Theses Doctoral

Naming and Dismantling Whiteness in Art Museum Education: Developing an Anti-Racist Approach

Heller, Hannah D.

In the years since the advent of the Black Lives Matter movement, American art museums have increased attempts to address the racial inequities that persist in the field. These inequities impact all aspects of museum work, not least of which education. Because museum educators are often seen as the conduit between museum collections and audiences, the work of implementing anti-racist programming often falls to them. However, the museum education field is majority White, and while there is a rich body of literature treating the adverse impacts of Whiteness on classroom teaching practices, very little exists on how Whiteness might manifest in gallery teaching practices specifically for White museum educators. Utilizing participatory action research, practitioner inquiry, and a White affinity group model, this qualitative study explores aspects of Whiteness that impact the gallery teaching practices of four White museum educators. Our research questions seek to understand better how Whiteness manifests in our teaching specifically in the context of single visit field trips, how those impacts might shift depending on the racial demographics of the groups we are teaching, what questions come for us as a White practitioner-researcher group dedicated to undermining Whiteness in our teaching, and how, if at all, does participation in such a study impact how we think about and implement anti-racist teaching in our practice.

As per the research traditions guiding this study, I treated myself as a participant alongside three other White museum educators, and together as a practitioner inquiry group we co-generated our research questions and agreed to our research methods. These included the formation of a digital space in which we could communicate with each other, observations of our teaching, reflective writing responding to the observations, and conversations in the digital space based on these writings. This period of data generation was followed by interviews between myself and each participant as well as a focus group with all of us.

Findings surfaced various avoidance techniques we each employed in our teaching to avoid race talk or push our anti-racist teaching more deeply. Our avoidance pointed to perceived tensions we felt between our trainings and the demands of anti-racist teaching, as well as the limitations of the single visit field trip model. Findings also surfaced anxiety when discussing Blackness in particular, as well as problematic assumptions about both White students and students of color we work with. Analysis of these findings provide insights into the ways art museum pedagogies in addition to critical emotional pedagogies might be deployed towards anti-racist teaching, as well as the emotional qualities of naming and dismantling Whiteness as White practitioners.

While the findings are limited to the four museum educator participants and the specific contexts in which we work, this study points to ways we might begin to develop deeper understandings of how Whiteness might impact gallery teaching practices. More importantly, in the tradition of practitioner inquiry, this study raises important questions around how visitors of color experience Whiteness in museum education programs, how professional development might be reimagined for museum educators, as well as ways to rethink the traditional single visit field trip model to better accommodate anti-racist learning goals.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Arts and Humanities
Thesis Advisors
Hubard, Olga
Ed.D., Teachers College, Columbia University
Published Here
November 3, 2021