Program Perspective: Representation in Museums

By Brenda Salguero

I grew up ashamed of who I was.

It wasn’t until recently I even realized that I had felt this way. That is the insidious nature of systemic racism—you never realize how much you hate yourself or even why.

Like all Americans, I grew up surrounded by a white dominant media, but the communities I lived in never reflected what I saw on TV. Additionally, the majority of my teachers (authority figures) were white, especially in high school, where they taught a school largely made up of Latino, Black, Asian, and Pacific Islander students.

I’m Latina and I grew up looking down on my own culture; making fun of things like Latin American music (especially Mexican corridos or mariachi), dance, the Spanish language, and even people who were too “Latino” or dressed up like a Mexican. I even unknowingly worked very hard to destroy any semblance of an accent, mimicking what I heard on TV or my teachers.

I thought I was above all that uncultured stuff. I was striving to emulate a white culture and aesthetic, shunning anything that was remotely associated with brown skin or darker.

I now realize how terribly I was duped.

Some people call this new state of mind the “awakening” while others call it decolonization. Essentially, they name the same experience many people of color go through when they realize that racism is systemic—it’s so deeply embedded in society that we barely notice it, we unknowingly perpetuate it, and yet we strive to be included in it. In turn, it breeds in many of us a hatred of ourselves.

This is why representation, to me, is so important.

What is representation? It’s very complex, but to keep it simple for this blog post think of it as the desire to see oneself positively reflected in an institution.

My museum studies thesis, Hanging Mirrors: Reflections on Women of color, Leadership, and Representation within Museums, primarily revolved around my two passions: diversity and representation. I wanted to dig in and try to understand why these two things were important within museums, specifically examining if the decisions made by women of color in positions of authority and leadership had any impact in engaging audiences of color.

In other words, does diversity or representation ultimately attract those coveted “new” audiences?

Since that’s a huge question, I narrowed it down to women of color and how their own unique perspectives affect the way they make decisions.

Overall I found that yes there is evidence that women of color are able to increase positive representations of people of color in museums, however further research is needed to examine if this in turn increases audience engagement.

I want to follow up my thesis with actions, including a session talking about these issues at the Western Museums Association 2015 Annual Meeting in San Jose. This panel session includes women of color leaders that come from diverse and varied areas of the museum field. Attendees will walk away with further resources, action items, and the ultimate understanding that better representation begins at the individual level; people must first acknowledge their own experiences, perspectives, and levels of privilege before truly promoting representation of people of color within museums.

How does this conversation and subsequent knowledge benefit the museum community?

Different perspectives are vital in reaching diverse communities and in designing programs that are relevant to them.  

Best of all, these conversations ultimately benefit people who grew up thinking like me.

Day of the Dead celebrations in museums greatly contributed to my “awakening”; it was one of the only places I saw that celebrated Latino culture within a space typically reserved for Whites. It made me question my condescending views and say, “Hey, if this place thinks its important then maybe this is something I can take pride in.” Finally, I began wanting to learn more about my own background instead of shunning it.

So let’s continue this conversation, follow it up with actions, in order to promote representation of people of color in museums. It’s so important and to some people, seeing themselves reflected within an institution like a museum can be life changing.


To attend this session and the WMA 2015 Annual Meeting, register here.

Brenda Salguero is currently the Education Director at the Hayward Area Historical Society. Born and raised in Hollywood, California, the daughter of two El Salvadoran refugees, she left home to pursue a Bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Santa Barbara in Cultural Anthropology and Geography. In 2014, she graduated from John F. Kennedy University with a Master’s in Business Administration and Museum Studies. 




Diversity and Representation

Brenda,  I am truly looking forward to your session at the WMA conference and to learning what action plans we can implement to promote the representation of diversity in our museums. 





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