Representing Identity: Time for Radical Change

We share quotes from Masters and Doctoral theses and interviews that explore the role of identity in museum practice to honor the research and the ideas of the authors.

by Kris MorrisseyJohn FraserGrayson Dirk
May 26, 2020

The Emerging Research on Identity, Representation, & Inclusion in Museums initiative seeks to aggregate findings from graduate research studies that examine the ways that museums represent personal identity, and how that representation relates to issues of diversity, inclusion, and equity. We launched this initiative based on the hypothesis that research from museum studies graduate programs could inform practice in the field.

In the past year, we have analyzed text from Master’s Theses and Doctoral Theses that focus on this theme. For this study, we selected a sample of 90 studies including 44 Master’s theses and 46 Doctoral dissertations from 51 universities. We also interviewed the authors of twelve of these studies. Their writing has offered incredible insights into how we can truly radically reimagine our field and make our institutions diverse, equitable, and welcoming places. They’ve also, sadly, been a testament to what our field loses through it’s resistance to true, structural change through the people who’ve been forced out of their specialties or even museum work by tokenism, discrimination, low pay and lack of work, and student debt.

We highlight the work of these scholars because we believe that the museum community is ready for significant change. Below we share a small sample of quotes from the theses and the interviews to honor the research and the ideas of the authors:

“How can museums challenge and discomfort themselves in a way that hits that crucial sweet-spot between social justice and museological practice?”

“I want to drill mirrors into museum walls, so that everyone can see himself or herself reflected in the institution.”

“People in power have very little understanding of the struggles people of color have to go through and what hurdles we have to go through.”

“This is not comfortable for anybody regardless of your background and just using the comfort factor as an excuse for everything is just not good enough.”

“You have to pay people what they're worth.”

“I see my white colleagues that have the privilege to work on Black culture or Hispanic culture or Native American culture. … But I know very few people of color are in those positions where they have the privilege to work on anybody else’s culture or history.”

“I came to this work by way of realizing how influential the museum can be, and how we, this generation of museum professionals, are at the cusp of a new chapter of inclusivity and sensitivity around gender and sexuality.”

“When it comes to privilege you have to give up some of that privilege to lift others up.”

“Museums, seemingly un-moveable, are moveable.”

“That made me fall in love with this weird thing called the museum field.”

“I think we have to destroy the museums in order to build them back up.”

We are already seeing some of this work of transformation starting to take place. And the teams at Knology and Curator: The Museum Journal are working to support those efforts. For example, earlier this year, Curator announced a commitment to publishing accepted papers in the first language of the author in addition to the English version. Authors can also publish their papers in other languages of their choosing. Furthemore, Curator and Knology have also offered the first-ever Writing Scholars Workshop, a professional development initiative designed to equip the next generation of museum leaders to publish their work. The 2020 Writing Scholars Workshop is focusing on the intersection of museums and personal identity and features writing and research from a diverse pool of young museum professionals.

About this Study

The Emerging Research on Identity, Representation and Inclusion in Museums project was made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (Grant# MG-50-18-0044-18), with match funding by Wiley & Sons, Inc., Knology, and private donors.

Photo by tom barrett on Unsplash

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