. As an initiative of the Smithsonian Institution, the museum was built in the 1960s within a community that was reluctant to travel the 8 kilometers (5 miles) to the National Mall, where many of the US’ federally funded museums with free admission are located. The Anacostia museum provided a space that celebrated the art and culture of the African American community and placed the community at the forefront of its work. James reports that the museum faced challenges maintaining the community aspect as its identity shifted from community involvement to a more traditional format in a new location with roped-off displays, security guards in galleries, and dropping “neighborhood” from its original name, the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum. Ultimately, the museum returned to the community-centered practices that originally drew its core, local audience. These renewed efforts involved community advisory boards, local cultural organizations, and places of worship in exhibition and programming development. With a commitment to equitable participation, many museums can use these techniques to undertake equitable representation in their spaces and exhibits.
Museums are havens of knowledge, providing visitors with self-directed learning opportunities to explore their interests and passions. A review of literature in Curator’s archives indicates that, historically, non-white audiences have largely been excluded from authoring and curating their own stories in these spaces. Why, then, would they choose to visit? If museums seek to reach the diverse people in their communities, they must look for ways to incorporate non-white audiences in the creation process so that people who have been excluded are represented and respected in their halls. Research published in Curator and elsewhere points to the potential for this work. As an African American museum professional, I believe my community wants to be embraced as collaborators, as owners of their stories, and the voices that tell those stories. As the museum field continues to evolve, it’s critical for non-white audiences to have space and presence within these institutions.
American Alliance of Museums. (2020). Museum Facts and Data. https://www.aam-us.org/programs/about-museums/museum-facts-data/
Akiva, T., Schunn, C.D. and Louw, M. (2017), What Drives Attendance at Informal Learning Activities? A Study of Two Art Programs. Curator: The Museum Journal, 60: 351-364. https://doi.org/10.1111/cura.12206
Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture. (2009). Joseph A. Towles Papers. https://avery.cofc.edu/archives/Towles_Joseph_A.html
Barnes, P. and McPherson, G. (2019), Co‐Creating, Co‐producing and Connecting: Museum Practice Today. Curator: The Museum Journal, 62: 257-267. https://doi.org/10.1111/cura.12309
Center for the Future of Museums. (2017), Demographic Transformation and the Future of Museums. https://www.aam-us.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/Demographic-Change-and-the-Future-of-Museums.pdf
Cross, L. and Isselhardt, T. (2020), You Love Them, but You Don’t Know Them: Recognizing & Welcoming Lived Experiences. Curator: The Museum Journal. https://curatorjournal.org/virtual-issues/you-love-them-but-you-dont-know-them/
D’Costa, K. (2017), Historic Northwest Coast Hall to Undergo Significant Restoration at AMNH with Support from First Nation Representatives. Scientific American https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/anthropology-in-practice/historic-northwest-coast-hall-to-undergo-significant-restoration-at-amnh-with-support-from-first-nation-representatives/
Falk, J. (1993), Leisure Decisions Influencing African-American Use of Museums. Visitor Behavior, 8: 11-12. https://VSA-a0a1u2-a_5730.pdf
Falk, J. H. (2006). An identity‐centered approach to understanding museum learning. Curator: The Museum Journal, 49: 151-166. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.2151-6952.2006.tb00209.x
Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS). (2014) Government Doubles Official Estimate: There Are 35,000 Active Museums in the U.S. https://www.imls.gov/news/government-doubles-official-estimate-there-are-35000-active-museums-us
James, P. (1996), Building a Community‐Based Identity at Anacostia Museum. Curator: The Museum Journal, 39: 19-44. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.2151-6952.1996.tb01073.x
Merritt, E. (2011), How to Forecast the Future of Museums. Curator: The Museum Journal, 54: 25-34. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.2151-6952.2010.00062.x
Nicholson, T.D. (1973), The Hall of Man in Africa at The American Museum of Natural History. Curator: The Museum Journal, 16: 5-24. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.2151-6952.1973.tb00909.x
OECD & ICOM. (2019). Culture and Local Development: Maximising the Impact: Guide for Local Governments, Communities and Museums. OECD & ICOM. Accessed 21 August 2020: https://icom.museum/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/ICOM-OECD-GUIDE_EN_FINAL.pdf
Rice, F. (2017), National Museum of African American History and Culture: A New Integration?. Curator: The Museum Journal, 60: 249-258. https://doi.org/10.1111/cura.12195
Soren, B.J. (2000), Audience Research Informs Strategic Planning in Two Art Museums. Curator: The Museum Journal, 43: 324-342. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.2151-6952.2000.tb00016.x