Dismantling Diversity in Museums

Originally presented at the Rockwell Museum on March 23, 2017

In March 2017 I was asked to speak at the Rockwell Museum on “diversity” in museums, a topic that can be problematic depending on how it’s approached. Here, I talk about curating Culture Labs at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, and how community-focused curating that centers on intersectionality can be a way to reach communities while evolving our imaginations.

Below is a recorded version of the talk (the first 15-ish minutes) which is followed by some explanation about the process of putting together Culture Labs, and a short Q&A. Below that is a transcription of the main part of the talk, along with timestamped annotations for the talkback. Enjoy!

While museums have recently embraced concepts of diversity, the practice behind their programs continue to uphold Western perspectives rooted in colonization and capitalism. As a result, diversity has become incorrectly understood as mere representation in the product, rather than true incorporation of the concept. Curator Adriel Luis introduces how his team at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center is rethinking traditional museum approaches through its community-curated model of “culture labs.”

I want to take a moment to acknowledge the Iroquois federation and especially the Seneca nation as the rightful caretakers of this land, I humbly ask those in this room who are of this great lineage for the honor of your welcome. I also want to thank the locals here in Corning for being here tonight and thank the Rockwell Museum, especially Brett Smith, for making my first trip here such a joy so far.

I’m really thrilled to talk a bit about the work I’ve been doing with the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center — one of the centers at the Smithsonian that doesn’t have a brick-and-mortar museum. Personally, as someone who identifies as an artist and a community organizer, working at such a large and renowned institution in a context that has allowed us to be experimental and nimble and engaged with people all over face to face has been such a blessing. But before I get into that, I wanted to talk a bit about this concept of diversity.

The title of my talk is “Dismantling Diversity.” I have to admit that I can’t remember the state of mind I was in when I proposed this title several months ago, and when I recently reviewed it to prepare for this talk I had a moment where I was like, “Did I use the wrong word?” Did I mean “deconstructing” diversity, or maybe “dissecting” diversity? Because dismantling means to take apart or even take down, like one “dismantles” patriarchy or dismantles an atomic bomb.

But we’ve all been raised to understand “diversity” as a good word, right? Would a person of color like myself, actually want to “dismantle” it?

Well, the answer is yes, I actually do. And that might come as a shock, and might even dismay some of my fellow people of color out there. After all, diversity has certainly paid the bills. Diversity is the magic word that has won many a grant, fueled many an initiative and fed many an artist. It is the wind beneath the wings of the annual programs that are coordinated with things like heritage months.

To dismantle diversity suggests threatening the hard-fought recognition of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month in May, and I certainly don’t mean to do that, because that precious month equates to much more than 1/12th of my annual speaking opportunities. In fact, May has come to be known to me and my colleagues as Asian Pacific American Employment Month, it’s that special time of the year when our stock is especially high.

Without programs, and initiatives and events that address the slow-burning hot topic of diversity, many like myself would no longer have access to the kinds of venues and forums that wouldn’t have a reason to invite me otherwise. Without diversity, organizations would have no annual container to stockpile their programs that recognize race and gender and sexuality one by one. Without diversity, they would have no playlist for the marginalized, no reminder that heritage exists for at least 28 to 31 days at a time.

Stockpiling diversity — the guilty pleasure of museums

See, the problem is that too many out there understand diversity as finite. Our top universities literally have a diversity requirement, like as if one can consume racial or gender experience the way that we consume 3–5 servings of vegetables or 8 glasses of water. Diversity comes in the form of quotas and checklists. Diversity can be brandished in the form of a black friend, or a vote for Hillary, or the fact that you actually watched Moonlight before it won the Oscar. As Porschia Moore puts it in her caution on the dangers of the “D” word, “diversity cannot merely exist to provide a diverse experience for a dominant culture.” Here I have to ask. Do you see diversity as represented by me, or by you, or by us?

In the museum world where I work, I have seen the incredible benefits of diversity-based initiatives. If it weren’t for diversity, there may never have been a National Museum of African American History and Culture to open last year. And I may not have had a Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center to work at. In museums, we don’t really say that our programs or initiatives or staff need to be diverse, which is a statement that I’d actually agree with. We say our museums need to be “more diverse” which implies that they’re already diverse, which is a statement I would not agree with. It implies that the diversity requirement has already been met, and now it’s just about accomplishing some extra credit out of the goodness of our institutional hearts. To say we need to be “more diverse” is simultaneously a noble mandate, a mild self critique and a hearty pat on the back.

Diversity is a hashtag that was invented before hashtags. It’s a badge anyone can pin on themselves. Diversity began as an initiative but has now been understood as the conclusion. Diversity produces its own self, it can almost be spoken into existence. Simply striving to be diverse is the same as being diverse. This might have been best performed when the University of Wisconsin photoshopped a black student onto their brochure to convey the diversity they wanted to acknowledge as necessary, but not actually convey in reality. “Of course we’re diverse. Just look at our diversity initiative. It recognizes the value of our diversity.” It’s a circle. Diversity has no rubric or standard of measurement, it is a pass/fail grade in a self-graded class. It’s a trophy for participation.

What people and organizations often fail to understand, though, is that diversity isn’t a status, it’s a process. Diversity is not the finish line but the race…no pun intended.

And even for those of us who specialize in something beyond simply being in our own skin, we both relish and dread those five to ten minutes of our interviews and panels, where we get asked about our nuanced experience in our field. No matter how accomplished we might be in the realm of art, or science or literature — it’s a given that we should have some special insight into what it must be like to be doing what we do, dot dot dot, as a person of color, as a woman, as a queer person.

It’s actually a kind of a catch 22 here. If we’re not asked about it, we feel like our identity was marginalized, that we’ve found ourselves in a kind of a colorblind forum. But if we are asked it, we long for that time that could’ve been spent simply geeking out more on our subjects like other “non-diverse individuals” get to do. Diversity is the reason why I see my white male counterparts get invited to speak on the most nuanced and detailed of topics related to the fields of their interests, in the same series where I’m invited to talk about what it’s like to be Asian. All that time I spend on my specialty can be so easily outweighed by all that time I spend being Asian in my speciality.

May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, and I was recently invited to speak at an event then, but I couldn’t make the date. The only other options I was given was next May, or perhaps February for Lunar New Year. I had to ask myself, what do people who get invited to speak during the other 10 months get to talk about? (So here I’d actually like to take this time to again appreciate the Rockwell Museum for having me here on a month besides May, which is normally not the month reserved for me).

Is it worse to be only valued for my contribution to diversity, or to not be valued at all? Diversity has shattered my glass ceiling while building another in its place. And I think there lies my main issue with diversity. Diversity, with all of its good intentions, has become a kind form of segregation. Diversity is separate but equal.

So if I’m up here to dismantle diversity, what are we building in its place? That what my team at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center has been dealing with lately. I love my center, but even our name can also be a case study of diversity existing past its shelf life. Here, in an attempt to embody diversity, we lumped together two groups — Asians and Pacific Islanders — who themselves encompass many groups that have been severely lumped together. The capacity of diversity that existed when we were founded in the 90’s was enough to distinguish Asians and Pacific Islanders as distinct from other groups, but not enough to distinguish them from each other, not to mention the groups within.

I’ll admit that this criticism of diversity would seem like splitting hairs, or even like pointless complaining if we forgot that representation is a right, not a privilege.

If we forgot that people of color and the marginalized aren’t just accessories to the American story. And I’ll dare to speak on behalf of the APA center that, despite our name, we’ve grown weary of only being thought of when our colleagues approach the Asian part of their diversity rotation. At our center, we care deeply about the communities we’ve been mandated to address. But we also care about those beyond our assumed territory as well. We care about Lunar New Year and LGBTQ rights. We are concerned by the forced incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, and the mass incarceration of African Americans today. Such are issues that affect and shape our communities, yet under the guidelines of diversity have bewildered people when we so much as acknowledge them.

At the APA Center we recently decided to move beyond our status quo, which is not the same as forgetting our past. We understand diversity as the cacoon that was vital in the post Civil Rights era to get us to where we’re at. But now it’s outdated technology. We need to upgrade.

Trailer for CrossLines: A Culture Lab on Intersectionality

In 2016 we launched a new set of initiatives called Culture Labs. They are literally laboratories where we can grow and experience and test culture. They are alternative models to exhibitions that are meant to be fleeting and ever-evolving, so that they can sustainably address today’s most pressing conversations with nimbleness and presence. In 2016, that meant piloting our first culture lab, CrossLines, with a focus on intersectionality.

Intersectionality is simply the acknowledgement that we are more than just a set of single categories. To say that my race, gender, sexuality and class are all layers of my complex identity only do slight justice to how interwoven my many characteristics are, or how even the sum of these parts are only a fraction of my being.

But by officially recognizing intersectionality at the Smithsonian for the first time, we didn’t just replace one term for another. We made a seismic shift in our ability to investigate human stories with more complexity than ever. We recognized that diversity, defined as a range of different things, does not leave room for our commonalities — commonalities that we should celebrate by outgrowing our past concepts. We recognized that we can’t ever settle on diversity, and that one day we hope to outgrow intersectionality with yet another state of community that we can’t yet see.

And that’s what I’d challenge all of you with today. I can only imagine how dizzying or even frustrating it must be for those who are just warming up to the concept of diversity, to learn that it’s now no longer enough. But think about how much we’ve adapted in other aspects of our lives in the past decades. The fashion trends, the modes of communication we use, the ways we operate in our changing natural environment. I challenge you not to settle. And I insist that we evolve.

Breaking down the process of curating Culture Labs

19:10 — Tracy Keza, Hijabs and Hoodies, showing how the APA Center has found ways to work with artists across backgrounds to address intersectional issues

20:15 — Monica Ramos, Kama, tracing the impacts of colonization through illustrated bedsheets in a mosquito net.

21:20 — The People’s Kitchen Collective, Kitchen Remedies, exploring home remedies as a source of cultural common ground.

22:35 — First restrooms at the Smithsonian with clearly marked “Inclusive” signs

23:50 — Challenges and victories while introducing the concept of intersectionality to the Smithsonian

Trailer for CTRL+ALT: A Culture Lab on Imagined Futures

25:20 — Talking about CTRL+ALT: A Culture Lab on Imagined Futures — highlighting visibility and agency among the marginalized.

25:55 — Creating a collaboration between artist Wiena Lin and Christopher Man, invertebrates researcher at National Museum of Natural History for their piece, Post-Industrial Aquatic Collection.

27:45 — Yumi Sakugawa’s evolution from illustrations to immersive installations, resulting in the Intergalactic Interfaith Peace Community Meditation Space Center.

29:30 — Genevieve Erin O’Brien’s hologram Vietnamese diaspora queer nightclub, More Than Love on the Horizon.

30:15 — Frank Chi’s Letters From Camp, depicting young Muslim Americans reading letters written by Japanese American children incarcerated in camps during WW2, was viewed over a million times — the most viewed video Smithsonian has ever uploaded to Facebook.

Questions & Answers

34:30 — How did we approach artists to be a part of culture labs? We invited a wide range of artists to create works based on very broad concepts like “intersectionality” or “imagined futures” as a means of creating a collection of contemporary ephemera that speaks to Asian Pacific American experiences.

38:50 — What is the intended influence of Culture Labs on the larger Smithsonian Institution and museum world? By demonstrating that the Smithsonian can take risks and do community-based curation, we hope to empower other museums to do the same. Culture Labs are not meant to replace traditional museum practices, but rather an alternative method. We are creating a guidebook for museums and organizations to develop their own Culture Labs based on principles of equity and democratic storytelling.

42:45 — Culture Labs are the first Smithsonian projects that use the W.A.G.E. calculator to determine artist pay. Other culture lab principles include representation of local artists (30–60% of the lineup), choosing venues that have local resonance, engaging deeply with local communities.

45:15 — What happens to the Culture Lab art after it has been created and shown? Although SmithsonianAPA historically has not collected art or objects, we began collecting upon the introduction of Culture Labs. Artists are given the choice based on our budget whether they would like to give us their pieces.

47:45 — If we’re dismantling diversity, what will we eventually call our museum? It’s not something I’m thinking about too deeply right now, because such existential questions about the distant future could hold us back from what we’re doing right now. In the meantime, we’re thinking about shifts in identity labels such as “Asian diaspora” and “Asian/Pacific/America”

49:40 — How does the curation of online communities transcend locality? Here I introduce some of the earlier online exhibitions that I curated when I first joined SmithsonianAPA, such as A Day in the Life of Asian Pacific America — as a means of expanding the perceptions of what encompasses Asian Pacific American experiences. Also, Folk Hero, an exhibition that highlighted the importance of Yuri Kochiyama despite relative invisibility online during the time of her passing in 2014.

53:25 — Brainstorming a bit about what a digital Culture Lab would look like. I’m currently inspired by Nam June Paik’s 1984 project, Good Morning, Mr. Orwell, a live-broadcasted variety show of media and performance art.

55:10 — How do we curate intergenerationally, especially when taking about complex topics? I’m inspired by places like the Exploratorium, which doesn’t target their projects specifically for children or adults. We think about how we can frame topics like gender fluidity in a way that’s understandable for people young and old. We are also observing the tech gaps that elders experience, and how device-based exhibitions can be avenues for people to connect with their elders.

Join us on July 7–9, 2017 for ʻAe Kai: A Culture Lab on Convergence in Honolulu, Hawaiʻi!!