Docent Educator Logo

Connecting with Multi-Cultural Audiences

by Tamra Carboni

In 1989, the American Association of Museums established a task force on education to examine critical issues, and to develop proposals for strengthening and expanding the educational role of museums. Their final report, which was recently issued, discussed the “public dimension” and “educational role” of museums, and the broad contributions museums can make to society. I urge all of the museum community to read this report in its entirety, but permit me to excerpt some of the conclusions bearing on multi-culturalism and education:

  • “… individual museums of different sizes and types must ensure that they are accessible to a broad audience and that they do not intentionally, or even subtly and unintentionally, exclude anyone.
  • “Each visitor supplies yet another context and another layer of meaning as he or she brings individual experiences and values to the encounter with objects in a museum setting.
  • “Those charged with making museum policy, as well as those charged with carrying it out, must understand the diversity of our society and support the implications of that diversity for museum operations and activities.
  • “Assure that the interpretive process manifests a variety of cultural and intellectual perspectives and reflects an appreciation for the diversity of museums’ publics. By cultivating and expressing a variety of cultural perspectives in the presentation and interpretation of their collections, museums can foster inclusiveness.”

The visions expressed in the report are laudable and desirable, and they challenge museum staff and docents to enfranchise the many racial, ethnic, social, economic, and educational backgrounds of the people in their community. To accomplish this, however, we must first confront some of the apprehensions and assumptions that may block or obscure these goals. They include:

  • The mainstream culture many have come to know and value is going to be supplanted by a new, strange hybrid of exotic elements.

This country has always consisted of a mix of cultures, and today we are becoming even more diverse. The U.S. Census Bureau predicts that the percentage of population growth between now and the first 30 years of the next century will be vastly larger among Hispanic Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans, and African Americans than it will among “white” Americans. Developing an understanding and appreciation for these various cultures and their contributions to our collective past and present, does not mean that the “mainstream” culture will be eliminated. What will change, however, is the singular” emphasis on the accomplishments and lifestyles of white Americans to the neglect of others and the impression that they were the only people to make significant contributions.

  • The facts presented in subjects such as history will be distorted in an effort to contribute to raising the self-esteem of other cultures.

Our view of the past has always been “slanted” simply by choosing one emphasis over another. Whether by focusing on wealthy landowners, industrialists, or political figures, we present a mere piece of the entire picture. While some people might have us completely overhaul how history is presented, it seems most appropriate and reasonable to incorporate the roles and lifestyles of men and women of various colors, creeds, and economic groups as we examine the past, rather than to mimic an elitist approach by shifting inordinate emphasis from one group to another.

  • A multi-cultural approach may promote racism and rage.

There is concern that sharing information about repression will engender resentment, anger, and shame. These risks do exist. Nonetheless, by sharing this type of information about the past, we provide contrast to our present and recognize that there should be no single standard or image to which everyone ought to aspire.

In the final analysis, and regardless of one’s personal views concerning a multi-cultural approach to education, there are several salient implications for those involved in interpretation within museums and historic homes. These implications impact the responsibilities of docents directly.

In most cases, the time-honored techniques of working with visitors continues to be appropriate. However, some need to be emphasized.

  • Examine the language you use and the attitudes you express in relaying information to visitors. Be particularly wary of reinforcing stereotypes related to ethnicity, race, or sex. Do not treat students of one group differently than you treat those of another. Don’t favor, ignore, condescend, or assume.
  • Try to present information within a broad cultural framework. If the main subject pertains primarily to one culture, find ways of putting it in a wider context that makes it relevant to other groups. Remember, people need to see themselves as participants in the history presented. Give enough information to allow for some connections to be made. For example, if you are interpreting the home of a wealthy Caucasian family, consider how the house and family related, compared, and contrasted to other segments of the area’s population. If this requires information you haven’t been provided, request it from the museum staff.
  • Be accepting of varied comments and responses. Be open to different perceptions of artifacts. Should it prove useful for promoting communication and understanding, ask for clarifications or explanations with an interested, rather than skeptical or judgmental, tone.
  • Ask museum staff for programs and sources of information that will assist you in learning and understanding more of the various cultures that comprise your community. The more you know about others, the easier it will be for you to convey appreciation and sensitivity in concrete ways.
  • Be prepared to meet values that differ from your own. These differences can present real obstacles as the values among various cultures are sometimes disparate, and even in conflict. This is when understanding and respect for differences can be most difficult to attain. However, it is not your responsibility to change anyone’s values nor to defend your own. Attempt to achieve tolerance by adopting the attitude that all perceptions of the world come from “real experiences and beliefs,” and that there isn’t one dominant concept and other, minor aberrations.
  • Don’t avoid, or use euphemisms to discuss, areas of cultural conflict and strife such as slavery or racial discrimination. Don’t misrepresent the past by giving disproportionate emphasis to a few pleasant circumstances within a generally undesirable situation. Strive for a balanced and accurate representation.
  • Become aware of what constitutes racism, and how it pervades mainstream culture.

In conclusion, remember that education is the transmission of culture from one generation to another. We must recognize that the composition of American society has changed significantly over the past several generations, and, as a consequence, the culture to be transmitted has changed. The way we educate and what we teach must change accordingly. This doesn’t mean that we discard all the teachings of the past. It does mean that we should broaden our field of vision, not just extending the periphery, by sharpening our focus throughout.

Tamra Carboni is Director of Public Programs at the Louisiana State Museum in New Orleans. In addition to her museum responsibilities, she is the chair of the American Association of Museum ‘s Media and Technology Committee, and is a consultant for the New Orleans Public School System. serving on their Advisory- Committee to Infuse African/African American Studies into the Curriculum. She earned her undergraduate degree in art history from Tulane University and her M.Ed, from the University of New Orleans.

Carboni, Tamara ” Connecting with Multi-Cultural Audiences,” The Docent Educator 1.1, (Winter 1991): 4-5.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *