Museums and Race

I’m going to talk about race. This means, if you are white, I have probably already activated in you something called racial anxiety—a fear of what I am going to say and probably also a strong desire to run away.

Please don’t.

Black and African Americans make up 13% of the national population but account for only 3% of museum attendees.

Racial inequality in this country has shockingly not improved much in the last 50 years, and museums and other cultural institutions are caught up in this like everyone else. Our own museum-related work has put us in touch with these issues in some surprising ways, and I’d like to share what we have found. Some of it I’m sure you already know, like the fact that black and African Americans make up 13% of the national population but account for only 3% of museum attendees. For Latinos, the numbers are only slightly better: 15% and 5% respectively (Reach Advisors).

So, what of it?

The question Who are you for? is real. Do you and should you serve a self-selected affluent, mostly white population, or do you exist for “the general public”? The difference between the general public and the museum-going public is clear and striking. Museums are essentially stuck at a 90% white attendance, despite the fact that whites have now shrunk to only 66% of the US population (stats from Museums & Society 2034). The national demographic trend lines are clear. The national museum trend line is not keeping pace.

I think museums’ intentions are genuine and good, but I also think that despite the best intentions, we have a problem, and the problem runs deep.

I truly believe museums want to do right by this. I think museums’ intentions are genuine and good, but I also think that despite the best intentions, we have a problem, and the problem runs deep.

I was inspired to write this article after hearing how, on one hand, the African Americans and Latinos we were talking to did not feel welcome at museums, zoos, and almost all the other informal educational institutions that we have on offer across this great land; and, on the other hand, reading something like this about the “lifeblood” of museums:

“The people visiting your organization have a higher likelihood than the general population of being a pet owner. They are also 12x more likely than the general population to own a horse for leisure/hobby (amateur) use.” —Know Your Own Bone blog

So let me try to articulate the four things I have learned so far:

Thing 1: “Lifeblood”

I found the blog post quoted above to be somewhat disturbing. It was posted on LinkedIn with an endorsement from a prominent cultural institution in a major US city, a city with a roughly 70% minority population. The post is actually a well-meaning analysis of a demographic segment that is, according to the author, essential to the present and future of all public-facing cultural institutions. As she puts it, “High propensity visitors (HPVs) are the lifeblood of a visitor-serving organization—they keep the doors open for zoos, aquariums, museums, theaters, symphonies, botanical gardens, etc.”

Who is this “high propensity visitor,” this savior persona?

The research shows her to be a horse-owning, foreign vacation-taking, daily fine diner. She’s an outdoor activity enjoyer—a broadband-connected connoisseur of the arts. Yes, that probably is the persona who currently supports most of the nation’s cultural institutions. And it seems that this is also the persona that has the greatest influence on the content and style of many cultural institutions.

The article goes on to recommend that institutions should actively “create programs and experiences that are most satisfying to these individuals.” I think this is exactly what public institutions have been doing for the past couple of hundred years, with the possible variation that once the “she” was a “he.” I think this description of reality may have more than a little to do with why said institutions must in turn now rely upon this group as their primary means of support. It’s a habitual and symbiotic relationship born of history and perpetuated by inertia and, hopefully, superficial necessity.

Who are museums for?

Are “zoos, aquariums, museums, theaters, symphonies, botanical gardens” really just for this horse pet crowd? That may be whom they now serve best, but is it for her that they really exist? Are “zoos, aquariums, museums, theaters, symphonies, botanical gardens” for everyone, or are they not?

Thing 2: You are not welcome.

Not only is she compelled to refute the stereotypes foisted on her every time she leaves her all-black neighborhood, but she also feels that she is not specifically invited to anyone else’s party, ever.

Not long ago I conducted what we call a persona interview (a kind of psychological profiling interview) with a senior manager of a very large cultural institution. My interviewee was African American and a representative of the largest single ethnic group in that city. She said some things that were revelatory for me. When asked if she experienced pressure to represent her race in public. She said, absolutely: “While you know that you shouldn’t feel like you have to represent an entire race or culture, you feel like you’re still doing that.” When asked which institutions she felt invited to, she responded, “I’m not sure I would feel invited to come to any of them, quite honestly … I don’t think they care. It comes across as if they don’t care if I come …”

Not only is she compelled to refute the stereotypes foisted on her every time she leaves her all-black neighborhood, but she also feels that she is not specifically invited to anyone else’s party, ever.

In another interview—this one conducted for branding research—a woman explained to me that she would rather take her son to the local park, with its limited educational value, than risk the trip to a major cultural institution where she was fearful that her son might misbehave, and in doing so, not only embarrass her, but inadvertently reinforce negative stereotypes about her race.

These statements echo what I have now heard a number of times in such interviews. These are not casual interviews; they are often quite intense 1.5 hour interviews in which we are trying to plumb the true fears and emotions that actually drive consumer behavior. These feelings are real, and I now believe they are at the core of the persistent problem many museums have with minority engagement.

The experiences and feelings conveyed to me by other minorities (Latinos being of particular interest since they are such a fast growing demographic) are not the same as these, but for both African Americans and Latinos, the disparity in behavior when it comes to museums is clear and troubling, and the absence of a feeling that they are welcome is clearly contributing to this disparity.

Are minorities truly not welcome, or is this simply an error of omission? One reason such omissions are so commonplace is the lack of representation in the roster of decision makers.

Thing 3: All white

This is not intentional exclusion. Its result, however, is that this institution will not know how to be welcoming to African Americans and Latinos.

In the middle of a recent Workshop I was conducting for a large cultural institution, it struck me that I had 30 senior personnel from this institution—all of the senior personnel in fact—and not one of them was a person of color. The city that this institution serves is anything but white, and yet everyone in that room, from whose minds all major decisions at that institution originate, was white. How would it be possible for this group to understand the needs of others whose lives, dreams, and worldviews were markedly different from theirs?

They couldn’t. It’s just not possible.

This is not a malicious omission. This is not intentional exclusion. Its result, however, is that this institution will not know how to be welcoming to African Americans and Latinos. Its strategy will likely not contain within it the voice of their needs. Such an institution may have many programs designed for non-white audiences, but will such an institution ever be able to speak to those groups as well as it does to those who are most like themselves? How could it?

Thing 4: Color blindness

For the sake of one’s children, in order to minimize the bill that they must pay, one must be careful not to take refuge in any delusionand the value placed on the color of the skin is always and everywhere and forever a delusion. -James Baldwin

I have had more than a few conversations with senior persons in public institutions who have said to me, in effect, “Our programs, our collections, everything that we do is intended for all comers. We are certainly not programming for white audiences. All are welcome and welcomed at our doors. Is that not enough? What else must we do?” They seem to be asking, “Isn’t the status quo, in terms of our product and my color blindness, sufficient?”

I believe that as a society and as institutions we nearly all now believe that we are inclusive. We believe that we serve without prejudice all members of the general public. And yet points 1-3 above indicate that this is not enough. When asking the question, “Who are we for?” is the answer really—intentionally or not—still Ms. High Propensity Visitor and her friends? The baseline practice of “color blindness” is not getting the job done. Quite the opposite.

If color blindness is not working, then institutions need to start seeing in color.

If we want an America in which African American visitors and patrons feel just as welcome to visit and patronize cultural institutions as white visitors and patrons, then we still have a lot of work to do. Such an America still requires an ongoing effort on the part of the cultural institutions themselves, and by their ambassadors—all of the employees who, whether they realize it or not, represent and reflect the beliefs and attitudes of these institutions. Color blindness is an excuse for inaction and the status quo, the 90% white status quo.

This is not all about altruism. If the demographics noted above mean anything, it is that this is an issue that will only grow in importance for cultural institutions over time. If color blindness is not working, then institutions need to start seeing in color.

Museums and Race

So are museums exclusionary or racist?

Visitors don’t want people to “look past” their race; they want most of all, to feel invited.

Are “zoos, aquariums, museums, theaters, symphonies, botanical gardens” unintentionally perpetuating exclusionary attitudes toward minorities? It seems that many institutions do not realize that their “color blindness,” in practice, easily translates into this kind of exclusion. The 90% attending white population is not a reflection of the US population today, and it will be even less so in the future. So, is the desire to “create programs and experiences that are most satisfying” to Ms. High Propensity Visitor a reflection of a habituated and perhaps unconscious pattern? Should public-facing cultural institutions be encouraged to focus on reinforcing a historical pattern that appeals to the needs of this group at the expense of others who are arguably going to be critical to all such institutions’ long-term survival?

All is certainly not lost. Visitors don’t want people to “look past” their race; they want most of all, to feel invited. This means recognizing that there are and need to be a variety of tactics to engage with groups more diverse than the High Propensity Visitor. There’s nothing wrong with realizing that your institution may need different approaches to welcome different ethnic and minority groups. Find out what your intended new audiences really need, and engage with them based on this understanding. Even if well-intentioned, the desire to generalize needs and assume they will be shared across various populations and communities is not likely to yield effective engagement.

The fact is: people are different. Special efforts may be required if you intend to genuinely invite and engage those outside of your core audience. If the default style of invitation is leading to a nearly all-white audience for your institution and that is not what your community looks like, there’s obviously a problem with that approach.

Museums and race

From a planning and marketing perspective, are you assuming your lifeblood is the aforementioned High Propensity Visitor? If so, it might be beneficial to look closely at the assumptions that underlie that decision. Are the key decision makers in your institution a reflection of the community that you serve? If not, why is that? Are you actually welcoming audiences other than your current core? How are you doing that? How well do you understand the needs of those more diverse audiences? If you have no idea what their needs are, it might be time to find out.

Does thinking about race make you racist? No. Does not thinking about race make you racist? Unfortunately sometimes yes. These are uncomfortable issues and hard to look squarely in the eye, but they are standing right in front of you. Time to say hello.

Having written all this, I do recognize the need to thoroughly understand this horse-owning, foreign-ski-tripping population. In the same fashion, I recommend that you attempt to thoroughly understand every current and potential audience for your institution, and I would postulate that this particular group is your “High Propensity Visitor” in part precisely because they are already so well-served. The future will require not just paying high wages to your star players but also taking on the challenging work of building a much deeper bench.

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Photo credit: The Mother of All Trips

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9 thoughts on “Museums and Race

  1. Rebecca Caroe (Creative Agency Secrets) says:

    I note that you don’t offer “absolute solutions” to race neutrality and I like that.

    Where I live (New Zealand) the non-whites come from a range of places from south Pacific islands, indigenous Maori, South Asia and increasingly Malaysia and India. But many whites are migrants like me (UK) and from South Africa and Australia. So we’re hard to separate except by accent.

    What I find interesting is that in the interest of a bending-over-backwards cultural tilt to favour the Maori there is a lot of dual language signage. But little recognition that other languages may also have relevance. Check out Te Papa, the national museum, and let me know what you think of their website.

  2. James Heaton says:

    Rebecca, Thank you for your comments and suggestion to look at Te Papa.

    I did look, and I’m still unsure whether or not they are just paying lip service to Maori, using words like some kind of ethnographic window dressing on things like the main menu. I did eventually, after some searching, find the “Plan your visit” subsection that has been translated into Maori. Much easier to find, however, are the downloadable brochures (Pānui whakamārama) available in English, Chinese, French, Japanese, German, Dutch, Spanish and Italian, but not Maori.

    So, I see that Te Papa is making an effort, but I also see in your comment something else that is very interesting. I wonder if others in the dominant (pan-European ancestral) culture see these efforts as bending-over-backwards, as a kind of empty pantomime. Is it regarded as more show than substance? Or, has it actually been effective in making people of Maori ancestry welcome? Would it have to be taken much further for it to actually work? Or, do the Maori of Wellington and its surrounds—with this slight prodding—actually come to see the enshrined treasures of their own past? Is doing this much both an too much and too little?

    Not questions for you, Rebecca, but—I suppose—questions for any institution that wants to reach out beyond the bubble of its dominant culture.

  3. Claire says:

    Thank you for introducing a difficult and long overdue discussion.

    If we see museums as microcosms of our larger society, your post helps remind us that our struggles with racial inclusion/exclusion are far from over. Museums today proclaim as their goal an increased number of visitors from disenfranchised populations coming through their doors. However, exhibit design and development has not changed to address this anticipated audience shift and content continues to be driven by a very typically white, middle to upper middle class background. No wonder audience demographic changes haven’t occurred in large numbers of museums.

    Science centers, children’s museums and other institutions that have robust school group visits have a great potential to lead a positive trend. But they must demonstrate an understanding of their diverse audience and give their young visitors something that makes them excited about return visits with their families.

    • James Heaton says:

      Claire, thank you for your thoughtful comments. I have avoided being proscriptive as much as I was able, but in conversations that have come to me since publishing this I have heard, for example, that a friend of mine has had to become an “activist” within her organization just to be able to colorize the staff. This suggests to me that change will take time.

      Habits of loving or not loving museums are built over a lifetime. The point you raise of low-barrier, low intimidation factor institutions devoting special attention in the cultivation of future museum lovers is critically important. My own love was certainly a transmission from my parents. How to recreate this a million times over in families with no such tradition? These are truly hard questions deserving of both thought and action.

      I think the discussion, as uncomfortable as it may be for people, is an essential first step, and we still seem to be taking some first steps.

      I do laude the AAM for publishing reports like Demographic Transformation and the Future of Museums (pdf), and I hope in some small way our sharing what we have found will help move the conversation along.

  4. Nina Simon says:

    Great post. Re Thing 2:, I recently worked with Porchia Moore, an incredible critical race theorist/museum practitioner, to publish her experience of being asked to “perform blackness” in a historic house tour in a really ugly way. The whole idea of implicitly or explicitly asking people to represent or perform their difference is complicated and limiting. Here’s Porchia’s story:

  5. Carolina says:

    Insightful, I would be curious to know if there is any research, publications and discussions being made on the topic of diversity within the institutional and at the museum-employee level. So if there is a 3% and 5% of black and Latino attendees, I can only imagine that the percentage of professional Museum workers who are Latino and black are not only significantly lower (and then even lower in mid-high management positions that deal with public programming, marketing, interpretation, etc..) but divided in such as way that looking at the hierarchy of museum staff workers throughout its entire institutional system contributes to the same issues addressed in this post. I also don’t know, but would like to learn what Museum aren’t doing well to seriously address their own staff diversity. I also ask since I myself am of Latin American decent, female, and a museum professional in the field of education and digital technology.

  6. Gretchen says:

    This is an excellent post, and I plan to share it widely. However, when I looked at your staff I did not find the diversity you espouse in your blog. I think modeling the very important points that you make in the blog is really important. I agree with Nina above that Porchia Moore would be a great person to contact. I also suggest Monica Montgomery, who lives in Brooklyn, an emerging museum professional and person of color. She has founded Museum Hue, an organization for mentoring and connecting people of color with cultural institutions. She can be reached @monicamuses, @museumhue and

    I also recommend looking at the website of the recent convening in Chicago on Museums and Race. You might find that of interest. Thank you again for your insightful blog. Best- Gretchen Jennings

    • James Heaton says:

      Sorry for the late reply and thank you for the comment. I know Monica from when we were together at Museum Camp (and I spoke with her this week at AAM2016). Thank you for the links and suggestions!

      Diversity is sometimes hard to see without more biography than we currently have on our about page. As we grow I am certain that so will the layers of our diversity. Diversity in all its forms is a strength and an asset that we intend to continue to develop.

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