Confronting Our Whiteness: Our First Steps Towards Systemic Change
Stacey Mann, learning experience designer and interpretive strategist, Saralyn Rosenfield, Director of Learning & Engagement, Delaware Art Museum, and Amelia Wiggins, Manager of Gallery Learning & Interpretation, Delaware Art Museum
Building institutional empathy can strengthen inclusive practice, address racial bias, and dismantle a museum’s history of being dominated by White perspectives while excluding people of color (English, 2015; Halperin, 2018; Kennedy, 2015; Kinsley & Whitman, 2016). In this paper, we reflect on the Delaware Art Museum’s reckoning with racial bias and discuss our first steps toward systemic change.
In fall 2017, the Museum invested in a series of trainings for staff and museum guides (1) with the goal of raising awareness around systemic bias practices in the Museum and issues of equity, racial, and social justice. Throughout this process, we focused on institutional “body language” (Jennings, 2013), empathy, responding to racial bias, and recognizing how Whiteness manifests itself in our Museum. From the midpoint of a two-year training program, we address how we got here, challenges and outcomes to date, as well as our plan moving forward.
We are three White women: a consultant in the field, an education director, and an education manager. We acknowledge that we write this from a place and perspective of privilege. Our blind spots and biases limit us, and we don’t have all the answers. We are continually learning from our colleagues of color, our communities, and from the diverse set of voices who have guided us this year, to whom we are deeply grateful.
Unpacking Our History
The Delaware Art Museum in Wilmington, Delaware looks like many other art museums: it is situated in an affluent part of the city, has a Western collection, and a majority of our visitors are White females ages 50 and up (American Alliance of Museums, 2010). In 2015, the percentage of non-White staff members was at 7%, our museum guides at 2.5%, and Board of Trustees at 11%. As an institution, we believed we were making progress toward diversifying our audiences when we hosted multicultural days, featured an exhibit by a Latin American artist, and served children from low-income neighborhoods for school tours. We thought the Museum and our programs were inclusive of all people, no matter their race, gender, income, or abilities.
But the truth is that we lacked an authentic connection to the communities to whom we were reaching out. The approach we took was superficial. Communities of color did not see themselves reflected in our collection, our programming, or our staff. Even when we were successful in getting visitors of color to the Museum, they reported feeling unwelcome as they walked through the galleries while security guards were in the vicinity. We had good intentions, but we were seeing our work from a mostly White perspective. Our gesture to the community was sending the wrong message — one of welcoming only the people who were already here. Our service to our community was unjust.
To truly become an inclusive, welcoming, and relevant institution to all of Wilmington’s communities, we needed to go beyond tokenistic staff hires and one-off cultural programs. We needed to fundamentally change our internal practice by first acknowledging our limited perspective and our deficits as a predominately White institution (2). By starting with institutional self-examination, we were able to begin the process of changing the way we looked and acted across the institution and provide socially just and equitable service to our entire community.
Our Collective Vision for Transformation
Shortly after joining the Delaware Art Museum in 2016, Executive Director and CEO Sam Sweet initiated a staff-wide strategic planning process. It centered on the idea that local and cultural relevance generates value and leads to a sustainable future (Long, 2013). Using relevance as a starting point, staff began plotting a roadmap toward our collective vision: for the Museum to foster a greater quality of life in Wilmington by becoming an inclusive and relevant institution where the community (3) is reflected and everyone feels that the Museum is theirs. Three related goals emerged from the vision and began to define our strategic direction. The Museum will be:
- A vital hub — a vibrant, bustling space activated by the collections and programs where artists, educators, and community groups come together on equal terms to engage in cultural and civic discourse around art.
- Civically engaged — bringing art into the lives of the community in ways that support their interests.
- Welcoming and inclusive — understanding who our audience is and then meeting their unique needs.
Working in cross-departmental teams around these goals, we looked at data to help us determine how our current audience compared to the population of the city, and therefore which populations were underrepresented at the Museum. Over half of Wilmington’s residents identify as Black, Hispanic, or Asian, yet we were only effectively serving a small population of White people in the region. It was not surprising to learn that our visitation was not reflective of the racial and ethnic makeup of Wilmington, but it was surprising to realize how much of Wilmington we had overlooked. If we were to be inclusive and relevant to our community, what could we do to ensure these populations see themselves reflected in the Museum? How could we change our relationships with communities of color so that the Museum adds value to their lives?
Barriers to Real Change
With new leadership, a vision for our future, and a series of exhibitions and programs directly addressing race in summer 2018, changing our relationship with communities of color became a top priority. We took steps toward changing the face of the Museum by updating our hiring practices to intentionally recruit non-White staff, and we prioritized acquiring artworks by artists of color in our collections plan. However, there were still perceived barriers for some visitors of color, such as feeling uncomfortable by the presence of security guards in the galleries or having the police called on them by a few homeowners in the Museum’s neighborhood. We were adding programs outside our walls with new partners and audiences, but we couldn’t forge genuine relationships offsite when new patrons came to us and felt they were being treated unjustly.
Our lack of cultural competency and biases have prevented us from building trust with communities of color. Inclusion is not just about representation; we also needed to embody inclusive values. As Chris Taylor argues, inclusion work should emphasize internal work by helping staff develop inclusive skills, attitudes, and behaviors that lead to sustainable internal change (2017). By changing parts of the system, we could affect the whole.
Building An Inclusive Practice
Acknowledging where we had failed in the past opened up our hearts and minds to how we needed to change as an institution. However, it is difficult to begin a productive dialogue among White peers about divisive topics such as privilege, power, and prejudice (DiAngelo, 2015). Where should we start? Who should lead this kind of organizational change? What if we can’t get buy-in from our long-term stakeholders? Do our staff and volunteers have the growth mindset to do this kind of work?
Some people didn’t need to be convinced and others needed to be brought along. We knew it was important to bring in consultants: museum professionals who were addressing this kind of work in the field. We turned to the Empathetic Museum for guidance. Their Empathetic Museum Maturity Model provides a self-assessment tool that places empathy at the center of an institution’s work and charges every member of the Museum with carrying out empathetic practices. One tenet of the model that resonated with us and aligned with the Museum’s strategic plan was changing our institutional body language. We brought Stacey Mann and Janeen Bryant in to work with staff on developing our cultural competencies and improve our institutional body language.
We Chose Empathy
Empathy is the ability to vicariously feel or intuitively understand at a root level the experience of another without them having to explicitly communicate their thoughts and feelings (Merriam-Webster, 2018). Institutional empathy requires the museum to be deeply attuned to the needs, wants, and concerns of the communities it serves. In Trendswatch 2017, the American Alliance of Museums’ Future of Museums identified several key trends in the industry — with Empathy and Social Justice at the fore (Merritt, 2017). Museums are uniquely positioned to use their resources to rethink their roles within the communities they serve and bridge the empathy gaps that we see so much of in today’s world. In recent years empathy has broken into mainstream museum practice through a variety of means — The Empathetic Museum, The Empathy Museum, and Minneapolis Institute of Art’s Center for Empathy, among other initiatives. As a key talking point at conferences and among colleagues, it has served as a call to action for how we think about the work we do and the audiences we serve (Jennings, Mann, Bryant, & Tinsdale, 2015; Jennings, Mann, Cullen, Bryant, & Kirchman, 2016; MASS Action, 2018). At the intersection of empathy and social justice, we find ourselves grappling with the need to concretely identify and address diversity, equity, accessibility, inclusion (DEAI) issues and make the necessary changes to improve representation and inclusion of the diverse communities we serve.
With any form of change, it can be easy to skim the surface — make the minimal investment to claim some achievement without addressing the systemic problems that keep us from making meaningful, long-lasting change. As a tool to support demonstrative institutional change, the Maturity Model Rubric approaches the challenges of implementing empathetic practice in practical and actionable terms — looking at 5 key characteristics of museums: Civic Vision, Institutional Body Language, Community Resonance, Timeliness & Sustainability, and Performance Measures. Within each category, museum staff members are asked to self-assess where they see their institution along a spectrum from Regressive to Emergent to Planned to Proactive and invest in concrete operational practices that over time establish a more empathetic and authentic connection to their audiences (Jennings, Mann, Cullen, 2016) (4). By placing empathy at the center of a process for deconstructing and assessing our own professional practice, we invest in solutions that honor and value the diverse experiences of our visitors and needs of our communities.
Assuming an empathetic institutional stance has little to do with sentimentality or inappropriate emotionalism. Instead, just as empathetic individuals must have a clear sense of their own identities in order to perceive and respond effectively to the experience of others, the empathetic museum must have a clear vision of its role as a public institution within its community. From this vision flow process and policy decisions about every aspect of the museum- audience, staffing, collections, exhibitions and programming, social media, emergency responses — all the ways in which a museum engages with its community(ies). (The Empathetic Museum, n.d.)
At the same time, empathy as an institutional stance has come under criticism by colleagues across the social justice spectrum for being impractical (true empathy requires more than an organization can reasonably do), or too soft (it doesn’t go far enough in challenging structural racism and bias), or indulgent (an embrace of coddling “safe spaces”) (Jennings, Taylor, Catlin-Legutko, Anderson, 2018). These criticisms are too often a mere excuse to maintain the status quo, which in turn only reinforces the systemic biases that we are trying to remediate (Jennings et al., 2018). We acknowledge that to demonstrate true empathy requires a level of shared life and cultural experience, which is difficult (if not impossible) for many museums to do in their current forms. However, if an organization is authentically representative in staffing, content, and voice of the communities it serves, then empathy can flow naturally between a museum and its audiences, thereby building trust and the long-term relationships necessary for growth.
Training Program For Staff and Guides
The Empathetic Museum and other peers in the field impacted our thinking around equity, racial, and social justice in museums. As we planned our training program for staff and volunteers, we turned to outside voices to lead the sessions. Stacey Mann and Janeen Bryant from the Empathetic Museum led workshops that asked staff and Museum guides to assess their individual cultural competencies, reflect on where we are as an institution, and commit to actions to forward empathetic change. A few months later, Keonna Hendrick led an Anti-Racist Museum Education training for frontline staff and educators, and also a session for guides. Her workshop with guides helped them think through unintended consequences that might result from the way we frame discussions on tours. Bringing in outside voices to lead the trainings helped staff and guides expand our point of view and connect the Delaware Art Museum’s work to the larger field.
As educators, we drew upon our unique training and skills in museum education to take the lead in designing the training program and measuring progress. Trainings were structured to meet learners where they are, scaffold knowledge acquisition, facilitate peer-to-peer learning, and encourage self-directed growth — all principles that steer our work with any adult learning community. Training groups mixed staff from across departments and ranks, and guides of different levels of seniority. We intentionally scaffolded learning and encouraged peer-to-peer learning to help those with different cultural capacities grow alongside each other. Shared readings laid a foundation for new ideas, and presenters took time to define new vocabulary. A staff “Lunch and Learn” series preceded the trainings, setting the stage for dialogue across departments. As educators, we knew that dictating new ideas to our fellow staff members and volunteers would not result in real change. Instead, we hoped staff and guides would consider new ideas, learn from each other, and self-determine how to apply this knowledge to their own work and behavior.
Lessons and Outcomes
One year into this process, we see the signs of progress and the challenges that still lie ahead. We are learning, striving, failing, and questioning. Below, we share some of the stories from our trainings this year and the lessons they have taught about institutionalizing DEAI.
If we recognize where Whiteness manifests itself in the museum, we can then choose to make space to tell other stories.
During the Empathetic Museum’s workshop with staff members, Curator Margaretta Frederick expressed frustration with her work, which centers on a collection comprised largely of White male artists, and its seeming lack of relevance for visitors. “Through the conversations instigated during the Empathetic Museum Workshop, I was encouraged by Black and Brown fellow staff members to find points of connection in the lives of the various artists in the collection which resonate with broader issues of the present time,” reflected Frederick. Soon after, she opened an exhibition that showcased the work of two White male artists, but also prominently featured the voices of a local members of different faith communities on its audio tour. Frederick is now working on bringing new perspectives into a reinstallation of the galleries in 2020.
Confronting the relationship between our personal racial bias and systemic racism is uncomfortable and makes us vulnerable. Sometimes we need time and guidance to expand our perspectives.
During the Empathetic Museum’s workshop, staff members grappled with the term “White supremacy,” which we were asked to define in small groups. A number of staff members, co-author Amelia Wiggins included, were familiar with and comfortable using the term “White privilege,” but reacted negatively when asked to see ourselves as part of the system of White supremacy. Facilitator Janeen Bryant asked those who are White supremacists to raise their hands. When no one did, she shared that although she is a woman of color, she is part of a system of racism that undergirds every portion of our lives. At the end of the session, this definition of “White supremacy” was still difficult for some staff members to accept. Seeing ourselves as part of a system of racism means making ourselves vulnerable and responsible for disrupting our long-held self-narratives.
Discussing racial bias head-on in a safe space allows us to identify the inequality that we see. This is the first step toward change.
Although different than the staff trainings, the workshops with museum guides also showed evidence of both growth and continued challenges. One hallmark of progress came at the end of the Empathetic Museum’s workshop for guides. Several guides remarked on the lack of racial diversity in the room and, collectively, self-identified that the guide corps needed to become more representative of its community. While staff had held this objective, it was the first time that guides themselves expressed this aim. This self-determination sets the stage for guides and staff to work together to recruit and train a group of museum guides more representative of the racial diversity of Wilmington.
Progression along the Empathetic Museum Maturity Model requires scaffolding. Individuals striving to apply lessons of inclusion need facilitation, especially in a group of mixed cultural competency levels.
During a workshop on Anti-Racist Museum Education with Keonna Hendrick, guides were invited to break out into small groups with works of art to apply some of the questioning strategies Hendrick had given them. Hendrick and Amelia Wiggins made our way from gallery to gallery, listening in and occasionally providing feedback, but the groups were largely self-directed. After the session, one guide who is experienced in diversity work shared that her group had gotten off-track. Their comments had reinforced, rather than questioned, the racist narrative in the painting they looked at. When this guide voiced her concerns, her contribution was dismissed rather than recognized, perhaps because she had less seniority. With no facilitator in the group to assign her authority and redirect the comments, the session ended with several guides in this particular group misunderstanding the lessons of the group activity. As we continue to work with groups composed of mixed competency levels, how can we recognize peers with a higher level of understanding and learn from them? How can we adopt a growth mindset that creates opportunities for everyone to progress along their path of personal development? How do we hold one another accountable for forwarding empathetic change? These questions will guide the structure of next year’s trainings.
Improving our institutional body language means losing some stakeholders. It also holds the promise of building community trust.
We can’t convince everybody. Some members and long-term stakeholders, even Trustees, have left due to these changes. Director Sam Sweet wrote to staff, “We are rethinking what we do, who we serve, and how we can add value to the community around us. Change is never easy.” New Trustees have since joined, and 27% of our board is now non-White. And though our Museum’s visitorship is not yet reflective of its city, there have been signs of progress. An African American community leader recently said, “For the first time, I’m feeling optimistic — this is a place where I can see myself.” We have a long way to go before every Black Wilmingtonian agrees, but we are walking the path toward that goal.
We are halfway through the two-year training plan we set for staff and guides. We’re committed to seeing it through, steered by the lessons we are learning collectively and by feedback from our colleagues and volunteers. We are researching new docent models to attract a more diverse community of guides. Community members’ voices are being integrated into the galleries. We will identify places where we can add new perspectives and disrupt the traditional White narrative our Museum presents.
The work of confronting our Whiteness — both individually and institutionally — isn’t finished. If the next nine months garner the same growth as the last nine, then, we’re confident we will establish a solid foundation from which to serve our public in a truly inclusive way. Addressing our biases was a critical first step toward changing our institutional body language. What are the next steps to becoming an anchor institution — embedded in the fabric of its city, relevant and responsive to its communities? We want to get there, but we’re not there yet. We are still drawing the roadmap.
We want to acknowledge the work being done by many dedicated colleagues across the industry on issues of diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility that continue to inform and influence our practice. This includes:
Small changes provided by the authors have been made to this article in the sections “Unpacking Our History” and “Barriers to Real Change.” The authors felt that the language used in the originally published article falsely accused security guards of racial profiling and other museum staff of intentionally treating patrons poorly. They also wanted to clarify that not all homeowners in the museum’s neighborhood called the police when visitors of color came to the museum, even though a few homeowners have.
A learning experience designer and interpretive strategist, Stacey Mann consults with educators, designers, and technologists on how best to engage audiences both onsite and online. She advocates social change through inclusive storytelling, civic literacy, and empathy. Early work with the Exploratorium provided the foundation for an inquiry-based and user-centered design methodology that she applies to award-winning digital media design, exhibition development, and interpretive planning. Stacey holds her Masters in Learning Sciences from Northwestern University and is a Senior Lecturer in Media for Museum Interpretation at University of the Arts. She also serves on the editorial board of Exhibition: The Journal of Museum Exhibition for the National Association of Museum Exhibition. She is a founding member of The Empathetic Museum and Director of Strategy for Unsilence, a human rights education and advocacy non-profit. @smanny @empatheticmuse
Saralyn Rosenfield is the Director of Learning & Engagement at the Delaware Art Museum where she serves on the leadership team and oversees education and public programs, interpretation, and community partnerships. Ms. Rosenfield serves as the Vice President on the Museum Council of Greater Philadelphia and is on the steering committee for the Philadelphia Museum Education Roundtable. Ms. Rosenfield has a MSEd in Leadership in Museum Education from Bank Street College of Education and a BFA in Illustration from the Maryland Institute College of Art.
Amelia Wiggins is Manager of Gallery Learning & Interpretation at the Delaware Art Museum, where she manages the guide corps, oversees gallery programs, and develops interpretation integrating community voices. She previously worked in family programs and museum education positions at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Franklin Institute, and The Stark Museum of Art. In 2011, Ms. Wiggins was honored with the Award for Excellence in Programming from the Mountain-Plains Museum Association. She holds an MSEd in Leadership in Museum Education from Bank Street College and a BFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art.
(1) In 2017, the Museum retitled its docents “museum guides” in an effort to use more inclusive and accessible language.
(2) When we describe the Delaware Art Museum as a White institution, we are describing the predominance of Whiteness reflected in its staff, art collections, and visitors. It is not our intention to exclude White perspectives. We wish to expand our narrative to include the histories and cultures of non-White people and make the museum more welcoming and relevant for minority audiences.
(3) Within the strategic plan, community is defined as the Greater Brandywine Valley region with a focus on Non-White audiences from five zip codes within the City of Wilmington.
(4) The Maturity Model Rubric can be used by staff at any level within an organization to identify areas for growth, set strategic goals, and build consensus around the need to adopt more inclusive practices.
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