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Museums can do better: A response to museum inclusivity
A Black lives Matter mural that was painted on 5th Avenue is seen directly in front of Trump Tower on July 13, 2020 in New York City. In a tweet, President Trump called the mural a "symbol of hate" and said that it would be "denigrating this luxury Avenue". David Dee Delgado/Getty Images/AFP.

by Kimberly Fernandez Pedraza

SANTA CLARA, CA.- Along with the rest of the nation, I have witnessed in the last couple of weeks the Black Lives Matter protests occurring throughout the country and the pressure to make changes in structural racism, particularly that is reflected in the police system. As we begin to see changes in the systems and structures of our society, there is a call to make changes in all aspects of society which include museums and a movement to diversify them to be more reflective of black identities and other traditionally marginalized communities. As a rising senior art history major and Latina women, I can attest this has been long overdue.

Museums are vastly important cultural institutions that dominate American culture and leisure. They are sites that often share the goals of showcasing objects, entertainment, and educating the public. However, these spaces are often assumed to be only made for a select few. In an episode of Hasan Minaj’s Netflix series Patriot Act, he discussed making a comparison with universities and museums and the assumption that these institutions are only made for the wealthy and educated. These organizations exist to promote biased academia and their eurocentric values. Instead of being spaces that celebrate the changing nature of our society and seek to promote new ideological views, they continue to only allow a few select ideas and identities dominante, leaving out inclusive and progressive principles. I recall my own experiences with museums and how it parallels that assumption. The artists and themes showcased never appealed to me and the spaces were unwelcoming to individuals who did not come from an “educated” background. I am a first generation college student with an immigrant mother, whose first language is Spanish. Growing up, my family and I never felt we had the cultural competency to be in these spaces. Within my own major, my colleagues who share a similar background as me -- low income, BIPOC (Black, Indigenons, people of color) immigrant parents and first generation college students -- have shared their own similar accounts of feeling unwelcomed in museums and fears of lacking the “education” to be in these spaces. There is a common theme of..

The American Association of Museums is able to lay out details that further the agitation and feelings of my friends and I. There is an obvious discrepancy when we look at which ehtnic groups visit museums and which ones do not. They noted that less than 9% of Latinx individuals visit art museums, although they compromise 13.5% of the U.S. population.The same trend can be noted among the Black community, where less than 6% of their population visits art museums, although they make up 11.4% of the total U.S. population. The largest group that visits art museums are caucisans, since they make up about 80% of the art museum attendance, yet make up less than 69% of the total U.S. population. These statistics show the lack of inclusivity efforts made by museums push away BIPOC individuals which continues to push the idea that museums are not created for BIPOC folks to enjoy. It is a cycle that needs to end.

In response to the BLM movement museums have made statements promising to make changes in order to ensure equality and representation. Some museums are able to promise changes to promote diversity and ensure all identities are showcased. The curatorial department of the Guggenheim issued a letter to it’s leadership asking for more diversity within its hiring practices as well as the art that is showcased since both of these practices favor the dominance of white identity. Meanwhile others fall short by lacking genuine efforts to make changes. The New Orleans Museum of Art has disappointed it’s supporters with its lack of action. Former employees issued a letter that referenced an exhibition from 2019 that centered around the interior of a former plantation along with the museum employing a single full time Black staff member. The museum has yet to respond to the letter with substantial changes to improve its diversity efforts.

These recent statements and changes by museums show the slow progress made in recent efforts to begin to diversify museums to be more inclusive. The Baltimore Museum of Art promised to only buy art from female artists in 2020. Women artists and their work have been another identity that has been suppressed by museums and the academies in order to uphold the ideals of white, male, European artists. Coming into the decade, I found myself pleased with this development, however, I knew there could be better progress. As a Latina woman, it was reassuring to see changes made in attempting to create an inclusionary museum culture based on gender, however, I also longed for further developments to ensure that all identities are showcased in regards to race, gender, sexuality, etc. I thought to myself how much more difficult could it be to make similar strides for BIPOC artists? Why can’t museums make better efforts in intersectionality and establishing an inclusionary environment?

We have seen in recent weeks, the call to action made by individuals and the responses and statements museums have put out. This is the time when performance allyship is challenged and when museums need to commit to more than just posting a black square on social media. As cultural institutions of the United States, museums have had a deep impact on our society and can simply do better. Too often have I heard other BIPOC students ashamed to enter museum spaces due to their identities not being reflected. Too long has there been a stigma around museums where only the “educated and elite” can enjoy the masterpieces from a eurocentric history. As our society is evolving to be inclusive of the identities present in the nation, institutions like museums need to be following this trend. The U.S. census now projects that by 2045, the U.S. will become a majority-minority country, leaving historically underrepresented minorities to now be at the forefront of our demographics. Museums can no longer ignore us, and need to begin making substantial overdue changes in their programming and representation.

The “efforts” being made by museums are not enough. As we begin to delve into the larger structural changes aimed at combating racism and other injustices, museums need to do more than promise to acquire works of art from BIPOC artists. They also need programming and have informative educational efforts to relate the importance of these newly acquired works. Additionally, the staff members of these cultural institutions also need to be reflective of the inclusivity that our country is headed towards. I do not want to see BIPOC staff members only acting as chief diversity officers, they also need to be seen in other roles that allow them to influence all the departments of the institution. I want to see Black curators, Latinx directors, Asian conservators , Indigenous exhibition designers, Queer docents, and more . In order for museums to promote their new found passion for inclusivity, it is important that it is reflected in all aspects of the museum, not solely on the artists being represented.

I write this article as a response to museums finally acknowledging the trends of eurocentrism that dominate their galleries and their new found purpose to have museums as spaces that anyone can enjoy. After seeing countless institutions give statements with promises to uphold diversity and inclusion and widen the identities they showcase, I was thrilled to see the positive profunds impacts the Black Lives Matter movement has had, however, I was also skeptical of museums to uphold these promises. Practices such as acquiring art from traditionally marginalized communities and having a diverse staff that is reflective of the diversity of the U.S. should have been implemented long ago. With the resources and influence, museums hold they simply can do better. I am tired of hearing empty promises, tired of seeing these efforts being forgotten, and tired of museum leadership lacking the desire for change. As museum employees, they have a right to serve the needs of the public and that begins with reflecting the diverse community in it’s galleries and staff. Museums can do better and once real and considerable changes are implemented that’s when my skepticism will end.

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