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News & Press: Engagement

Who Belongs in Your Museum?

Tuesday, August 29, 2017   (2 Comments)
Posted by: Carl Aldrich
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What comes to mind when you hear “diversity?” Or “inclusion?” Or “equality?” Don’t worry, no one can hear your thoughts, so be honest. It can be a touchy subject. If you are like me, you might be uncomfortable with the idea because it has been the source of so much contention in recent years. If you are even more like me, you might be excusing yourself from thinking about it because your museum is dedicated to the industrious White Latter-day Saint Pioneer and the visitors coming to your museum are related to those people and want to experience that story. Keep thinking. I have found myself recently reflecting on what diversity even means and how it has impacted me.

 

Forgive me, then, if this blog post is more personal than we typically post, but bear with me and you will find some relevance. In exchange, I will be uncomfortably honest.


Territorial Statehouse State Park’s Interpretive Plan identifies themes that specifically relate to Utah’s Territorial period (1850-1896) and our Mission Statement goes further, stating that we will interpret the site as the Territorial capital (1850-1858). However, both contain a caveat: that our building and grounds continue to be a central gathering place for the community and that we will provide educational opportunities relevant to our community. “It is the town square.” It was this “however” that I glossed over in favor of a rigid timeframe and interpretation of the site. This makes it a safe and comfortable place to be a museum professional and a welcoming stop for nearly everyone in Utah, and we are exempt from all the talks about diversity and inclusion and equal access that go on in the museum world. Or so I thought!


My "Ah-ha" Moment

In 2016 my museum held an open house. There was free food, free admission, artifacts that I brought out for that day only, and representatives from other relevant organizations. I was at the very end of the trip through the museum showing off some of the things I was doing to better care for our artifacts. If you survived my speech you got a ticket for a sandwich. Before going on, understand that I was never very sensitive until I had kids of my own, and my first son was about to turn a year old at this time, so I was still discovering that I had feelings. Towards the end of the day, a gentleman came into the museum with his young daughter. He spoke very little English and she was too young to speak much of any language. We tried for a minute before I gave up and gave them their tickets. It was one of those unexpected small but pivotal things that I will probably remember forever.


Dad and daughter descended the stairs to the free food. It was nothing extravagant and certainly not a worthy reward for listening to me being Super Bowl levels of excited about acid-free tissue paper. In other words, I believe this man brought his little girl to see the community’s museum and maybe learn something new only to find that the museum wasn’t for them. It is true: if you cannot read English or are not familiar with the Utah Territorial-era lifestyle and tools, this is not a place that you will get much out of. If you are not White (or to a pitiful extent, Native American) and have no Mormon ancestry, we are not telling your story. Including little boys and girls of color, before they even understand what race is--and where better for them to appreciate their ancestry if not their home town museum? My newly-found feelings were making me feel terrible for the little girl. Suddenly those vague and ignored statements in our Mission Statement and Interpretive Plan became important.


What could I do?

My exhibits and storage areas are full of pioneer artifacts (and, strangely, a box of dinosaur bones, and about $2.50 worth of pocket change from around the world), photographs of pioneers, paintings of and by pioneers, and textiles made and worn by pioneers. We are so beyond capacity that my default response to donations is no unless you have something incredibly awesome, relevant, and in great condition. I am not in a position and we do not have resources to start collecting huge amounts of artifacts from every group represented in our community. It just kept nagging me, though. If we are going to be “the town square,” how can we exclude almost 15% of our residents? But if I cannot accept massive donations, what am I possibly going to do?


An opportunity was coming up to host The Way We Worked, the Smithsonian exhibit traveling around Utah this year. As part of the companion exhibit I was developing, I decided to give our Latino workers the spotlight. With cooperation from Mountain View Mushrooms and Millard High School’s Latinos in Action organization, I collected oral histories from over 20 people in Spanish. Oral history collections in our day do not need to be very space-consuming. We now have items in our collection reflecting a previously unrepresented population AND got young people involved in the museum.


Perhaps the most successful development is the formation of an advisory committee. I started with our local LDS Spanish speaking branch. The leaders of that congregation got me in touch with people who have been happy to help make our museum more inclusive and diversify our audience. Not all of them are LDS, nor did I want them to be--but that was the best starting point for me. We are a long way from where I would like to be, but it is exciting that this committee is working with me to create programming of interest to our Latino neighbors. On September 16, we are hosting a Mexican Independence Day celebration--in the same place that the city celebrates the United States Independence Day--with traditional dancing, food, games, and small exhibits inside the museum about the different Mexican states represented in Fillmore.


It is too soon to talk about success and failure; however, even if the only people who come are the ones performing and selling food, it will be a larger turnout than any Latino-focused event put on without any of their input. The coolest part? We have an opportunity to bring the community together in a new way. This is not a “White” event or a “Mexican” party. In addition, hosting the event in our neutral location has already become a way to bridge the divide between Catholic and Mormon Latinos. That, to me, is what diversity, inclusion, and equality is all about. People coming together for common good, regardless of what they look like or how they speak or what church they go to.

 

 

What You Can Do

I have only written about one small part of diversity, which I imagine is what you thought about at the beginning of this blog post. There is so much more though! Take a look at your museum visitors, volunteers, and even employees. Are they young or old? Male or female? Single parents or families? Rich or poor? Ph.D. holders or high school dropouts? Then, go for a trip around your community. Does it look the same? It is getting harder and harder for museums to justify existing simply because we need to remember our history and preserve certain artifacts tied to it or have a space for art to live. Similarly, the number of people who will come to your museum just because they like going to random museums is unsustainable and going down. The “D word” is not easy to discuss or deal with, but I would encourage everyone to find time to talk about it. Be open, honest, and allow people to have different ideas. It might open some exciting doors for you and your institution. There are ways to be more diverse, inclusive, and accessible, even if your museum is a one-room cabin with barely enough room to walk through.

 

In a recent conversation, the word "belonging" was brought up and I was instantly drawn to it. If you only skimmed this huge blog post to read the conclusion, I will sum it up for you: Who belongs in your museum, and are they coming to see you?

 

Carl Aldrich serves as Secretary of the Utah Museums Association. He is a Ranger at Territorial Statehouse State Park in Fillmore, Utah.

Comments...

LeeAnn Denzer says...
Posted Friday, September 1, 2017
I appreciate the thoughtful comments given by Carl. I really believe we can all become better at understanding and implementing inclusion and diversity in our museums.
Sonja Lunde says...
Posted Tuesday, August 29, 2017
Such an important conversation... Thanks for sharing your experiences (and your feelings), Carl!

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