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Museums Must Adapt To Attract Latinos


June 14, 2011

As the population of Hartford changes, how can its museums and other cultural attractions remain relevant?

When the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art was founded in 1842, Hartford County was 98 percent white, according to the 1840 Census. When the Mark Twain Memorial and Library Commission was chartered in 1929, Hartford County was still 98 percent white. Today, however, Hartford County is 72 percent white and 15 percent of its residents identify as Latino/Hispanic.

In the city, 43 percent of residents now label themselves as Latino/Hispanic, regardless of race. These population shifts pose a challenge for Hartford's museums. One simple solution would be to provide bilingual signage and Spanish translation. This would be an important welcoming step, but it is not enough.

Spanish materials will be useful to only a relatively small number of Hartford residents, mostly elderly. According to the American Community Survey in 2005, 92 percent of city residents age 5 to 64 reported that they speak only English, or speak English "very well" or "well."

Illiteracy poses a different challenge for museum outreach. Although accurate data are hard to find, a 2003 study (National Center for Education Statistics) showed 9 percent of residents more than 16 years of age in Hartford County were illiterate. Moreover, developing outreach materials in Spanish assumes that every Latino/ Hispanic person speaks Spanish, as opposed to Portuguese. It takes for granted that there is just one type of Spanish, but vocabulary and colloquial expressions vary by country. In short, museums cannot know that Spanish is the language their audience best understands or even prefers to read.

To improve their outreach to current residents, Hartford museums need to understand the cultural characteristics of the Latino/Hispanic population. Some Latinos are not accustomed to visiting museums; instead, they are seen as elitist places designed predominantly for wealthy whites.

In 2008, according to the National Endowment for the Arts, only 15 percent of Hispanics visited an art museum, as opposed to 26 percent of non-Hispanic whites. Museums should do more outreach to populations with less education and income in addition to those who speak other languages and who have other cultural traditions. Broader representation of diverse ethnic and racial interests in the museums' staffs, permanent collections, traveling exhibitions and cultural programming can increase museum-going by these groups.

Museums in Hartford can be more effective in their outreach to Latino/Hispanic and other minority communities. Bilingual materials have symbolic importance and can certainly help the Spanish-speaking visitor feel more comfortable.

But the physical presence of Latinos in positions of power would also make a considerable difference. Homogeneous staff and boards perpetuate the elitist view of museums: Only 1 of 29 trustees at the Wadsworth, 1 of 27 at the Mark Twain House & Museum, and 2 of 17 at the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center are Latino/ Hispanic.

Museums in Hartford must also hire more Latinos/Hispanics as curators and educators. When people of color visit Hartford museums, they see members of their ethnicity only in the roles of security guards and janitors. Establishing fellowship and internship programs to train local Latino college students as docents would also diversify the age and ethnicity of staff and the diversity of visitors. In addition to mounting special exhibits designed for local audiences, Hartford museums need to connect their collections to their communities.

Yodalis Morán of New York graduated from Trinity College in May with a bachelor's degree in anthropology. She was an intern at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art this spring. James Alan Trostle is a professor of anthropology at Trinity College.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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