Monday, June 14, 2010

The Changing Face of America

Anyone who's interested in the challenges facing museums over the next few decades should go take a look at Demographic Transformation and the Future of Museums, an excellent report produced by Betty Ferrell and Maria Medvedeva and published by AAM's Center for the Future of Museums. If you want to understand, in a nutshell, just how big these challenges are, take a look at the graph that I've reproduced here. What it shows is that our core visitor population reflects the demographics of the USA more than 40 years ago, rather than the situation today. Those three and a half little purple people are a measure of our declining relevance to the public that pays our bills. It should be a clarion call to action.

Why is this important to those of us that work in collections? Well, one reason is that visting a museum is one way in which many of us start out on museum careers. It's vital that we are both welcoming and inspiring towards people of all races and ethnicities because, frankly, we do not have a very diverse workforce in collections, nor do we seem to be making headway towards developing one. Another statistic that emerges from the report is that 80% of museum studies students are white and 80% are female. As the national population diversifies, this monocultural workforce is going to seriously limit our ability to incorporate different points of view. Not only does it make us look bad - it becomes a real problem as we try to tiptoe through the cultural minefield regarding issues such as repatriation.

Fortunately, the report is not all doom and gloom. First of all (not that I want to be smug or anything) it's clear that natural history museums do a lot better at attracting diverse audiences than those that specialize in the arts and humanities. It's also apparent that many museums are already taking steps in the right direction; there are a bunch of really interesting case studies featured in the report, to which I would add Peabody's own EVOLUTIONS after school program. And the report concludes with a comprehensive call to action for museums that ought to inspire anyone from our profession that reads it. I urge you to do so.


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