Every year the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) Center for the Future of Museums releases a TrendsWatch report. For the past two years I’ve written a response piece to each topic tackled within the reports. Continuing that strategy, this post addresses AAM’s first topic for 2021.
For an introduction to the TrendsWatch reports and the following miniseries, please see: TrendsWatch 2021: Navigating a Disrupted Future.
The TrendsWatch 2021 report begins with the following topic: Closing the Gap: Redressing systemic inequalities of wealth and power. This report starts with what I consider to be a topic so all-encompassing that we find it as an undertone within an additional two of the four subsequent topics: Who Gets Left Behind? and COVID on Campus. To begin, it’s important to understand that the United States lacks adequate societal security nets; especially when compared to Canada and most of Europe. In the US in particular, COVID-19 has exacerbated wealth inequality while also disproportionately impacting people already disadvantaged by the economic system. For museums, especially those seen as prestigious institutions, are (correctly) being held accountable for profiting from and perpetuating these inequalities. Elizabeth Merritt, Founding Director of the Center for the Future of Museums, believes this is an opportunity for museums to take on a leadership role and demonstrate to society how we can apply social justice values to our work.
Wealth Inequality in the US
Here are a few facts to set the stage as reported in the TrendsWatch 2021 report:
- 1% of the US population holds 1/3 of the nation’s wealth.
- The wealth gap is egregiously skewed by race.
- The 2008 economic crisis showed a median decline in the net worth of Black families to be twice that of white families, and experts surmise this will also be a trend of the COVID-19-inspired economic collapse.
How does wealth inequality work? Merritt quotes Marina Gorbis’ Manifesto for a More Equitable Future:
[W]ealth is built on a complex web of assets that includes social connections, access to capital, knowledge, education, and political power. To build an equitable society, America must create equitable access to all the assets that make up this web.
The TrendsWatch report begins this section by explaining that the wealth gap can be attributed to 246-years of slavery and the resulting socio, political, and economic systems designed post-slavery to prevent Black Americans from accumulating wealth. The inequality embedded within our systems are several centuries old and will take time and effort on multiple fronts to begin to untangle. This is not to say it shouldn’t be done, but to note that this task can easily seem overwhelming and overwhelm to the point of inaction is a challenge we face.
When thinking of challenges specific to the museum field, there are a couple:
- Unpaid internships, term positions, and low paid positions all work to exclude anyone who isn’t independently wealthy enough (privileged) to take the position.
- A reported 40% of museums have laid off staff due to COVID-19, most layoffs were low-paid positions that are most often held by people of color.
Achieving wealth equality will take time and Merritt observes that museums can be easily dissuaded from making change because it requires multiple actions. Museums that have experimented with trying to make change have also made mistakes. Merritt opines that because there is room to get it wrong, museums find themselves frozen with uncertainty, and that uncertainty results in inaction.
Merritt accurately points out that you can’t simply train out 450 years of racism. “The lessons from [anti-racist and DEAI] training must be embedded into the very fabric of the museums’ operations, policies, and culture.” She counsels that building long-lasting equity will take time and a constant commitment to moving forward at an incremental, sustainable pace. Here are recommendations for those incremental, internal steps:
- Prioritize racial equity in decision and policy-making sessions.
- Integrate DEAI training as part of the onboarding process with refresh trainings held annually.
- Recraft position descriptions, pay, requirements, and working conditions with a DEAI lens.
- Broaden hiring requirements to purposefully place Black Indigenous People of Color in leadership positions.
This topic allows for museums to also consider their external role:
- Use their economic power to build the wealth of others through financial investments, and intentional decisions in who they do business with and partner with.
- Create an accessible infrastructure of economic exchange for artists, craftspeople, and other creators.
- Use the museum’s tangible and intangible wealth and assets to support Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color build their own assets and wealth.
Closing the gap to wealth inequality will take time, perhaps even lifetimes. But it is incumbent upon all of us to make change in our corners of the world. Stay tuned next week for the next post in our series: TrendsWatch 2021: Digital Awakening.
Rachael Cristine Woody
Expert consultant Rachael Cristine Woody advises on museum strategies, collections management, digital museums, and grant writing for a wide variety of clients, and is a popular presenter and Lucidea Press author. Learn about Lucidea’s Argus Museum CMS for virtual, multimedia presentation of collections, visitor engagement, and museum staff productivity and impact.
Museum digital projects are inherently complex and require an understanding of the technology involved. Staff, volunteers, and interns all play a role.
Museums have largely based their success on capitalist models, using for-profit values of power, productivity, and economic metrics of success.
Many disasters are driven by climate change; museums can use their nonpartisan credibility and communications skills to build climate policy consensus.
Mental health for both museum staff and the external museum community is important; museums can be good for our mental and physical health.