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AAM study shows US museum leadership lacks diversity

Smithsonian Institute National Air and Space Museum.

US museum leadership is still pale, male and stale despite a range of recent hires that have seen women take charge of leading institutions.

A recent survey on museum board leadership from the American Alliance of Museums showed that while 62% of directors are female, 55% of board members are male as are 62% of chairs. Across all three categories, more than 90% are Caucasian.

Laura Lott, the CEO of the American Alliance of Museums, told the Guardian: “Sadly, the survey also found that only 10% of directors indicate that their boards have developed a plan of action to become more inclusive.

“There are no easy fixes or answers and it’s impossible to change 100 years’ worth of history overnight. We need to take a look in the mirror and then look at the communities we are trying to serve and ask, ‘Is there a resemblance or are the two completely different?’”

The problem also extends to pay. The gender pay gap in the museum sector sees women earning 20% less than men in the same role. According to Anne Ackerson, a member of the Gender Equity in Museums Movement, this is often down to men often leading larger institutions with bigger budgets while non-profits are often led by women.

Several recent hires go against this trend. Carrie Rebora Barratt was appointed president and CEO of the New York Botanical Gardens and Saharah Moon Chapotin is the new director of the United States Botanic Garden in Washington. Meanwhile the Smithsonian made Ellen Stofan the first female director of the National Air and Space Museum and Saisha Grayson is also the new time-based media curator at the American Art Museum.

However, a recent female appointment caused controversy when Kirsten Windmuller-Luna was named curator of African art at the Brooklyn Museum. Protestors believed it wrong that the role go to a white woman.

In the face of these issues, the American Alliance of Museums has released a report setting out a framework for tackling priorities and programmes on diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion (DEAI).

“Providing thought leadership and inspiring action for the museum field on a subject as important as diversity is crucial for our members,” said Lott, who co-chaired the working group that developed the report.

The report is centred around five insights about the key components of effective museum DEAI work, along with specific calls to action and suggested resources for museum professionals who want to advance these discussions in their own institutions. Those insights are:

  • Every museum professional must do personal work to face their unconscious bias
  • Debate on definitions must not hinder progress
  • Inclusion is central to the effectiveness and sustainability of museums
  • Systemic change is vital to long-term, genuine progress
  • Empowered, inclusive leadership is essential at all levels of an organization

“The need for seeking and sustaining diversity in your museums has never been greater,” said Dr Johnnetta Betsch Cole, co-chair of the working group.

“If we are to be relevant in this ever-changing world, to stay artistically and financially viable, all of our museums must boldly – indeed, bodaciously – commit to rethinking about what takes place in our museums, to whom our museums belong and who the colleagues are who have the privilege of telling important stories through the power of science, history, culture and art.”

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Sam McCaffrey

Journalist. Likes immersive entertainment experiences, museums, zoos and the odd go on a Waltzer.

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