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Diversity efforts garner praise as Az Historical Society achieves first national accreditation

The Arizona Historical Society now has the stamp of approval of the broadest representative of museums in the country, the American Alliance of Museums, which recognized the society’s ability to change and remain relevant as it granted AHS's first-ever national accreditation.

The state Historical Society's work in the areas of diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion was noted by the national body, said AHS Executive Director James Burns.

The accreditation is a major achievement of the society’s re-visioning work during his three and half-year tenure, Burns said.

The AAM accreditation commissioners specifically praised Burns' efforts to “shift the organization's culture and make hard and bold decisions” and the Historical Society’s commitment to diversity.

“We also commend the AHS's commitment to diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion, and the work done to ensure diversity is reflected in its exhibits, programs and staff,” AAM commissioners said. “DEAI is an area the Accreditation Commission will be giving even closer attention to at the time of all accredited museums' next reviews to ensure they maintain the organizational culture and structures to practice and advance DEAI as part of ongoing operations."

Accreditation by the AAM, which has been established national standards and practices of excellence in museums since 1906, is a “mark of distinction,” Burns said. The society, which is headquartered in Tucson, also has branches in Tempe, Flagstaff and Yuma, and manages other historic sites around Arizona.

According to the AAM’s list of accredited museums, 1,092 museums have earned the mark. That’s just three percent of all the 35,144 active museums in the United States, according to the U.S. government’s Institute of Museum and Library services.

Representation & relevance

Both Burns and the accreditation commissioners highlighted the society’s efforts to stay relevant, and Burns said relevance for the organization means reflecting the demographics and experiences of the audiences who come to its museums.

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“What the organization needed more than anything else was to figure out how it could be relevant to everyday lives of contemporary audiences,” he said. “For a school kid coming in on a tour — and maybe this is their only exposure to museums — and to see themselves reflected sends the message that they do matter.”

Burns said that the power of representation in its museums is in how it guides community members to new ways of seeing themselves.

“There are possibilities out there that they might never have thought of before,” he said. “If they see a story in one of our exhibits of, say, the first African-American dean at a university in Arizona, maybe they’ve never thought of something like that as a possibility. That’s just one little example.”

He said he also tried to change the historical society’s hiring practices on all levels to have a diverse staff and to connect the organization to backgrounds that the historical society may not have acknowledged in the past.

“The inside of our organization has to reflect the demographics that we serve, so we ended up hiring people who maybe someone like them had never been reflected in the staff before,” he said. “It gave long-time employees and new employees an opportunity to work with people that come from communities from different backgrounds, from different kinds of education than maybe they had ever interacted with before.”

This was a dramatic shift from the way the group operated before, Burns said. The only diversity or inclusion education that the Historical Society’s employees had before was the annual 30-minute online diversity and inclusion training that all state employees must complete, which he said wasn’t nearly enough.

“This is a very different organization than I inherited three years ago,” Burns said. “It was not an organization that was unlike so many historical societies because as a type of museum it was designed to be an organization that doesn’t change quickly. That’s embedded into the DNA of museums.”

'Well-rounded' stories of history

AHS and its museums needed to be relevant though, he said, especially at a time when museum audiences have been shrinking, leading Burns to seek a diverse staff, “well-rounded,” “polyphonic” stories for their museum and publications to tell and objects that can connect to more cultures and histories.

Most stories told in U.S. and Arizona history are stories about military and economic progress in the country, Burns said, and he wanted to move beyond that and try putting different experiences front and center.

Exhibits that Burns said were great examples of what AHS sought included the “Todos Unidos” exhibit at the Pioneer Museum in Flagstaff that used photos and documents to tell the story of how the Hispanic community established itself in that communituy in the early 20th century and the “Unframed” exhibit in Tempe, which was a photo-documentary about a young woman’s trip through the Hopi and Navajo Nations.

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Because “the work of inclusivity runs counter to exclusivity,” Burns said he also wanted to keep the stories that traditionally appear in Arizona’s history, but he wanted to see the society try to apply different lenses and tell the whole story.

“Arizona history is inextricably linked with narratives of colonization,” Burns said. “As historians and as a modern museum it's our job to tell both histories, the colonizer history and the colonized history - they’re equally as important - so the narrative is more well-rounded. To be clear, the absolute last thing we would ever want to do is to exclude or erase anything. Inclusive museums take an additive approach.”

The accreditation will increase the Arizona Historical Society’s credibility and value within the organization, with other museums, with their local communities across the state and with policy makers and with potential funders or donors, Burns said. The Historical Society has also said before that it expects accreditation to increase their monetary support.

Steps to accreditation

Burns made accreditation by the AAM a priority from the time he became the executive director of the society in April 2018. The society already had accreditation for the Arizona History Museum in Tucson because it was the only museum that the society had tried to have accredited, but Burns had made it his goal to get the entire organization accredited including its museums in Flagstaff, Tempe and Yuma.

AHS Vice President for Marketing and Communications Tawn Downs said Burns “undertook a major effort to educate the staff” and created an accreditation task force. “This was the major topic of conversation at staff meetings, senior leadership meetings, we had regular check-ins with each other as a team but also with the board. This process went on for a number of years where we talked about different areas that would be the focus of this accreditation and what it was going to take to meet those standards and best practices established by the (AAM).”

Burns was familiar with the standards and recognized practices of the AAM because he worked for the group as a peer reviewer, helping accredited museums renew their accreditation, which lasts 10 years. Having read their 104-page “National Standards and Best Practices for U.S. Museums” when it was first published by AAM in 2010, Burns said he’s been “living and working the book since it was published” and that he has “to be fluent in those standards and best practices.”

The types of museums that AAM has accredited include art museums and centers, history museums, historic houses and sites, aquariums, zoological parks, arboretums and botanical gardens and science or technology museums and centers, including planetariums. Of the museums that have AAM accreditation, the majority, 41 percent, are art museums or centers, and history museums make up 22 percent, the second-largest share.

“It’s the highest distinction within our profession,” Burns said about the accreditation. “It’s indicating that, to the best of our abilities, within our resources, we’re meeting those really high standards and best practices. It’s a signal that we truly are meaningful for the communities we serve.”

“I think perhaps most important of all the commission in its decision has very unequivocally said the organization is on the right track,” Burns said.

Looking ahead, Burns said that the goal will be for the Historical Society to continue “to make decisions using inclusion and diversity for the center of conversations.”

The Historical Society is itself historic, having been in existence since before Arizona was granted statehood. It was incorporated by the First Legislative Assembly of the Territory of Arizona in 1864 and has been a government agency ever since. It receives as much as $2.5 million in state appropriations for its operating budget.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the location of the “Todos Unidos” exhibit.

Bennito L. Kelty is TucsonSentinel.com’s IDEA reporter, focusing on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access stories, and a Report for America corps member supported by readers like you.

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The Arizona Historical Society is now AAM-accredited as an organization, a recognition that will increase the state agency's visibility, after it shifted to focus more on diversity and inclusivity.