A Focus on Equity

“Many museums’ long-term health and survival will depend on how well they deal with diversity issues. Given the rapidly changing demographics in this country, museums have to ask who’s going to be walking through the doors in the coming decades. And more to the point, what will it take to create a welcoming environment for “non-traditional” museum goers.” In Said & Suau 2009

The focus of ARA is Evaluation and Planning with an EQUITY emphasis.

What  does this mean?


Much of ARA’S research and evaluation has focused on working with  science learning and teaching, especially as it impacts equity of access, primarily to science, in both formal and informal settings.

Museums are situated in the midst of roiling, busy, social, historical and cultural contexts. They reflect these contexts in various ways, moment to moment in time. In modern times, many museums reflect such cultural shifts in their current exhibitions, special after dark events, positioning  free days, and other events for  maximizing community interaction. They also reify the existing social, historical and cultural norms, sometimes without realizing it. Some would argue that museums represent the past all too well, but not the future.

Museums mirror societal pressures, tensions, and historical changes, including demographic shifts, social and cultural trends, changing educational and leisure values, and more. I use the term museum here to include similar informal contexts, for example, aquariums, zoos, and gardens. These are all places where people from different cultural backgrounds, histories, and languages socialize, play, and learn outside of the formal classroom. It is the mission of museums to provide relevant and interesting information, comfortable spaces for learning about the objects housed there, and equal access to all citizens. There is a contradiction, then, between expectation and reality.

While there is a desire to be accessible to all, the actual data do not yet support this as reality. The combination of national economic downturn, changing demographics, and competing views of the purposes of museums and other informal learning places has created a new dialogic space for re-thinking museums, their patterns of funding, the role of artifacts and their curators, how they teach the public, the stories they tell, and to question who they are designed to serve.

Museums want families, groups and individuals  from non-dominant populations to come to their institutions. There are mission statements, advertising, special programming and many other visible signs that attest to the fact that informal institutions want “science for all rather than science for some” (Dawson, 2014, p. 210).

How it works in practice

At ARA our evaluation and research efforts focus  primarily on learning and teaching in different settings, with families and students from culturally and linguistically  populations who may not have had opportunity to participate in quality science. We use similar socioculturally-grounded theoretical frameworks and methodologies in order to learn more about about non-mainstream learners overall. This is a growing field with  museum studies.

As’s research has argued that we need to meet diversity (more than) half way, not as outreach, or special events or even dedicated outreach. These are all necessary but insufficient conditions for a fundamental systemic transformation  and working with those we have up on now considered minority populations.

ARA a wide variety of evaluation and research tools, ranging from survey monkey tools to in-depth tracking of dialogue during museum visits. We interview, take process notes, observe formally and informally while working  collaboratively with PIS and Project manager.  This is not always easy, but it generally illuminating.

Why equity in informals

The topic of equal access to museums and other informal settings has been in the forefront of our attention for the last decade or so. My own work has focused on the understandings and resources that families and students from non-dominant populations bring to informal settings such as museums, gardens, aquaria, after school clubs and similar settings. This is been true for quite some time.

One major area of my research has studied how non-dominant families navigate informal learning in museum and aquarium contexts. I have deeply explored biological content themes (Ash, et al, 2007), as well as the sometimes invisible (to researcher and practitioners) strategies bilingual families use for making sense of exhibits, that include what I have called ‘figuring out behaviors’ (Mai & Ash, 2012), humor (Ash, 2014), analogies (Ash & Hohenstein, in revision), and the role of objects (Ash, et al, 2007), among other aspects. Part of the importance of these pieces overall, is that they have helped to create a body of research for a subject not treated before; another part demonstrates new methodologies; and a third aspect is the way sociocultural theory has infused every aspect of the research.

I have focused on the discourse patterns of non-dominant (typically bilingual or bi-dialectical) families, and the ways in which they engage with each other, the exhibits and with museum educators. I have focused on the resources they bring, rather than what they may be perceived to lack. For example, Rahm & Ash, 2007, which uses a similar theoretical framework across two different bilingual settings (Canada/French and US/Spanish) specifically discusses resources. My work with girls and women in science has also continued in the same vein (Wheaton & Ash, 2008).

The field of informal learning field of scholarly research has previously not featured such detailed examination of more subtle behaviors or dialogue, in order to see what meaning eventuates over time. The field previously ignored most visitors outside the European-American, middle class, well-educated norm. Deficit thinking has dominated informal and formal learning research, suggesting among other critiques that such populations of color don’t have the requisite cultural capital (know science or art),or the social norms (they break things) appropriate to informal settings. In order to get past deficit ideology.

My 2014 chapter on humor in the NSSE yearbook, for example, provides strong evidence and theoretical grounding for the subtle ways in which Latino families use their own social and cultural resources to scaffold life science learning in an unfamiliar aquarium setting. Such research is still unusual in my field. Until now most museum learning research took the perspective of the exhibit, curators, or educators. My focus on humor allowed me to take a different perspective, focusing on the social practices and everyday understandings of non-dominant families, who often have less formal education, and for whom museums and aquariums may be relatively unknown. This eventuated in discerning genuine sense making where others had seen none. My research on ‘figuring out’ behaviors occupies a similar niche; by putting an emphasis on the practices and knowledge newcomers use to negotiate what is expected of them in museums, I argue that these newcomers merge the museum’s and their own intentions into what I have called a ‘hybrid’ agenda (Ash, 2014, Mai & Ash, 2012; Ash & Hohenstein, in progress).