It would be easy to think, after reading thousands of responses about the value of museums from museum-goers in the 2017 Annual Survey of Museum-Goers, that we are doing an amazing job. After all, the museum-goers are our biggest fans. Of course they are likely to say nice things.
Not so fast.
There were responses that were more critical. And that may reflect broader opinion more than we would like.
That's why it is important to flag a few of the more challenging responses, and acknowledge the truth in them. There were not enough for any real analysis, but they are worth my folding into future lines of inquiry as research continues … and your taking to heart as practitioners in the field.
It's race. And colonialism. And white-washing. Our work is being watched, and considered, through many different lenses. In many ways, we fall short …
Of course, some museums are doing great work on decolonization (Abbe Museum) and with social justice (Levine Museum of the New South). The Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta is providing experiences that are deeply powerful (and I'm capturing them among museum-goers in my research, from both whites and people of color).
But let's be honest. These museums are the exception, not the rule. It seems so much easier to keep doing what we've been doing. That, however, is white-washing … and, sadly, what some of our visitors want.
This comment disturbs me on so many levels. The writer ostensibly want everyone to enjoy, yet we know many do not feel represented in museums. History and humanity is way too complex to leave race out of our museums. I cannot help but wonder, however … how many others feel this way? Or would prefer museums to remain bastions of white privilege? How many will admit it?
And how do we find out individual complex perspectives on social justice in museums? On race? On LGBTQ identity? Who perpetuates racism in their own lives knowingly? Unknowingly? Who pays lip service to wanting equality, but only because they feel they ought to (and in reality, don't care or don't want it)? And how do we, as a field, figure this out?
Because I'll be honest too. I'm pretty scared about digging too deeply into these issues in my work. I'm frightened about what ugliness I might turn up. What we will do with what we learn … or turn our back on as "too hard"?
And I am downright terrified that, despite good intentions, I'll do or say something offensive (or that I just did in this research release). But I'm taking my own deep breath, and have agreed to join grant proposals that focus on institutionalized racism in the North, LGBTQ history at historic sites, and decolonization. Let's hope these important projects are funded this fall and go forward. Because tackling the hard is important.
A note about fielding research. I hold dear the idea that research for the field, about the field, should be shared with the field. But that only works when museums work together to make it possible. Since individual museums are needed to field this work, the survey also benefits participating museums on an individual level by providing benchmark data on visitation rates, motivations, attitudes and preferences, and demographic questions … all of which can then be tracked over time in the future. Participating museums are also allowed to add 1 - 2 custom questions specific to their needs.
Which means if you value this research, want more of it in the coming years, and want to track your own museum's progress over time, please support this work by enrolling your museum in the 2018 Annual Survey of Museum Goers. The fee for 2018 is only $1,000 per museum.
The questions for this survey have been inspired by ongoing conversations within the museum field (who does/does not go to museums, why they do/do not visit, and what that means for communities) and ongoing research in the fields of education and psychology around lifelong learning and intrinsic motivation.