Are Suburbs and Museums White Spaces?

Between reading Raisin in the Sun, watching the documentary film The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, and the discussion with visiting lecturer Dr. Clement A. Price, I was introduced to a question that I had never really thought about before. Are suburbs something that is distinctly white, or associated with white culture? I know that the community where I grew up, a suburb, is 96% white, but I am from a state that has a similar population breakdown. I do not think I had ever recognized a difference between those living in the suburbs, the city, or the rural parts of the state.

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Google map capture of the area near where I grew up

This question led to a secondary question. Do African Americans that live in the suburbs give up part of their identity to do so? As a class, we struggled a bit with this one during our discussion of Raisin in the Sun, and I know that for me it was because I had never thought of the suburbs as a part of racial identity. In the play, the Younger family works to decide what to do with the insurance money from their father’s passing. Mama Younger, the family matriarch, desperately wants the family to move out to a house with a yard. In class, we questioned whether moving to the suburbs would force the Youngers to give up a part of their identity as African Americans. [1] Are suburbs a White space? In moving to a suburb, would a family like the Youngers have to become whiter?

In the museum community, we talk a lot about the ideas of space and ownership. If visitors feel invested in your institution, as if they have a stake in it, they are more likely to be involved and possibly contribute financially. Yet, this discussion has made me wonder. Are museums, like suburbs, viewed as a part of White culture? We constantly discuss the changing demographics in the United States and how that is reflected in our institutions, but at the same time we bemoan the lack of diversity in our visitors and even in our staff members. Museum Audience Insight, one of my favorite blogs, found in a survey that while the 2008 Census listed African Americans as 13% of the population, they only made up 3% of the museum-going households surveyed. [2]

I do not know how to make suburbs more diverse. I will leave that to city planners and community development directors. However, I do believe that museums will have to learn to be a space that is accessible to diverse audiences to stay relevant. Personally, I think that starting with students is the best way to go about this. Create engaging school programs that show students the wide range of people your museum can talk about, and give them someone with whom they can relate.

Then, pull them in. If you have the staff time and the resources, create an internship program. Engage students from high school to the graduate level, pulling from a diverse pool, and soon we will be better equipped to serve a diverse audience by utilizing a diverse work force. If we engage students from a wide variety of backgrounds, and show them that museums are a space where they can express and learn more about themselves, we have a chance of engaging them for the long run, and of changing to make ourselves a space for everyone in our communities.

[1] Hansberry, Lorraine. Raisin in the Sun. New York: Random House, 1994.

[2] Museum Audience Insight, “Talking a Bit More About Race, Ethnicity” http://reachadvisors.typepad.com/museum_audience_insight/2010/04/talking-a-bit-more-about-race-ethnicity.html

2 thoughts on “Are Suburbs and Museums White Spaces?

  1. I totally agree that the change has to start at the level of education. Drawing in a diverse range of students and allowing them to harness their talent and interest in the museum world can help bring in interns and professionals from a wide variety of backgrounds down the line. When visitors are able to see themselves represented in a museum I think they are more likely to speak up about what their community needs and how our institutions can benefit all.

  2. This class for me has really been all about identity and what it means to different people. I have struggled with it from the very beginning, but I am now leaning towards identity as choice. Do you lose a part of your identity for making a choice that might hold differently than the identity you were labeled with as a particular culture, socio-economic status, etc? Or are identities just so malleable that it’s the choices we make as individuals that all contribute to the identity backpack we all carry around?

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