Noticing race and diversity in the museum

This summer for me has been a lot of “firsts.” It was the first summer I explored many different corners of Philadelphia, the first time I tried Rita’s, first time working at a large institution like the PMA, first time I taught students in a gallery, and first time I began to think about diversity in an art institute. It was a busy summer to say the least.

As an education intern, I worked on three different big projects including leading tours in the galleries to summer camp groups, visiting a local library in Germantown to lead art activities relating to our special exhibit Creative Africa, and working at ArtSplash studio, assisting family audiences with different art projects. This structure really allowed me to see the vast and wide array of programs that the museum runs to reach out to different members in the community. In the midst of these busy weeks, I thought a lot about diversity in the museum.  these are some things I have spent a lot of time observing and thinking about.

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Prior to starting this internship, I was aware that the art world is pretty white. To my surprise, I saw more diversity than I thought when I started, especially being placed in the education department. However as tour groups came in, I started noticing more interesting racial dynamics. A large portion of the students who came on the tour were of color, whereas most of the authority figures they saw in the museum, their tour guides (the education interns), were white. And often, the artwork these students observed were painted by white European males. I taught in the Ellsworth Kelly room, and to my surprise, students frequently asked and wanted to know more about the artist; was it a he or she, where is he from, what race is he? And there were moments I weirdly felt uncomfortable and guilty for yet once again teaching about a white male artist. I constantly thought about whether the museum was providing spaces for students of color. One might think I am overreacting and that a 12 year old who looks at an impressionist painting is not thinking of race or diversity. And yes, I don’t think they are explicitly thinking of race in the museum, but in the fundamental structure and the collection of the museum, are we pushing them out in any way? Is it a friendly enough space for these students to come back again without being required to attend?

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These observations did upset and frustrate me at times, but wrapping up my nine weeks, I left the PMA feeling rather optimistic.  The PMA’s education department is one of the most active parts of the museum; from its effort in interpretation, community engagement to programs that are geared towards specific audiences such as teens or veterans, I have witnessed and participated in the museum’s effort to be a more open and welcoming place for everybody. Personally, the library outreach program was important for me for those reasons. We were introducing the museum’s collection and engaging the students with art in a way that was familiar and comfortable to the students. Making the museum more accessible and diverse extended outside the physical space of the PMA.

I am in no way undermining the structural lack of diversity in the museum, but I left the PMA wanting to return in the near future. The wide range of the PMA’s education program and the passionate educators I met over the course of summer left me thinking about ways to engage communities of color, and I look forward to sharing my ideas in the future.

-Kelly Jung ’17