Towards Museum Inclusion: Reflections from Exploratorium STARS internship program
“A STARS Program Was Born”
By Sal Bell Alper (they/them)
In 2020, while the Exploratorium was closed I was faced with the question of how to expand the equity focus of our museum education work without visitors or exhibits. This led me to ask questions about what was really needed and what was possible at the time. Eventually I focused on the urgent issues of unemployment, racial justice, gender inclusion, and science literacy. Born out of these questions was “STARS” at the Exploratorium: Striving for Trans Inclusion and Anti-Racism in Science Learning.
The vision of the STARS program is to expand inclusion, belonging, and relevance in informal science education with a focus on addressing inequities based on gender, sexuality, and race. I began by building on the legacy of the Exploratorium Explainer program and its focus on youth and workforce development through transformative learning and teaching by hiring a virtual cohort in January 2021. This STARS program cohort included 13 transitional-aged youth (TAY) aged 18-24, centering transgender and queer people and people of color. This dedicated group of Generation Zers has expanded my thinking about museum educators in so many ways.
To highlight the incredible thinking and work of the STARS cohort, one of the interns, Eli Ramos, gathered perspectives and quotes from the group and wrote the post below. As the museum field shifts to meet the needs of our audiences during the pandemic, climate chaos, and the overdue focus on dismantling white supremacy, I invite you to join me in engaging with, supporting, and learning from our next generation of museum educators.
“Towards Museum Inclusion”
By Eli Ramos (they/them)
When walking through an art museum or browsing the scientists who’ve contributed to a science museum exhibit, what faces do we see? Whose narratives are presented—from placards and showcases to a curator’s story of an exhibit? Overwhelmingly, we see institutions prioritizing and valuing white, cisgender, and heterosexual individuals and ideas over BIPOC and LGBTQ+ ones. One only has to look at The Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields museum job posting to hear the usually unspoken perspective said out loud: museums have a “traditional, core, white […] audience.”
So where exactly does that leave people who don’t fall in those categories—people of color, and LGBTQ+ communities? What about those with disabilities and lower incomes? The prevailing impact is the exclusion of people whose accomplishments are never recognized, who never see themselves, who can’t pay the ticket price, and can’t even access the institution. If you can’t access an institution made to educate, the implicit message is that you do not belong there—that you don’t deserve to be educated.
Despite this message, STARS interns, myself included, have been drawn to work at museums. Some of us previously worked at museums like the California Academy of Sciences, the Getty, the American Museum of Natural History, to name a few. Others have had experience in educational fields, such as teaching about LGBTQ+ history or science. We all sought out professional development and found it in a program that by definition strives for inclusion and anti-racism. No matter what our experience levels were prior to starting our internship, we all have experienced museums in one way or another and have sought to change what museums put forth—because all of us have experienced some form of exclusion. Through interviewing my fellow interns, several themes emerged related to our experience around inclusion and exclusion in museums.
Exclusion from spaces starts at a fairly young age—usually in the form of ostracization by race or gender. “I probably became aware of how I was ‘different’ around the time I was five or six,” said Kozue Palaco. “Like it was obvious I was Brown, and others were white, and whiteness is what’s catered to in society.” Another STARS intern, Felix Duley said, “I was seen for my gender incongruence and for being seen as an ‘odd girl’ as opposed to being seen as any other boy.” Experiences like these happened in many interns’ adolescence, within different spaces: grocery stores, schools, amusement parks, and even museums. Sometimes these exclusions were more insidious or institutional. Duley recounted, “I was always in love with museums, but always felt like a spectator – like I was definitely not welcome as a possible contributor, but rather as someone the museum had to humor.”
Other barriers included limited access for caretakers who were responsible for helping to facilitate museum experiences. “I had elderly caregivers and mobility issues [which] did restrict how we accessed things. Things or exhibits that looked unsafe […] they didn’t want me to go on or use,” said Pen Kim. Museums often didn’t meet accessibility needs, especially for those who found it difficult to ask for help. In these instances, staff may have been unequipped or judgmental, and those who needed accessibility tools and assistive devices may have lacked the confidence or even the vocabulary to ask for them. Pen’s caregivers, for example, did not speak English fluently.
Thus, navigating spaces, even when resources exist, can be challenging for those who do not speak the dominant language of an institution. My own parents are Filipino and fluent in English, but they still struggled with understanding content and relaying it to me when I was younger. This often puts a child who speaks English as their first language in the role of interpreter for the parents.
Beyond the spaces themselves, exhibits might not be culturally inclusive. Alonzo Hernandez said, “All of the content and history talked about would have little to do with me […] There was a lack of topics connecting to other cultures and races aside from white.” History and art museums in particular were identified as a pain point, reminding me and other STARS interns of the effects of colonization on Indigenous communities—stolen artifacts that were never returned to their stewards, and pieces of art that glorify white countries destroying Black and Brown ones. In science museums, Western science is often prioritized over Indigenous knowledge.
However, museums were still a fond childhood memory for many of us, when we got the chance to attend. Even if the spaces were not always made with us in mind, the desire to learn overpowered the narrative that we did not belong. Tiffany Mays said, “I was always being amazed by the exhibits and natural phenomena of the world, so it was only natural that I spent a lot of my time in these spaces. Retrospectively looking back though, I don’t feel as though the majority of the exhibits were tailored to my identity as a Black woman, but I still feel like I had a place there.” Some of us volunteered in museums in order to spend more time exploring and learning from them. I was a docent at the California Academy of Sciences in my college years because I loved being able to spend time admiring the exhibits and taking time to explain what I knew to curious minds like my own. Al Snow was in the same boat, “I originally applied to be a volunteer at the Chabot Space and Science Center, not only because I wanted to be a volunteer explainer, but also because I wanted a chance to go back and spend more time at the museum, when I was old enough to safely wander around exhibits alone, and when I wouldn’t have to pay.”
Despite our ability to find ways to enter and contribute to museums, we often only saw diversity within the visitor-facing side of staff. On one factor, age, Jason Lam said, “I noticed that I and my peers […] were at times 30+ years younger than some other employees that we would be working with. I believe that this creates a dynamic of imposter syndrome since we are conditioned to think that with age comes more expertise… I also feared that administration [and other employees we worked with] could be dismissive of our thoughts and ideas based on the fact that we are so young and haven’t been in this museum space for years.” He added, “After going to a few all-staff meetings, looking up the senior leadership team, and being a part of another team, I noticed that at times […] I was the only person of color in the room. Through that, I believe in certain instances that lack of POC perspective is very apparent in the decision-making process.” Behind-the-scenes work could sometimes lean towards whiteness, cisness, and heterosexuality. Almost every STARS intern I spoke to agreed: institutional change at museums is necessary.
Many of us joined the internship to support making that change. I graduated from the University of San Francisco in 2020 with a degree in Biology and Journalism, and spent most of my free time as the President of Prism, our LGBTQ+ organization. The pandemic meant I had to leave my job as a nature educator and stop volunteering with a smaller science museum. When the STARS internship opportunity came on my radar, I was elated that there was a chance to unite everything I had worked on in my college career. Not only that, but I would also be in the perfect position to start working towards institutional change. As Felix Duley said, “[The STARS internship] seemed like the perfect intersection between my passions. I would join my interest in the world around me from a life science perspective and a social science perspective (while also hoping to find others like me).”
Beyond our passions, the idea that came up time and time again was the value of working with people like ourselves and making our work accessible to them. Mays said, “I’ve always been interested in making science more accessible and equitable for all groups. […] I’ve tried to help close that education gap through teaching basic biology, human anatomy, and motor control and learning in elementary schools surrounding the campus. Coming from a predominately African American neighborhood, I noticed a lot of similar inequities in terms of the quality of a STEM education for students, and really wanted to help solve this problem.” Beyond access, STARS interns wanted to show that we exist in these spaces. “I hope to provide new perspectives within the STEM field about trans and race identities, while also providing a representation for trans people of color and highlighting how other identities intersect with one another,” said Hernandez. Palaco dreamed even bigger, saying, “I want to learn to make science more inclusive. I have a dream of mine—to make my own community center where I do my own classes, inspiring other trans POC to follow science and see what they can do with that […] We should be providing more education and normalizing trans youth, along with teaching science classes specifically—STEM is already a type of career path that most people of color don’t follow or aren’t encouraged to follow.”
Working alongside other people of color and LGBTQ+ people has been instrumental to us in developing and creating programs that lead towards our end goal. Our cohort has already been responsible for working towards increasing accessibility, especially for the d/Deaf community, creating content for the After Dark Online on Transgender Day of Visibility, and discussing changes in various avenues from the mission statement to the language style guides. It’s one hundred times easier to create programming with people when they share your experiences, and you aren’t constantly explaining yourself to them. Not having to explain the basics of my identity and justifying my personhood was a relief. It was a far cry from my previous work where I was largely closeted and much younger than my coworkers.
Lived experiences inform so much of how people go through the world, including how they learn in a museum. Having diversity “behind the scenes” is just as important, if not more important, than representation to audiences. The very fact that we get to be in this space is new for us: most museum professionals do not fit our demographic. In fact, most of us in the program do not have previous museum work under our belts. Out of 13 cohort members, four of us have worked in museums previously—of those four, only two have been paid for that work. Yet we have much to offer, contributing to work in DEI departments, the Tinkering shop, science writing, and more. The museum field needs voices like ours, and we want to be here. Transitional aged youth, disabled people, people of color, and LGBTQ+ communities have so much to contribute and our presence at the Exploratorium is part of truly dismantling white supremacist ideals and practices at an institution.
The STARS program’s duration is short—a mere six months from January to June. But with our time here, we’re striving towards our own professional development to carry with us and hopefully leaving a framework of inclusive practices for the Exploratorium to build on. Lam said, “Becoming more inclusive isn’t a one-step process, I would first analyze the root. Who is in charge of sourcing? Are they making sure that all curations and exhibits come from a diverse background and highlight ideas from a variety of backgrounds? […] This isn’t a one-person job and requires many diverse people with a diverse background/skillset to be successful at this.” Palaco said, “Hire Black and Brown folks, be willing to put more work in. And DEI trainings should be mandatory for everyone, including higher-ups.” Mays added to this, saying, “[It] will take a lot more than DEI work. At a lot of institutions, it will more than likely mean re-structuring museums to have equal representation for all historically excluded groups.” A program like STARS is a start—hiring (and paying) interns and employees to work on transformative practices for an institution is instrumental, especially from the communities you want to have in your spaces. But this kind of transformative work is a long-term effort. Though I wish the program lasted far longer, I’m so happy to be a part of the STARS team, working alongside people with powerful lived experiences and passion for change on making steps towards real and meaningful inclusion.
Eli Ramos (they/them) is a second-generation Filipino with an avid love for both science and advocacy. Their love of science was kindled at a young age, admiring insects while running around outside: something they still do to this day. Growing up as a child of immigrants and as a nonbinary person, they recognize the need for support in education for their communities, which has been their goal through their career as a science communicator. They believe and work towards accessible spaces with justice, equity, and support for all. Eli has a B.S. in Biology with a minor in Journalism and 7 years of social justice work serving disabled communities, POC, and the LGBTQ+ community.
Sal Bell Alper (they/them) has worked to foster inclusive and engaging learning experiences with visitors and staff at the Exploratorium since 2008. They grew up in Chicago with a love for learning and developed a strong belief in the liberatory possibility of public learning spaces. Sal has a BS in Environmental and Biological Science and recently completed a MA in International and Multicultural Education focusing on bridging social justice, education, and museums.