Rethinking diversity: Introduction
13 November 2014 – Angela Thorpe
This is the first post in a series on issues of diversity in the public history field.
“I’m surprised to see you here. You know this museum is for white people, right?” These words greeted me during my first days of an internship at a Greensboro, North Carolina, museum last August. This statement alarmed me for a couple of reasons. First, the speaker is an active member of one of Greensboro’s most historic black communities. I worried that if other members of the community shared his sentiment–that the museum wasn’t a space for them–the museum was not confronting diversity head-on in their exhibits, program offerings, and outreach work. Second, if our communities do not see museums as spaces where diverse faces should be employed in leadership roles, an issue is exposed that is highly complex and not easily remedied.
My name is Angela Thorpe, and I am a recent graduate of the Museum Studies MA program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. I first noticed a problem with diversity in public history when I canvassed public history programs across the country. As a black female, I felt it necessary to understand how my prospective programs confronted diversity. Each program director admitted their program “struggled with diversity,” but that they were “working on it.” My former program director, in comparison, was candid with me about the program’s spotty track record for attracting a diverse body. I appreciated that and was honored to eventually train in the program.
Training in a small program as the only person of color was tough because I received my undergraduate degree from the University of Florida, a large school where diverse cultures thrived and difference was celebrated. As I studied as a graduate student, attended conferences, and conducted informational interviews, I quickly realized that the public history field suffered from a lack of diversity from within its ranks. This realization inspired me to contribute to the dialogue surrounding diversity in public history. This post is the first in a series in which I will interview other public historians about the points of change we can make (and are currently making) to diversify our field.
The dialogue surrounding the state of diversity in our field is alive. Take for instance the 2009 National Council on Public History working group “How Do We Get There? Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Public History Profession: Continuing the Discussion,” headed by Dr. Modupe Labode of Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis and Dr. Calinda Lee of Emory University and the Atlanta History Center. Together, these women of color spearheaded a discussion centering on the “pipeline” issue in public history, as well as the general underrepresentation of racial and ethnic minorities in the field. According to Labode, the “pipeline” is “the process by which public historians are produced.” A diverse body of students may fail to enter the pipeline for a number of reasons, the least of which is not being aware of graduate programs dedicated to public history. Furthermore, if the voices of diverse professionals are underrepresented in the field, their perspectives may not be adequately represented in exhibits, programs, and other initiatives. If such issues have been brought to the fore, why must the diversity conversation continue?
At a baseline level, diverse audiences may not be comfortable going where they are not reflected–from the exhibits to the museum’s professional staff. Furthermore, the experience I detail at the beginning of this post demonstrates that lack of diversity in our profession is not an issue that’s contained or internal. Rather, it’s glaringly external. If our diverse communities feel that people like them “don’t work in museums,” the diversity issue immediately becomes more complex. Ultimately, perception is reality. It is our responsibility as public historians to work towards transforming perception, and thus the reality of our field, if we wish to remain relevant to an evolving audience.
~ Angela Thorpe is a graduate of the Museum Studies MA program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She is an oral history researcher with The HistoryMakers African American video oral history archive in Chicago, IL.