Every year millions of visitors flock to the more than 8,000 museums
across the United States. From house museums and storefront galleries
to the venerable Smithsonian Institution, these varied treasuries
affirm and transmit our nation’s complex history and cultural values.
But among museum professionals who operate these institutions -the
directors, curators, development directors, public relations
specialists, and others – less than one percent are estimated to be
Several years ago, Dr. Rick Beard, executive director of the Atlanta
History Center, began wrestling with how to address the paucity of
minorities in his profession.
“I was interested,” Beard said, “because my experience had been that
if you wanted to recruit minorities in the museum profession, it could
be really hard work. And even when you were successful, it might be a
short stay for the professionals you hired. It wasn’t long before I
waved good-bye to them.”
The Atlanta History Center joined forces in 1994 with the Coca-Cola
Foundation to launch the Atlanta History Center/Coca-Cola Museum
Fellows Program. The goal: to expose minority undergraduate students to
the influential world of collecting, preserving, documenting, and
interpreting material culture.
Rinaldo Murray, a Clark Atlanta University senior majoring in
history, is a fellow in this, the third year of the program. He was
introduced to the Museum Fellows Program by his friend and school mate
Brett Crenshaw, a member of the first class. Murray says Crenshaw was
very blunt about what he should expect.
“Brett told me I should definitely consider the program,” Murray
recalls. “He told me that the things I would learn and be exposed to
would help me out a lot. But he also made it clear that this would not
be a walk in the park.
“He was right. It’s definitely been rigorous, and I have definitely learned a lot.”
An Enthusiastic Director
Dr. Billie Davis Gaines gave up being a trustee of the Atlanta
Historical Society, which operates the Atlanta History Center, to serve
as director of the fellowship program. Keenly aware of the need for
minority representation in the board room, the decision to change hats
was not easy, she says.
Gaines was a member of the National Council on the Humanities from
1990-96. She has more than thirty years experience as a teacher, writer
and lecturer, including creating Georgia’s first four-year secondary
Russian language program, at Atlanta’s Booker T. Washington High School.
No stranger to initiatives that purport to help minorities, Gaines
says the Museum Fellows Program offered its participants three
essential benefits that let her know this was something she could sink
her teeth into: in-depth training, a meaningful work experience the
students could put on their resumes, and the opportunity to network
with the nation’s top museum professionals.
“I have run many programs nationally, regionally and locally,” says
Gaines. “But I have never felt this good about a program. As a program
designed to attract and prepare minorities, it is everything you would
Beard says he hit upon the idea of the fellowship program while at
the Museum of the City of New York, where he served as associate
director for programs, collections and publications from 1986 until
1992, when he arrived in Atlanta.
Atlanta was fertile ground for Beard’s idea. The Atlanta Historical
Society, founded in 1926, was reviewing its mission and committing to
broadening its outreach and becoming more inclusive. The metropolitan
area offered two other essentials: a sizable population of minority
college students and museums of many sizes and stripes.
In The Coca-Cola Foundation, Beard found an ideological partner –
and a $300,000 grant. The Coca-Cola Foundation is the philanthropic arm
of The Coca-Cola Company and has made support of minority higher
education one of its priorities.
“I think the partnership is what makes this program unique,” says
Michael Bivens, education director for The Coca-Cola Foundation. “A
history center, institutions of higher education, and a corporate
foundation have worked together and developed a creative and innovative
program. That’s something The Coca-Cola Foundation is very proud of.
“But most important, this partnership is providing access and
opportunity for students of color, in a career area where they. have
not been well represented.”
“A Serious Opportunity”
Believed to be the first program in this country to introduce
minority undergraduates to careers in the museum profession, the
Atlanta History Center/The Coca-Cola Foundation Museum Fellows program
offers students an intense year of up-close learning about museum
issues and core functions including exhibition, collection, research,
marketing, fund raising, and public relations. Fellows receive a $6,000
grant from the program and academic credit from their schools.
“It’s a serious opportunity,” Crenshaw says, “as opposed to the kind
of fellowship where you aren’t given a hands-on experience and where
the expectations aren’t as high.”
Fellowship candidates are nominated through their college or
university’s academic deans. They are encouraged to recommend students
who are interested in museums, who can benefit from the fellowship
program, and who can meet its challenges. Most fellows have been
history or art history majors.
Besides submitting their transcript and a 1,000-word essay, each prospect is interviewed by a panel of six museum professionals.
“I was impressed with the quality of the young people,” says Hope
Alswang, the executive director of the New Jersey Historical Society
who served on the panel that selected the 1995-96 Museum Fellows.
“Obviously they are smart and they are really quite confident.” Alswang
also has been one of many guest lecturers during the program.
The program begins each fall and runs one full year. During the
school year, the students meet for weekly three-hour seminars at the
Atlanta History Center, where they work closely with curators and staff
to learn about different aspects of the profession. The students also
take on research projects as well as heavy doses of required outside
During the fall, students get a dose of real-life museum practices
and challenges. Sessions might include anything from reports by
students on site visits, to exploring topics like managing a museum
collection, or evaluating sources of historical information. During the
spring semester, the program covers the business aspects of operating a
Besides visiting Atlanta area museums, the museum fellows have been
received by professionals at nationally prominent places like the
Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia and the Smithsonian’s Museum of
American History, Holocaust Museum, and Anacostia Neighborhood Museum
in Washington, D.C. During the final phase of the program, the students
are employed full-time as hands-on apprentices at the Atlanta History
“They are not interns doing make-work,” Gaines insists. “They are
full-time, salaried museum staff members who have real work to do in
areas of interest they have selected.”
“A Real Sense of Accomplishment”
“It was a life-changing experience for me,” says Tina Gurley, an
Agnes Scott College graduate who was contemplating her future when she
was selected as a 1995-96 museum fellow. “I had not had a whole lot of
exposure to museums and this really exposed me.
“It opened my eyes to a lot of things I had never even thought
about. I have a much greater appreciation for the value of public
history as opposed to the isolation of the academy.”
During her apprenticeship, Gurley was a lead organizer of a
pictorial exhibit. of Georgia slave cabins at the Tulley Smith Farm, an
antebellum farm on the Atlanta History Center grounds.
Echoing the sentiments of other fellows, Gurley says the fellowship
program not only offered her invaluable insights into how museums work,
it gave her the confidence to be assertive when she had a strong
“My suggestions were taken seriously and I got a real sense of accomplishment from being involved in the exhibit,” she says.
For Rinaldo Murray and Brett Crenshaw, a shared interest in
historical research brought them together on an extracurricular project
– researching the history of a century-old, two-room house that had
piqued their curiosity.
Interestingly, their research turned up information that was at odds
with the homeowner’s family history a development which brought home
the “myth and memory” discussions from the museum fellows program.
Crenshaw’s participation in the Museum Fellows Program also earned
him an invitation to work at the Clark Atlanta University Art Gallery
as it prepared to showcase its well-known collection of African
American art during the 1996 Olympic Games, He helped with collections
management, established office policies, started a film series of
African American artists, and did public relations work.
“I was given a lot of leeway to do things autonomously,” Crenshaw
says. “It has been prophesied that some day I will return to the Clark
Atlanta Art Gallery as a professional. That may or may not happen, but
there is definitely a part of me in that gallery.”
An Asset to Any Career
That is the story, as well, at the Du Sable Museum in Chicago, where
Germaine Williams, a Chicagoan who was the 1994-95 fellow, has worked
as an intern.
“We probably learned more from him than he did from us,” says the Du
Sable’s chief curator Ramon Price. “Whatever assignments we gave him.
he always went far beyond that. My hope is that he would want to
consider some day becoming the curator here at the museum. He would be
my candidate for possibly taking over.”
Beard and Gaines say they are not disappointed if students in the program decide to pursue other careers.
“Even if they don’t choose the museum profession, they will be good
consumers, good advocates, and strong supporters of museums,” Beard
Beard expects the fellows who become teachers to influence their
students to visit and support museums. Their involvement in the program
also will make the fellows excellent choices to serve as museum board
members and fund raisers. In fact. Beard says one of the pleasant
surprises has been student interest in the business end of things.
Gaines adds, “There is no way that their views and their
contributions in what ever field they choose will not be greatly
expanded because of this experience.”
“I definitely look at [museum exhibits] with a more critical eye,”
says Murray. And, while he still is most interested in doing historical
research and teaching history at the high school and college levels.
Murray says, “I’m definitely open to the possibility of being involved
with museums. It was something I had not envisioned initially. But now
it’s an option.”
Museum professionals agree that in order to compete successfully
with other career fields, the museum community must do a better job of
attracting students before they lock into a career choice.
Among African American students, “the level of consciousness is not
very high in terms of people knowing this is a viable profession,” says
John Fleming, treasurer and past president of the African American
Museums Association. “I don’t think the word is out there in high
schools and colleges. And that’s really where we need to begin to
Including the present class, sixteen students have participated in
the program, which was piloted at the historically Black colleges and
universities of the Atlanta University Center and expanded the
following year to reach minority undergraduates at other Atlanta area
Impediments to Overcome
According to Beard, lack of exposure is not the only impediment to
minority participation in the museum profession. Often minority
communities have understandably reacted with indifference to many
mainstream museums that were “set up by Whites and run as private
“Often, the history the institutions have told has been pretty narrow in its perspective,” says Beard.
Moreover, entry level salaries in the profession lack allure.
According to the American Association of Museums, recent surveys
revealed that the average salary for an educational assistant is
$17,000; for a curatorial assistant, $22,000. For museum directors, the
average salary in the northeast is $55,000, and in California it’s
“Salaries continue to be a major drawback,” says the African
American Museums Association’s John Fleming, who adds that minorities
in the profession often face isolation and lack of support for ideas
and projects they feel are important.
Despite the hurdles and disincentives, however, the number of
minorities who are drawn to the museum profession is growing, as is
their visibility and influence.
“We are now beginning to have African Americans in primary policy-making positions in the mainstream museums,” says Beard.
The Museum Fellows Program will, according to Beard, make the museum
world less provincial by attracting African Americans to the profession
“who can serve as role models and mentors, and who will be in the
position to open doors for other African Americans.”
RELATED ARTICLE: Despite Interest Boom, Funding Remains a Bust for Black Museums
Of the estimated 8,200 museums in the United States, nearly 3,300
were established after 1970, feeding a ravenous public appetite for
exploring the country’s complex history and culture outside of the
There are more than 150 African American museums, a diverse lot that
includes the Black Fashion Museum in Washington, D.C.; the African
American Museum of Fine Art in San Diego; the National Civil Rights
Museum in Memphis; and the Children’s Museum of African American
Culture in Chicago, The state-of-the-art, glass-domed Museum of African
American History in Detroit – with 120,000 feet of galleries,
classrooms, research space and other facilities – is the world’s
largest Black historical and cultural museum.
There are many reasons for the museum boom: increased interest in
the study of social history; the desires of various groups to preserve
and define their own unique cultures; and a growing interest in
exploring the private lives of people great and small.
The nation’s Bicentennial Celebration, in 1976 also fueled the
flames, according to Dr. Fath Ruffins, head of the Collection of
Advertising History at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of
“There’s been a tremendous surge of interest in history,” Ruffins
says. “A lot of people are energized now by trying to understand the
Many are trying to understand the world around them, as well. Among
the strongest trends of late are children’s museums, aquariums, and
science and technology museums.
“It used to be that only major cities had museums of science,” says
Ellen Griffee of the Association of Science-Technology Centers, an
umbrella group with 310 members. “Now you’re seeing mid-size cities and
small cities with science museums. it’s very much community driven.”
There is, it seems, a museum for every interest. Among those to open
their doors in the past five years are: The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
and Museum in Cleveland; the Berman Museum of art and global military
artifacts in Anniston, Alabama; the Japanese-American National Museum
in Los Angeles; the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City; and
the Sci-Port DiscoVery Center in Shreveport, Louisiana. Even a group of
Mustang auto enthusiasts is looking to build a national museum, the
Mustang Experience, in the near future.
The role of museums as centers of public education has increased
visibility and opportunities for public historians. Their job, explains
Ruffins, involves “appealing to a wider public than do historians in
the academic world, whose audiences tend to be their colleagues, their
students, and highly specialized audiences.
“The research process may be the same, but the outcomes are rather
different. Doing an exhibition is completely different than writing a
book. Museums visitors have to see something. So there is the
requirement for public historians to understand more about design and
spatial relationships – there are more disciplines involved,” she adds.
With museums broadening their constituency, the number of museum
visits jumped from 389 million in 1979 to nearly 600 million in 1989.
Still, museums face formidable challenges of keeping the masses coming
and doing an effective job of educating those who visit. The public is,
after all, swamped with entertainment options. Moreover, museums are
still regarded by many as staid, sleepy little enclaves for the
Their efforts to rise to the challenges have changed how museums look, feel, and relate to the public.
“For years, museums concentrated on building their collections,”
says Ed Able Jr., president of the American Association of Museums.
“Now they are concentrating on how to use those exhibits in more
effective ways to educate people.”
Museums are presenting an increasing variety of programs and serving
as venues for community meetings and forums. The museum world also is
more marketing savvy. The American Museum of Natural History in New
York, for example, used the release of Steven Spielberg’s dinosaur
movie, “The Lost World: Jurassic Park,” as a hook for its dinosaur
paleontology exhibition, “The Lost World: The Life and Death of
Dinosaurs.” The show features skeleton casts from real fossils
alongside models of the film’s dinosaurs.
And the Smithsonian’s popular National Air and Space Museum is
sparking interest in the great beyond by marking the twentieth
anniversary of “Star Wars,” this fall. It will showcase more than 200
original movie props and costumes.
Science museums have led the way in converting museums into places
where, says Griffee, visitors can “explore, experiment, and enjoy. The
idea now is to take things from behind the glass and put them in your
hands – to have people, in effect, messing around with things. We know
that when visitors have that kind of experience, they feel like they
own that knowledge.”
The museum explosion is not without its perils. A primary one,
according to Able, is the possible construction of “more museums than
we can support. Museums are in competition not only with other museums
but with a plethora of charitable organizations.”
Indeed, one thing all museums seem to have in common is the ongoing challenge of getting the funding they need.
“We opened on a hope and prayer,” says Don Motley executive director of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.
According to Motley, the rich history of the Negro Leagues, which
produced some 2,600 Blacks who were banned from the Major Leagues yet
played some of America’s most exciting baseball, may be “the great
untold American history.” But without solid funding – to purchase more
artifacts, maintain the facility, and to attract and keep quality
professionals – it will be difficult for the museum to carry on.
Thus, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, Motley says, is organizing
a national membership campaign, and raising $5 million – $3 million of
which will establish an endowment for the museum.
“We are limited on funds,” echoes the Rev. Fred Perriman, president
of the board of directors for the fledgling Morgan County African
American Museum in small-town Madison, Georgia.
With an annual budget of about $60,000, the museum – a five-room
house that, among other things, depicts local African American life at
the turn of the century – is searching for a full-time director,
preferably one with fund-raising and grant-writing experience.
Insufficient funding also hampers the museum world’s effectiveness
at spreading the word about its career opportunities. And the lack of
funding contributes to the industry’s deflated salaries.
That, says Able, puts museums in the tough competitive position of
telling prospective museum professionals, “On the one hand, we’d love
to have you and, by the way, we would like for you to have a master’s
or a Ph.D. On the other hand, we’re going to pay you $12,000 a year.”
As with schools, their sister institutions of learning, the
well-being of museums is an important though often neglected community
issue. Perhaps the museum world’s second greatest challenge is
strengthening relations with the community.
Says Able: “We need to be clear about the fact that we are a part of
the community, and that we care about the community and its issues.”
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