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Barriers to Entry: An Infrastructure of Exclusion in the Museum

By Elise Couture-Stone

The following includes excerpts from the 2019 article, “Barriers to Entry: An Infrastructure of Exclusion in the Museum .” While we acknowledge strides made in recent years, GEMM underscores the enduring relevance of the issues highlighted below. Some links have been updated and provide continuity with the past, yet the core content remains largely untouched, reflecting a persistent need for dialogue and action within our field.

As museum professionals, we are tasked with the profound responsibility of challenging visitors to grapple with disquieting truths and potential complicity in the perpetuation of issues on race, gender, sexuality, violence, and economic class. Yet, this outward-facing mission prompts an introspective query: how often do we, as museum staff, examine our own ingrained biases that surface in our workplace practices and policy-making efforts? We work tirelessly to make long invisible histories visible for the public. But in our institutional behaviors, workplace practices, policy-making procedures and formulations, hiring practices, staff training programs, membership strategies, and paths to advancement, we continue to create barriers to entry in the field that overwhelmingly exclude a wide range of individuals and perspectives. Consequently, these barriers create pinch-points of restriction and define a culturally curated, predominantly white, and typically affluent–or, affluent adjacent–working population. Such entrenched practices, often invisible in their ubiquity, continue to obscure cultural diversity and pluralistic perspectives, impoverishing the very fabric of our work.  

As part of our ongoing discussion on resiliency in the Museum, this quarter we are talking about hiring practices and infrastructures of exclusion in the museum field. This discussion demands a candid examination of racism and colonialist practices in the Museum and an acknowledgment of our own complicity in shaping policies and hiring practices that have unwittingly created barriers to entry for those of color and non-traditional backgrounds. While typically non-intentional, this kind of oversight is not uncommon in the Museum workplace and permeates every facet of the institution, perpetuating outdated paradigms of limitation and debarment that have historically impeded women, non-binary, and people of color. The intricate hierarchy of museum staff, boards of directors, governors, members, donors, and museum-goers further complicates the policy-making process, perpetuating these norms.

This quarter we are challenging the museum sector to confront its role in creating barriers that exclude diverse groups from fully engaging with the museum experience. We want to challenge our institutions to rethink the integrity of our work by acknowledging how our policies and entrenched ideologies contribute to a culture that hinders women, non-binary, and BIPOC individuals from entering the field, leading the field, and staying in the field. Each non-inclusive policy enacted, each inflexible belief system tolerated, incrementally diminishes the museum's significance and our ability to remain relevant to the communities we aim to serve. 

The question posed is pointed and necessary: What are the specific pinch-points of restriction that your museum imposes?

Here are just a few to consider

Access to Education

Access to education disproportionately affects people of color and those outside of the American middle- and upper-class systems and is a systemic issue that plagues all American industries — not just museums. That said, working in the museum or preservation fields often requires multiple higher degrees, which leaves most college attendees swallowed in debt. It is this debt that is barrier number one for entering the museum field.

One of the key elements of building and sustaining a diverse pipeline of applicants is encouraging a wider range of students to enter the humanities fields while in high school. The only way we can encourage this participation is by creating affordable programs where graduates can enter the field without having to sustain crushing debt following graduation. Because as every current museum staffer knows, museum jobs don’t pay! If museums and high-schools, trade-schools, community colleges, and universities, worked more closely together to build affordable programs for a wider-range of students, then the museum applicant pool would be far more diverse than it is today, and may well prove the museum and its contents far more relevant to the communities it serves.

Language in Job Announcements

Not too long ago, a long-time friend of mine moved to Boston and started looking for a job. I pointed him in the direction of museums because he has a rich background in education and thematic-curricular programing. Plus, I thought it would be a great way for him to get to know his new city. After reading a few job postings though, he said, “what on earth does that mean?”, pointing to the first few lines of a job description. Riddled with buzz words and industry-speak, my friend said, “that type language is a red flag for me. If the people there speak like this all the time, then that seems like they might have unrealistic modes of communication, expectations, and are likely to have a toxic work environment as a result.” I was so embarrassed. In one job description and new to the field, my friend was able to detect a strong undercurrent of exclusion in the museum workplace.

My friend has years of teaching experience, two post-graduate degrees, and knows American political history well — he would be an asset to any museum or historic site’s education department. But one line repelled him. And it truly is the museum’s loss. How many countless other qualified candidates who read museum job descriptions are put off by the exclusionary and internalized rhetoric we use?

As heritage institutions, we also tend to use binary forms of gendered language in job postings, which equally affects the applicant pool. One of the issues with gendered language is that most people don’t recognize it when they see it — it’s a subtle nuance that most people aren’t in tune with unless they are in a gender studies program or have a personal connection to being excluded in this way (Baldwin and Ackerson 103). According to the blog, Catalyst, the following words tend to reflect the accepted norms of masculine behavior:











While the following list of words tends to represent more universally accepted female characteristics, norms and tropes:











So, when a woman reads a job description that is riddled with the aforenoted masculine traits, she is less likely to apply for the position — especially if she identifies keenly with being “feminine” or “female.” The kicker here is, that most leadership positions in the museum field are peppered with language like this and creates a barrier to entry for anyone who does not identify with these masculine behavioral patterns. The same goes for industry buzzwords. All of this language sends subtle messages about the internal working culture of a museum office and their exclusionary behavioral practices. How do you think someone who identifies as, “they” might respond to these types of job descriptions? We’d likely miss out on their talents as well.

Barrier by Omission 

It is not uncommon for museums not to post a job when it becomes available. Instead, we hire internally — cycling through the same outlooks and perspectives. This practice, which I have experienced firsthand, inadvertently implicates participants in a system that is both restrictive and exclusionary. Despite the scarcity of opportunities, my acceptance of positions contributed to this closed-loop hiring culture. Notably, one of the organizations that hired me in this way was in the process of being accredited by the American Alliance of Museums (AAM)--a body that advocates for equitable hiring practices. However, that’s not the reality of all AAM accredited museums or their applicants. More often than not, internal candidates are given positions as they become available, which makes it near impossible for qualified candidates to break into the field.

So, what are we actually doing when we “hire from within”, or hire for fit?

When organizations opt to hire internally without publicizing the opportunity, they inadvertently undermine their Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion (DEAI) initiatives. This practice fosters an exclusionary culture, rendering any purported efforts towards inclusivity as merely superficial. 

The absence of public job postings and the subsequent internal promotions create a power dynamic disproportionately favoring white individuals in leadership roles. Consequently, this practice not only contradicts the organization's stated commitment to inclusivity but also relegates people of color to the lowest-paying positions. Such actions cast a shadow of performativity over the organization's work and messaging, as they fail to uphold their professed values and objectives.

Ok, so let’s say you’re privileged enough to make it through these first three barriers — what happens next?

The (Not-So-Blind) Application Process

What’s in a name? Well, turns out, a lot! While the American Alliance of Museums has gone to great lengths to address this issue and abides by a blind application process, the American museum industry, as a whole, does not abide by this kind of application process. Which leaves people of color and people of non-affluent means at a particular disadvantage, further homogenizing the museum workforce. (quick aside. I’d like to point out the exclusionary nature and the irony of some of AAM’s DEI articles — unless you’re a paying member, or an employee of a museum who is, you can’t read some of their articles on diversity, equity, and inclusionary hiring practices).

The concept of fit is particularly troubling in the museum hiring process, because it focuses on whether or not one’s personality fits into current office culture, rather than the skill set for the open position. Those doing the interviewing tend to hire those that are most reflective of themselves and the rest of the team.

Research has shown that the museum workforce is not reflective of the broader multi-cultural diversity of the United States, and efforts are underway to change this, but we’re not there yet.

Unpaid Internships

In a candid exchange with Sarah Cascone of, Michelle Millar-Fisher, the visionary behind Art + Museum, offered a critical perspective on the pervasive issue of unpaid internships:: “When base salaries start at nothing, it has a distinct trickle-up effect on the rest of the field, lowering wages and depressing expectations around compensation as a whole […] Many of us were unpaid interns at one point or another, and we know their tolls personally. The debts accrued and savings delayed affect one’s entire career.”

She raises a compelling point. Assuming one is privileged enough to pursue higher education and shoulder the considerable debt that it requires, working in a museum also often also requires that its workforce work for free in the form of unpaid internships in the beginning of their careers. In order to be able to work for free — especially after having taken on a significant amount of debt for school — one must have access to outside sources of income to be able to meet the basic standards of living. The harsh reality is that the luxury of working without pay is not universally accessible, effectively excluding those without affluent means from entering the field. Consequently, this system perpetuates a homogenous workforce that ultimately ensures a singularly wealthy, predominantly white, working population, reinforcing a cycle of exclusivity within the cultural sector.

A lot has changed in the museum field with regard to unpaid internships, but we still have a ways to go. 

During this period of a museum worker’s career, we are often told that the benefit to working for free or (now) a small stipend/hourly wage is two-fold: 1) we are gaining experience that they would not otherwise have the opportunity to earn, and 2) we are being exposed to the inner-workings of the museum along with having exposure to powerful people in the museum world. But, as the old adage goes, people die of exposure. The body must be fed, clothed, and have a roof over its head, access to healthcare, childcare (if needed), and reasonable sick leave and family leave. Access to these resources remain unmet for interns, largely because they do not constitute paid staff. But then, paid staff aren’t always privy to these resources either

Compensation (or, the lack thereof)

Ok, let’s say you made it through the first four hurdles: you’ve taken on two post-graduate degrees or certificates (or both!); you’ve successfully completed two or more internships, flying through the initial application process, and now you’re finally ready to start paying back those student loans and apply for your first paying museum job. Stop right there. It is more than likely that A) you will not be able to pay off your student loan debt working in a museum — prepare to have these loans for the rest of your life. And, B) based on recent statistics put out by the nonprofit National Institute on Retirement Security, if you are a woman (which, in the museum field, you likely are) by the end of your career, you will likely have earned 25% less than your male peers, who by the way, are more than likely to be less qualified than you are

Pay equity becomes even more egregious when factoring in race and sexual orientation. 

According to Joan Baldwin and Anne Ackerson:

“studies point to the fact that lesbian employees earn the same and sometimes more than heterosexual women (which means they are still earning less than heterosexual men) while women of color are frequently paid less than their Caucasian colleagues. Transgender women — if they are hired at all — are the lowest on the salary food chain. Some studies have shown that their wages were almost one third less than their cisgender counterparts” (Baldwin and Ackerson 88).

All of these factors and more work together to weed out those from non-affluent means or non-traditional backgrounds from breaking into the field.

What then, is the solution? The remedy lies in the deliberate crafting of policies and an ongoing readiness to acknowledge that an overrepresentation of whiteness endangers the museum's pertinence in today's American milieu. Each non-inclusive policy we adopt, each inflexible ideology we tolerate, incrementally erodes the museum's significance and its capacity to mirror the diverse communities it aims to represent. Yet, it's not an entirely bleak picture; transformation is underway. The journey is far from complete, and there remains a substantial amount of work to be done, and it is incumbent upon us to hire right for the available position, not (necessarily) white.’


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