THE PEOPLE IN THE ROOM
Open-hearted insiders are essential to efforts to engage outsiders. The way outsiders experience our work is as much about the people in the room as the contents of the room itself.
The people in the room don’t change the fundamental experience. They don’t make the art hang differently. They don’t make the songs rewrite themselves. But they change who is in the room to see that art and hear those songs. And that can have a huge impact on people’s experience of the room—and who chooses to walk in.
Imagine a party. There’s food. There’s music. There’s laughter. That’s the room a party lives in. But the party is going to feel different if everyone in the room is wearing black tie. Or if everyone is eight years old. Or if everyone is south Indian. The existing insiders have a significant impact on how newcomers experience the room.
Professionals often ignore the role that the people in the room play in the reception of the experience. We focus on the content: the art, the story, the park. We do that because we ARE the people in the room. They look like us.
White museum professionals don’t think of a museum as a “white” place, because they don’t experience whiteness overtly. They think of a museum as a place for art, or history, or science. Not for whiteness. But if you walk into a museum for the first time, and everyone you see is white, and you are not white, you will notice. It may bother you, or not, but you will notice. Ah, you will think. I see that these are the kind of people in this room.
And for many on the outside, this realization can be a huge barrier to entry.
At the reopening of the Whitney Museum in 2014, First Lady Michelle Obama said: “there are so many kids in this country who look at places like museums and concert halls and other cultural centers and they think to themselves, well, that’s not a place for me, for someone who looks like me, for someone who comes from my neighborhood. In fact, I guarantee you that right now, there are kids living less than a mile from here who would never in a million years dream that they would be welcome in this museum.
And growing up on the South Side of Chicago, I was one of those kids myself. So I know that feeling of not belonging in a place like this. And today, as First Lady, I know how that feeling limits the horizons of far too many of our young people.”
If the First Lady—someone who has risen to incredible privilege and status in this country—can empathize with the experience of outsiders, you can too. This isn’t just a matter of race. We have all experienced being an outsider. We make these judgments every time we enter a new room that is dominated by a particular type of person, especially a type with which we do not identify. We see that this is the gym for the beautiful people. That everyone at the symphony is old. That there are no other women in the lab.
When we enter these spaces, we have to decide: is this relevant to me? Do I see people like me here? Do I see myself here? And if not, is it worth the effort to make a place for myself here?