Museum Leadership and Diversity

Awareness Understanding Action

So it’s hard enough to spend a year thinking about gender and the museum world and not also think periodically about diversity. In our writing, we have often referred to the metaphorical museum staff table and then imagined a magically diverse group happily engaged in the questions of the day. Yet we all know diversity isn’t and shouldn’t be window dressing. It’s not finding a person with brown skin, a token LGBT individual or a woman to lead the $15 million and up organization just because. Just because is not a reason. It may make your communications department happy if your organization is large enough to have one. But it’s not a solution for anything.

Authentic diversity is diversity rooted in community. As leaders we expect you know your community well. You know if it has a high proportion of elderly residents, if it has almost no people of color, but a significant and long established Lithuanian community. It’s your knowledge and your board’s that drives diversity decisions. After all, the goal is to make your organization a welcoming, authentic place that mirrors the community you serve. And what exactly does that mean? Do you include a line in your employment announcements that women and minorities are encouraged to apply? Does your board’s elections committee work aggressively to integrate your community’s demographic onto either the board itself or ad-hoc committees? Has your board defined what diversity means for your organization and discussed what the mythical table–populated by either trustees or staff–looks like in a perfect world? Is your organizational diversity statement on your website? Finally, if you want a parallel view of what this kind of attitude toward community looks like, listen to Mayor Kasim Reed’s talk about learning to govern the City of Atlanta which you can find here. Pay particular attention to his meeting with Miss Davis. Every leader needs someone like her.

If you’ve done all that and more, there’s one other thing we’d like to put on the proverbial table. For the most part, the museum world has a long history of not being a particularly diverse place. It’s still, even in 2016, often a traditional hierarchical world, despite serving an increasingly diverse community both in person and virtually. So here’s what we think is missing in MuseumLand’s quest for different faces at the table: better salaries coupled with salary equity and transparency.

Just imagine if you are a young person of color with an interest in American history or science. You already have loans from  your undergraduate degree. You’re smart and you want a career that allows you to make a difference. In doing research you discover that as a museum person you will make a median salary of $45,000. Graduate school will cost you upwards of $30,000 in new loans. In the end, you take the LSAT and the GMAT but not the GREs. You opt not to get a degree in museum studies. Why? Because sometimes in today’s world altruism isn’t enough. As a lawyer or business world big wig, you can volunteer at the museum of your choice, you can be a trustee, or you can donate. Perhaps the diversity elephant in the room is that over the years low museum salaries brought us a field over-populated with straight financially comfortable white folks?

We don’t think there’s a silver bullet for diversity question, but we do believe that indifferent and in some cases ridiculously low salaries keep people away from the table. We are increasingly a career populated by women–strong, creative, wonderful women–but nonetheless, the feminization of this job sector is a sure way to depress salaries. So as we head into the new year, as leaders can we promise ourselves that we’ll work to understand what diversity means in our particular village, town, or city? And hire accordingly, making decisions specifically for our organization and our community? And, last but not least, can we be aggressive about making salaries equitable and transparent?

Let us know your thoughts.

Joan Baldwin



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