Emerging Research on Identity & Museums

This research brief explains how Knology researchers studied graduate-level research on identity and museums.

by Kris MorrisseyJohn FraserKate FlinnerGrayson Dirk
Oct 28, 2020

From 2018 to 2020, the Emerging Research on Identity, Representation & Inclusion in Museums project team set out to document graduate-level research on identity in the museum field, and support professionals’ ongoing research and publishing on these topics. The project was supported in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (Grant No. #NLG-M-FY18 / MG-50-18-044). Researchers at Knology synthesized over 90 graduate student theses about identity and museums from 2000 to 2018. In parallel, we interviewed a sample of the authors whose work appeared in the literature review, to understand how identity research has played a role in their careers. To support new and ongoing identity research, we hosted a 10-month Writing Scholars Workshop for a group of 12 emerging professionals from across the United States who represented diverse institutions, professional experiences, and backgrounds.

The museum field is currently exploring representation, equity, and authority, but there seems to be less attention paid to the underlying concept of identity. By encouraging further consideration of this critical topic through our research, we hoped to strengthen museums’ capacity to improve their communities’ well-being. Ultimately, we produced a bibliography of graduate-level research on identity and museums, as well as a peer-reviewed paper presenting the analysis of the literature and interviews of select authors. In the workshop, the Writing Scholars analyzed historic research on identity topics and published a series of articles on the evolution of these topics in museum literature. Together, these resources provide valuable insights for the current field-wide conversations about identity, and point to new directions for future research.

This project not only documented the progress of identity work, but also serves as a call for the museum field to continue to invest in this area of practice and inquiry. Unsurprisingly, our study showed that the intersection of identity and museums is a vast and complex subject. Even though we only scratched the surface, the project offered much-needed synthesis of the issues surrounding research on identity in museums. The literature review and interviews, as well as the products of the Writing Scholars Workshop showed that graduate students and emerging professionals are knowledgeable about identity and have the potential to advance museums’ work in this area.

Key Takeaways

Our project showed ample evidence of museums’ efforts to address both a wide range of identities and continuously changing demographics in the United States. Graduate student research offered an elaborate illustration of this work, which is a valuable companion to the identity research published by museum researchers and professionals. The graduate literature showcased numerous efforts to respond to and represent identity through exhibitions, programs, and collaborations. The majority of graduate research took place in culturally specific museums, which may suggest that they are seen as leaders or models of this work. These identity projects addressed a wide range of topics, including sovereignty, gender, racial equity, and history. In spite of these developments, our analysis also showed that there is still room for growth. Identity researchers observed in their studies that many museum projects still tend to present identities as one-dimensional and ignore the intersectional nature of identity. In turn, these misrepresentations can lead to further marginalization.

Furthermore, the graduate students’ writing showed that emerging museum professionals have both sophisticated thinking around and personal experience with these topics. Bringing their insights to bear on the field has the potential to transform the conversation around identity in museums. However, we found two gaps in translating this experience into emerging professionals’ daily work. First, individuals who studied identity in graduate school are typically unable to use their expertise when they enter the museum workforce, for reasons relating to funding, administrative support, and institutional inertia. Second, studies of identity in graduate literature – and other academic literature – are not widely read by museum professionals. In spite of these gaps, it appears the museum field is interested in projects on the complexities of identity. We feel many museum professionals can benefit from this work.

All Museum Professionals: Representing identity is complex and difficult and requires risk-taking that is often uncomfortable. The studies in our literature review advocated for soliciting input from visitors, as well as engaging in sustained conversations and collaborations with stakeholders. Studies also noted that museum professionals should pay attention to power structures in collaborative work. For those looking for more information on developing projects about identity, we suggest exploring the models described in graduate student literature, such as those named in our Bibliography, as well as other scholarship. We also encourage professionals with experience in identity work to write and publish this information. This has the two-fold benefit of expanding authors’ topical knowledge, and rightly positions them as experts in the space.

Leaders & Administrators: There are two areas where museum leaders and administrators have an opportunity to advance their work: first is related to emerging and mid-career museum professionals, and second concerns museums’ overarching approach to identity.

Regarding museum professionals, museum leadership should know that recent museology graduates and others who are new to the industry are disappointed by the field’s inertia on topics relating to identity, as well as the related issue of compensation. At the same time, these emerging professionals have remarkable confidence in museums and what the field can achieve, and they are eager to make their mark. Investing in new hires from a range of cultural backgrounds will help the field benefit from these professionals’ enthusiasm, experience, and knowledge about identity topics. In parallel, since new hires often come from graduate programs, museum administrators should consider how to strengthen relationships with museology programs at universities, so that priorities are aligned.

Regarding museums’ approach to identity, our research indicates that museums have the opportunity and the responsibility to address identities in richer and more equitable ways. Many studies and interviews pointed to the role of institutional policies in creating or supporting change, and also the interplay between policies, risk-taking, and individual action. Across our research, the strongest recommendation was summed up as this: change who is at the table making the decisions. Additionally, museums have a reputation and a history of ignoring, misrepresenting, or marginalizing some aspects of identity and museums need to build trust with communities to redress this history.

Funding Agencies: Identity topics will likely expand in importance as U.S. demographics continue to evolve. The good news is that many museums are already trying out identity-focused exhibits and programs in response to these changes. By indicating their continued support for these kinds of exhibits and programs, funding agencies can drive forward momentum in museums’ efforts to help their communities explore identity. Our research points to two areas of work that funders should consider promoting. First, culturally specific museums can serve as models for approaching identity in sophisticated and compelling ways that audiences respond well to. They need funding to continue this work, and also to mentor others in experimenting with identity topics. Second, emerging museum professionals are fonts of knowledge about identity issues, but museum systems are not set up to prioritize their expertise. The field would benefit from funding agencies’ investment in building new mechanisms for foregrounding emerging professionals’ insight and nurturing their ongoing learning.

Researchers & Evaluators: Our research showed that evaluation is critical to understanding visitors’ reactions to what is – and what isn’t – represented in museum practices. And there’s an opportunity to further cultivate evaluation and identity work. Graduate student literature can be a valuable resource for those studying museum topics, exhibits, and programs about identity. Culturally responsive evaluation is a growing priority in the museum field, and graduate literature offers methods and analytical approaches that aptly handle the complex issues surrounding identity. For example, graduate theses point to findings that can help evaluators and researchers conceptualize identity topics and assist institutions in navigating identity work. There is also a rich body of work produced by researchers and professionals (i.e., not graduate students) in museums and adjacent fields that we did not address in this project. Future synthesis research should interrogate and mine these resources. A good place to start would be the far-reaching and intersectional aspects of racial and ethnic identities in both museum practice and operations.

University Scholars & Administrators: Our research showed that museums and museology programs in universities appear to operate as separate systems, creating a gap between academic research and professional knowledge. But museums and graduate programs have shared interests, and there are ample opportunities to coordinate their work. Already, there are some strong collaborative efforts between academia and practice professionals, typically evident in internship initiatives. We encourage more conversations about the capacity to produce knowledge and opportunities to build complementary knowledge systems in academia and museums. In particular, graduate school administrators should reflect on the value of theses, and consider effective ways to leverage students’ knowledge and publicize their work. Scholarly journals can play a role in this dialogue, but they should be a part of a multifaceted approach to the challenges and not the sole antidote.

Further Reading

Here’s where readers can find the products of this project:

Bibliography & Abstracts – This is a list of citations and abstracts for the 90+ graduate theses and dissertations that shaped our study of research on identity. The Bibliography and list of abstracts can be found here.

Identity & Museum Practice: Promises, Practices, and a Broken Pipeline – This is a peer-reviewed paper published in Curator: The Museum Journal, describing methods and results of our synthesis of graduate student literature about identity and interviews of a selection of authors. This paper is in press.

Virtual Issues: Articles by Members of the Writing Scholars Workshop – This page provides synopses of the papers produced by the Writing Scholars during the workshop, with links to each of the open-access articles. The Virtual Issues can be found here.

Photo credit: Luc van Loon on Unsplash.

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