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.
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 no longer public).
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 Black and Latino people 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 Black 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 visitor behavior. These feelings are real, and I now believe they are at the core of the persistent problem many museums have engaging with their full community.
The experiences and feelings conveyed to me by others including Latinos are not quite the same, but for both Blacks 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 key 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 Blacks and Latinos.
In the middle of a recent workshop I was conducting for a large public 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 Blacks and Latinos. Its strategy will likely not contain within it the voice of their needs. Such an institution may have many programs designed for the community with its high Black and Latino numbers, 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 delusion—and 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 cultural institutions who have said to me, in effect, “Our programs, our collections, everything that we do is intended for all. 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 our 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 Black and Latino 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.
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 populations. 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. It’s time to say hello.
Having written 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.
Photo credit: The Mother of All Trips