Rethinking diversity: Introduction

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This is the first post in a series on issues of diversity in the public history field.

Waymond, the custodian who challenged me to think differently about diversity at a community history event. Credit: Angela Thorpe

Waymond, the custodian who challenged me to think differently about diversity at a community history event. Photo credit: Angela Thorpe

“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.

During my summer internship, the museum where I worked captialized on its ability to attract a diverse set of budduing public historians to conenct with a loacal African-American community. Pictured are two interns along with three community members swapping stories at a small memory-sharing event. Credit: Angela Thorpe

During my summer internship, the museum where I worked capitalized on its ability to attract a diverse set of budding public historians to connect with a local African-American community. Pictured are two interns along with three community members swapping stories at a small memory-sharing event. Photo credit: Angela Thorpe

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.

  1. Niquole Primiani says:

    Thank you for the work you are doing. I have been concerned about this topic for years as a program officer working for a state funder. I have been hoping to launch an initiative that would help our grantees to understand how to make their collections relevant to multi-ethnic audiences. My proposal has received a less than positive response. How can I make my colleagues understand the importance of such an initiative? Any advice you can offer would be helpful.

  2. Well said, I’m especially interested in the “pipeline” issue you highlight. As a co-chair for the NCPH New Professional and Graduate Student Committee, we are at the final stages of publishing a guide to public history programs named the Public History Navigator. At the Nashville annual meeting we hope to solicit feedback on how to best distribute this guide to undergraduate students. I am especially hopeful that we gain insight on how to reach a more diverse student audience. We would very welcome feedback or suggestions.
    Perhaps better providing better outreach and tools for students interested in history can help increase diversity in our field in the future.

  3. Adina Langer says:

    I’m excited to read this series, Angela, as it evolves. I will be making my debut as a public history educator this spring at a university known to have a diverse student body overall. However, it appears to me that the heritage preservation program within the university more closely resembles less-than-diverse public history programs around the country, as opposed to the student body of the university. I would love to hear suggestions for how to attract students of color to the program and to make them feel comfortable and empowered in my class in particular (a digital history class).

  4. Kimber Heinz says:

    I think that one step is to decenter whiteness in our work. No program or community event is going to feel welcoming to people of color unless it’s clear that people of color are at the table as leaders and community partners in creating it. It’s time to show up in our communities and offer opportunities, resources, and possibilities for POC students and communities if we (whoever “we” is) want to diversify the field of Public History. Also, “affirmative action” is still necessary–who we hire matters, as Angela points out. Not that I’m hiring anyone–I’m a first year in the UNC Greensboro History/Museum Studies MA program. 🙂 I so appreciate this conversation and I hope that we white people will start taking the risks needed to move from asking the important questions to exploring some possible answers in action. The public humanitarians at the Durham Public Library have been putting together some awesome programming this year that I think is a great example of walking the talk of diversity and inclusivity. Check it out: Thanks for your great posts, Angela!

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