NCPH so white?
11 March 2016 – Mary Rizzo
2015 will be remembered by historians as the year of #BlackLivesMatter, an intersectional civil rights movement that merged direct action, political activity, and social media to force a national discussion around issues of police violence and institutional racism. It’s also pushed to the forefront discussions about diversity in various other kinds of American institutions, from Hollywood movies to Silicon Valley. Public history institutions, museums, and arts organizations are also taking a hard look at themselves and asking why their staffs and constituents are predominantly white.
The statistics are troubling. The Mellon Foundation found that art museum staffs are 72% white and non Hispanic. Nonwhite staff members are most likely to be employed in facilities, security, or finance offices rather than as registrars, curators, or educators. The Wallace Foundation has gathered case studies of organizations that have successfully diversified their audiences along lines of race, ethnicity, and age, while also acknowledging that much work needs to be done.
So what about public history?
In 2008, the last year for which we have good statistics, NCPH partnered with ten professional history and public history organizations, including AHA, OAH, and AASLH, to survey their members regarding demographics. Out of a total sample of 3,800, the survey found only 7% of respondents identified as a person of color. Anecdotally, it seems as if not much has changed since then.
This question is critical because diversity makes us stronger. As public historians, we deal with hard questions about the past, unearth forgotten stories, and collaborate with publics. If we are not diverse ourselves, then how can we do these jobs well? What blind spots do we have as we look at the past? What publics are we ignoring?
The NCPH Diversity Task Force is examining these issues and developing strategies to address them. We want to know whether there are impediments to people of color participating in NCPH (both the organization and the conference) and how we can change that. The task force is co-chaired by Brian Joyner, National Park Service, and Kristine Navarro-McElhaney, Arizona State University, and includes Kathleen Franz, National Museum of American History, Mary Rizzo, Rutgers University-Newark, Modupe Labode, IUPUI, Blanca Garcia, California State University, San Bernadino, Aleia Brown, Middle Tennessee State Unversity, and Alima Bucciantini, Duquesne University. Stephanie Rowe, NCPH Interim Director, has been offering support.
We’re using the upcoming conference in Baltimore as a stage to begin a wider discussion with our members, conference attendees, and public historians who are not involved with NCPH. We’re beginning with a Twitter chat about diversity on March 17 from 11:30 am to 12:30 pm. This will allow us to talk to people who can’t come to the conference as well those who are attending. Follow the hashtag #HistoryInMyImage .
That evening, we will host an un-conference and salon to continue the Twitter discussion at Teavolve Café (1401 Aliceanna St, Baltimore, MD 21231) from 7-9 pm.
On Friday, March 18, there will be a pop-up exhibit on diversity in the conference’s Exhibit Hall in the Baltimore Ballroom. Want to contribute to the exhibit? Bring at least one item that speaks to you about diversity—either where we have been, or where we should go. Follow the hashtag #NCPHDiversity for all the diversity efforts occurring at the conference.
What questions should we be asking during our Twitter chat? What are the issues around diversity in public history that are most pressing to you? Use the comments below to offer suggestions.
~ Mary Rizzo is Assistant Professor of Professional Practice and Associate Director of Public and Digital Humanities Initiatives.