Lessons Learned From A Gentle Giant

Nearly 30 years ago, when I began my museum career at the Field Museum of Natural History, we were grappling with the idea of what we called “multiculturalism,” and with the challenge of attracting audiences that reflected the diverse community in which we lived. It was a challenge that would require a profound organizational shift, and no one was more enthusiastic about this new commitment than I was.

Kathryn Hill

Kathryn Hill, Chief Operating Officer of History Colorado

I believed that museums could change the world, and I wanted my museum to embrace the entire Chicago community. My job at the time was to create a Visitor Services department to welcome these new audiences, and that involved converting a group of security guards into Visitor Services representatives. The security force was probably the most diverse staff group in the building, and our belief was that the staff, particularly the front-line staff, should mirror the audiences we aspired to engage.

Portraits in the History Colorado Center atrium

Portraits in the History Colorado Center atrium

I wanted to get to know this new staff with whom I would be working, and I figured I could do that by learning something about their job. So Security generously loaned me a uniform and allowed me to be a guard, provided I was always closely supervised by someone from the Security team. I worked the security command center and the coat-check room. I manned the doors. I patrolled the halls. And I imagined, for awhile, that I knew what life was like for the professionals who did these jobs daily.

Perhaps my favorite guard was Lionel. Well over six feet tall, bespectacled and soft-spoken, Lionel was the kindest, gentlest, most patient guard in the corps. Everyone on staff, from the president to the housekeepers, loved Lionel. One day, Lionel and I were patrolling the galleries. It was late on a weekday afternoon, so the schoolchildren had gone and the halls were quiet. As we rounded a corner, we came upon two middle-aged women, looking at exhibits, engaged in conversation. But the instant they saw Lionel, they visibly stiffened. They clutched their purses close to their bodies, and they hurried past us, heads down, eyes averted, mouths shut.

A banner from the RACE: Are We So Different? exhibit.

A banner from the RACE: Are We So Different? exhibit.

I’m sure Lionel noticed, though he didn’t say anything, but I froze, stunned. Of course I knew something about racism. I grew up in Ann Arbor in the ‘60s. I studied American history. I read the newspaper. At that time, I was living in one of the most segregated cities in the United States. But in that one brief moment, I caught a glimpse of what it must be like to be Lionel every single day, and to be perceived as a threat, because, and only because, he is African American.

Thirty years later, museums are still struggling to attract what we now call “diverse” audiences. Thirty years later, our staffs and our boards too often do not reflect the diversity of the communities we serve. But 30 years later, museums are still trying to open their doors, and hosting exhibits like RACE: Are We So Different? Our decision to host this exhibit provides History Colorado with an opportunity to continue that effort. This exhibit asks all of us to challenge our most basic assumptions about who we are in this community, and invites us to walk in the shoes of people whose experiences are different from ours but who are not, in fact, different from us at all. It is a personal, difficult, sometimes frightening, but ultimately rewarding exploration. It is also a deeply important one. Thirty years later, I still believe museums can bring us together in ways that enrich our communities and change the world.

CPR interview with Kathryn Hill

Colorado Public Radio interview with Kathryn discussing the "RACE" exhibit.