The Empty Seat Beside You
It is of no surprise that inclusion and diversity are hot topics, or that my inbox has been flooded with CFPs for conferences on the subject of revolution, protest, and social justice. #BlackLivesMatter has shaken up the Twitterverse and caused various institutions and disciplines to reevaluate modes of access to the field and the viability of people of color.
Recently, the monthly #MuseumsRespondtoFerguson chat concerned itself with the use of diversity and inclusion as a theme for conferences or for individual sessions.
Last month’s #MuseumWorkersSpeak joined around deconstructing what it means to be diverse or to implement inclusion in the workplace.
It has been a personal struggle for me since I committed myself to museum work, and only deepened following my recent presentation at MuseumNext last month. It was a moment in which I finally had a platform to speak on what myself and those around me have been disturbed by for far too long but still there is a response of “Look around, if they wanted to be here, there’s space for everyone.” (insert side-eye emoji).
This always shakes me to my core. On the one hand, this mentality completely collapses the history of social and political barriers faced by marginalized groups to. Or like that one time when an older white male approached me (at the time I was a visitor liaison at the front desk of a museum and historic house), asking me, “Why don’t black people come to stuff like this?”…Hmmm, never mind the fact that in that moment I was expected to speak on behalf of all black folk or that he had essentialized an entire people. Within one question, he collapsed the black experience into an ahistorical account by which they were neither interested or vested in history or culture.
This translates into a pathologizing of marginalized communities; rather than addressing privilege or lack of access, blame is placed on the disadvantaged group. The discussion around the criteria for entry or pipeline into the museum profession has called much of this into question. This discussion came up often in the aforementioned tweet chats, and has been of great concern at MuseumNext as we’ve tried to envision what inclusion looks like when it’s enacted. As we consider how the museum field professionalizes: What jobs are we making available for emerging professionals? How are we making internships and opportunities visible to a widespread audience? And, are we creating relationships in underserved communities that will influence their interest and the viability of the museum?
Consider this before asking why some aren’t present, ask what is preventing them from being there or why you hadn’t noticed the seat was empty before.