Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted. –Albert Einstein
Black History Month is one of those celebratory events that perplexes me. Many black people have made remarkable contributions to our communal history, large and small, but it seems that at this time of year all anyone wants to talk about is Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass (not that there’s anything wrong with that, but who wants their history boiled down to just two folks?), and I’d love to know more little-known black history facts and celebrate them year-round.
Thinking about unsung black Americans led me to the representation of blacks in the museum industry (or lack thereof). I’ve searched for a database that lists the number of blacks working for American museums, but I’m coming up short. [The graduate student in me says “there’s your next project!” ]
My personal experience in visual art museums tells me that the lower the pay, the more racial diversity you see in terms of employees. It seems that blacks are overrepresented in the maintenance, security and food service areas. As you go higher on the pay and managerial scale, the racial makeup becomes more homogenous (i.e., “white folks.”) Granted, this is not unique to the museum industry. The more specialized skills and/or training required for a field, the less racially diverse the practitioners.
However, it is telling that in the many trainings, workshops and conferences I have attended related to museum work, I have encountered very few blacks in leadership positions (curator, administrator, manager, etc.) who were employed by an institution that did not focus solely on African or African-American art and culture. Oddly enough, in those museums, the pendulum swings in the other direction, with blacks seemingly overrepresented, as if the only people qualified to perform this work are ones of like descent.
As a developer of best practices and standards, The American Association of Museums offers some resources on diversity and makes the important point that inclusive efforts should be made not just in staffing but volunteer and board areas as well. I wholeheartedly support that, but I just have to ask: where are all the other black folks? I know that we are out there, but our voices are not being heard. [I know, I know, I’m starting the research notes right now.]
For those of you that work or volunteer in museums, what have you observed? Are diversity policies all talk and no action? Do you even have a diversity policy? Who are some of the black people in museum work that you admire?