The Unbearable Whiteness of Being


Recently, Nina Simon summarized the posts of several bloggers on the lack of ethnic diversity in the arts.  This past week she posted On White Privilege and Museums that explores museums as venues of white privilege.  Comments responding to the latter post are plentiful (over 30) and range across a broad spectrum from support to rejection with opinions divided more-or-less akin to a bell-shaped curve.

An important tool for approaching diversity in museums rests in Simon’s model of the co-creative projects she discusses in The Participatory Museum.  Simon (2010:187) writes the purpose of a co-creative community project is “To give voice and be responsive to the needs and interests of local community members; to provide a place for community engagement and dialogue; and to help participants develop skills that will support their own individual and community goals.” This nuts and bolts approach was addressed in a recent guest post on Simon’s Museum 2.0 blog – Tools for Partnering With Community Members.  This post elicited three brief comments in response.  Using amount of feedback as a gauge, the discussion of more methodological approaches for community engagement are of less interest in the museum community than a more theoretical discussion on white privilege.

As a museum director, I am influenced by my discipline of applied anthropology.  Writing in the Epilogue to Places in Mind: Public Archaeology as Applied AnthropologyErve Chambers (2004:194) notes “What is important to recognize here is that what makes this work applied is not the knowledge itself, which certainly can be relevant to the interests of others, but the act of engagement with others who are trying to make decisions related to particular heritage resources.”  This approach is completely aligned to Simon’s co-creative processes.  Elsewhere, I liken this approach as moving those represented in museums from the role of actors on the stage to directors of the performance.

Though scholars considered the inherent problems in viewing museums as elite institutions since before the publication of John Cotton Dana‘s New Museum early in the 20th Century, addressing the concern today remains a substantive discussion in museum studies.  I am convinced that a strategic long-term commitment to incrementally operationalize and institutionalize steps that consistently address diversity and representation in museums remains critical to demonstrating the relevance and sustainability of cultural heritage venues.  Without such a commitment, we should not expect the public to treat us as anything other than modern-day carpetbaggers.

At the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa the past five years presented revealing experiences as our cultural heritage venue governed by the University of Memphis launched an outreach program to the residents of the 95% African-American community in which the facility is located.  The back story of that process is covered here.  Some of the key observations we made from this five-year expereince include:

  • We learned about the place of the informal economic institution and community matriarch/caretaker known as the “candy lady” from the high school students who created an exhibit on the cultural heritage of their community at the C.H. Nash Museum in 2010.  The youth spoke with ease and knowledge of these women and their institutional role in the community.  Neither JSTOR, the first three pages of a Google search, or Wikipedia provide any reference to the role of a community candy lady.  This simple experience, and others like it from the summer of 2010, demonstrated that if we do not fully engage community as equal partners and/or co-creators in museum exhibits, the museum staff simply does not have access to the information to tell the story.
  • In the spring of 2012 we held a series of focus groups to obtain stakeholder input on the redesign of our main hall exhibits.  One of the focus groups was with residents who live in the community surrounding the museum.  In the focus group, the residents expressed a modest interest in the exhibit upgrade but were particularly drawn to the current Native American traditional food exhibits.  The residents reflected on the traditional foods of their youth and regretted that the community did not have a space for a public urban garden to grow these crops today.  Our museum complex has 40 acres of open space, including an unused garden area, so the match was obvious.  The community now has a public urban garden, that doubles as a museum exhibit, and provides programming opportunities.  The lesson learned is that had our staff brainstormed at length on community engagement, I doubt we would have hit on this need and opportunity of a public urban garden planted, tended, and harvested by the neighborhood residents.  In Experience Service Learning, Robert Kronick et al. (2011:23) write that the service relationship is where one “listens to the concerns of the group or person, lets the “other” define the situation, and responds by trying to meet that need. In listening and learning, receiving and giving, the service-learning relationship is horizontal, lateral, parallel. It is not hierarchical.”
  • To the extent we have been successful in year five of our community outreach efforts, we were required to complete the first four.  That is, had we not gone through outreach projects in years one through four we could not have gotten to year five.  This understanding is integral to building long-term sustainable and relevant outreach efforts at diversification.
  • And finally, persistence is key, as well it should be.  Just because a museum has an epiphany and sees the light on community engagement, there is no reason for the long ignored community to view the efforts with anything more than suspicion.  I vividly recall the first community meeting I attended where we academics proclaimed our interest in outreach.  One community leader stated “Don’t tell me what the University of Memphis is going to do for my community.  The last time you were here for two years doing your research and all we got was a map on the wall.”

Both Simon’s discussion of co-creative experiences and Chambers concept of applied engagement are relevant in creating a mission driven perspective of service to the entire public with a true opportunity to address diversity and whiteness in museums.  This approach is wholly in line with the International Council of Museum’s definition of museums as “. . . institutions in the service of society and of its development” (ICOM 2004:222).

I will end here with a plug for an upcoming issue (this spring or summer) of Museums and Social Issues edited by Elizabeth Bollwerk, Natalye Tate and myself.  The issue titled “Open(ing) Authority Through Community Engagement” contains a set of case studies on this very topic.

What steps does your institution take to be relevant to the diverse public that you serve?


Published by


Museums, Anthropology, Bicycles, Recovery, Cancer, Retired

One thought on “The Unbearable Whiteness of Being”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s