As I consider this moment of becoming President of AAMD, I am honored and humbled and, at the same time, fueled by a real sense of urgency and resolve.
I am humbled because I so admire the members of this association and all I’ve learned from you. I am honored by the outstanding work of AAMD and its staff, who create extraordinary learning opportunities for all of us and who lead the way around critical legislative and policies issues for the field. And I’m particularly inspired by the leaders who have held this position over the past few years as I’ve observed their work and the commitment they’ve demonstrated to AAMD.
My sense of urgency comes because of the times in which we are living, the position we hold of real power and influence to make a positive difference, and my firm belief that museums must be part of, and even central to, re-imagining a different direction for our country and reaffirming a commitment to the values we all want to believe are central to our nation. In this regard, I know these are values shared by our Canadian and Mexican colleagues as well.
I recall with fondness our former AAMD President, Dr. Johnetta Cole, drawing on African proverbs to express herself and her views so eloquently. Well, being a Midwestern transplant to California, I am much more likely to quote musical theater. And over the past few months I’ve become downright obsessed with the musical, “Hamilton.” One song, among many, from “Hamilton” that resonates for me more than ever is “The World Turned Upside Down.” The musical depicts -- and legend has it -- that this song signaled the American victory over the British at the Battle of Yorktown that turned the tide of the American Revolution. For me and for many of us, I know, the world has indeed been turned upside down. And, again, this experience isn’t unique to Americans.
So, when history has its eyes on us, what does this mean for museums? I believe it means that we can’t simply do what we’ve always done. We are certainly repositories of humankind’s creative achievements and places of reflection and solace. These functions of museums in our society are important and necessary. I believe, however, we need to challenge ourselves to do more. And, as several of our former AAMD Presidents would remind us, the data shows us that we need to do more.
I was stunned to learn from a recently released study by AAM that almost half of American museum boards, 46% to be precise, are all white. The Boards of these museums contain no people of color.
We know from the Mellon survey that white staff continue to dominate the job categories most closely associated with the intellectual and educational mission of museums. In that subset of positions that includes curators, conservators, and executive leadership, 84% of staff are white. So, that’s who is running our museums.
What about people attending museums? A study from AAM in 2010 reflected that 79% percent of all those who pass through American museum doors are Caucasian. This stands in stark contrast to Latinos who make up only 9 percent of museum visitors, even though they make up 14 percent of the total population. Similarly, African-Americans, who make up 11 percent of the American population, only show up as 6 percent of all museum visitors.
So, this data tells us that, although we may believe that museums are for everyone, that they matter, and that they change lives, most people don’t actually have the lived experience that museums are for them. Indeed, most people haven’t had the privilege of experiencing and knowing that museums are for them. And, when they do come to many museums, they often don’t see themselves on our walls or hear their stories in our programming. And, if our museums don’t reflect our communities and don’t include the full diversity of our communities as visitors, staff or trustees, then we are compelled to make change. We can’t fulfill the full potential we have as institutions to be in service to people without embracing the full range of people within these institutions.
These are strange times indeed to be a President, but as I assume this role, I am holding myself accountable to work with you all to explore how we move forward with courage and resolve. How do we do this? We must keep pushing forward with efforts in diversity, equity, inclusion and access. We know – and were reminded at this conference –how long this conversation has been underway, but we need to double down on specific, concrete steps to make change.
I believe we can also do more to align with other kinds of museums. Our colleagues in science museums are working hard to stand up for the reality and urgency of climate change and other environmental threats. We can support them in this work. Our history museum partners are presenting vital programming around civil rights, mass incarceration, and immigration, and I’m sure there are more ways we can collaborate. And, we can look at every decision we are in the unique position to make – from the people we hire to the way we engage our donors and elected officials. And perhaps most importantly, we need to examine whose stories we tell, who tells those stories, and what objects we venerate in order to advance our impact as individual institutions and as a collective field.
In my brief one year in this role, I look forward to working with all of you to see how best we can come together and move forward with these issues. In these times, as the world turns upside down, we’re not throwing away our shot!
Director, Oakland Museum of California
May 22, 2017
Photo of Lori Fogarty by Terry Lorant. Image courtesy of the Oakland Museum of California.