Connecting the dots: The impact of diversity in the museum workforce on innovation, relevance, and audience Engagement

Haitham Eid, Southern University at New Orleans, USA


Beyond a few articles and some statistical studies, and despite its importance to museum work, it can be argued that the issue of workforce diversity in museums has been overlooked. This article aims to investigate how workforce diversity can impact the innovation capabilities of museums as well as their relevance to the communities they serve. The lack of diversity in museums exceeds professional positions and extends to board members, constituents, and donors, who are usually described as overwhelmingly White, able-bodied, college-educated, and affluent. This research questions if some of the problems which museums face today, such as the lack of attendance, relevance and innovation are linked to the lack of diversity. Workplace diversity is a major factor in how the public perceives the institution, and accordingly chooses to interact, or not to interact, with it. This research uses aspects of the Museum Innovation Model (Eid, 2016) around social innovation, and draws upon some empirical studies in the museology and business studies literature on workplace diversity. For example, the definition and impact of two-dimensional diversity—which takes into consideration inherent and acquired factors—is explored. Additionally, this paper reviews some of the common strategies inside and outside the museum sector to increase workforce diversity, including training and internship programs, as well as affirmative action policies and guidelines. The paper concludes by acknowledging that museums with a diverse workforce are better positioned to innovate and engage more diverse communities. Workforce diversity ensures that there is a large pool of knowledge, skills, life experiences, perspectives, and expertise to help the institution face today’s challenges more effectively and efficiently.

Keywords: Workforce Diversity, Innovation, Relevance, Audience Engagement


Diversity and inclusion in the workplace

When we speak about workplaces, diversity and inclusion are two terms that are usually bundled together, which sometimes creates the assumption that they both refer to the same thing. In fact, the terms are not interchangeable. Workforce diversity is the broad mix of races, ethnicities, ages, genders, religions, sexual orientations, physical abilities, languages, education, and life experiences maintained by the employees of an organization. Inclusion, on the other hand, is the process by which the employer makes its organizational culture, policies, and environment conducive to all employees to achieve their fullest potential. Inclusion is about creating an environment of respect, fairness, engagement, openness, and accessibility in the workplace. Diversity without inclusion can cause discomfort, anxiety, and distress, which leads some voices to think of diversity as an undesirable endeavor. In that sense, diversity and inclusion are complementary in nature and must be intentionally designed to achieve the desired outcomes. Therefore, as we discuss in this article the issue of workforce diversity in museums and its impact on innovation, relevance, and audience engagement, it is probably important to keep in mind the contexts and associated values of diversity and inclusion.

Current status

Museums have been looking at different ways to diversify their audience and attract underrepresented and historically marginalized communities to the museum space. The targeted communities include, for example, African Americans, Hispanics and Latinos, LGBTQ, and people with different abilities. In some cases, the outreach to these groups is successful, but not necessarily sustainable, which raises the question on the best strategies to build stronger relationships with minorities. Also, the growing number of minority groups, especially in the inner cities and metropolitan areas, presents a dilemma for museums. This dilemma is manifested in the huge disparity between the demographics of those who actually benefit from the museum services and activities—they are mainly, and in some instances exclusively, White, and only the demographic of the community where the museum is located. Such a disparity has created a perception that museums are for White people only. The lack of diversity in museum audiences is not only unjustified and deeply problematic, it also can be seen as ethically and morally challenging. Although museums have tried to overcome this issue, the progress has been extremely slow. As a result, many museums, especially those that are not in tourist destinations, have probably suffered a degree of alienation, stagnation, and lack of relevance.

In recent years, and parallel to the previous discussion about audience engagement, the museum sector has been investigating the issue of diversity in the museum workforce. For example, a group of museum professionals carved the virtual space #MuseumWorkersSpeak to reflect upon the internal work of museums in relation to social justice issues including diversity, fair pay, and equal opportunity. The Twitter discussions created a much needed platform for critical thinking about museums’ practices, and the ways in which these practices encourage or discourage diversity. Overall, the minimal progress in workforce diversity has caused some frustration. Seema Rao, the Principal and CEO of Brilliant Idea Studio, made the following comment:

More recently, in 2016, the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) established special awards for Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion (DEAI) as part of its new strategic plan (American Alliance of Museums, 2016). The awards look at DEAI issues both internally (within the museum) and externally, with the objective to honor individuals and organizations that make a significant contribution to the museum field in these areas. While the awards, as described by the AAM, can be given to those who work on issues related to workforce diversity and inclusion, both of the 2016 winners, the Missouri History Museum in St. Louis and the Field Museum in Chicago, were selected based on their work with diverse audiences including the LBGTQ community, as well as families with diverse learners and special education students.

To quantify the problem of workforce diversity in museums, in 2015, Ithaka S+R was commissioned by the Andrew Mellon Foundation and the Association of Art Museum Directors to conduct a demographic survey of art museum staff and boards. The study concluded that among professional positions, which include curators, conservators, educators and directors, 84% are Non-Hispanic White, 6% Asian, 4% Black, 3% Hispanic White, and 3% Two or More Races (Schonfeld et al., 2015).

Figure 1: the Demographics of Museum Workforce (Schonfeld et al., 2015)











The report states that “with the exception of the Asian demographic category, which makes up 5% of the United States population today, these proportions do not come close to representing the diversity of the American population.” This is very problematic and is causing many challenges to the museum sector. However, the museum digital community seems to be slightly more diverse than most museum professions (e.g., curators, educators, conservators, and directors) when it comes to race, with a little over 20% minority. Of course, more efforts are needed to improve the statistics, especially when we learn that, in terms of gender diversity, only around 30% of IT teams are females.

With this in mind, this article aims to examine how diversity (or the lack of) in the museum workforce can impact museum work.

Connecting the dots

While the previous statistics are disturbing, the situation is more concerning in majority-minority cities, where most of the population are from minority backgrounds. As one may expect, the minority groups in these cities are a key component of the cultural landscape; however, the city’s major museums are run and managed mostly, or exclusively by Whites. For instance, in New Orleans, Louisiana, according to the 2010 U.S. Census, African Americans are 60.2% of the total population and Whites represent only 33%. The contributions of African Americans to the culture of New Orleans is immense. From its famous Jazz music and festival scenes, such as Mardi-Gras and Jazz Fest, to visual and culinary arts, the unique character of the city has stemmed from its diverse population. Additionally, the City of New Orleans thrives on its culture-based economy. In 2016, a record 10.45 million people visited New Orleans to explore its culture, art, and history, spending more than $7.4 billion in the local economy (Larino, 2017).

Considering these facts, when we look at the big museums in New Orleans, which receive most of the funding, publicity, and political support, we find that these museums, in large part, are exclusive clubs for White and wealthy New Orleanians. The lack of diversity and inclusion in large and medium-sized museums, as in New Orleans, pushes minority groups to create their own museums and cultural institutions to cultivate alternative narratives that showcase their experiences and perspectives. However, minority museums are typically smaller in size, and suffer from the lack of resources and financial support.  This whole picture creates an immediate disconnect, suspicion, and distrust between flagship museums in the inner cities and the local communities.

Workforce diversity in museums is not just a moral issue, it is essential to the effectiveness, sustainability, and survival of the museum as an organization. Museums that lack diverse voices risk the ability to thoughtfully collect and interpret the experiences and perspectives of diverse communities. This leads to lack of engagement from and alienation by a wide segment of the community. It is not surprising that the moral authority of the museum is now being questioned, perhaps more aggressively in private settings, by minorities. As a result, the museum’s capacity to bring successful innovations that create social value (i.e., social innovation) in the community diminishes.

To reflect upon diversity practices in the museum sector, we will turn our attention now to an emerging body of research in the business studies discipline, which provides empirical data on the impact of workplace diversity on the organization’s ability to innovate. Typical of this research, in 2011, Forbes, the global media company that focusses on business, technology, and entrepreneurship, published its report, Global Diversity and Inclusion: Fostering Innovation Through a Diverse Workforce. The report is an extremely important document that provides the result of surveying 321 executives with direct responsibility or oversight for their companies’ diversity and inclusion programs. The report states the following:

A diverse and inclusive workforce is necessary to drive innovation, foster creativity, and guide business strategies. Multiple voices lead to new ideas, new services, and new products, and encourage out-of-the box thinking. Companies no longer view diversity and inclusion efforts as separate from their other business practices, and recognize that a diverse workforce can differentiate them from their competitors and can help capture new clients. (Forbes Insights, 2011)

The connection presented in the previous quote between workforce diversity and innovation is essential, and represents a central concept in our discussion. As we continue to explore the scope of this connection, it is probably relevant to be mindful that innovation touches upon nearly all aspects of museum work. Museum innovation is defined as “the new or enhanced processes, products, or business models by which museums can effectively achieve their social and cultural mission” (Eid, 2016). The graph below shows that 85% of the Forbes survey respondents agreed or strongly agreed that “a diverse and inclusive workforce is crucial to encouraging different perspectives and ideas that drive innovation.”

Figure 2: (Forbes Insights, 2011)











Forbes’ findings are consistent with Lewis-Kulin and Rohman (2017) in their assessment of the Best Workplaces in Technology, which argues that “[v]aried voices and perspectives are among the strengths in evidence at the Best Workplaces in Technology, where minority employees make up 31% of the workforce.” The power of diversity relies on the wealth of ideas and perspectives that can be generated from heterogenous groups. In other words, the essence behind the advantages of diversity is simply not the different shades of skin color, hair textures, or other physical appearances. While race, gender, religion, nationality, or sexual orientation can be indicators of diverse experiences, it is important that we understand they are not always evidence of different ways of thinking. In some cases, individuals who belong to certain minority groups seem to lack empathy, and, sometimes, are even more critical and prejudiced against their own culture/race. The reasons for their negative approach can vary based on their life experiences, upbringing, and education; needless to say, it also could be a strategy to fit in and assimilate. This is not a call to devalue or dismiss the importance of diversity. To the contrary, this discussion intends to challenge some organizations, including museums, that use a superficial application of diversity while keeping pro-aggression policies and attitudes towards minorities and social justice causes. Therefore, when we attempt to approach diversity, we may have to think more deeply and thoughtfully to consider all factors.

One of the interesting points which Forbes’ report addressed is the premise that “a diverse and inclusive workforce can also help ensure that a company’s products and services are respectful of their clients’ cultures.” If businesses are intelligent enough to build a diverse and inclusive workforce to be respectful of their clients’ culture, then museums, as cultural organizations, should be even more motivated, as one may think, to be that thoughtful and sensitive. The traditional functions of museums revolve around the documentation, interpretation, and preservation of cultures and cultural objects. Additionally, modern museums are expected to be actively involved in addressing and finding solutions to issues related to social justice, environmental changes, human rights, and many other challenges that face our generation, as argued by Eid (2016) in his work around social innovation in museums, as well as Sandell (2012) on the social agency of museums, and Janes (2010) regarding the mindful museum. The possibility of effectively achieving these goals today without a genuinely diverse workforce in the museum sector seems to be an insensible promise.

In 2013, Sylvia Ann Hewlett, Founder and CEO of the Center for Talent Innovation and the Founder of Hewlett Consulting Partners LLC, Melinda Marshall, Executive Vice President and Director of Publications at CTI, where she drives the Center’s research on innovation, sponsorship, and leadership, and Laura Sherbin, CFO and Director of Research at the Center for Talent Innovation and CFO at Hewlett Consulting Partners LLC, published a paper in the Harvard Business Review providing the outcome of their research, which investigated how diversity can drive innovation. The research included a national survey of 1,800 professionals, 40 case studies, as well as several focus groups and interviews. What is exciting about this research is the strategic decision by the researchers to consider two kinds of diversity: inherent and acquired. Hewlett and her team explain that inherent diversity “involves traits you are born with, such as gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation,” while acquired diversity “involves traits you gain from experience,” which may include educational background, international travels, life experiences, and language skills. They proclaimed that those leaders who can demonstrate at least three inherent and three acquired diversity traits are qualified to have “two-dimensional diversity.” Hewlett’s classification of diversity confirms and corresponds with our earlier discussion around the careful consideration of the different factors when we attempt to understand and implement diversity. Considering the current status of the museum workforce, 2-D diversity may seem to be a high standard for museums; however, the concept can be helpful to increase the museum’s capacity to innovate. The outcome of Hewlett’s research shows the following:

By correlating diversity in leadership with market outcomes as reported by respondents, we learned that companies with 2-D diversity out-innovate and out-perform others. Employees at these companies are 45% likelier to report that their firm’s market share grew over the previous year and 70% likelier to report that the firm captured a new market. (Hewlett, Marshall, & Sherbin, 2013)

If we apply this conclusion to museums, we can expect that museums with 2-D diversity leadership are better positioned to innovate, engage their communities, and reach wider audiences. The justification for this premise, according to Hewlett, Marshall & Sherbin (2013) is that “2-D diversity unlocks innovation by creating an environment where ‘outside the box’ ideas are heard. When minorities form a critical mass and leaders value differences, all employees can find senior people to go to bat for compelling ideas and can persuade those in charge of budgets to deploy resources to develop those ideas.”

Once again, we see how research supports the argument that diversity drives innovation, which can make a notable difference in the organization’s bottom line.

Furthermore, Hewlett and her team concluded that “when at least one member of a team has traits in common with the end user, the entire team better understands that user. A team with a member who shares a client’s ethnicity is 152% likelier than another team to understand that client” (Hewlett, Marshall, & Sherbin, 2013). When we apply this finding to museums, we can expect that museums with diverse teams are likelier than other museums with homogenous teams to understand their audiences and connect with the communities they serve. As a result, museums with diverse workforces can be more effective in engaging their audiences and establishing their relevance.

As we stated in the beginning of this article, diversity without inclusion can lead to unpleasant results and backlashes. To avoid these unintended consequences, employers, including museums, need to create positive and safe spaces for all employees to reach their fullest potential. Lewis-Kulin and Rohman (2017) confirm that “companies where fewer employees report fair treatment in regard to race or gender tend to score lower on measures of innovation, as well.” Therefore, museum boards and administrations are responsible to make everyone who works in the museum, regardless of their race, culture, religion, sexual orientation, educational background, and experiences, feel welcome to make a contribution. Hewlett, Marshall & Sherbin (2013) assert that “leaders who give diverse voices equal airtime are nearly twice as likely as others to unleash value-driving insights, and employees in a ‘speak up’ culture are 3.5 times as likely to contribute their full innovative potential.” Additionally, and more relevantly to the digital sector, Forbes Insight report (2011) states the following:

Workplaces admired by their employees put themselves in a better position to innovate. The nature of technology often leaves businesses with few certainties about their success over the long term. But diverse perspectives and a great place to work for all are among the most valuable assets for staying at the front of an evolving industry.

The previous discussion provides empirical evidence that museums with diverse workforces are at an increasing advantage to undertake innovative approaches to their work. Workforce diversity ensures that there is a large pool of knowledge, skills, life experiences, perspectives, and expertise to help the institution face today’s challenges more effectively and efficiently. Also, when different communities see themselves represented in the museum workforce, it increases public trust and improves the image of the institution in the public domain. As a result, museums with a diverse workforce are better positioned to understand, communicate with, and engage diverse audiences. The following model shows the impact of workforce diversity on museum work, more specifically in relation to the museum’s innovative capabilities, public trust, audience engagement and relevance.

Figure 3: the impact of workforce diversity on museum work














Consequently, and beyond the moral aspect of diversity and inclusion, for museums, the issue of workforce diversity is essential to the sustainability of museums, especially to those museums located in communities where a minority population represents a large percentage of their constituents. The presented model shares some aspects with Sandell’s (2010) model for diversity management in museums, precisely in connection with workforce diversity and audience engagement. Sandell’s model is inspired by theoretical and empirical frameworks in the human resources management discipline, but takes into consideration the museum’s basic roles of collecting and audience engagement, as shown in the following graph. Our model, however, pays special attention to the connection between diversity and innovation, and argues that this relationship is essential in understanding the impact of diversity (or the lack thereof) on museum work.

Figure 4: Diversity management in the museum–a conceptual framework (Sandell R. , 2010)













Strategies for diversifying the museum workforce

There are several strategies that can be used to diversify the museum workforce. In the next section, we will briefly explore two of these strategies, and reflect upon their effectiveness to achieve a real change in the museum sector.

Training, internship and fellowship schemes

This approach facilitates specialized training programs for minority individuals with the goal to secure work in museums during or after the completion of the program. The scope and nature of the training as well as the criteria expected in the targeted individuals can significantly vary. For instance, some programs take the shape of paid internships or fellowships and are intended for minority populations, including high school, undergraduate, and graduate students. Targeting high school students, the “Diversity Initiative” at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, AR, is an example of these types of programs. The museum states the following on its internship website:

Crystal Bridges is committed to a diverse workforce and to providing training for the next generation of non-profit professionals. Recognizing the desire and responsibility to support and develop greater diversity in the professions related to museums and the visual arts, Crystal Bridges will assertively recruit interns from underrepresented demographics to support our organization’s and industry’s diversity and inclusion strategic initiatives. Students representing ethnically underrepresented groups in the museum industry are encouraged to apply. Stipends are available. (Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, n.d.)

The Smithsonian and the National Park Services provide similar programs. In 2017, supported by a grant from the Joan Mitchell Foundation, the Master of Arts in Museum Studies Program at Southern University at New Orleans, in collaboration with the Community Book Center, ran a weekend program for African American youth in middle and high schools, to expose them to potential careers in museums and cultural heritage institutions. The program included workshops, field trips, panel discussions, and networking events with museum curators, educators, and archivists. Each participating student received a stipend upon the completion of the program.

In November 2017, the Ford Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation launched the Diversifying Art Museum Leadership Initiative. The $6 million initiative funds 20 diversity programs at museums such as Andy Warhol Museum, The Art Institute of Chicago, Cleveland Museum of Art, Fisk University Galleries, and New Orleans Museum of Art (Ford Foundation, 2017).

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the well-known organization responsible for the Oscar awards, started the Academy Gold Program in 2017, a “multi-tiered educational and experiential initiative designed to enhance and extend an industry-wide diversity internship program under the Academy brand” (The Gold Program , 2018). The Academy’s new museum is scheduled to open in 2019. According to Bettina Fisher, the Academy’s Director of Educational Initiatives, there are 22 entertainment industry partners committed to the program (Fisher, 2018). Each partner will sponsor up to three interns for the eight-week summer program, which offers participants exclusive networking opportunities with Academy members and industry professionals, screenings and educational workshops. These internships are available to undergraduate and graduate college students with an emphasis on high-quality, underrepresented talent in order to help them acquire the knowledge, skills, and connections to achieve success in entertainment industry careers. In summer 2017, 69 interns participated in the inaugural Academy Gold program, and had an opportunity to learn firsthand about every aspect of filmmaking. Fisher (2018) explains the following?

The success of Academy Gold is due, in part, to the fact that the program doesn’t stop after the eight-week internship experience. At the end of the summer, each Gold intern is paired with an Academy member to serve as a mentor for their career goals, and several program alumni have already secured jobs in our community. We are looking forward to welcoming the next class of up-and-coming talent.

With $839,816.00 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), the Diversity Apprenticeship Program (DAP) is a new initiative by The Broad Museum in Los Angeles, CA. The DAP provides 16 paid, full-time apprenticeships for minorities in preparation and art handling. The program strives to help improve equity within museum staff demographics. It specifically addresses mid-level museum jobs and brings together nonprofit, commercial, and governmental partners. Similar to the Academy’s Gold Program, during the nine-month apprenticeship, each apprentice will work with several partner institutions. George Luna-Peña, the Program Manager for the Diversity Apprenticeship Program at The Broad Museum acknowledges that “historically, barriers have existed along the pathway to museum careers and employment” (Luna-Peña, 2018). He added, “our work through the DAP will ensure opportunities at art and cultural institutions are accessible to people with a range of ideas, backgrounds, and life experiences.” The Broad and its partners will be welcoming their first cohort of eight DAP apprentices for a nine-month term starting in the summer of 2018.

As we can see from the previous examples, training programs are receiving sizable financial support and gaining popularity in the museum sector. Although these types of initiatives may be considered a great way to educate young people about possible careers in museums, the broader impact, in terms of diversifying the workforce in the museum sector, may take a long time to evaluate and measure.

The Museum Association in the UK experimented with a sector wide scheme called “Diversify” from 1998 to 2011 to increase the number of Black, Asian and minority-ethnic (BAME) professionals in UK museums (Davies & Shaw, 2013). The program was expanded in its final year to include people with different abilities and those from low social-economic background (regardless of race or ethnicity). All 110 individuals who participated in the scheme followed one of four carefully crafted training routes. The model for each route included one or combinations of the followings: funding to obtain a master’s degree in museum studies (including part-time, full-time, on campus, and distance learning), short and long-term work training and placements in museums and galleries, as well as professional development, networking support, and membership in the Museum Association.

The final report of the Diversify scheme showed that it succeeded in helping many individuals from minority backgrounds to gain employment in the museum field. Davies and Shaw (2013) indicated that “more than 90% [of the participants] gained initial employment in the sector, 75% within six months of completing their training.” Although the scheme has probably made a huge difference in most of the participant’s lives, personally and professionally, the program is criticized for having very little to no impact in the sector, which leaves the museum workforce in the UK “far less racially diverse than the population as a whole,” according to Davies and Shaw (2013).

In a broader sense, while the different training programs in the museum field are helpful to expose minorities to museum work, these programs are not expected to make a tangible difference in terms of the diversification of the museum workforce. More importantly, the assumption, argued here, that the problem of diversity resides solely outside the museum, more specifically in minority communities is simply incorrect, and can be viewed as one of the dreadful misconceptions. It is probably justified to recognize a degree of difficulty to attain a qualified pool of diverse candidates to some museum positions, probably in higher level positions, but this should not be used as a shield by museums that maintain a minimal diversity profile. Qualified professionals in all aspects of museum work, at least in entry positions, including management, education, curatorship and technology, are widely available. More impactful and less costly actions can probably be achieved if museums started to reevaluate their hiring practices, remove institutional barriers, and reach out directly to possible candidates from minority backgrounds.

Affirmative action

In the United States, affirmative action (or “positive action” in the UK) refers to the policies, practices, and guidelines, both in the government and the private sector, which intended to remediate the contemporary consequences of a long history of discrimination against minorities, focusing on the access to education and employment. Signed by President Johnson in 1965, Executive Order 11246 regulates affirmative action, which is usually associated with target goals proposed by the institution to increase minority representations in public and non-public institutions. While many professions and communities around the US are thinking of ways to be more just, diverse, and equitable, more recently, the New York Times has reported that the Trump administration, through the Justice Department, is preparing to sue “universities over affirmative action admissions policies deemed to discriminate against white applicants” (Savage, 2017).

Regardless of the controversy and the widespread distortion around affirmative action, it has proven its effectiveness to make notable change. For example, the National Football League (NFL) adopted the celebrated Rooney Rule policy, which requires league teams to interview minority candidates for head coaching and senior football operation job openings. Named after the chairman of the NFL’s diversity committee, Dan Rooney, the rule was implemented in 2003 when the percentage of African American coaches was 6%. In 2017, this percentage increased to 35% (Seifert, 2017). It is probably important to emphasize that the rule only gives the chance for qualified minority candidates to be interviewed and doesn’t mandate a specific hiring outcome. Despite its effectiveness, to our knowledge, the museum sector has not invested in affirmative action policies or guidelines that can lead to diversifying its workforce.


Recent statistics have exposed the extent of the diversity problem in the museum workforce, which is deemed to be problematic and ethically challenging. The lack of diversity can have serious consequences on all aspects of museum work and its image in the public domain. On the other hand, this paper has provided research-based evidence that museums with diverse workforce are better positioned to innovate, engage diverse audiences, establish their relevance, and build stronger relationships with the community they aspire to serve. Workforce diversity ensures that there is a large pool of knowledge, skills, life experiences, perspectives, and expertise that can help museums face today’s challenges more effectively and efficiently.

There have been some efforts in the museum sector to diversify the museum workforce; however, the impact of these efforts continues to be minimal. Inspired by models from other sectors, future research can explore some possible strategies and frameworks that can properly accelerate workforce diversity in museums.


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Cite as:
Eid, Haitham. "Connecting the dots: The impact of diversity in the museum workforce on innovation, relevance, and audience Engagement." MW18: MW 2018. Published January 9, 2018. Consulted .