Just over a year ago, we decided to put inclusion at the forefront of our guide continuing education program. You’ve been with the museum for about the same amount of time, first as a guide-in-training, and now as a museum guide leading tours for the public. Gilda, would you talk about your hopes for the museum, for the guide corps, and the changes we are making?
What I would like to see is a more diverse group of guides, so that we can be learning from each other in different ways. I’d like to see more bilingual events and signage. I notice that with the children’s groups, when I speak Spanish to the Spanish-speaking children, they’re kind of shocked – What!? And so I use it, because that helps me build rapport with them, and they’re comfortable with it.
I think about when a visitor comes who isn’t really a museum-goer it can be intimidating to enter that great hall. You don’t know which way to go. I’m wondering how we can make the experience friendlier, to make people feel like they really belong here and want to keep coming back. I only know things that would be fun for me, like art making.
Art and programming are key ways we engage first-time visitors. Giving them the tools to be creative. Bringing them in on a day when the museum feel alive - there are things to do and there’s hustle and bustle.
That is the other thing, the quiet. People think they have to whisper. If I brought in my whole Paraguayan family, this place would be LOUD. It would really be loud, and everybody would be talking over each other, and there would be excitement and look at this, look at that, and there would be joking. How do we make people feel comfortable being themselves in this space that feels kind of churchlike?
Yes, right. How do you do that on your tours?
I tell visitors right up front that we’re going to be talking a lot and I’m going to be asking them questions. There are no right answers, but I’ll ask for their insights. I’ll learn from their insights as much as they learn from mine. It’s breaking that churchlike atmosphere and getting the conversation going. As a guide with a group I can do that, but when people come in to the museum on their own, you want to extend that to them as well. I think that might be some of the fear: If I come and I bring my child, and my child is rowdy or loud, is that appropriate? How do we get across the message that yeah, they are not allowed to touch the art on the walls, but they can be enthusiastic, they can talk about it.
I don’t know if you’ve ever seen this, but if there’s a mom shushing a child in the museum, our security guard will come over and say, “Oh it’s ok; this isn’t a library.”
That’s wonderful. And I also wonder, just off the top of my head: Do visitors read the labels and the information on the walls? I went to the Indianapolis Museum of Art this summer, and they had a collection of works that the Spaniards had taken from indigenous peoples. They had a wall label explaining how the art came to be taken and the history of that. That is the kind of information that I appreciate.
A key question for me as we prepare for an upcoming reinstallation of the galleries is: Where can we present more underrepresented voices? How do we put more of a focus on that?
In the illustration galleries, there are those blond, white, cherub-looking figures. For me as a Latina, it makes me feel like, Oh, yes, that’s what I grew up seeing. That’s Dick and Jane, that’s the image of what I should look like. And of course, there’s no way I could be that. So looking at some of those images brought back the feeling of Oh, I’ll never be that. I would skip it right now if I had a minority group because I know it might bring up the same kinds of thoughts for them. Are there any Blacks or Hispanics on the covers of magazines in this kind of idealized way? There certainly were images of stereotypical roles, but very rarely the beautiful girl role.
That’s the challenge of an illustration collection, it displays the values of its day. One strategy might be talking about what’s not on the walls. What do the paintings on the walls represent, and what parts of our culture do they omit?
We can acknowledge the point of view presented. So, for us as guides we need to be aware that the mainstream point of view, at the time, did exclude some kinds of people and prioritized and idealized others.
And I think sometimes that not only do we not actively talk about it, but we might not always even be aware of it.
That’s what I’m saying, to bring up that awareness so that we can be more comfortable talking about it, so we can walk in there and say: “You might notice there are no Black, Brown, Hispanic, Asian people depicted in this gallery. Why is that? What era is represented here? What were the values being taught then?”
Little girls are all in traditional gender roles, and the boys are boy scouts.
Yes! We should have a way to talk about it critically, in a way that brings insight to the works. As guides we would all be better off if we knew how to problematize the works, not just take them for granted as they appear.
Ivan Henderson speaking with Museum Guides.
Smile (detail), 2016, Peter Williams (born 1952), Oil on canvas, 72 × 144 inches, Delaware Art Museum, F. V. du Pont Acquisition Fund, 2016, © Peter Williams.
I hope we can work on that by bringing in more outside voices, Black and Latino voices and female voices into our continuing education conversations. I have also heard requests from guides to bring in additional research. Recently Ivan Henderson, Vice President of Programming, African American Museum in Philadelphia, led a training on our Peter Williams painting, Smile. He brought in such great research, information on the slave rebellion referenced to in the art work. Bringing in different streams of research is something we can all do more of. Hearing from you, Gilda, listening to our visitors and talking to each other about these topics is so important.
I really loved what Ivan was saying about the balance between engaging and informing visitors. As a teacher I try to encourage engagement and to provide a safe space for the visitor to respond to the art. Giving an affirming answer in response to their comments builds rapport and prevents shutting down conversation.
Ivan modeled that beautifully. He accepted all of our comments – he kept saying “I get that, I buy it” after we spoke. But he was also weaving in information to help expand our views. That was my other takeaway. He didn’t leave us just with our first impressions; he brought in information to help us understand the work.
And that’s important. I think information gives visitors a chance to look deeper. Sharing information establishes our credibility as guides, and the stories we share sticks with visitors; they remember them.
Absolutely. Ivan not only helped us explore the narrative of the painting we looked at, but he also unpacked racial stereotypes within Peter Williams’ work. He used the example of watching a racist cartoon as a kid and not understanding the racism behind the jokes. It is our duty to inform as well as affirm what visitors are seeing. We can let it be an open conversation about race and racism, but also bring in the background behind the stereotype or the images that the artist references.
As a guide I could use practice in facilitating that discussion. It’s an area where we’re not that comfortable so practicing and coming up with language is important. I’d want to sit in on a discussion, or talk to you, or talk to someone else who is familiar with the art work. If I can find out how other visitors have responded to it, I can be more prepared rather than being the deer in the headlights, asking, “What do I do now?”
Yes. And that reminds me of one of the things I took away from our anti-racism training with Keonna Hendrick last year, the booklet produced by Teaching Tolerance, that talks about how we can respond to a remark that has the potential to harm our visitors. Just saying “We don’t use that language anymore,” or “I hear what you’re saying but you know, this is the background on that word.” That, for me, was a great toolkit to keep in my back pocket.
Yes, I’m glad you’re reminding me of that because there are some things we can go back to as guides, and that’s what guide continuing education is all about. And since I’m a new guide, I’m still trying to get the basic information and it’s one step at a time.
I think we’re all learning. Clearly you understand how much diversity and equity work is important for our visitors’ experience. As an institution we’re in a period of transition. We’re trying to become a place for all, and we’re working toward that but we’re not there yet.
I was at a university that was not very good at diversity and inclusion and I did a lot of talking with other faculty and administrators, but things lagged in terms of implementation. There was a lot of resistance on the part of people with elitist mindsets who had been in the institution for a long time. So, one thing I did was to develop a mindset of possibility and it worked for me and with my students. They would come into my writing program with wildly diverse backgrounds and I had to sell them all that they could succeed. What I would say is, “I am here to support you. I know you have the possibility for great learning.”
We’re not in an academic environment, but I think that parallels our philosophy of meeting our visitors where they are. Where their knowledge base is, where their interests are, who they are personally.
Encouraging them, no matter how surprising the answer might be. There’s always a way to affirm what visitors see, as Ivan showed us, which validates their feelings and observations.
Yes, encouraging personal meaning-making.
For me, it’s important to be prepared for different ideas and to ask questions. So that if I have a group with different points of view or insights from mine, I too can learn from what they’re telling me and be sincere. I believe our visitors are intelligent and will come to me and point out things that I haven’t seen. I can really appreciate that as it makes my work as a guide much more fun.
Gilda, would you speak about some of the challenges of this past year’s trainings?
Race, class, gender and cultural issues. These can be uncomfortable topics and sometimes I feel out of my depth but I’m learning. This is where I want to be because that is what education is about. It’s not just about lecturing about the life of an artist.
You used the word uncomfortable. I think the thing about diversity work is that we are doing it as an institution and we are each doing it individually as well.
I have personally run into roadblocks where I’ve had to wrap my head around a new way of thinking and it is uncomfortable, and it takes time. It helps having a leader like our Executive Director Sam Sweet who is so dedicated to this work and pushing us. It also helps having you and other guides who really believe in it.
Otherwise the institution is dead.
Yes, we need to become and stay relevant to our wider communities.
It’s like universities – if you have a classroom full of diverse students, man is that fun to teach! The conversations are so rich if, you provide a safe space for that to happen. All these different points of view can come up.
And that’s also the best way with our art.
Yes, that’s what we want here. We want that conversation to go on. We need guidelines for making it safe and we need to further our abilities to listen and learn as much as to inform.
I agree. But it will take time and practice, and like you said, listening to voices that we haven’t included in the past.
Yes, so what I want, as a guide is the ability to practice, with you or other guides, facilitating dialogue with works like the painting Smile. Even though we’ve talked about it from a couple of different perspectives, more talk in smaller groups would make me more comfortable discussing it in a public tour.
That’s helpful to hear what you need next.
Otherwise it’s too easy to push aside. I don’t want to think about topics like lynching or violence but it’s such a huge, important part of our story, and we can’t ignore it.
Thank you, Gilda, for sharing your perspective on the changes at the Delaware Art Museum and the opportunities they present for serving the communities of greater Wilmington.
Training to build institutional empathy and to forward inclusion will continue for museum guides and staff this year. Gilda calls for a need to practice facilitating dialogue with visitors; others have asked for a safe space to share the challenges they encounter on tours and to workshop solutions with their fellow guides. This year, I plan to do a lot of listening: to our community members as they express their expectations and hopes for our museum, to museum guides as they request resources and time to support their growth and learning, and to experts in our field who are teaching me how museums can transform to become institutions reflective of and responsive to their local communities.
Delaware Art Museum. Strategic Plan: 2017-2020. https://www.delart.org/about/strategic-plan-2017-2020/ .
Stacey Mann, et al. Confronting Our Whiteness: Our First Steps Towards Systemic Change. NAEA Viewfinder, 13 June 2018. medium.com/viewfinder-reflecting-on-museum-education/confronting-our-whiteness-our-first-steps-towards-systemic-change-bfc62aa43b9d
Keonna Hendrick. Services. https://www.keonnahendrick.com/about/
Teaching Tolerance. Speak Up Against Bias. https://www.tolerance.org/sites/default/files/general/speak_up_pocket_card_2up.pdf