What does a commitment to diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion look like for a fine arts museum, a children’s museum or a historical society? What about zoos and aquariums?
The American Alliance of Museums, which provides resources and guidance for each of these types of organizations and more, is now embedding DEAI as an integral part of museum excellence. Its new initiative will update its accreditation and the standards it sets for professional practices for member organizations.
In addition to DEAI, AAM’s Core Standards for Museums include guidelines on risk management, financial stability, public trust, collections stewardship, and planning. This is the first time in 20 years that the organization has updated its standards. Once finalized, the new standards will become required of the 1,096 accredited member museums and considered professional practice for the remaining 35,000 individual members. The multi-year process will be led by an advisory committee of six to eight people from the industry through conversations with professionals from across the field, including those often underrepresented in the establishment of museum standards, such as emerging museum professionals, Chief Diversity Officers, and museum professionals of color.
We spoke to Laura Lott, CEO and President of AAM, to discuss the state of DEAI work at museums, the impetus for this initiative, and what they anticipate the implementation process will look like.
Wallace Foundation: What prompted the organization’s decision to start this initiative and the process of updating AAM’s standards to reflect diversity, equity, and inclusion concerns?
Laura Lott: This really started back in 2016 when diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion in all aspects of museum structure and programming was prioritized in our strategic plan as one of three focus areas for AAM. That came out of dozens of conversations with thousands of museum directors and professionals across the sector who told us that DEAI was a top concern for them, along with financial sustainability and how they were positioned in communities related to the education system.
One of the first things that we did was develop a DEAI working group made up of people who had been doing DEAI work in the field, some for decades. Generally, the consensus was that they hadn't seen as much change as they'd hoped. And so the working group was charged with asking the question: Why?
That group issued a report in 2018, which identified and examined five ways that DEAI work hadn't stuck or made as much change in museums as hoped. One of those five insights was the value of systemic change. Oftentimes we found that DEAI initiatives were focused externally; they were about the audience that the museum was reaching or the programming it was doing, but not necessarily the systemic change to its culture, processes, systems, budgets, and values—everything that would really be needed.
Within that same timeframe, someone said to me, “We really should only be talking about excellence in museums,” rather than topics like DEAI. It was an Aha! moment: we need to make sure that people understand DEAI is museum excellence. Excellence is the term that we use for the whole continuum from when a museum first joins the professional alliance to becoming accredited, and DEAI needed to be part of that system in order to make the sustained change that our field needs and our communities deserve.
WF: When you look at museums across the country, what are some of the more specific issues that you have been seeing regarding DEAI?
LL: There are three big things: One is the history and culture of museums, which from the founding of the concept of a museum, has been colonialist and racist. That means it's pretty hard to change because it's at the core of how museums were founded, what they were originally meant to do, and who founded them, too. It's a problematic history.
The second is resource limitations in the museum field. We know lots of arts and cultural organizations—and nonprofits overall—are always struggling to find new dollars to do new work. DEAI takes resources and a sustained investment of time and money for the expertise that's needed and oftentimes not within a museum already, such as training for existing boards and staffs.
The third is just the nature of DEAI work. Unlike mounting an exhibit, where there's a very defined beginning, middle, and end, DEAI work is never ending. It's people and culture work, so it's a different way that we have to learn to work. Each person and organization has to do that work—there's no shortcut.
WF: That said, can you share any examples of strong and effective DEAI initiatives that you've started to see as well?
LL: First and foremost, some of the most impactful work that results in actual change isn't the big, grand initiatives or something that's announced, launched, done, and celebrated. I think the most impactful work is the thoughtful, steady—sometimes incremental or too slow, it seems, for all of our patience levels—changes happening in museums.
For example, we've seen in the last year or two a significant increase in the number of Chief Diversity Officer or DEAI leadership positions in museums, which is a huge dedication of resources by museums to find the expertise and have that as a core part of their leadership teams. The Phillips Collection, here in Washington D.C., was one of the first to create a Chief Diversity Officer position, get it endowed so that it doesn't go away, and work with the person in that position—Makeba Clay, at the time—to really make these kinds of changes throughout the institution and to look at how they partnered in a bigger way with the D.C. community, not just a portion of the D.C. community.
Additionally, the Burke Museum in Seattle is a leader in being in community with their Native populations. When you walk into that museum, there is a statement right on the wall—that I'm certain was a years-long process and a difficult thing to do—addressing their history and culpability in collecting from and not including the voices of the Native folks that they were interpreting or talking about. They now have a committee as part of their governance structure that is comprised of Native people and it’s part and parcel of how they make decisions now. That's another example of years-long structural change that really has impacted the way that the museum works and collects.
WF: Can you talk about what the process of updating the standards will look like?
LL: It's a consensus-building process that started with the “Excellence in DEAI” task force, part of our “Facing Change” initiative, that issued a report a couple of months ago. That task force was charged with examining what excellence in DEAI looks like and the indicators of a museum really progressing through a DEAI journey. I'm so grateful to that committee, which began their work in 2019, so it was not a short or easy process, especially during pandemic times, to define specific core concepts and key indicators that can be built into the new standards and the application of the standards.
After the new year, we'll appoint a steering committee of Chief Diversity Officers, museum leaders, and AAM volunteer leadership. I expect some of the biggest changes to be not necessarily in the language of the standards, though there will be some, but in how they're applied and evaluated by the accreditation commission and peer reviewers. It's a little bit behind the scenes, but it will change a lot about what we actually ask museums to tell us in their self-studies—what the peer reviewers look for, and what they observe when they're doing their visits. Our goal is to nurture excellence, so part of our job is providing the case studies, resources, and training on how to actually implement the standards.
WF: With your member organizations spanning different sizes, areas of focus, and audience bases, how do you account for the variety of programs and approaches museums might take in this work?
LL: It's definitely not one size fits all—certainly not with DEAI—but it isn't really with anything that's in the standards. It's such a broad field, and it's why the standards, if you look at them now, are a little vague. They have to be adaptable to zoos, children's museums, big institutions, and very old institutions, as well as ones that are brand new. That's why a lot of the changes that I feel will be most important through this process will be in how the standards are applied and how they're evaluated because we can't expect to see the same thing and call it progress or excellence in each institution's case.
For example, one of the core concepts is about DEAI demanding an ongoing commitment of resources, and one of the indicators of this commitment is that an organization has allocated a budget for the work. Then the question becomes how much is enough? And that's obviously going to be a very different answer depending on the type of institution and where it is. It probably won't be in the standards that museums need to dedicate a certain percent of their budget, but in the self-study, how we frame this indicator and how it's evaluated by the peer reviewers and the accreditation commission will be where that definition comes in. It's never easy for our field, but that's where this idea of even having core concepts and key indicators helps us get more precise about what we’re looking for.
WF: Finally, what impact do you hope the new standards will have?
LL: Even just declaring that we're doing this work is a step so that DEAI is understood as part of professional practice for all museums. It's just like collection stewardship and interpretation, which are also practices that are constantly being refined and improved. It's not like we handle collections care now in the same way that we did a hundred years ago—there's new technology, tactics, and learnings. DEAI is very similar in that way, but it needs to be understood as part of best practice, taught as best practice in museum studies programs, and implemented by museums as core functions of the institution and embedded throughout them.
The American Alliance of Museums is a partner with The Wallace Foundation.