Natural history museums offer amazing portals into worlds miles away from our own, and into eras from the distant past. Comprised of fossils, minerals, preserved specimens, and much more, some collections are of palatial grandeur. Although every museum has some sort of system in place to track incoming and outgoing items, those systems are not connected, museum to museum. Keeping a more detailed record of who has what across the world could not only be important for conservation, but for cataloging how life on Earth has changed, and forecasting how it will continue to do so in the future.
For example, there are case studies showing how analyzing the collections of these museums can be useful for studying pandemic preparedness, invasive species, colonial heritage, and more.
But this lack of connection might be a thing of the past. A paper published in the journal Science last week describes how a dozen large museums came together to map the entire collections of 73 of the world’s largest natural history museums across 28 countries in order to figure out what digital infrastructure is needed to establish a global inventory survey.
For decades, Dickson Mounds Museum in Illinois displayed the open graves of more than 200 Indigenous people. Thirty years after a federal law required museums to begin returning remains, the statewide museum system still holds thousands.
From Claude Monet to Andy Warhol, several of the world’s greatest artists have had their masterpieces targeted this year by protesters seeking to draw global attention to the climate change emergency. Now, art galleries are pushing back.
Squeaky beans may have inspired a few fits of giggles, but the task of conserving organic material for digitization is serious, occasionally even dangerous work. Conservation of the beans is part of the Darwin Correspondence Project, a massive undertaking to digitize thousands of Charles Darwin’s private letters. By 2022, the team aims to release a complete archive of the late botanist’s work to the public.
The nation’s museums are facing increased flooding and more frequent wildfires, and all that history inside is at risk. The value at stake is incalculable. Now the rush is on to make the structures more resilient, but funding that will be a feat.
The problem is particularly acute at the nation’s Smithsonian museums. At the museum of American History, on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., water is already rising. On a dry day, in the midst of two dry weeks, there was water down in the bowels of the building.
The gift was the largest donation the museum has ever received and led the couple to rank No. 22 among the top 50 U.S. donors of 2021, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy. The donors placed no official requirements on how the money should be used but expressed support for the Met’s plan to spend it on a new space that will exhibit work by artists from a wide range of countries and backgrounds.
As a scholar of museum studies, I would welcome a more inclusive vision for the Met’s collection in a state-of-the-art gallery. However, I believe that the institution would enhance its inclusiveness more by taking steps to increase the diversity of its staff from top to bottom, particularly at the entry level.
30 years of seeking more equity in art museums
Calls for greater social justice in museums began to pick up three decades ago.
The American Alliance of Museums, the largest professional museum organization, published a report in 1992 that highlighted this problem and called for museums to “become more inclusive places that welcome diverse audiences” and to “reflect our society’s pluralism in every aspect of their operations and programs.”
Eventually, this effort broadened to include a wide range of equity issues, as well as access for people with disabilities and various kinds of inclusion. In 2020, with the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic, this movement gained momentum at the Met and other museums.
A blocked pipeline
Due to historical inequalities, young people of color embarking on an art museum career are less likely to have families that can fund their unpaid internships or volunteer work. Done right, these types of early training opportunities help ensure that candidates of color will join the pipeline of museum professionals.
Despite Bunch’s personal rise to prominence and the Smithsonian’s recent hire of Jane Carpenter-Rock, who is also Black, as a new deputy director, museums haven’t made enough progress toward this goal in recent years.
Although there is no data yet regarding the number of people of color hired at museums since 2020, early reports suggest incremental increases and a sense of isolation among curators hired into high-profile museum positions.
How might museums do better? There are many options, such as making grants contingent upon making strides toward a more diverse workforce, or engaging in diversity training. One solution that I rarely hear mentioned is paying entry-level staff higher wages.
A curator assistant at a major metropolitan art museum can make as little as $36,000 to start, whereas a senior curator at the same-sized institution can make four or five times as much.
This wage differential may have made sense in the past, when these jobs didn’t require educational credentials. Today, however, most new hires have earned an expensive master’s degree.
Even getting that credential doesn’t always help launch a career in the arts. Alumni of the program I direct often tell me they have left coveted positions for higher-paid work in another field. People of color typically enter the workforce with less generational wealth than their white peers, so it stands to reason that they are more likely to leave the profession due to low compensation, if they enter it at all.
Students without the financial means to undertake an unpaid internship would now participate in the Met’s valuable mentor and training programs, “increasing opportunities and supporting equity in the art field,” Arsht promised. In an interview, she said that applications went up 300% once the internship positions became paid.
I see Arsht’s gift as a possible model for other wealthy donors who wish to make long-term contributions to museum diversity, equity and inclusion. A few similar examples have emerged, including a $462,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation that’s supporting long-term paid internships at the National Gallery of Art for students attending Howard University, a historically Black school.
Toppling conventional wisdom
If the Met wants to present a more global and inclusive vision of modern and contemporary art, it does not need to renovate its Modern and Contemporary wing. It could hang more diverse artwork on the walls it already has and use new funds from donors to compensate its staff differently so that early career hires of color have more of an incentive to stick around.
But, as I have long seen firsthand, museum leaders and fundraisers generally presume that big donors don’t want to help support day-to-day expenses, such as salaries.
The Met’s internship program, which as it happens now bears Arsht’s name, is proof that some donors are willing to fund unglamorous expenses such as salaries for young professionals and students. If more philanthropists were willing to do that, it would surely help increase the diversity of museum staff in the long term.
Wisconsin was once home to about 20,000 ancient burial mounds, but only about 4,000 remain because of development, farming, erosion or looting during the past 200 years.
Many of the artifacts and human bones looted from the graves have since found their way into museums in the state, including the Wisconsin Historical Society Museum in Madison, which also acquired artifacts through its own past excavations, donations or purchases.
The societal benefits of digitising natural history collections extends to global advancements in food security, biodiversity conservation, medicine discovery, minerals exploration, and beyond. A brand new, rigorous economic report predicts investing in digitising natural history museum collections could also result in a tenfold return.
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