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Interview with Museum Professionals of Colour (MPOC)

The current circumstances demand that we try harder to address the incontestable reality that is systemic racism. In this issue, we would like to pose the question: what role can professional training and academic education play in preparing museum professionals to counter values, practices and systems that perpetuate racism in our cultural institutions?

We spoke to Megan Sue-Chue-Lam, Chloé Houde, Dominica Tang, and Denise Tenio, who in February 2019 created the Museum Professionals of Colour (MPOC). Together, they are a student-run organization at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Information aimed at addressing the lack of racial diversity within their Master of Museum Studies program (MMSt).  In this interview, they talked to us about their journey, their work, and their vision for Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility (DEIA) in museums.

[Above image: Detox Panel held in partnership with the Museum Studies Student Association. Wendy Ng, J’net Ayay Qwa Yak Sheelth, and Just John Samuels.]

 

Denise Tenio, Dominica Tang, Chloé Houde and Megan Sue-Chue-Lan at the Detox  Panel

Why did you create Museum Professionals of Colour (MPOC)?

Megan: The museum field in Canada, which includes our program, is predominantly white. I wanted to talk to other POCs in our program because I was feeling really isolated in our classes and unsure about whether they would really prepare me for my career as a non-white person. I say POCs because the Black and Indigenous representation is extremely slim, and not everyone wanted or was able to be involved in this group. The camaraderie between all our peers is quite good, but the content and facilitation of our classes is emphatically white and Eurocentric. All of our professors are white and being a BIPOC museum professional is not something that they can advise on.  So, feeling a sense of connection, validation, and support was my main motivation.

The other (reason) was that I wanted to create a group in order to make our own network of BIPOC museum professionals, in order to ensure that future BIPOC students in the program wouldn’t have to go through the same sense of isolation. And now, having heard from BIPOC alumni, it really seems like this is something that a lot of students have been wanting. Ultimately, we want to see ourselves in the museum field because we really do believe in what museums are able to accomplish.

 

Is there any precedent for this type of student association?

Dominica: There was a casual support group for students of colour in the MMSt program a few years ago, but it dissolved once the members graduated. To ensure that future museum studies students of colour would have a structure of support, we decided to put down roots in the school and register as a ratified UofT student organization. Globally, there are a number of large and independent organizations that interrogate the lack of diversity in museums. One that we looked to was Museum Detox, an independent organization that supports Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic museum professionals, as a model for what we aspire to be in Canada.

Denise: In Canada, however, most DEIA committees are formed within a specific museum by their staff and work exclusively within their institution. We have yet to see an organization dedicated to DEIA in our Canadian museums; if you know of one, please send them our way! Within the Faculty of Information, we have found support in our Master of Information counterpart, the Diversity Working Group.

Megan: We are also limited by the lack of diversity in our group, which is telling of the general state of our program and the field. We are not Black, nor are we Indigenous, and we do not presume to speak on behalf of Black or Indigenous peoples. We aim to use our light-skinned and white privilege and platform to amplify others who speak from their own experiences. While we engage with perspectives outside of our own through our initiatives, we understand that this is not enough to create a fully inclusive environment. We truly hope that future MPOC committees at UofT can surpass our own capabilities and provide wider representation than we do.

This is a new initiative: what has the process been like so far?

Chloé: Overall, this process has been a whirlwind (a good one), through which we’ve discovered that the issues we want to tackle in our faculty are present on a much larger scale across Canadian museums.

We’ve been lucky to find ourselves in an environment with supportive peers and fellow student groups who believe in what we are striving for. Our program’s Museum Studies Student Association supported us from the start; they brought us in to collaborate on a panel, which was our first big event. In March, we co-hosted the panel, entitled “Museum Detox: Cleansing institutions of unconscious bias and developing anti-racist praxis”. Our incredible panelists were Wendy Ng, J’net Ayay Qwa Yak Sheelth, and Just John Samuels. This event helped us establish MPOC as a serious student group at the Faculty of Information and put us on the faculty’s radar.

We’ve also found support and collaboration with other DEIA-minded student groups in our faculty, such as the Accessibility Interests Working Group, the Diversity Working Group, and the Indigenous Connections Working Group. We have similar goals and it’s been empowering to work with these groups on multiple projects over the last few months, and know that we can present as a united front when faced with difficulties.

Social media has been another way for us to find like-minded and supportive people and expand our horizons as a group. It’s been amazing to find a community outside of our faculty who believe in our mission and values and want to help us make the museum sector in Canada more inclusive and equitable.

 

What data can you share with us about DEIA in your program, or in the museum sector?

Dominica: We can’t provide much data on the museum sector because there aren’t any comprehensive studies coming out of Canada! In a field that champions tangible data over lived experiences, the lack of data is a hindrance to DEIA work in Canadian museums. Around one in six (approximately 17%) people in our program is a visible minority. Compared to Toronto’s 51% visible minority population, our program is disproportionately white and does not reflect the diversity of Toronto at all.

Denise: Recently, we collected data from 125 Faculty of Information students and alumni to identify the extent of DEIA in the school. This was a collaborative effort with other student groups, namely the Diversity Working Group, Accessibility Interests Working Group, Indigenous Connections Working Group, the Master of Information Student Council, and the Museum Studies Student Association. From our pool of 125 respondents, we found that: (1) less than 30% of respondents feel supported by peers and professors, (2) less than 4% of respondents agree that there aren’t enough courses on BIPOC, LGBTQ2S+ and disabled experiences; (3) less than 1% of respondents feel that classroom conversations on colonization, use of racial language, and accessibility needs are facilitated properly; (4) only 14% of respondents feel comfortable participating in these conversations; and (5) 86% of respondents agree that staff and students would benefit from anti-oppression training. These findings from the faculty include, but are not exclusive to, the MMSt program.

Lack of diversity at cultural institutions is a long-standing issue. What kind of academic training could contribute to solving this problem? What role can museum professionals play?

Chloé: We believe that addressing issues in museums needs to begin where museum professionals are being trained, and consist of more than theoretical discussions about our future workplaces. To this end, we’ve been striving to diversify our faculty on multiple levels. First, the student body needs to be more diverse, and it is the faculty’s responsibility to recruit and admit more BIPOC students. Second, the hiring of BIPOC staff and faculty would make an important difference as well. However, to avoid tokenization and harmful work and learning environments, the faculty also needs to develop a culture of inclusivity and equity in which BIPOC staff and students can flourish, in order to mitigate racism or discrimination. Third, diversifying our course offerings and our syllabi is something we greatly hold to heart, so that we can have a well-rounded education that will actually help us in our future careers.

Megan: But as much as academic training can create a good foundation for action, it really comes down to that – action. All the training in the world won’t amount to anything unless it’s used to actually make space and amplify marginalized voices. The work is hard, and will require people to sacrifice their sense of comfort and security, but really showing up for people means shouldering some of the burden of the fight they’ve been taking on their entire lives. This can mean challenging people on their racism when BIPOC aren’t in the room, letting BIPOC take the lead on projects and supporting their work, even stepping down from a position if you notice that your leadership team is mostly white or non-Black and non-Indigenous.

Chloé: To echo what Megan said, these kinds of actions are how institutional racism can be tackled and eradicated. This type of work is just the start, and is not a list of items on a checklist. It is a process that needs to be constant, ongoing, and present in everything we do, in theory and practice.

 

What do you envision for MPOC?

Denise: We have two main goals for MPOC right now that we’ll really be striving for throughout the entire upcoming school year. First, we want to ensure that MPOC continues to live on at the faculty even after we’ve graduated the MMSt program. As mentioned before, this organization is foremostly a support group for museum professionals of colour. Founding MPOC has helped us not only have a voice to speak out against the systemic racism that exists within the museum sector and in our program, but it’s allowed us to feel more seen and heard than we did prior to MPOC forming. We want future BIPOC students to experience that same level of support and visibility during their time as an MMSt student. And once they graduate, they know they’ll have a community they can turn to for guidance in navigating this field as a marginalized museum professional.

Dominica: Our second goal is to establish ourselves as an independent organization outside of the UofT structure. We’re extremely passionate and committed to the work we’ve been doing and definitely want to continue with MPOC after graduating our program next year. We want to expand this group nationally and, through delivering programs, events, and other campaigns, we hope to create a larger network of support for museum professionals of colour across Canada. We still have many things to think about, but we draw a lot of our inspiration from Museum Hue and Museum Detox, as well as other organizations like archive and library associations who have chapters across different schools. That’s something we’d like to do as well – set up chapters of MPOC within the various museum studies programs throughout Canada.

 

What do you envision for yourselves as museum professionals?  

Dominica: Ideally, DEIA work would be a perspective that everyone uses in all museums and across all aspects of museum work. Whatever we end up doing, whether it be collections management or visitor research, our work will always relate to DEIA. I enjoy working in the public-facing sector of the museum particularly in immersive and multisensory programming. At the moment, this takes the form of historic cooking, but I hope to employ multisensory experiences as a means to make museums more empathetic, inclusive, and accessible.

Megan: I also enjoy frontline museum work, and my background and where I envision myself is in education and public programming. That’s typically where you see the most direct community engagement, which is very rewarding, and it’s where a lot of BIPOC museum workers find themselves. Unfortunately, we’ve seen through COVID that these positions are also some of the most expendable. That’s why DEIA is crucial to all aspects of museum work. The way museums are run isn’t equitable, and BIPOC remain on the margins. We really need to see more BIPOC in leadership and executive positions in order for real change to happen.

Denise: While I also really enjoy public programming, I see myself pursuing a career in interpretive planning and being more involved in the exhibition development process. For those who don’t know what interpretive planners do, if curators provide the information, interpretive planners organize that information to create a storyline and figure out how to effectively communicate it to the audience. When planning an exhibition, interpretive planners have to ask themselves questions like: Whose stories are we telling? Whose stories are not being included? From whose voices are these stories being told? Is this information/text/strategy accessible for all? That said, DEIA is so intrinsic to this type of museum work.

Chloé: Just like Denise, I am also interested in interpretive planning when it comes to museum work. I have an appreciation for collections management, but I believe interpretive planning and its focus on how visitors learn and retain information is where I see myself in the future. As mentioned by Denise, DEIA work is central to interpretive planning, and should be central to all museum work. I also have a love for oral history and believe it to be an underutilized methodology in museums; the values intrinsic to oral history (like sharing authority) can greatly help museums create lasting bonds with community members and make museums places where people see their histories valued and taken care of. As a white woman, it is my responsibility to constantly work towards anti-racism in myself and everything I do.

*This interview has been edited for clarity and length.