Multicultural Inclusion At The New England Aquarium Audience

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by Jason J. Drebitko and Gillian Nelson

Defining the Issue
“...museums must achieve greater in­ clusiveness. Trustees and staff must acknowledge and respect our nation’s diversity in race, ethnic origin, age, gender, economic status, and educa­ tion, and they must attempt to reflect that pluralism in every aspect of a museum’s operations and programs.”
AAM Task Force on Museum Education, 1992, p.262
Contemporary society is becom­ ing more diverse in terms of its eco­ nomic, racial, ethnic, and religious composition. Geertz (1986, p. 120­ 121) points out that “we are living more and more in the midst of an enormous collage.” As aquariums and science museums spring up in urban centers across the country, they ex­ pose a unique opportunity to bridge a cultural melange of perspectives and to provide a truly public forum for informal science learning.
Not surprisingly, visitor studies

research has indicated that frequent museum visitors tend to be Cauca­ sian, well-educated, and come from middle to upper socio-economic classes. Visitors to the New England Aquarium are no exception. Recent demographic studies at the aquarium indicate that approximately 86% of aquarium visitors are “white/Cauca­ sian,” while racial minorities repre­ sent only 14% of the aquarium’s au­ dience. Roughly 45% of aquarium visitors have a median household in­ come of greater than $50,000, and 68% hold a four-year degree or higher. Compare this to the city of Boston1, with 41% of the population representing racial minorities, 19% of the population 25 years or older hold­ ing a four-year degree or higher, and an overall median household income of $28,100.2 There is clearly a gap between the demographic character­ istics of those who visit the aquarium, and the demographic characteristics of the surrounding community.

Boats on Lake Victoria

The Lake Victoria Exhibit The New England Aquarium, in partnership with the National Science Foundation and in collaboration with the National Museums of Kenya, the Kenyan Marine Fisheries Institute, the Uganda Fisheries Research Insti­ tute, and the Lake Victoria Species Survival Program, is currently in the developing and planning stages for a new exhibit focusing on Lake Victoria in East Africa. Lake Victoria is the world’s second largest freshwater lake and provides aquatic resources for some 30 million East Africans. Over the past eighty years, the lake has undergone rapid environmental changes, including mass extinction of native fishes, dramatic changes in species composition, loss of biologi­ cal diversity in and around the lake, and changes in the cultures of the people who depend on the lake for their livelihood. The exhibit will im­ merse visitors in the beauty of East Africa by presenting the story of the people of Lake Victoria, the environ­ mental crisis they are currently fac­ ing, and the success stories of Afri­ can scientists working to ensure the lake’s survival. The Lake Victoria exhibit is seen by the aquarium as a critical step to­ ward achieving “Aquarium 2000,” a new institutional vision that calls for narrowing the gap between the demo­ graphics of the aquarium’s traditional audience and the demographics of the greater Boston area. The exhibit pro­ vides a unique opportunity to link multicultural audiences with the aquatic sciences as a field of en­ deavor. By showcasing African sci­ entists as role models and presenting their work on solutions to Lake
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Victoria’s environmental crisis, it is hoped that minority children will identify science as a career possibil­ ity. Foremost, the exhibit will provide an opportunity through which the African-American community can come to appreciate the aquarium as a positive, comfortable environment and a community resource.
An Integrated Approach In the development of the Lake Victoria exhibit, a multi-dimensional approach was taken to address the lack of representation by racial mi­ norities, specifically, Boston’s Afri­ can-American community (which represents 24% of Boston city’s popu­ lation, and 1% of the aquarium’s au­ dience.) First, Jeff Hayward of People, Places and Design Research was con­ tracted to conduct a planning study. The study focused on examining the interests and perceptions of current aquarium visitors, in addition to iden­ tifying the interests and perceptions of a sample of African-American visi­ tors from Boston’s metropolitan area (interviewed at community sites in the predominantly minority areas of Bos­ ton.) The study found little difference between the interests and perceptions of the general aquarium sample and the interests and perceptions of the sample of African-American visitors, with one exception. African-Ameri­ cans tended to show more interest in the role of “African scientists” as a topic of interest than did visitors from the general aquarium sample. This result has informed the exhibit design process by reinforcing the plan to showcase the activities of African scientists. To build awareness of the project in the community, the aquarium con­ tracted with an African-American au­ dience development consultant. She developed the initial list of “opinion makers” in the African-American community that was used to develop

committee and event invitation lists and to promote the aquarium’s new outreach initiative. The consultant is also responsible for scheduling speak­ ing engagements and presentations with African-American community groups, and for researching and writ­ ing grants aimed at developing part­ nerships between the aquarium and African-American community-based organizations.
To ensure the cultural integrity and accuracy of the exhibit’s mes­ sages, and to build ownership in the underserved Boston community, the Lake Victoria Project Team staff has created two advisory committees: an Exhibit Advisory Committee (EAC)
“The study found little difference between the interests and perceptions of the general aquarium sample and the interests and perceptions of the sample of African-American visitors, with one exception.”
and a Community Advisory Commit­ tee (CAC). The EAC is comprised of nineteen community members plus two alternates who represent local museums, environmental agencies, high schools and universities, corpo­ rations, a museum trustee, and sev­ eral aquarium staff. Three of the com­ mittee members are native Africans, and fourteen are African-Americans.
The role of the EAC is to: • evaluate exhibit messages and images on the basis of authenticity and cultural sensitivity; • contribute ideas for the exhibit; • comment on and review proto­ types and design models. The EAC has confirmed both the at­ traction of the story and the images that the Lake Victoria exhibit will

12 Vol. I/Issue 2 Visitor Studies Today!

present. From the first meeting, the Project Team learned that there ap­ pear to be no “land mines” in the pro­ posed content, and that many of the findings of the planning study appear to be accurate: specifically that Afri­ can scientists and interesting animals attract significant interest.
The EAC members have also been invited to attend the first Community Advisory Committee meeting. This committee is much larger and will meet to respond to specific exhibit items as they are developed. While the EAC will maintain a more inti­ mate working relationship with the Project Team and aquarium on many levels, the CAC will be task-specific, evaluating graphics, text panels, and prototypes of hands-on activities. These activities have traditionally been undertaken only by the profes­ sional staff developing them. Open­ ing up this process not only will as­ sist the aquarium in building better exhibits, but it is hoped that this pro­ cess will also foster a sense of own­ ership among the committee mem­ bers who test the exhibits.
One Step at a Time The Lake Victoria exhibit at the New England Aquarium will provide a catalyst for the aquarium’s efforts to respond to the needs of a growing community with diverse cultural, socio-economic and religious back­ grounds. However, the Lake Victoria exhibit will not accomplish these goals on its own. The aquarium’s commitment to cultural diversity and “Aquarium 2000” runs deep. Con­ tinuing efforts to address the commu­ nities’ needs will not only be directed toward providing culturally relevant subject matter, but also will address image management, access, and advertising. As potentially invaluable re­ sources for bridging a diversity of
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Betsy Bennett North Carolina State Museum of Natural Sciences
John H. Falk Institute for Learning Innovation
Conny Graft Colonial Williamsburg Foundation
Zahava Doering Institutional Studies Office Smithsonian Institution Charles Hoessle St. Louis Zoo

Deb Hruby Butterfly Pavilion and Insect Center
Librarian Longwood Gardens
Susan Robertson Anniston Museum Of Natural History
Hermann Schäfer Stiftung Haus der Geschichte
Jennifer Wall National Gallery of Canada

Mary Rabb Brookfield Zoo Library
Joanne DiCosimo Canadian Museum of Nature
Mary Ellen Munley The Field Museum Graduate Institute of Museology Tainan College of the Arts
Randi Korn Randi Korn & Associates

Ross J. Loomis Colorado State University Beverly Serrell Serrell and Associates Marjorie Schwarzer John F. Kennedy University
Sue Allen Exploratorium Barbara H. Butler National Science Foundation Patrick H. Butler, III Historic Alexandria Foundation Michele Raphoon Tryon Palace Historic Sites & Gardens

Helene Lapointe Canadian Museum of Nature
Deanna H. Person Denver Art Museum
Ava Ferguson Learning Designs
Rob Hall Centre for Visitor Studies
Jeff Hayward People, Places and Design Research
Marilyn G. Hood Hood Associates
Carol F. Inman Museum Consultant
Jytte Johansen Danish Museum Training Institute/ Library of Museology
Tomoyuki Kawakami Tansei Institute Co., Ltd.
Tamara Starke Canadian Museum of Nature

Sam Taylor California Academy of Sciences
Lynda Kelly Australian Museum
Roger Lidman Pueblo Grande Museum
Dennis O’Brien
Chris Parsons Word Craft
Deborah L. Perry Selinda Research Associates
Judy Rand Rand and Associates
Roy Underhill Underhill Consulting
Betty van der Smissen Michigan State University
Robert C. Webb Suffolk University
Megan Richardson Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography

Jan Sas Reinwardt Academy
Harris H. Shettel Museum Evaluation Consultant
Christopher With National Gallery of Art
Ted Ansbacher Science Services
Karen Graham Canadian Museum of Civilization
Gerard E. Hilferty Gerard Hilferty and Associates
Adrienne Horn Museum Management Consultants
Fernando Pessoa University, Portugal
Kate McGregor Office of the Secretary to the Governor General, Ottawa, Canada
Ines Maria de Lima de Macado Qeuiros


cultural perspectives, museums must be responsive and accommodating to the needs and interests of their sur­ rounding communities. Museum trustees, staff, and volunteers share the responsibility of bridging the gap between the demographics of their traditional audiences and the demo­ graphics of the surrounding commu­ nities. The issue of multicultural plu­ ralism in museum audiences must be addressed at multiple levels through­ out the institution, since low atten­ dance by minority groups is not new

and is unlikely to change overnight.
American Association of Muse­ ums Task Force on Museum Educa­ tion. (1992). Excellence and equity: Education and the public dimension of museums. Forces of Change: The Sourcebook. 1991 Annual Meeting of the American Association of Muse­ ums. pp. 261 - 282. In Bitgood, S. and Thompson, T. (1983). Multicultural Pluralism and Visitor

Evaluation. Visitor Behavior, 8 (2), pp.3-4.
Geertz, C. (1986). The Uses of Di­ versity. Michigan Quarterly Review, 4, 25 (1), pp.105-123. In Ames, M. (1991). Biculturalism in Exhibitions. Museum Anthropology, 15 (2).
Notes 1 The New England Aquarium is cen­ trally located on downtown Boston’s waterfront. 2 1990 US Census Bureau Data

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Multicultural Inclusion At The New England Aquarium Audience